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Did Jane Austen need the draft?

Granted the timing was odd -- to turn to Jane Ausduring the week Newsweek presented a cover story on women in the military. One read a headline that Elizabeth Taylor was eager to suit up and serve her country if the call came; and one read "Pride and Prejudice."

The contrast seemed cartoon-clear. Here were the young women of the nation being Gallup-polled to determine if they would support the draft for women the ultimate equality of the sexes, or so it was rather deviously argued. And here was Mrs. Bennet in early 19th-century Hertfordshire: "The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news." Meaning: gossip about other mothers marrying off their daughters.

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This surely was the sheltered life at its most sheltered. "The day passed much as the day before had done." So began one chapter, and it might have been almost any chapter. The big excitement of life was a new neighbor. The big decision was this: Should one visit one's new neighbor on horseback or by carriage?

The dances, the little dinner parties that kept one day from passing exactly as the day before appeared to bore even the participants. Despite splendid conversational flashes ("I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love") those Hertfordshire drawing-rooms can leave a reader longing to fling open a window -- on anything.

Compared to the late 20th-century young woman, considering the question of shouldering a gun, the Jane Austen heroine seems a psychological case of the Chinese bound foot. Even the loyal Virginia Woolf wondered what would have happened if Jane Austen had gotten out of her father's country parsonage and moved around just a bit. She concluded cautiously: She might have known more.

Musing on the limitations of literary women, as they appeared to her some 20 years ago, the brilliant essayist and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick confessed: "Women's writing seems somewhat limited." Her explanation: "Women have much less experience of life than a man, as everyone knows." She went on to tick off the adventures of male novelists. Stendhal: a soldier in Napoleon's army. Tolstoy: a veteran of the Cossack campaigns. Conrad and Melville: sailors.

Two decades later one would have to conclude, by this logic, that most of Jane Austen's problems would have been solved if she had been drafted.

During this same week a new novel by Marge Piercy arrived on the scene. "Vida" is about a young woman who was a member of the underground in the '60s. She remains a revolutionary through the '70s. She has done her bombing. She has had her lovers, of both sexes. She has made all the scenes. She has had "experience" to make Stendhal or Tolstoy look like a Jane Austen heroine.

It is unfair to hold Miss Piercy responsible for not Q.E.D. -- producing a masterpiece. It may be more valid to complain of a curious emptiness to her battlefields that rivals the airlessness of the drawing rooms of Jane Austen.

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But doesn't all that "experience" at least produce "real women"? Reviewing "Vida" in the New York Times Book Review, Elinor Langer argues justly: "In the 'present' sequences the characters are 10 years older than they were, but all their years and experiences have somehow failed to put weight on their bones."

By contrast, what a marvelous woman Elizabeth Bennet is when Jane Austen gets through with her! Elizabeth has passed through her own battlefield, among the teacups and the dance cards. She has suffered, like all human beings, and she has survived, as quite a few do. She has learned about men and women and power, as very few do; and she has understood herself, as almost nobody does.

What more can "experience" accomplish?

We are talking now not about women. We are talking about men as well. We are talking about what "experience" really means. Is it this macho business of war, sexual conquests, and other death-oriented adventure? Or is "experience" finally, not the big melodrama that happens to one but what one learns from whatever happens to one, big or small?

Back to Thoreau, circumscribed by Walden Pond. Back to Emily Dickinson, behind her picket fence.Back to that country parsonage.

Outside the walls of Troy or inside the walls of a Hertfordshire drawing room , life, it seems, simply cannot be avoided.


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