Jane Austen, With Fur Hats

Rainy Tuesday, a rare day off, and I indulged myself as I seldom do, by going to a movie. In the daytime! My choice was “Fill the Void,” an Israeli movie about the insular world of the Haredim. It came to my notice through my Jane Austen Google alerts; the New York Times review, in the lede, compared the heroine to one from Jane Austen; that intrigued me. Living in Brooklyn, one also cannot fail to be intrigued by the Haredim, who seem to go about their lives as if the 20th century, and even the 19th, and maybe the 18th (and the Enlightenment! and the Haskalah!) just never happened. Obviously, it cannot be that simple, but that’s how it looks from the outside.

The Jane Austen comparison was far more apt than the reviewer may have realized. It’s not simply that the drama of the story revolves around whom the young girl should marry, a staple of romance fiction always. Or that she’s faced with the possibility of marrying the widower of her sister and taking over the child care, which is exactly what happened with Jane Austen’s younger brother, Charles, who married one sister, and then, some years after that one died from childbirth complications, the other.

Watching this film, I was struck by similarities large and small; I felt I understood these characters and their problems very well, thanks to Jane Austen. Where the men and women live in parallel, barely overlapping worlds, and where marriage is the only important choice women get to make, yet one they must make almost blindly — and essentially in public, for marriage is the entire community’s business, not just the would-be happy couple’s. Even the minor fact of women covering their hair after marriage, which seems so medieval in the 21st century, is exactly what happened in 1815 England. That the pivotal plot event is a death in childbirth, and that the young girl’s method of displaying her accomplishment is musical. That men, not women, are permitted the vast majority of the visual flourishes (ear curls and tassels and fur hats have religious significance, but are also, in this world, so clearly a form of sexual display) of mating, serving a similar function as the tailored pants and exposed calves of Regency males.

Am I taking this too far? I think not; the real similarity seemed to be how many rules there are, and what power, and even passion, resides in the things unsaid.

Watching this movie also made me realize the problem with so many modern re-tellings of Jane Austen novels. Women today, in many parts of the world, are not forced into these kinds of boxes, and that’s a very good thing. To get the kind of high-stakes courtship drama of a Jane Austen novel, you almost have to set your story in Afghanistan, or among the Haredim. If I am ever tempted to admire this world, I need only ask myself if I would have liked to have been married off at 18 to a man of my parents’ choosing, as opposed to being allowed to move to New York City and study English literature at Barnard. Put this way, the choice is obvious.

And Jane Austen, who wrote so brilliantly within the tight limits of her world, probably would have enjoyed being sent to New York to be an English major too, if she had been vouchsafed a choice in the matter. (I wish she had been my roommate, though she would have scared the hell out of me.)

But there is also a danger in being too quick to congratulate ourselves. Has the business of finding love, and the right life partner, actually gotten any easier? The problems are just different, not any less. Hence the temptation to take refuge in Mr. Darcy and his damn wet shirt.

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