Jane Austen and Black Girls

This afternoon, I met up with a friend and her Mum for brunch in Bath, and headed over to the central library for a reading of Pride and Prejudice. It was good fun – the first chapter was read by the guy who plays Mr Wickham in the BBC version of the film, and he had the perfect high pitched voice for Mrs Bennet,  as well as the the perfect posh English accent to go with it.

Pride and Prejudice is, in my opinion, one of the all time best love stories. It’s a classic boy meets girl, boy ignores girl, girl hates boy, boy falls in love with girl, girl scorns boy, girl and boy love each other in the end story. I love the films, I love the pomp and circumstance, I love the old fashioned male-female interactions, I find the slightly dry English wit hilarious, and I can totally imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennet – she’s not pretty enough to be the belle of the ball, but she’s smart, has a quick wit, is strongly opinionated, and sometimes says the right things at the wrong times. I want my own footman. I want a horse and carriage. I think I can reserve the right to have men stand up for me every time I enter the room. And why isn’t my own version of Colin Firth emerging from a lake looking endearing, and dripping with water and good looks to meet me as I stand in the morning dew outside my lecture theatre?

As we were walking back to the train station, my friend’s Mum suggested that next year, we meet up again for the Jane Austen festival, but this time in costume. I laughed, and said that I’d carry a parasol for fun, but that I’m not sure I’m keen enough to dress up. But inside my head what I really thought though was …. “I’m black, and I would feel super weird dressing up in 19th century costume…” And I wondered why I thought that.

Every little black girl realises soon enough, that modern media isn’t going to represent her. 4 year olds notice L’oreal adverts. 6 year old see covers of Marie Claire as they tiptoe in their Clarks shoes waiting for their Mum in the supermarket, and 10 year olds buy pre teen magazines with blonde girls on the cover, wearing pre-teen mascara and almost-grown-up lipstick. Soon, you learn that if you want to see yourself, you might have to search a bit. Not every W H Smith stocks Essence magazine, and Superdrug may or may not stock your foundation shade depending on how much cream is in your coffee. It’s annoying, but you get used to it. It’s a fact of life, like the birds and the bees, only not so much fun.

At the time Pride and Prejudice was written, I would have been a slave. In fact many, of the families in the book had their wealth from the slave trade, and many scholars agree that Jane Austen was disapproving of the slave trade. While Elizabeth Bennet was poncing around from ball to ball, deciding whether she should look smoulderingly at Mr Darcy to entice him for another dance, or forever scorn him for saying that her looks were ‘barely tolerable’, I would have been poncing about from sugar cane stalk to sugar cane stalk, wondering if I should risk running away to join the Maroons in the mountains. I’m not being deep, it’s just a fact of life. Because of that, I feel awkward dressing up in the costume of the time. It’s nice to immerse myself in daydreams of Mr Darcy, and Elizabeth Bennet, and Victorian romance with swooping classical music in the background, and my black stallion riding across the moors as I gaze pensively into the mist wondering if my English gentlemen will re-propose to me after I courteously denied him via epic fountain penned prose. But unfortunately, at the time, I would have been a slave. Try as I may to forget this, I can’t. Therefore, I don’t think I’ll be wearing a bonnet any time soon. Pride and Prejudice is great, but it’s not representative of me. It’s not supposed to be. I don’t resent it at all, I just accept it.

Maybe one day I’ll stop over thinking things and be able to happily don my bonnet and regency costume. Until then, I’ll sit in front of my laptop with some Tesco’s popcorn, put on my best accent and say..”A Miss Bennet, a Miss Bennet, a Miss Bennet….and a Miss Bennet”.

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  1. November 4, 2013 / 11:52 pm

    This is so funny because I was just thinking about this on my blog. I am a HUGE Jane Austen fan and I have always dreamed of coming to England and going to the sites of the books and movies. I just moved to Scotland for graduate school, I thought this was my chance. But as I was going through the literature and trying to plan out my visit to Bath for the festival (a graduation gift to myself next year), I started to get nervous. Can I really, as a black girl, an american one at that, go to this festival dressed up in regency costume when I would have been a slave!? Had anyone ever done it? Back home in the States we have Colonial Williamsburg and there all types of people dress up but there is an acknowledgement that black people really could only be everyday people or a housemaid or slave, but never a person of power. I am not sure how it goes here.

    But my aunt told me something the other day (they love to travel and they could care less how unconventional it is), she said “Michelle, when you are 80 and sitting reading P+P, do you want to remember the time you almost went to visit and take part in the festival or do you want to remember that you did it no matter the reaction”. And while I still don’t know if they understand the full implications of me going, I see the point they are making. So while I try to figure out what I am going to do, I joined the Scotland Jane Austen Society to feel out the “culture” of Jane Austen and see if I will be welcome.

    Great Blog! 🙂

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