Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Jane Austen Dating Agency Inc.

I was quite serious when I told a friend yesterday I wished Jane Austen could pick my dates.

To cut a long story short I’ll sum up my 23 year dating history by simply saying: I have poor judgement in men. Really poor judgement. Abysmal. Imagine a stockmarket investor circa 1979 saying to their broker, “This Steve Jobs character obviously has no business sense, who on earth names their company Apple? For my money the future of information technology is in the Betamax!” Yes that’s me, romance’s equivalent of the Betamax investor.

My friend Maya and I had been discussing Mansfield Park. It’s my least favourite of the Austen oeuvre but I admire it for proving beyond a doubt that Jane Austen was not writing an early form of chick lit. As the romance trope has evolved over the centuries a reoccurring theme is the caddish hero transformed by falling in love with the sweet heroine, bringing her out of her shell to show the world how amazing she is.

Mansfield Park plays with that idea. Yes we have the shy heroine, Fanny, a somewhat Cinderella-like character looked down upon by her richer cousins. There is even the roguish bad boy, the visiting Henry Crawford, who out of boredom decides to make Fanny fall in love with him. As he carries out his nefarious scheme he becomes aware that her superior qualities raise genuine feelings in his otherwise selfish heart.

If this had been just the 19th century version of Mills and Boon, the story would have ended with Henry spurning the coquettish come-ons of society’s belles to show Fanny how worthy of her he was.

That doesn’t happen. Instead Henry embarks on an affair with her married cousin, Maria, disregarding the growing affection Fanny has for him. And Fanny marries her priggish cousin, who after having his heart broken by Henry’s sister, realises how superior Fanny is. It’s not romantic and I’m honest enough to know that’s why I don’t like it. I want Henry to reform himself and take Fanny away from her ghastly relations. Rereading it I still think he should be the hero and can be reformed, despite all evidence to the contrary that he is a narcissistic heart breaker.

And that’s why Jane Austen should be in charge of picking my dates. My judgement can't be trusted.

As long as she finds me a Captain Wentworth or Mr Knightley rather than Fanny’s priggish Edmund.

The fundamental flaw at the heart of all my dating decisions was never more obvious than the time I rewatched an episode of the last season of Angel with my friend Cindy. It was the episode where Spike, turned into a ghost when he died to stop the Sunnydale apocalypse, is transformed into a flesh and blood creature again in Angel’s swish corporate office.

Having been a ghostly presence for some time the first thing Spike does is grab the hand of vampire ex-girlfriend Harmony, and whisk her off to the store closet for a quick shag.

I looked at the screen in horror and stammered “But he loves Buffy! He wouldn’t have sex with someone else!!”

Cindy turned a pitying eye on me and replied, “How old are you exactly? Surely you don’t honestly believe that?”

And just like that my dating history made sense.

I wish I could say I’d learned from that moment and stopped making the same mistake, but I haven’t. That’s why I still need Jane Austen to choose my dates.

But it helped me make sense of the experience a few years before, of dating a bass guitarist. Like many an Austen romance, our first meeting was on the dance floor. I was actually at the dance club that night to flirt with someone else entirely and was happily boogying up a storm with my friends, when this very tall guy started dancing near me, and then, with me. We danced really well together, people actually stopped to watch us.

That first meeting lead to phone conversations, then drinks and dinner together and even out with his friends and mine. It was easy and natural and we were having fun.

Only it turned out the night he spotted me on the dance floor, his longtime partner had moved out of their house to be with another man. And although she had found someone else she didn’t want him moving on quite so quickly. So when she heard I was on the scene she started visiting his house to ‘check up on’ the cat she hadn’t wanted to take with her.

I told him to leave me alone until he sorted himself out, but on the eve of my two-month trip to Europe, he took me out to dinner. The subtext to this was that I was his choice.  So I happily jaunted off to Spain and we stayed in regular contact, texts and emails being the modern day equivalent to Austen’s ink and parchment missives.

The contact continued right up to the moment I arrived back at Sydney airport and called him at 8.30 in the morning. His mobile phone rang and was answered by a woman’s voice. During my absence the ex-girlfriend had moved back in. I said I’d dialled the wrong number, silly really when my name would have come up on the screen. I even felt guilty, like I was the one caught in the wrongdoing.

My only contact with him that day was over the phone, where he admitted that yes they had reconciled while I was away. Rather than screaming all my hurt and disappointment at him I was stupidly polite, and simply asked him to return the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books I’d lent him.

Six weeks went by, no books returned and I was mightily pissed off. It might seem that I was fixating unnecessarily about the books but a) I’ve lost books before that I’ve lent and b) it wasn’t about the bloody books!

So at the end of one particular stressful workweek I phoned him and said I would come and collect them that night. “Um, it isn’t a good time right now,” he said.

“Uuuuum, it isn’t really my problem right now,” I shot back.

“You’re angry aren’t you?” he said with Sherlock Holmes like powers of deduction, “I’ll bring them over in the next half-hour.”

When he arrived, I wasn’t angry. I was icy and disdainful. But I'm not the Snow Queen with her heart frozen over, and the problem with an icy façade is that it can be so brittle that one tremor is enough to shatter it into a thousand pieces. I could feel the tremors starting, so I retrieved my books and sent him on his way.

Confronting him I realised that he wasn’t a Henry Crawford type cad at all, he was a nice man, just a very weak willed one who bowed to whatever stronger personality was around.

So then I dragged my friend and neighbour Simon off to a bar and proceeded to get very, very drunk. And the next day I drove to Sydney with a hangover and my big sister to a Duran Duran concert, where thanks to her stratagems we were front and centre and I won a personal smile from Simon Le Bon by accidentally holding my fan sign upside down!

I might not have been dancing a cotillion but I think Jane Austen would have approved.

1 comment:

  1. I thought you were more a Mr Darcy type. Capt Wentworth with his broken heart hurt and rejected facade was easy to love. Love you my sister.