Ideological (un)becomings: constructing eighteenth-century ideal woman as nobody

Possibly, any person who ever loved a character in a book tried to imagine him or herself as that character for a time. Who wouldn't want to be the hero or heroine in a romantically tragic tale about lovers divided by fate but reunited by true love and strength of conviction? Jane Austen's heroines, witty and beautiful, clever and kind, good, virtuous, and endowed with the talent of saying just the right thing at the right time in the most perfect way, captivate us. To be Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse would be to reach the very essence of feminine perfection, especially by the end of the novels, when each heroine has learned all her lessons and mended those few imperfections she has. Yet Austen women remain just perfect enough: admirable but still believable, good but not too good. Austen women, and their fictional predecessors, capture us even today. But why? What do modem women have in common with Elizabeth and Emma? My interest in this question began as a realization that what modem women write about and argue vehemently against does not differ very much from the issues they faced in 1792, when Mary W ollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I made the shocking connection between those women of the past and myself, shocking because I always felt rather liberated and independent most of my life. I witnessed this connection, oddly enough, in a Jane Austen novel called Sense and Sensibility, adapted to film by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson. Though I had seen lots of Austen novels rendered into filmic versions, sometimes well, sometimes poorly, I marveled that films, which once had been relegated to consumption for the intelligentsia, now appeared on the big screen as popular entertainment for the masses. An odd clash ofhigh and low culture, surely, but what could be the inducement? What could modem audiences see in an adaptation of a novel written almost two hundred years ago? Themselves. Or, more correctly, women could, in their need to define themselves in terms of feminine perfection. The resurgence of eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction into modem popular culture prompts me to question the role historical, political, cultural and linguistic forces play in how women see themselves today, and why we still strive for the unreachable. This study attempts to expose the contradiction inherent in the eighteenth century construct of Ideal Woman and her relegation to the shadowy existence of silent Nobodiness, specifically by looking at the language and values that gestated her.