One of my seniors in college, while having a discussion about literary figures we love, reprimanded me in no uncertain terms for counting Jane Austen as an author I love and find inspiring. “Why would you feel inspired by a woman whose stories underlined the importance of young women finding a rich husband? Don’t you get enough of that in real life?” he asked. His question wasn’t completely impertinent or wrong, especially given the fact that as women, we do face stereotypes that put us in brackets of “good”, “bad”, “successful”, and “settled”, even today, based on our marital status. It’s the kind of stereotyping that most of us actually want to escape.
But where my senior—and many others, for that matter—went wrong, is in assuming that Austen perpetuated or promoted those stereotypes through her six completed novels. Simply because you write about contemporary reality, as Austen did about Regency Era England, it does not mean you are saying it’s alright. On the contrary, Austen constantly highlighted the unfairness of the expectations put on women who were her contemporaries, while also pointing out everything that was wrong with the times back then—that too in a remarkably witty way.
And that’s why it’s “a truth universally acknowledged” that women everywhere should still give Austen and her works a try. Still not convinced? Read on, and you might just be.
How Austen’s life and nature informed her worksAusten was born in 1775, in Hampshire, England, to George and Cassandra Austen. George, who was a rector in a small parish, and had a modest income, supplemented it by farming and teaching. The atmosphere at home was intellectual, even if money was a constraining factor, and the family also staged plays in their barn. Austen started out by writing poems and stories to entertain her family. Many of her earlier works were never published, and it was only in 1811 that her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both posthumously published in 1818.
Despite being a prolific writer, there’s not much that’s known about Austen’s personal life because after her death, her siblings burned most of her letters—and even some manuscripts of unfinished works—as they believed her forthright manner and straightforward critique of those around would affect the younger girls in the family. Her sister, Cassandra, even censored her letters and works. If a woman had such an effect on her own family, can you imagine her as anything but a woman ahead of her times, striving to break the shackles societal expectations put on her?
About women who start small rebellionsThis nature of Austen was clearly portrayed in each and every one of her leading ladies, be it Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price, or Catherine Morland. Most of these characters were like Austen herself—women from families with limited financial means, but enough respectability to be counted as deserving introductions to better society and opportunities. The inheritance laws of the time made it impossible for women to get any guaranteed means of survival, unless their parents were rich or they married rich (or at least, comfortably off) men. For the women who could not make such a match, subsistence could be completely dependent on male relatives, usually brothers.
It’s no wonder then that all of Austen’s leading women, except perhaps Emma Woodhouse, are keen to marry or secure their finances in some way or the other. It’s a burden of survival these women bear with dignity. And yet, all of them are intelligent, out to get some real experience of love and life, and are often outspoken about their opinions. In fact, this is precisely the reason why characters like Elizabeth Bennet have stayed with us through the centuries.
Far from being women who are constantly oppressed by patriarchy and its demands, Austen’s leading ladies start small, subtle rebellions that lead to little, yet significant, changes in their lives—and the lives of their sisters. Think about Elizabeth Bennet’s decision to say no to Mr Collins because they were ill-suited, despite knowing that this man would inherit her father’s house and living. Or, think about how Catherine Morland rides out frequently with John Thorpe, unaccompanied, which was completely against Georgian society rules.
Austen’s women show clearly that it’s not just the big gestures or acts of rebellion that can change your life, but a lifetime’s worth of small changes can amount to a better future for their entire sex. Now, if that isn’t inspiring for women of every era, then I don’t know what is.
Small characters, big shadowsWhat makes Austen’s work even more impressive is the fact that the stories aren’t just about the leading ladies. Minor characters are as well-developed as the women and men the novels are basically about. What makes this descriptive nature of minor characters even more special is that Austen presents her most scathing critiques of contemporary society through them. All characters, male and female, belonging to the upper echelons of Georgian society are plagued with an insensitivity to poverty and its demands, while also constantly indulging in the type of toxic gossip (sometimes, straight-off slander) that can hurt sentiments and ruin lives. The sense of entitlement and obedience expected by characters like Lady Catherine de Bourgh can raise anyone’s hackles, even today.
The men in Austen’s stories, rich and poor, are a motley crew. Some like John Thorpe, George Wickham and Collins are sinister, creepy, and clearly unlovable. Others, like Fitzwilliam Darcy, Edward Ferrars, and Charles Bingley are more grounded (at least by the end of the story). They are all, however, sexist and upholders of patriarchy in some sense or the other—but people are the products of their times, so can you expect anything else from them? What’s more remarkable though is the journey these men, especially the leading ones, often make. At least by the end of the novel, they learn to treat the leading women better, with the dignity, respect and love they deserve.
Quite a number of Austen’s characters are, however, often misunderstood today. Mrs Bennet is a prime example. She comes across as crass, pushy, and the sort of mother who is constantly forcing you to get married—even a modern young lady would find dealing with her a nightmare. But take a look under her demeanour and think about what she’s really aiming for, and perhaps you’ll have some more sympathy for Mrs Bennet. She’s a woman who knows her husband’s estate cannot be inherited by her five daughters, and so, she pushes the Bennet girls to get settled as soon as they can. Mrs Bennet, who herself married for love, wants to secure her children’s future. Love is fine, but survival comes first in her book.
Can you really blame her for being a product of her situation, or making the choices she does, knowing this? Do you not know people who have made similar choices in life, despite having perfectly good intentions? It’s this innate way of holding up the mirror to society that makes Austen worth the read even today. The facts that the stories she told resonate with women even two centuries later, and still critique bitter truths about society today, make her an author everyone should indeed read, at least once in their lifetime.