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Jane Austen

Text by: Kirsten Osmani

…By A Lady
-Jane Austen
Jane Austen was born in 1875… (and already some modern female readers are beginning to swoon at the mere mention of Ms. Austen) in Hampshire, England, into a large gentry family consisting of eight siblings — Jane was number six in the mix. She was closest to her only sister, Cassandra, and it is through their correspondence we learn much of what we know about Jane. Most of her life remains a mystery, though. She was a woman of contradiction; although she wrote of love and matrimonial bliss, she was never married. She was born and raised in an age during which women in general were thought of as second to men, yet she found a distinct way in which to demonstrate her views and opinions regarding the sexes— through her narratives.

But rarely do we pontificate on these matters when we think of Jane Austen. What first comes to mind are dreams of afternoon tea, elegant soirees and ball gowns, tall handsome men with adorable British accents, the marvelous and extinct idea of a drawing room, a foggy and verdant countryside, and subtle hints of passion masked behind proper Victorian manners and educated witticisms, all to the faint trills of a pianoforte in the background. Perhaps we find these visions so enrapturing because they speak of ideals: refinement, elegance, and romance.

But are these ideals inspirations or fantasies? Are they Jane's ideals or our own? Does her work transform us or simply sweep us away?

Although Austen was not considered an important British author until the middle of the twentieth century, she has since become immensely popular both in pop culture and in academia. She is also extremely susceptible to both innocent and deliberate misinterpretation.

Her published letters were heavily censored. Her correspondence with her closest friend and sister, Cassandra, was mostly destroyed. The most reliable firsthand account of her life was written by her brother Henry, who many scholars believe was less than frank, eager not to alienate a public who might not accept his sister's work and ideas if it believed she did not conform to model womanhood (a reputation she had already risked by becoming a published author).

Why do women adore Jane Austen and her novels? Yes, romance is one reason. Her novels seem to us excellent settings for romance. But when we stop sighing, we admit that life for women in England at the turn of the eighteenth century was not actually that great (Elizabeth Bennet is extraordinarily lucky, borderline fairy-tale lucky: Austen therefore thought of this work critically, as "too light and bright and sparkling"), and we begin to notice that most of the romance comes from our imaginations: the stories about Victorian courtship more effectively reveal its uncomfortable realities. Austen's novels are not wonderful to us because they are fantasy. They are quite the opposite. Her novels pose questions that were just as urgent for us as they were for her: what does it mean to be a woman? How should a woman behave? How should a woman be regarded? Our intense interest in those questions and frequent confusion about them exists for the same reason we are intensely interested in Jane Austen and sometimes confused about her.

There are many biases and definitions of feminists and feminism, but Jane Austen's feminism for me is simply her interest in these questions and her brilliant exploration of them in novels that mock many aspects of her society, including the constrictions of its patriarchal order.

While in Jane's time feminism was not yet an organized movement, other movements certainly influenced her. One was the Enlightenment. For a century leading up to Jane's career as a published author, the intellectual and cultural life believed foremost in reason as the best way to understand the world and the most valuable human capacity. However, Rousseau and other leading thinkers of
the Enlightenment did not regard women as human, but as women, and therefore irrational. In the consciousness of the general public was the binary that the head represented the man, while the body represented the woman. It was assumed that women did not have the same capacity for reason that men did: their primary function was physical. Enlightenment feminism would contradict Rousseau on this point, arguing that women too were rational creatures. The Vindication of the Rights of Woman did just that. While Mary Wollstonecraft is rarely associated with Jane Austen, they had remarkably similar ideas about a woman's capacity to reason. While Mary wrote a treatise, Jane wrote novels, packaging radical ideas in subtlety and humor.

Another movement that influenced Jane's career was Romanticism. Many other female novelists of the time were writing sentimental fiction that appealed to Romanticism. Another appeal to Romanticism was the popular Gothic novel, mastered by Ann Radcliff and brilliantly parodied in Austen's Northanger Abbey. It was not uncommon for women to write novels, but perceptions of novels written by and for women were condescending.

The title of Sense and Sensibility referred to the conflicting cultural interests in reason or "sense" and in romanticism, emotion, sensitivity, or "sensibility." Austen self-published the novel and made a point that its intelligent discussion of issues important to the time was authored by a woman by placing in the title page under the title in large print the words, "by a lady."

Austen is recognized for developing the method of free-indirect style speech, which efficiently moves the reader from narration to a heroine's internal reflections. It helped Austen create female characters who can think for themselves. Rather than wait for their lives to be directed or determined by others, they observe, learn, and make decisions based on their own experiences and even mistakes.

Austen's ideas still resound with modern women, because her ideas about women come in the form of stories, which communicate more profoundly than philosophy, and which we can always relate to or analyze according to our own experiences. Austen herself acknowledged the power of the genre in a passage from Northanger Abbey in which she describes the novel as a "work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the greatest knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." Presenting radical ideas about women in the form of a novel was very ladylike way to do so.

Jane's manners appear exquisite to us in contrast to our own times. It's impossible to know what she was really like, but if she was as lovely and intelligent as her novels, it's difficult to doubt that her manners were exquisite in her own time as well. So to call her a feminist might be unexpected for those who think of feminists as un-ladylike. But the most perfect lady, as Jane knew, deserved to be respected as an intelligent creature.