Of matrimony and dancing

November 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

As I become older, the fizzy, frothy sparkle of Jane Austen novels becomes less so. What remains is the dark heart of its centre, the knowing, acerbic, always too-smart-for-its-own-good femininity chafing against the ruffles of propriety. Yes, I just said “the ruffles of propriety” – because whenever I think of good breeding, good behaviour, propriety, and manners, I think of ruffles. This is even the case when I myself hold steadfast to the values of good breeding, good behaviour, propriety, and manners. I just feel swaddled in imaginary ruffles, scratching at my neck. As I become older, I love and appreciate how Jane Austen is less polished Regency lightweight – as I thought of her when a teenager, nevertheless while still enjoying her – and more the world-weary cynic. Because it takes effort to be a world-weary cynic with wit. To be able to wink, slyly, and cough out a dry joke from under your lace handkerchief while fulfilling all the fizzy-frothy-sparklyness that others expect from you. It’s a delicate balancing act, and rather exhausting. When I read Jane Austen, I think of her on a high-wire, weighed down by petticoats, triumphantly waving a parasol in the air.

I tend to reread her every year. Each time I told myself I’ll stop once I get sick of her, say, once the Austen reread becomes less of a pleasure and more of an ego trip or particular idiosyncrasy to share with the world for the sake of sharing. But I find myself always looking forward to it with an unexpected deranged thirst for all that resides between the pages of her books.

Right now I’m reading Northanger Abbey. In the words of the book’s Henry Tilney:

And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else. You will allow all this?

Indeed. Enter any nightclub in Changkat Bukit Bintang on a Saturday night and ask the “dancing couple” the same question. Nightclubs are our 21st-century ruffles.

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