That Jane Austen’s got a lot to answer for. There she was, just short of 200 years ago, penning her well-crafted tale of manners, courtship and love, completely unaware of the potent effect her words would have as the world ventured into the next millennium and beyond. Could she have known that the iPod-toting, mobile-dependent, skinny-jeans-clad generation of the early 21st century would still be hanging on to the sentiments of proud, tea-taking, bonnet-headed and befrocked Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice as if it were some form of romantic bible? If anything, Ms Austen’s literary power has grown over time, rather than diminished. The only thing is, the values and etiquette she depicts in her writing have not stood the test of time so well, leaving generations of men and women at odds with their expectations.
A fortnight ago, Pride and Prejudice was voted by people in Britain as their favourite read of all time. It was the hands-down number one among women readers and a very respectable sixth place among male readers. We just can’t get enough of Jane Austen, it seems. The current fanciful big-screen offering, Becoming Jane, based loosely on her life, shows that it’s not just the fictional Austen world the public is fascinated by, but our appetite extends to the real people, society and environment that inspired and shaped her writing.
When one of the homepage team selected Austen as her least favourite book on an entry to coincide with World Book Day earlier this month, the response was mixed. Some lamented her temerity for suggesting Austen’s work was anything short of a masterpiece, others questioned the relevancy of her 19th century thoughts and ideals on today’s society. One woman comments: “Why do we rave about books that are not of our time, that we can’t possibly relate to, are written in a strange language that seems to trivialise any real emotion and quite frankly are depressing?”
Maybe the lady has a point. What can people in Britain today really learn from a vicar’s daughter from the turn of the 19th century, who never married and was consigned to live with relatives throughout her life?
Quite a lot actually. Or, to put it a more accurate way, it is what society can learn from our unending obsession with the spinster and her brooding gents and forward-thinking heroines. A few years back, Mr Darcy came top in a BBC survey of fictional men women would like to date. Colin Firth and the Bridget Jones books no doubt had something to do with this, but I’d like to think it was largely to do with the fact that, despite modern life dictating otherwise, the spirit of romanticism is still alive and kicking today, just as it was in Austen’s era.
And that’s where the problems begin. And that’s why Jane, with your musings on etiquette and gentlemanliness and decorum, you’ve really caused some chaos – because there just aren’t enough Mr Darcys to go around. And nowhere is this more acutely felt than in London. I was on the Tube platform the other day, waiting to begin the daily toil that is getting to work, when the doors opened and commuters flooded out, the last being an elderly woman who was slow to alight. As I waited for her to get off I felt a shove in my back, dropped my bags to the floor and nearly took the poor woman out with me. I turned round to see not an impatient teenager too young to know better, but a well-dressed, middle-aged man glaring back at me. “Is there no chivalry in this world anymore?” I asked myself. “Can you HURRY UP and MOVE DOWN?” was the unknowing answer from Mr Haughty. It wouldn’t have happened in Jane’s day. Yes, I know there was no Tube then, but even if Mr. Darcy were alive now, you wouldn’t catch him barging old Mrs Bennett to the floor with his briefcase before asking Lizzie to get a shuffle on as they took their afternoon stroll because someone was messaging him on his Blackberry.
And the anti-chivalry malaise is spreading. I gave my seat up for a pregnant woman last week – only for another roguish male commuter to plonk his rear in it before she had the chance to gather her things. A friend of mine was recently subjected to an expletive-strewn tirade by a man for “not walking fast enough” down a train platform, despite carrying armfuls of bags. Time was, real gents would’ve offered to help you along the platform with your bags, instead of chiding you for not being strong enough to carry them at breakneck pace. They would open doors for you, not be secretly smug if they managed to sneak into the train carriage before they slammed in your face.
Perhaps, if Mr Darcy hadn’t become such a paragon of chivalry and true manliness, I would be none the wiser. Maybe if Jane’s social commentary of a time when manners were paramount hadn’t struck a chord with a nation renowned for its love of etiquette and reserve, I, and I’m sure many other women, would be willing to accept it. But he has, and it did. It’s time to want more. Yes, times have changed, and I’m not for one minute suggesting I’d rather sit indoors, do cross-stitch and practise piano while taking tea and making pleasant chit-chat with men in tight trousers and new romantic shirts. But I do think we can still learn from Jane Austen’s time. Men, there really is no harm done by stopping to look if a pregnant or elderly lady needs a seat on the train or bus more than you do, it’s always good to remember many women are built slighter than you and cannot carry their own weight in shopping (yes, bags of clothes are still heavy), and the world will not implode if you don’t win the quick-get-between-the-doors-before-they-slam-shut game.
I’m not saying some men aren’t chivalrous, just that modern living seems to have diverted attention from this pleasant and often-undervalued virtue. And, seeing as Jane Austen is even more popular now than ever, perhaps we could make chivalry fashionable once again. The latest phones, MP3 players and kit may make the modern man look uber-cool, but spending a little less time gazing at screens and a little more time trying to bring back a bit of courtesy into today’s world is the best style statement you can make. I’m sure Mr Darcy would be proud.
Is chivalry dead? Have you experienced gallant behaviour – or the lack of it – in your part of the world? Let us know your thoughts.