Those of you born after 1950 might be wondering: What the heck is the Ginger Rogers Syndrome? The condition won’t be found in any medical textbook, I assure you, but the condition may exist nonetheless.
Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) was an American actress, singer and dancer who appeared on Broadway and starred in more than 70 films. A lithe, graceful dancer, she is perhaps best known for her role as Fred Astaire’s most beguiling partner.
The dance team of Astaire and Rogers enchanted the world in the 1930’s, but the spotlight tended to shine on Fred Astaire’s energetic and innovative dancing, with Ginger Rogers providing an elegant, sexy foil to his plain looks. It was Bob Thaves, the creator of the comic strip “Frank and Ernest,” who is credited with saying this about Fred Astaire: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards … and in high heels”.
And thus was born the Ginger Rogers Syndrome — the tendency to admire and credit a man’s performance and belittle a woman’s in the same role. But what does the Ginger Rogers Syndrome have to do with Jane Austen? There are two heirs in Pride and Prejudice: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Anne de Bourgh. Both inherited estates from their fathers. Both own real property (land and buildings). Both supervise employees and manage tenants. Both feel pressured about money: they must secure the income to support and grow their estates, else they risk losing their most prized possession: in Darcy’s case, Pemberley; in Anne’s case, Rosings Park.
Mr. Darcy is much admired. His housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, tells Elizabeth Bennet: “If I were to go through the world, I could not meet with a better … He is the best landlord, and the best master.” Praise, indeed. Mrs. Reynold’s description of Darcy is so glowing that Miss Bennet is struck by his status: brother, landlord, master, guardian. “How much pleasure or pain was it in his power to bestow! How much of good or evil must be done by him!” she says to herself.
No such accolades fall on Miss de Bourgh, who is described by Miss Bennet as looking “sickly and cross.” Where Darcy is at first thought to be proud and later understood to be shy and reserved, Anne is downright rude: she can’t be bothered to talk with her guests during dinner or while playing cassino. “Their [card] table was superlatively stupid,” writes Jane Austen. Insufferable! Anne comes across as disagreeable and disinterested.
Given Jane Austen’s description of the heiress of Rosings, one might be forgiven for not realizing that Anne, like Darcy, is a landowner. She is a master. She has the power to do good or evil. Of course, Darcy is the male protagonist, while Anne is merely a by-stander in the story. Fair enough. But Austen’s portrait of Anne makes one wonder whether the Ginger Rogers Syndrome flourished during the Regency period. Perhaps Austen was so enraptured by Darcy’s good looks and status that she glossed over Anne de Bourgh, who did everything he did with equal passion … and while wearing stiff stays under her muslin gowns.