I first read Pride and Prejudice in college. Probably later than most, but I had a good reason. A friend had told me about it in school, how she found it boring and long and… well, boring. And any geek worth her spectacles knows, if your cool friend doesn’t like something, then you’re like, so totally, not going to like it, right?
Except, I did. I thought Elizabeth Bennet was unusual. For one thing, she spoke her mind. For another, she wasn’t beautiful. Considering Disney pretty much hammers into our heads that only pretty, obedient, simpering princesses get the prince, this was an interesting departure. And then, I noticed the prince.
I’m not going to wax eloquent about Mr. Darcy. But I’ll give you a moment to dwell on the man.
It’s like Jane Austen went through a list of the qualities most women find desirable in a man and built them into this character, chapter by chapter.
Strong, handsome, intelligent, reads books, a little haughty, has his own house manor, dances well, generous and doesn’t go on and on about protein shakes, Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you people?
But in the course of creating this blueprint for Mr. Right, Ms. Austen did a massive disservice to women. She set us up for continuous disappointment because let’s face it, no real man can match up to this.
Sorry, boys, but the deck’s loaded against you.
All through your relationship, on some unconscious level, you’re going to be compared to this man. You don’t have much of my sympathy though.
We have to go through our lives being compared to your mothers, so I guess it’s only fair. At least this one’s fictional. And hence, less likely to embarrass the shite out of us by picking his nose in our cousin’s wedding picture.
Coming back to the point, I recently discovered that Ms Austen hasn’t just cursed women with great expectations from mankind. She has also frockblocked women writers. I realized this while writing my own first novel, There May Be An Asterisk Involved. Before you ask, no, it’s not chick-lit. But romance pops up now and then within its pages, like a crop of mushrooms after the rain.
You’ve already assumed my novel’s chick-lit, haven’t you?
You know, for a race that’s basically a step up from intelligent monkeys, we have a bizarre love for labels. Take fiction. If it features dragons, it’s fantasy. Little green men? Science fiction. A woman protagonist? Feminist fiction. A woman protagonist who falls in love and doesn’t die /get raped /go on a vengeful killing spree /overthrow societal norms in some way? Chick-lit.
The only kind of book featuring romance that survives the chick-lit tag is the romantic tragedy. Romeo and Juliet, check. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, check. Gone with the Wind, check. That’s literature, man. People die and stuff. Bring on the Booker.
Chick-lit, on the other hand, has nothing as dramatic. The highest point of drama you’ll find in there is what, a break-up? A divorce? A professional crisis? Because, you know, those aren’t traumatic at all. They’re just silly, chicky things. That don’t affect men. Or happen to them. Right.
Me, I like to think that most people are concerned with everyday things, like your job, your parents, your boy/girl friend or your obvious lack of one; hell, even ingrown toe-nails are things you deal with every day.
So if the character I create is occupied with a particularly annoying ex-boyfriend, does that make her a frivolous, superficial “chick”? Or does it make her, oh I don’t know, real? Real like the woman who walks past a guy every day just so that she can pretend to ignore him? Real like the guy who tries very hard not to look at his best friend’s bust, but can’t help himself? Real like you and me and the millions of perfectly ordinary souls across this world.
So I wrote a story set, not in a war-torn village or in a incest-stricken family, but in advertising. Because there are stories to be told in advertising. I had the plot, I had the humour, I had a spirited, sarcastic, witty heroine. All I needed was a hero she could find interesting enough to date. Which means he had to be interesting enough for me to date. Which meant that sooner or later, he was going to turn into You-Know-Who. No, not Voldemort.
That’s who this guy was turning into. I didn’t want him to. Honest, godpromisemotherswear I wanted my hero to be a real man. Not in the sense of Real-Men-Fart-Loud-and-Proud or Real-Men-Don’t-Cry-During-The-Lion-King (what are you, four?)
No, flesh and blood men, who’d go to any lengths for their friends but want to spend Sundays lounging around in their boxers. Guys who’re kind and caring, but also stupid and arrogant sometimes. You know, like the part where Darcy thinks Elizabeth is too… you see what happens? You see how deep this sh*t goes?
In the end, I suppose I settled for making him witty, but not very talkative. Charming, but a little goofy. Not drop-dead gorgeous, but not too shabby-looking either. The kind of guy who’s only slightly annoying, in the nicest possible way. Real in as many ways as I could manage. The perfect foil, in fact, for my handsome, flirtatious, insincere anti-hero. Who… now that I think of it… is in many ways quite similar to… George Wickham.
The best laid plans of mice and men, I tell you…
Vedashree Khambete-Sharma is the author of There May Be An Asterisk Involved, a novel absolutely, positively not based on any ad agency she has worked at, in the last eight years. Promise.