Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Dirty Girls, Dirty Books, and the Breakdown of Boundaries in Jane Austen's Fiction

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Dirty Girls, Dirty Books, and the Breakdown of Boundaries in Jane Austen's Fiction

Article excerpt

WHEN EMMA WOODHOUSE and her friends go to the Crown Inn to ascertain its suitability for a dinner and dancing party, Mrs. Weston is appalled by the dirty wallpaper: '"this paper is worse than I expected. Look! in places you see it is dreadfully dirty; and the wainscot is more yellow and forlorn than any thing I could have imagined."' Mr. Weston dismisses her concerns and assures her that no one will see anything dirty by candlelight, and, anyway, the men never notice the dirty paper on club nights. Wryly, the narrator suggests, "The ladies here probably exchanged looks which meant, 'Men never know when things are dirty or not;' and the gentlemen perhaps thought each to himself, 'Women will have their little nonsenses and needless cares'" (273). This scene underscores the doctrine of separate spheres, in which women were consigned to the domestic scene and subsequently charged with maintaining order by ridding interior space of contaminating dirt, and men lived more in the public sphere, where they were oblivious to and dismissive of what they saw as women's trivial preoccupations with cleanliness and appearances.

While Jane Austen's fictional world may not always be "light & bright & sparkling" and sometimes harbors shady corners, for the most part, her characters interact in decorous, well-kept rooms set against the backdrop of picturesque country villages, with visits to civilized urban centers. As Carol M. Dole has pointed out, film makes visibly manifest the materiality of life in Austen's time and brings dirt, mud, dust, and disorder before our eyes: notably in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which puts the dirty farmyard of Longbourn front and center, whereas Elizabeth's muddy clothes and rambling countryside walks are highlighted in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. While most of the action in Austen's novels takes place in rural settings, however, references to the primary constitutive element of the estates and farms that support her gentry characters--that is, dirt--are infrequent in Austen's fictional world.

A recent article in The Economist entitled "The Joy of Dirt" asserts that "[T]he English language demonises dirt" and that "[g]etting rid of dirt" has long been considered a "good thing." For the most part, with the notable exception of the Price family home in Southampton, dirt and other foul matter are excluded from Austen's interior spaces, understandably so since the definition of "dirt" in the O.E.D. is decidedly pejorative. With its etymological origins in excrement and defined as "unclean matter" or "filth," "dirt" is also applied abusively to persons, and the term's negative connotations extend to degradation, pollution, the lower classes of society, and the morally and spiritually unclean. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas has observed, "Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to nonbeing, form to formlessness, life to death" (7).

Dirt in Austen s novels often signals the breakdown or elision of boundaries and restrictive definitions of women's roles in late eighteenth-century British society. Examining the presence of dirt or dirty matter in key scenes suggests that characters' reactions to dirt may threaten the existing order and indicate the potential dissolution of class distinctions and confining prescriptions for female behavior. Despite cultural arbiters' strenuous efforts to expel it from civilized venues, dirt gets into the purportedly clean, well-lighted domestic sphere and attains metaphoric and symbolic resonance in Austen's fiction. In Emma the Crown is chosen as the best site for the ball, and the happy participants, who comprise the cream of Highbury society, take no notice of the dirty wallpaper. Among the attendees, however, are the upstart Coles and Coxes, as well as Harriet Smith, who turns out to be the natural daughter of a tradesman, so the class hierarchy that Emma has supported begins to break down in the presence of the dirty background, however muted by the dim light. …

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