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Virginia Stem Owens

Stuck On Relationships

After watching both the television production of Pride and Prejudice and the movie Sense and Sensibility, a friend of mine, in the midst of selecting novels for his course on contemporary fiction, remarked that, however distant late-eighteenth-century notions of decorum may be from the remnants of manners in the late twentieth century, Jane Austen's material was essentially the same as Terry McMillan's in Waiting to Exhale. They both were concerned with how to secure an acceptable male. McMillan's Robin, Bernadine, Gloria, and Savannah may have criteria different from those of Austen's Elizabeth and Jane Bennett or Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, but all these characters are struggling to give reason at least some say over their libidos, which seem invariably to lead them astray.

My friend shook his head, remembering how his own daughters dismissed the prospective suitors he enthusiastically promoted—and unwittingly damned—by describing them as "nice boys." Nice boys, his daughters made it clear, are boring. What accounted for this self-destructive streak in women? he wanted to know. Did Calvin or Freud have the right explanation? Was it biology or sheer perversity that led women to prefer men like Willoughby and Russell?

Not wanting to provide my friend with more ammunition, I didn't bring up the spate of self-help books like Dr. Laura's Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, all of which involve the decade's most nebulous noun—relationships. Instead, I attempted to steer the conversation toward the socioeconomic differences between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Wasn't there something poignant in the circumstances of the Dashwood girls, I asked, cast out of their childhood home and forced to market themselves to likely bachelors in order to save the other sisters and the widowed mother? Certainly, he agreed, but that merely fueled his vexation. After all, McMillan's protagonists are economically self-sufficient, upper-middle-class ...

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