This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of the greatest novel ever written in the English language – Pride and Prejudice. If you have never read this book, you need to drop what you’re doing right now and grab a copy. You don’t even need to pay for it – The Gutenburg Press has a version you can have right now!
It’s in the public domain! It’s free! And it’s utterly magnificent, from the first sentence to the last.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Naturally, Jezebel has a piece celebrating the undeniable achievement that is Pride and Prejudice. They venerate this most illustrious author and hold her up as an example of female genius (and god knows there is a shortage of that to be had). Here is a triumph worth celebrating!
Oh wait. Nope. That’s not what Jezebel is doing at all. “Why,” writes sneery Katie Baker, “are women so obsessed with Jane Austen?” I mean after all, all she wrote about was love and marriage, and really, Pride and Prejudice isn’t much different than Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, other than the complete absence of whips and vampires, that is, but let’s not get fussy. For god’s sake Katie, the entire POINT of Northanger Abbey is to mock the ridiculousness of gothic romance novels! Have you even read Austen?
Katie goes on to say that she prefers the Bronte’s dramatic love affairs, and honestly, I’m not surprised. Catherine is a whiny, spoiled, petulant whore who marries for money and Heathcliff is a vindictive, self-absorbed asshole. There’s the dream feminist marriage right there.
There seems to be two critical responses from feminists about Jane Austen:
- She wrote about love and marriage and the importance of family and therefore she sucks
- She never married, had no children and wrote books instead, therefore she’s awesome
Let’s take these apart, shall we?
Jane wrote about love, absolutely. She promoted a version of marriage that was centered on companionship, respect, mutual admiration and above all, love.
Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, muses to her beloved sister Jane, that since Jane is quite the prettiest of all the five Bennet girls, it will fall to her to raise the family’s fortunes by marrying well, and she advises Jane to take care to fall in love with a rich man. Only the deepest love will compel Elizabeth to marriage.
Jane has no love at all for ambitious women who seek out husbands solely for what they can provide. Isabella Thorpe tries to nail Captain Tilney AND James Morland in Northanger Abbey and gets a bitter comeuppance for her whorish little ways. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford, who expresses delight that the eldest son might die and therefore leave the family’s fortune to Edmund, whom she is hunting, gets a brutal beat down, too. And Jane has no sympathy for male fortune-hunters, either. In Sense and Sensibility, the grasping, faithless Willoughby is left with a wife whom he hates and a broken heart, all because he ditched Marianne Dashwood in favor of Sophia Grey with her fortune made in trade.
Certainly, Jane was writing inside a particular class structure, and that is reflected in her writing, but her insistence that women choose husbands based on love and mutual affection and respect is most decidedly anti-feminist. Women are NOT encouraged to pursue wealth or status or power. Jane denounces those values completely. The only acceptable moral relationship between men and women must be based on love, and I suspect this is what pisses writers like Katie off so badly. The idea that the love for a man should govern a woman’s choices in life. Not her own comforts, not her need for a roof over her head, not her desire to be perceived as successful and accomplished and strategic.
In every novel, the heroines face obstacles to their love, but it always triumphs in the end. The one thing that Jane does so well is create a believable happiness. Anne and Frederick, Fanny and Edmund, Eleanor and Edward, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, Catherine and Henry, Emma and George – they all end up in relationships that are just so believably happy. You close the book, and you can imagine how the rest of their lives will play out.
That is a direct result of accurately portraying love and respect and compatibility. Jane’s men and women do not COMPETE with one another. They complement one another, and find their joy in doing so.
Now, let’s take on the second banner feminists tend to wave for our lovely Jane: Jane and her sister Cassandra rejected marriage and children in favor of pursuing literary ambitions and material wealth in the form of royalties from publication.
Screw men and children! I want money! Show me the money!
Said Jane Austen NEVER.
Jane did, in fact, accept and then subsequently reject a proposal of marriage from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. He had a whole pack of sisters whom Jane loved dearly, and was heir to a very respectable farm and Jane would have lived a life of great comfort and ease. We will never know her exact reason for declining Harris, but if her books are to be taken as evidence, it was because she did not love him.
Tom LeFroy was the man she DID love. Jane wanted to marry Tom, but his family would not allow it. It broke her heart. Jane didn’t reject marriage and family and children – she was actually incredibly close to many of her nieces and nephews and thoroughly enjoyed their company.
Jane was not permitted to marry the man she loved, and it appears that she never met another man she could love as much as Tom. There is a bit of a mystery about a man she met in Lyme much later in her life, but as Cassandra destroyed most of Jane’s letters, we will never know. Perhaps she did meet another whom she could love. Either way, Jane did not reject love or marriage. It was denied to her by forces beyond her control, and she never recovered.
As for Cassandra, she also accepted a proposal of marriage, but her Tom (Tom Fowle) died in the West Indies before they could marry. Her Tom had gone to make his fortune, but perished of yellow fever, leaving Cassandra a modest amount of money and a thoroughly broken heart. Cassandra’s grief over losing Tom is largely thought to have inspired the quiet dignity of Eleanor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.
So you see, neither of the Austen sisters rejected love or marriage and it was not possible to reject any subsequent children, nor is there any evidence that either of them were in any way opposed to the idea of having children. Jane was dismayed to hear of friends and family members having twelve children, but in Northanger Abbey she declares the Morlands, with their ten children a fine family, so clearly she wasn’t of the mind that having a lot of children is automatically a horrible thing.
Jane Austen is, and always will be, my favorite author in any language. Her characters have a grace and dignity and liveliness and cheerfulness that inspires me daily. In many ways, Jane has been a more important influence on me than any living person. She taught me what a happy life looks like, what kinds of mistakes to avoid, how to deal with overpowering emotions in a mature and principled way (you don’t need to impose your every feeling on those around you) and most of all, she taught me that the only thing that matters in life is love.
Here’s to you, Jane! Happy anniversary – 200 years and you’re still fabulous!
Lots of love,