Tomorrow is the anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. In honor of that, here are my thoughts on the book, which has been one of my most faithful friends my entire life.
Some years back in one of my APAs, someone castigated Jane Austen’s books like this: “All those daft twits rabbiting on about clothes and boyfriends and manners.”
Since then, I’ve encountered other variations on the theme that a modern woman ought not to be reading such trash because it sets feminism back two centuries.
Well, much as I laughed over the first caveat, that isn’t Austen. It sounds more like the silver fork romances inspired by Georgette Heyer. Austen’s characters don’t talk about clothes at all, outside of air-headed Mrs Allen of Northanger Abbey, who doesn’t think of anything else. Austen sticks her satiric quill into young ladies who think and talk about nothing but beaux, such as poor, luckless Anne Steele in Sense and Sensibility. Manners are emphasized but not manners without matter; Austen saves her spikiest irony for hypocrites, especially ‘noble’ ones.
I think it’s important to remember that whereas Heyer was writing historical romances in the silver fork tradition, Austen was writing novels about contemporary life, especially the problems facing young women in her own walk of life, the country gentry. She criticized herself in a much-quoted letter to her sister Cassandra, saying in effect, ‘the problem with Pride and Prejudice is it’s too light and bright and sparkling.’ Many have misinterpreted this remark. It seems to me, on close reading of her elsewhere, that she meant the novel to be taken more seriously than it was.
What is it about, really? It’s about the wrong reasons for marrying, and how those can affect a woman for the rest of her life. Of course a hard-line feminist can point out that novels about marriage are hideously retro for today’s woman, who has many choices before her. During Austen’s time, marriage was the only choice a woman had, unless she was rich enough to shrug off the expectations of her society, or unless she was willing to live on as a pensioner to some family member or other, which more often than not meant being used as an unpaid maid. Of course there was teaching, but the salaries for women were so miserable one may as well have been a servant. The hours and demands were pretty much equal.
If one looks past the subject of marriage, the novel’s focus is about relationships: between men and women; between sisters; between friends; between family members and between families. As for marriage, Austen sends up relationships that were formed with security as the goal, relationships that were sparked by physical attraction and not much else, relationships made with an eye to rank, money, social status, or competition. And, with abundant wit and style (or as she’d say, with éclat), she offers some truths about the differences between love and lust, and what relationships based on either mean to a marriage months—or decades—after the wedding.
The fact that Austen doesn’t use modern terminology doesn’t make it any less real than a contemporary novel that has a supposedly liberated woman romping from bed to bed for forty pages while in search of the perfect relationship. The message is the same, that women who mistake falling in lust for falling in love are usually doomed to a very unhappy existence. And in Austen’s time, you couldn’t divorce, you were stuck for life.
I’ve had dedicated feminist friends give me appalled reactions when I admit to liking Austen. I don’t consider reading Austen a guilty pleasure, as I do reading, say, P.G. Wodehouse. I consider Jane Austen a forerunner of feminism. She doesn’t stand out and preach as Mary Wollstonecroft did. Her influence was nevertheless profound. Again and again in those novels she portrays women thinking for themselves, choosing for themselves—even if their choices are within the conventions of the time. What the women think matters.
In Austen’s day (and too often, now) female characters were there as prizes for the men to possess, or to strive for, or as catalysts for male action. These days we call them refrigerator women. Jane Austen gave her female characters as much agency as a woman could have in those days, and the narrative is mostly seen through their eyes.
The famed relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy makes it very clear that they were first attracted by one another’s intellect—those two were clearly brain-snogging before they ever got to the fine sheets of Pemberley. Yes, he thinks she’s pretty, but because he is listening to her.
It is also clear that the man—his higher social and economic status notwithstanding—had to earn the woman’s respect, and rethink some of his assumptions, before she could see in him a possible partner. There is no dominant male making the decisions: those two are equal right down to the last page, and Austen makes it clear that it will continue to be so after the marriage.
Each time I reread the novel, I notice something new, but in the meantime, will I continue to recommend it to young women just venturing into literature? You bet.