Today, the 18th of July, 2017, marks 200 years of the passing away of Jane Austen. A literary genius who died an unremarkable death, much like the life she’d been known to live. To our great fortune, however, her work lived on to become the epitome of what is known as classic literature. Yet, what I most admire her for is being a feminist way ahead of her time. She was a woman who had to give up her education because her father could only afford to send her brothers to school, she self-educated herself by hounding the library. In an age where girls were fine-tuned to grow up and become genteel ladies, she wrote stories of female rebellion, debauchery and violence as a wee teenager. In an England where the sole mission of a woman’s life was to snag a good husband, she turned down a marriage proposal even though it meant living at the mercy of her brother’s good graces, being labelled as the ‘impoverished spinster’ indulged only as a means of getting a free governess. In a century where women could not even vote, Jane Austen went ahead and wrote characters that are not only relatable to date but are awe-inspiring.
Naysayers might try to fool you by saying her characters were highly romanticizing, domesticated maidens having no connection to reality. Their thoughts centered only around the idea of marriage. Do not believe them. Or, if I can offer you some sound advice, just shove a Jane Austen novel in their face and move on, you do not need such negativity in your life.
Here’s why they’re wrong – just like every other snobbish, old maid who turned her nose up at Austen when she was alive and wrote her off as amounting to nothing – we are here talking about this great woman 200 years after her death, so, I’m sorry, but what was your name again, lady?
Snide remarks aside, there are highly cogent reasons why the female characters penned down by Austen cannot be faulted for being role models to the girls of today, both young and old, age no bar.
Her heroines, from Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma to Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Lady Susan, were all quick-witted, more than able to hold their own in conversations with men revolving around politics, economy and finance. They were all feisty by nature, going headstrong after what they wanted, without having a care in the world. They were all intelligent women who could distinguish between the time to settle and/or compromise, and the time to chase after their hearts and dreams. Thus, they are all well-rounded characters who could give us a lesson or two in feminism.
You do not need to take just my word for it though.
Professor Christie, Head of the ANU Humanities Research Centre and a well-known Austen scholar, has famously stated that ‘the most important thing the modern woman can learn from Austen, however, is the balance between romance and realism, but the belief that there is a chance to have it both ways.’
Isn’t it this very balance and belief which makes a woman a feminist rather than an entitled, stubborn, ill-informed protester present only to shout themselves hoarse?
One might argue that the prevalent situations have changed and Austen has no coherence with the current realities of life, that her works belong to a bygone era. I agree, England might have moved forward. Yet, the beauty of Austen lies in the fact that she is not limited by Geography. Young girls from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and so many countries around the world are better off for having read Jane Austen. We (I hail from India) are living in a society where in many towns and villages female foeticide and infanticide is still a stark reality. Education for every girl child is still a distant dream. Marrying off of young girls to old, rich grooms is a tradition. Garrulous, over-invested aunties in our societies, donning a holier-than-thou mantle exist solely for the purpose of making young girls’ lives hell and serve as mouthpieces for the entire community if someone dares stick a toe out of line. The list is endless. Jane Austen, through her books, provides some respite and solace. She teaches us to rise above the adversities we face and realize our potential. No, girls today would not silently acquiesce to an abhorrent match in marriage merely because of financial constraints if they’ve read Austen. They will much rather step out and make something of themselves. They would walk out of a marriage that demands dowry. They would willingly take care of their aging parents and will make sure to do it well.
Yes, Jane Austen was not only a feminist way ahead of her time, she carved out a path, a boulevard, which, till today, shows young girls the way, which, till today, nourishes them from saplings into trees that will not bend or bow no matter how strongly the wind is blowing.
I would be remiss to end this narrative today without mentioning how Ms. Austen heralded a new style of literary narration. Her narration switched so swiftly and skilfully from her characters’ thoughts to the narrators storytelling that it gave her readers the distinct pleasure of seeing what the characters feel as well as the ability to perceive varying points of views. Her ‘free indirect speech’ has often been hailed as being radical.
In conclusion, I am going to curl up today and refresh my memory on the genius of Jane Austen by delving into her stories once again. How will you be spending this day? If you’re a bookworm, you would be happy to know that a plethora of events have been organised all over the world today to celebrate this brilliant storyteller. Go attend one, maybe?
While this post has been written specifically in order to celebrate Jane Austen, the woman and the author, along with the hallmarks of her writings, another post highlighting the many lessons in feminism that can be drawn from her characters will be up later in the day. Keep an eye out for it! I look forward to a healthy discussion.)
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to write your thoughts in the comments section down below. As usual, your feedback is keenly awaited and highly appreciated.