Jane Austen is surely one of the most read and studied female authors of all time, solidly in the canon of Western literature and therefore above my notice for a column about under-scrutinized women. Yet I still worry about our dear Jane. Is she so relevant these days that she’s actually become irrelevant?
Maybe what I mean is: Do we relate to Austen’s books and characters for the wrong reasons? And would she be pissed off by the way we diminish her novels to overly simplistic love stories?
Don’t get me wrong; I love romance novels. You should love them, too. It’s a legitimate genre that takes particular skill to write. Read Julia Quinn, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer McQuiston, or Jennifer Crusie if you don’t believe me. These books are more than sappy dialogue hovering between unrealistic sex scenes. And so is Austen’s work. For their complications and nuance, many of today’s romance novels (all of the good ones, anyway) owe a debt to Jane Austen.
Okay, I bet some of you are thinking: Well, I don’t love Jane Austen, either because I’ve never read her books, or because I have read them and they bore me to tears. Fair enough. You are allowed to dislike or be ignorant of Austen, and no one should judge you for that (though secretly they probably do). Nevertheless, all six of her novels have been in print since 1833 and millions of copies have sold, so clearly she is a force to be reckoned with.
People think that Jane Austen wrote about love with all the drama of a woman perched on a settee in a stiff corset, waiting for something to do, pouncing on the first male she’s not closely related to and begging him to marry her. This does in fact happen in Austen’s books, but only because Austen is making fun of such women. We’re supposed to understand those characters to be ridiculous foils for the deeper, more complicated characters and stories, like Mr. Darcy’s comically bad (and yet refreshingly truthful) marriage proposal, or Wentworth’s letter that still takes our breath away, or Mr. Knightley’s (and what character in literature has had a better name than Mr. Knightley?) care and patience with the irrepressible Emma.
The truth is that Austen’s books are love stories, for sure. Widely considered the mother of the romance genre, I guess we have her to thank for the bodice rippers decorating grocery check-out aisles. But Austen primarily wrote about women and their predicaments when it came to money, relationships, and self-worth. The love part is in some ways a bonus, maybe even a distraction.
People think Austen was not a feminist; some even think she’s anti-feminist. But if you believe that, it’s because Jane Austen has tricked you. She writes with such clever and sometimes subtle irony and wit that a cursory reading looks like a bunch of characters making an awkward amount of silent eye contact, leading us to miss the point.
Maybe Austen wanted some readers to miss the point; maybe she had to highlight the love stories and repress the satire in order to get published at all. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously, but Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park were published anonymously, saying only “By A Lady” (the “lady” part was important at the time, noting the social rank of the author and making her more acceptable than a Grub Street hack writing only for financial gain). Nevertheless, books written “By A Lady” could not end with young, single, independent women remaining single. Social structures and beliefs about a woman’s place at the time might have made such books shocking, and not in the way that Madonna used shock as a successful marketing tool (I know — the reference dates me, but I am a child of the 1980s and I get a slight thrill from putting Austen and Madonna together in a sentence, okay?). In Austen’s time, scandal suctioned itself on to sometimes relatively innocent females and could not be pried away. Had she written her books without love stories, they probably wouldn’t have sold and she might have disgraced her entire family.
Still, Austen pushed all kinds of boundaries. She hid her rebellions in plain sight and must be rolling her eyes at us now for not highlighting them more often.
Some examples, you say? Her best-known work is called Pride and Prejudice because Elizabeth Bennet is proud and Mr. Darcy is prejudiced. Or it might be the other way around because Austen clearly shows that women and men are equally capable of being hard headed. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot doesn’t care to be married at all if it’s not to her true love, except that her family is making her crazy and she would appreciate some escape (sound familiar in this holiday season, anyone?). And in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price…well, we don’t know exactly what’s happening with Fanny. She may be a glitch in Austen’s system of independent, flawed, female characters. But Mary Crawford picks up some of Fanny’s slack. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood come through heartbreak together to find middle ground between sense and sensibility.1 In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland lurks in passageways, blatantly seeking romance because this is also the only Austen novel that is openly satirical. And Emma Woodhouse (from the aptly named Emma) just doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks.
These are not women whose instincts are to follow rules. And the men that they come to love understand and appreciate that about them. That’s the real key to Austen’s romance. Women are not desperate for men, even when financial or social circumstances dictate that they should be. Instead, the men (those who are worthy, anyway) come to love these women because they are well-read, articulate, and intelligent.
What made Austen write this way? We don’t really know.
Austen’s biography is famously skeletal, likely because her family destroyed any evidence that Austen was anything other than an ideal woman. She was born in 1775 and lived her entire adult life with her mother and sister, dying in 1817 at only 41 years old. That’s what we know for sure, but it seems important to interject here that Austen had at least one significant love story of her own, accepting and then the next day rejecting the marriage proposal of one Harris Bigg-Wither. Perhaps it was his name that made her think twice. Sex and the City showed us the importance of Mr. Big, but add Wither to the name and it takes on entirely new and not-so-sexy dimensions. Fans of the Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane will be delighted to learn that there was a Tom Lefroy in Austen’s life, but their relationship may have been overblown for the film. There also may have been — and for the sake of mysterious romance, let’s hope there was — a man in the Lyme Regis area who skirted Austen’s love life, perhaps prompting her to focus on the town in Persuasion.
Even with all of this room for speculation, I don’t think that Austen wrote from anger, and I don’t think that she necessarily had a feminist agenda when she sat down to compose.2 I think she wrote about the ways in which a woman’s mind works. She wrote to have a little fun with her own society’s more ridiculous aspects. And yes, she wrote about love.
So feel free to swoon over your favorite Austen hero or heroine as often as you like. Love the love stories, for they are magnificent. But when you remember Austen, consider the certainty with which she writes women, even when they are stubborn and wrong. Think about the joy and relief these female characters feel when they finally encounter male characters who care about something more than looks and money.
What endures about Austen’s work are the realities of these relationships. These couples are friends who laugh at and with one another, who spar and challenge each other regularly. We connect with Austen’s work even today because of her ability to draw real relationships, and more importantly, real women. Reading a bit of Austen’s novels is perhaps like getting a glimpse of her diary, and her words resonate still because she has pushed into the core of human nature to show that both women and men are bright and beautiful and fragile and strong and flawed.
1 In Austen’s time, “sense” was understood similarly to the way it is today: sanity, reasonableness. If a person had good sense, she was led more often by logic than emotion (thus it’s significant that Austen’s character, Elinor, displays consistent sense, because women of the early nineteenth century were thought to be emotional but otherwise fairly vacuous creatures, leaving reason and logic to men alone). “Sensibility,” in Austen’s time, was the opposite of sense: one who shows great sensibility is led by her emotions, often seen making irrational choices and fainting for no evident reason. To us, “sense” and “sensibility” sound like similar things. To Austen, they were yin and yang, or more potently, male and female. She must have disagreed with this gender divide and thus her work shows that both qualities can be exhibited by both genders.
2 It’s interesting to note that the word “feminist” had not yet been coined in Austen’s day, though of course people had believed in and fought for equal (or at least, less unequal) rights for men and women for hundreds of years by the time Austen wrote.