Jane Austen and the Modern Reader


Jane Austen Action Figure

Jane Austen Action Figure







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.



Jane Austen and the Modern Reader — 30 Comments

  1. Applauds.

    I also wonder if things have changed that much. I am independent, with my own income. But I married an older man and have no children and look around and realise that there is *still* no viable model for what happens later, and that the comment about Miss Bates, that the longer she lives, the worse her position will be, is still as relevant and as bone chilling.

  2. Thanks Sherwood Smith for these comments on Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen’s writing on the subject of women. I’ve always found her to be quietly in favour of women having a better deal – there’s that famous scene at the end of Persuasion. I love the way it bends back on itself: Anne Eliot says, ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs to a much higher degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’ Jane Austen is gently taking the pen out men’s hands for a while.

  3. Works about gaining self knowledge–often in painful ways!–and developing an ethical identity in the midst of society can never become irrelevant.

  4. Austen’s clear depiction of the limited lives open to women lays the groundwork for feminism. (Yes, the men’s lives were limited, too, but not to the same degree.) I cannot read Sense and Sensibility without wishing Elinor Dashwood had an opportunity for a real job, which would have solved the family’s problems. The real radicalism of Austen, though, is that she treats these lives — considered frivolous by “very serious people” — as important.

    I confess I find her hard to read because I find the lives of some of these people as too painful to bear. It’s easier for me to read violent stories in which the characters have some agency than to read stories about good women who are reduced to absurd levels of poverty and dependence.

  5. One of the things people outside of Austen-readership don’t get is how much of her work has to do with the personal economics of women. When we say “limited options” it’s a matter of status, but also a matter of eating. Elinor Dashwood, living with her widowed mother and sister in a (rent-free) cottage, frets about the family eating too much meat. Charlotte Lucas, Lizzie Bennet’s plain, commonsensical friend, marries (horribly, as far as the reader is concerned) because she must, and marries a man whose prospects she knows to be excellent. She may be starting her life being polite to Lady Catherine deBourgh, on whom her husband’s living depends, but she’ll wind up being mistress of the Bennets’ own estate. You look at the single gentlewomen (widowed or unmarried, it’s unlikely to make much difference) who do not marry (as opposed to those like Emma, who have not married yet) and their lots are generally dreary, if not dire: Lady Catherine’s beat-down companion; Anne Elliot’s old school friend who supplements a tiny income by taking in sewing.

    Modern readers also forget the extent to which love and marriage were a relatively new development. Austen charts a path through dangerous waters for a woman of her time, without drawing attention to the newness or the danger. Her readers would understand.

    • Yes. Well, love wasn’t new–Chaucer makes that clear–but marrying for love? A woman getting to choose (even within draconian limitations)? Those were new.

  6. You know some odd feminists, if they criticize you for reading and admire Austen’s novels. Even in grad school my feminist colleagues adored Austen. And this remains so in all the various realms of my current life, in which all my friends are feminists.\

    • These were very hip young women, who probably never read Austen, but judged by covers or by trying a Heyer when they were fifteen. Really, that line about young women rabbiting on and on about clothes reveals that much.

    • I attended a very feminist women’s college, and in my first few days, was analyzed by my new neighbors via the contents of my bookshelf. Upon noting that my roommate and I had each brought Pride and Prejudice, both the house president and one of the seniors on the dorm declared that we would fit in just fine. I late discovered that it was a rare woman in that group who did not like Pride and Prejudice.

  7. In just about every case the young women searching for marriage in Austen’s novels all do very well, ultimately. What is brilliant about Austen is she shows an enormous spectrum of successful marriages.

    Even those we may turn our noses up at, as mercenary and grasping for security, are successful, because the women got what they wanted and they make it work for them — like Charlotte Lucas who manages to make even marriage to the frightful Rev. Collins work, for her.

    Even Paston Eldon and Augusta’s union is successful by their own lights. Part of their success is abusing those who they feel are slighting them or are beneath them, sometimes to their faces, if their rank is low enough, and abusing them behind their backs, if their rank is too high, like Emma and Knightly. Shared malice can most certainly be a bond, alas — and not only in marriage.

    Perhaps the most daring portrait of how a woman may play the hand that was given her and manipulate it up to winning trumps: Lucy Steele. She came from nothing, had nothing, no prospects, and wasn’t even really pretty. But somehow she manages to snag the very brother who gets all the moola. She gets what she wanted most of all, a marriage of security with loads of money.

    The unsuccessful manipulators and choices almost all take place off-stage so to speak. We see the consequences as with Anne’s invalid friend in Bath — who gives her important information about her cousin-suitor.

    Lydia is too scatter-brained and good-natured to even notice her partnership with her darling Wickham is bound for train wreck — she’s so much like her mother, but with the added security of well-married and principled sisters, who have principled spouses who are wealthy.

    The most unsuccessful on-stage marriage we see is Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, and they are fortunate enough to rub along mostly pleasantly enough — though obviously not, at least for the servants. (This reader feels in many ways Mr. Bennett got off way too easily for his very great faults — but then he shares my sensibility on this, without the hypocrisy of disguising his relief at the lightness of his consequences.)

    Throughout Austen we see one portrait after another of marriages, so many different kinds of marriages, all of which are as different from on another as Austen has created her brilliant characters as different from one another. And most of them appear fairly pleasant, as each couple has adjusted to each other and they rub along quite well.

    And these are the people who make up entire communities of a particular set and range of class that was England of Austen’s time — and which we have our counterparts even now, even if we do many things differently.

    That’s why feminists early and late love Austen, one thinks. She’s not dealing with small matters, she’s dealing with what makes a community, a nation, a world.

    Love, C.

    • An excellent point. We don’t need to pity Charlotte Collins–she got exactly what she wanted. (And the hints are there that she swiftly learned how to manage Collins in a gentle but firm manner.)

      • I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of Austen lately. And yes, I think Charlotte Lucas is meant for us to understand as a woman who didn’t marry for love exactly, but still was neither a fool nor a hypocrite. She treats Collins in such a way that he’s not at all unhappy, and finds whatever means she can to cope with his more irritating aspects.

  8. It’s instructive to read your post, Sherwood, directly after Steve’s evolution/cooperation post. All of the characters in P&P are in shifting alliances, either in competition or cooperation, with each other. Mr. Collins is going to succeed by inheriting the Longbourne estate, and he is briefly in contention as an asset until Lizzie throws in the towel. Charlotte, the dark horse, triumphs over ageing ovaries and a not-very-pretty face by seizing him, the best prospect to come her way. Mr. Darcy is notably sought after and takes himself out of the running by being a pill. There’s a perpetual shuffle of deference (“Now I get to go in ahead of you, Jane, as a married woman!” and social aggression. What a fearfully acute observer Austen was; she must have been a terror at parties.

    • Mm. Reading that, I had a flash of Miss Marple (in various incarnations on Netflix!) at parties, observing acutely and being a sought-after confidante. Tout comprendre.

  9. What a lovely post, Sherwood. For me, the question of agency is crucial, and it is clearly what Austen gives her female characters. Also, of course, their intelligence (those who are written as intelligent and thoughtful, I mean–obviously they aren’t all that way).

    • Yep–the female gaze matters. The women make choices. They are front and center. Miss Bates–what she thinks and feels–is as important as the pomposities of a king orating from his throne, and (as Catherine Morland points out in Northanger, in a sort of sideways manner) a whole lot more interesting.

  10. If only all women were as enlightened as the ones who put down this novel. I think of the young women I encounter as well as the young woman I used to be, and I think this book is above all a good preventative medicine. I’d like it to be required reading in all schools. It’s a crystal-clear mirror, if nothing else.

  11. Beautiful post, Sherwood, and I cannot agree more. In some ways, I feel Austen was the first famous author who used the Bechdel Test, by subverting it a very interesting way. Yes, women are often talking about men in Austen’s works, not because they’re mindlessly obsessed, but because that is the best way to improve their life. It’s not men who are actually the topic of discussion, usually – it’s how a women might gain or lose by choosing or not choosing a man.

  12. Her works may be appreciated more outside the English-speaking world that inside, nowadays. Bride And Prejudice had no trouble adapting it to modern-day India, where it worked so well that I’ve heard it called the best adaptation. And a teacher finds that assigning it in modern-day Nigeria works just fine; a family with five daughters and no son is a problem they don’t need to have explained.

  13. I agree with all the commenters, but what continues to amaze me in re-reading Austen is her prose style. Her diction and sentence structure seem to me as different from those of her contemporaries as, say, Hemingway was from his. Maybe more so. Where did she get that genius for understatement, that economy of scale in a time when longer was considered better? Genius cannot be explained so easily.

    • Arthur M. Alexrad wrote a very interesting little book on exactly that question, called Caught in the Act of Greatness. He takes only three or four chapters of Austen’s work and analyzes, via having visited the actual ms, where she erased and what she rewrote.

      As she said in her letters to her niece about the latter’s novel-in-progress, detail was important, and the realistic detail always trumps figurative. Then there was the humor within the sentences. Nabokov, in his essay on Mansfield Park talks about the snap or sting of sentences–you get set up, and there’s a snappy payoff.

      Some of her novels are far more prolix than others on the prose level; Emma, for example, is full of page-long paragraphs, some punctuated almost entirely by em-dashes, but those are not preaching so much as delving into psychological detail.