Gentle readers, you may well appreciate Jane Austen, but you don’t know Jane like I know Jane. I like to think of us as sisters, almost, sharing a special bond….of writing (at least trying) and also “genteel poverty”. That’s the kind of poverty you were not born into, but spent time in after some kind of disaster wrecked your comfortable middle-class existence. In our case, both of us lost fathers who were educated and respectable gentlemen. With our dads went the family’s main source of income and the loss of financial security and certain opportunities. We both spent time living with other relatives and we both struggled to figure out our place in the world…and how to get by.
As it turns out, Jane’s brother eventually was able to help out financially, and Jane went on to produce classic literature (although she got little benefit from that). She never married nor had children. I paid my way through college and spent some time perusing my theater dreams, living on my own, supporting myself with a variety of jobs, pretty much living hand to mouth until I became more financial secure through marriage (my husband and I were fairly equal wage earners in our early years, but he soon outdistanced me after the children were born). My other siblings did not have it easy, but chose more prudent employment or achieved financial security through military service.
Of course, two hundred years apart, separated by 3,000 miles, Jane and I did not live identical existences. In her writing, she had a keen eye for social customs and manners that dominated her world. As a contemporary American, I was less tuned into those kind distinctionss, until I began so see how truly prevalent they are, in spite of what we tell ourselves. It’s our little secret, Jane’s and mine, that the American dream, like the British, can capsize and sink just as easily as it rises, and often does. It’s no coincidence that a modern rendition of Jane’s stories are the “cozies” – Agatha Christie style murder mysteries, where a chief motive for murder is inheritance. No sociopaths here, just “rational” upper middle-class individuals in utter terror of losing their identities – tied to their income and socio-economic status. Truly, a whites-only affliction.
In Jane’s day, there was a stark future for spinsters who did not marry well. Or, an emotional prison for those who did marry, but not well. For a woman today, society is still structured so that men are better paid and less expected to be caregivers. If a woman with young children is divorced or widowed, she must still somehow find means of income AND cover childcare. The math does not add up. There is a modicum of aid through government programs, but none is designed for comfort, only for getting by. Some women will still marry for financial security, but that is uncertain in a day of high divorce and insecure employment. I know personally several educated white women with brains, skills and experience who have ended up in tough financial straights due to divorce/widowhood and caregiving responsibilities. It still happens, not infrequently. Welcome, my sisters, to the world of “genteel poverty”.
OK, my poverty was never quite as “genteel” as Jane’s – it had to be more rough and tumble being out in the world. I took lots of sh** jobs to pay my rent and expenses. At one time, I explored donating my womb as a surrogate parent – the $10,000 fee was very enticing, but I just couldn’t do it—too genteel, I guess.
What was hardest for me, I think, was what was hardest for Jane: putting on a good front, that nice smile, when everything at home was falling apart. Of course, you had to use good manners, speak well, and to go along with what was socially expected. But the other part of you is thinking desperately, “Will they see these run-down shoes? How will I pay this bill? I haven’t eaten a good, square meal in weeks and months.” What about when my “date’s” family discovers I’m from a “broken home” without money of my own – will they think I’m a “gold-digger?
Sometimes, a nice girl like me (and Jane) would just like to curse the world, and run off to hide under our blankets with a good book. Or, we’d like to write out stories of how it all turns out fine for the good-hearted, deserving people. The prick of discomfort, of worry, and of having known a better life is what turns us inward and burns inside our breasts. If we should ever meet in the afterlife, Jane and I, I expect we’ll have a lot to talk about.