No One Man Should Have All That Power

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Jane Awesome puts Miss Steele on blast:


Marianne had now been brought by degrees, so much into the habit of going out every day, that it was become a matter of indifference to her whether she went or not: and she prepared quietly and mechanically for every evening's engagement, though without expecting the smallest amusement from any, and very often without knowing till the last moment where it was to take her. To her dress and appearance she was grown so perfectly indifferent, as not to bestow half the consideration on it, during the whole of her toilette, which it received from Miss Steele in the first five minutes of their being together, when it was finished. 

Nothing escaped her minute observation and general curiosity; she saw everything, and asked everything; was never easy till she knew the price of every part of Marianne's dress; could have guessed the number of her gowns altogether with better judgment than Marianne herself, and was not without hopes of finding out before they parted, how much her washing cost per week, and how much she had every year to spend upon herself. 

The impertinence of these kind of scrutinies, moreover, was generally concluded with a compliment, which though meant as its douceur, was considered by Marianne as the greatest impertinence of all; for after undergoing an examination into the value and make of her gown, the colour of her shoes, and the arrangement of her hair, she was almost sure of being told that upon "her word she looked vastly smart, and she dared to say would make a great many conquests.

Words aside, one of the best aspects of my readings of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility has been discovering how consistent human beings are over time. I don't mean this in the general way--pride, love, happiness etc.--but in the kind of intimate way Austen sketches here. No doubt we've changed some, but those changes feel surface. I read this and thought, "I know this person." And the shocking thing is, I'm not sure I do But I just feel like I do.

There's something else too, something sinister undergirding both of these books. We think of the gentry--from the aristocrats of Old England to the slavemasters of the Old South--as a solid inviolable class. But throughout Austen's book, looming in the background, is the possibility of one's family falling into labor. In this world, an unmarried daughter is a problem. She is not allowed to work and market her labor, and thus without marriage, she becomes a burden upoin her parents in life, and leaves her family unimproved in death. Fathers really were "giving away" in that world.  Add in men like Willoughby, with only a minor inheritance, and  one quickly begins to see how a fall into the laboring classes might be accomplished.

And so it was with slavemasters. Advancing to the ranks of planter did not mean one couldn't--through bad land deals, through vice--be advanced back out. It helps to think about this qualitatively. There were very few slave rebellions in 19th century America--and yet that fact gave slave-owners no security from the threat. It helps to not think about power as the end-game, to not think about power as a potion of invulnerability. Once you have acquired power, you are constantly harried by the thought of losing it.

I'm taking a break from fiction for a bit, after this. I'll likely go to Thomas Jefferson's Notes on The State of Virginia, and then The Hemmings of Monticello. After that I hope to circle way back and read King Lear.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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