misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Michelle Fine's Disruptive Voices and Austen's Mrs Smith (Persuasion)

Dear friends and readers,

Yet another blog coming out of my readings, watching of movies, and thinking about women and men's sexuality as experienced in many societies and rape: I want to recommend a lucid and eloquent sociological study, Michelle Fine's Disruptive Voices.  I will focus briefly on the first chapter (sexual education in schools) and expatiate a little on the second, (how women who have been raped are mistreated by supposed sympathizers) and go into depth on the penultimate (on the lives of disabled women).

The least prettied up version of the condition of a disabled woman in the early 19th century of the Persuasions: Mrs Smith (Helen Schlesinger) in the 1995 BBC Persuasion.  Schlesinger is however well-cared for, looks fine and comfortable.

She opens with an essay that should be required reading for anyone teaching in a high school, dealing with adolescent boys and girls, or or about to set up sex education classes:  "Sexuality, Schooling and Adolescent Females:  The Missing Discourse of Desire."  Fine reveals the miseducation and repression going on in so-called sexual (family is the euphemism) education classes; and she interviews and quotes adolescent girls.  We see that girls are not masochistic at all!  but that they are silenced so they cannot tell their stories; told from their own perspective, they are disapproved of, silenced, and if they carry on, termed disruptive.

"Sexuality, Schooling and Adolescent Females" is followed up by "Coping with Rape" and "Presence of Mind in Absence of Body."  I'll just talk about the atonishing first. "Coping with rape' is a rare text for understanding why and showing how useless are so many counselling centers - whether it be because the girl has been raped or is seeking a job or a place somewhere and has come for so-called help.  What she shows is the suppositions, the assumptions behind this "help" are all middle class. That what these places offer is pep talk before going to and getting yourself middle class style interviews which only genuinely middle class people know how to do and can cope with.  The advice offered is similarly counterproductive, for it does not take into account how the girl is returning to the same environment which has been destroying her in the first place. It is advice she can't take and rightly sees as useless, indeed (if she is truthful to herself) grating, and which makes her feel worse. She finds herself accused of not cooperating, of being at fault herself for "not following up." She is showed skills which in her case are unmarketable (she hasn't the credentials, certificates, connections, knowing ways). Most of the options taught her reinforce her sense of her low position. Fine says "the option that appears valuable to a high power person may be justifiably critiqued as a charade by a lower person."  "Relational coping" is taught. (What a laugh. I'd have no patience for it and would probably be described as sullen.)

What someone on the lower rungs of society has learned as protection is resisting institutions, keeping away from high powered people, withholding information (because it can and will be used against you eventually if not right away which it often is), and -- above all -- strategies for maintaining control. Sayings from such girls like "I pray to God," and "I don't remember" and fantasies which anestheticize reality (say she'll get a job as an anchor person on TV) are the ways she avoids sucide and protects herself.

Such places will get nowhere are they are not addressing the real problems: the social structures which exclude and the girl doesn't understand and the assumptions and norms and lifestyles of people in them.

Fine say how "disempowering it maybe to be offered an inappropriate option, while being told this is your last chance" even by a person who means to be benevolent.

I stopped reading Shattered when I got to where the heroine began to be given advice at the hospital.  After all Puglisi is middle class and has come back through middle class publications, her job, a relationship with a journalist, but she bought into the misery she felt at the options she was given. If it were me, I would not have smiled at it, and been savage. Indeed I would not have been there in the first place -- as I said, unlike Alice Sebold (Lucky) I would never have returned to Saratoga and maybe not prosecuted the guy. 

The essay made me remember what I now know to be true of career centers with counsellors and also a couple of small moments when my daughter Isabel was 3 and we got into a bad car accident. Luckily she was in a child seat and that saved her. A social worker came over to me and sat right now next to me and began to ask me questions and put down her answers in a book. I wouldn't answer.  Who are you I asked? why are you asking me these questions?  She was not someone from a hospital, not someone who would help me get to a doctor (my leg was hurt). She became aware that I was "uncooperative" and said she was there from Alexandria city services to take information but a few questions from me showed me she would be of no real help to me. I do remember when my older daughter got into a car accident and an ambulance showed up; she asked if she would be expected to pay for this before she got in. 

Fine's aim is to show us how social structures lead to the oppression of women and why lower class women find no helps in most forms of feminism they encounter in social life. Indeed it makes them feel worse and angry.  So their voices become disruptive and are defined as disruptive, "unhelpful," and they are blamed.


In 07 Persuasion, Mrs Smith a pretty woman and she can chase Anne later in the film to give her needed truth (07 BBC Persuasion.)

Her penultimate essay is on disabled women.  and poverty.  Money trumps all, and in the US the mode is to buy your way through life if you can.  But for those without such huge funds (inherited), she shows how much worse women are with the same disability as a man.  If he has a worse one (worse crippled say, more sick), he may be worse off, but with the same disability, she is is a much worse position.

What research shows is it's harder for a woman to get a job because she's seen an uncomely or unsightly -- just not attractive to a man. This is a strong factor in disabled women not getting jobs or places. The research shows this appparently.  Men do not have to be pretty or look attractive to women.  Since she has a much harder time getting a job, she's much poorer. She also doesn't marry as frequently for the same reason (not attractive) and alone and poor when old has no one but paid help usually to aid her in daily life. And like Mrs Smith her funds are limited.

I was startled a little to see this. I hadn't thought that in the brute reality of human interaction where so much occurs that is unexplained and unsaid, it's unattractive looks that are the woman's problem -- or she doesn't behave the way a masculine culture expects her to -- to dress competitively.

Fine's book continually has original insights which hit you as so and what you would know all along if only you'd give the matter thought.


On WWTTA, Austen-l and Janeites, we've been discussing Jill Heydt-Stevenson's Unbecoming Conjunctions, where she often reads Austen as coolly satiric.  I don't agree with this perception of experience as central to Austen's books, but it sets me thinking and having read Fine I thought of Mrs Smith. She is Austen's one disabled character and she is seriously considered, no mockery or unbecoming conjunction here.

As we all know she's badly crippled, but it's not clear what disease caused it, probably because the etiology would not have been understood then. She might be called "wheelchair bound" in her era, but that I'm not sure she has or can afford a wheelchair. There were wheelchairs from the later 17th century at least. (Probably before that). Wooden ones. At any rate she cannot go from one room into another. When she wants something from a bureau, her beloved friend, our heroine, gets up to fetch it for Mrs Smith. She hasn't got enough income to afford a servant of her own or all the time so she "borrows" a servant of the landlady in the boarding house in Bath where she lives to help her with cooking and cleaning just a bit (changing linen). Are we told how or if she tries the waters? It would be a feat. I'm not sure we are told what floor her rooms are on.

She does not have Nurse Rook to herself, and relies on her to take the tiny things and sell them for her to other customers. In this era Mrs Smith cannot act for herself (as a woman in part) and not until the end of the novel does she have any chance to increase her income by getting more of her portion (jointure).

It's a poignant story that Austen dwells on.

Now I cannot think of a parallel character nor an unbecoming conjunction. We are told a beautiful sentiment by Anne Elliot because Mrs Smith stays cheerful: I think she does to keep people around her. She doesn't dare do otherwise. But Anne thinks:  "Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven..." but this reflects Anne's character as much or more than Mrs Smith's I think.

More in line with her realistic views is the statement "Even the smooth surface of family union seems worth preseving, though there may be nothing durable beneath." That durable beneath comes out of the same understanding that tells us Dick Musgrove was not any use to his parents (nor cared for them but to ask for things).

Diana Birchall talked of the difficulty she'd have shopping.  Today disabled women have the same problem.  I try to imagine what she would buy herself and how she might cook -- she'd be dependent on someone cooking for her, eating with her landlady perhaps?  it's called boarding (as in boarding house)   it made me think, what does Mrs Smith look like?  In all the movies thus far she is made to look as attractive as anyone else, only slightly comic. But would she?  Who would do her hair?  She can't walk; would she be heavier or atrophied.

And now consider Sir Walter's disgust with her.  It's couched as about class, but could it not also be the way she looks. He is openly disgusted when he thinks about her and refers to her bodily.  Again how insightful is Austen in this. She didn't need to read Michelle Fine.

Much more attention paid to streets than Mrs Smith in 1971 film, and she is very dressed up there:

Anne seeks out Mrs Smith's street

A rare glimpse; she does not lack for lots of things (71 Persuasion)

Smith is an unusual and finely observed example of disability and poverty; what these two things do to people.  And also how being a woman makes it worse as she cannot act for herself in court.  To me it's one of the many places where we see Austen speaks home to us still as disability and poverty are still enormous problems, and especially for women.  They can act, but often they have made so much less money over the course of a lifetime as a woman, and then especially if disabled.

Austen's empathy here is striking -- and quite unlike the joking we see in the letters to Cassandra.

Which leads me to make a suggestion many others (in print) have before me: that one needs to separate Austen, the novelist, the creative writing self, from Austen the social self, whether in writing or life.  A different self or sensibility emerges in the novels than her letters.

This is not uncommon. The writer who reveals depths of insight and emotion in their characters and books that is not to be found in their conscious statements or their life.

Tags: 20th century, jane austen films, jane austen novels, politics

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