Yesterday I taught an MA seminar at UB about Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, which it is indeed even though Austen’s novel is not credited at all. Inevitably, as I happen to dislike Austen very much, we eventually came to the point in which I criticised Emma (and Clueless) for being a quite conventional patriarchal story leading to the classic heteronormative marriage, or so-called happy ending.

The heroine may be rich and, thus, free not to marry, yet the hard lesson she learns thanks to her wrongheaded bout of matchmaking leads her to find Mr. Right (aka Mr. Knightley) and not to assume a happy singlehood. Someone said that Emma (1815) was a protest about how little freedom even rich women had in the early 19th century. That may have been the case as Henry James still made the same point many decades later with Portrait of Lady (1880-1). Yet, well, I am very sorry but, as a 21st century working woman, I simply cannot sympathise with these ladies’ plea. The joke in Emma’s case is that she is blind to Knightley’s charms, whereas the sick joke in Isabel Archer’s case is that she chooses the appalling Gilbert Osmond as a husband. What doesn’t amuse me at all is that both Emma and Isabel MUST marry for, according to their authors, a single man may be in want of a wife but remain single, whereas a single woman is always in dire need of finding a husband even when she’s rich. Or else. However, this is as false now as it was in the 19th century: do read the passage in the autobiography of Harriet Martineau (1802-76) in which she candidly explains how the timely death of her fiancée freed her from the need to marry and thus gave her infinite happiness. And consider.

So here I was, complaining with two of the female students that Austen is to blame for a dangerous romantic model in which the woman finds an ideal mate despite her behaving quite stupidly and making many mistakes that hurt others along the way. The fantasy is quite transparent and persists today in characters like Bridget Jones. I won’t discuss Sex and the City as I’ve never seen a single episode. The single girl is today a career woman rather than an idle upper class parasite but the principle is the same: they bumble their way and eventually stumble into Prince Charming. I would probably dislike Austen a bit less if she’d had the gall, in her famous ironic way, to make Knightley and, of course, Darcy, less perfect. To this a student replied that Austen is not to blame at all and that we, contemporary female readers, are the ones to blame for our addiction to these fantastic male characters. She also said that, after all, what Austen wrote was just fiction.

Yes, sure, but this is fiction that many women use it to script their biographies by, being hopelessly disappointed by the real men they come across and who can never measure up to the likes of Knightley. If you ask me, Jane Austen is guilty of tricking her readers into believing that ideal men do materialise sooner or later. She, who never married, must have had a good laugh at our expense. Mulling over this, I recalled how Anne Brontë declares in her preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that if her novel is not what anyone would call ‘pleasing’ this is because she aimed at telling “the truth.” Of course, the truth is not that ALL husbands are like the horrid Arthur Huntingdon but that the good men like Gilbert Markham are less than perfect. Even very imperfect. And so are women, even though Austen had already pointed that out. Brontë’s truth is still today far less palatable than Austen’s lie, which is probably why she’s regarded as a second-tier canonical writer, whereas Austen is now the untouchable queen (thanks to silly romantic misreaders like Emma Thompson perhaps?).

Another student told me, and I thank her for it, that Darcy and Knightley are like today’s teen idols: they fulfil impossible female romantic cravings that real boys and men simply cannot understand. I’m sure that sleepy-eyed Kristen Stewart must now and then throw that into Robert Pattinson’s pretty face to keep him in check. I wonder what it’s like to have a (teen) male pin-up as your boyfriend… and whether Austen was cynically manufacturing Knightley and Darcy as such.