How Can a Modern Woman Possibly Be Fond of Jane Austen?

A few 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.”

Over the years, others have stated 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 generation of Regency Romance writers who were inspired by Georgette Heyer. Austen’s characters don’t talk about clothes at all, outside of air-headed Mrs Allen of Northanger, who doesn’t think of anything else. Austen sticks her 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 those in the upper ranks.

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, specifically 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 humor and style, 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 featuring today’s woman romping from bed to bed for forty pages: 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 staunchly 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 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. In what other novel of the time can you find a Charlotte, who is not romantic, but who gains the agency, within the confining rules of society, to get exactly what she wants? Lizzie pities Charlotte, but we don’t have to, because Charlotte is running a ship of her own making. She’s going to be fine.

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. 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.

She pillories history (written by men) and writes wittily yet eloquently in defense of woman writers (Northanger). She skewers pomposity, hypocrisy, moral vacuum, whether in those of high degree or low. Unlike in silver fork novels, where dukes and duchesses abound, Austen rarely wrote about aristocrats, and when she did, they were pretty much all stinkers, because they make the mistake off acting as if rank excuses rudeness, stupidity, greed, or venal behavior.

Austen’s heroines are all quite different from one another. Their stories are not interchangeable; one cannot imagine Mr. Darcy and Fanny Price making a match—or Emma having any kind of influence, good or bad, on Henry Crawford. The heroines do struggle toward emotional maturity; some of them (Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, Elinor Dashwood) have moral right on their side from the start, and some (Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood) have to learn what this means.

Another criticism is the characters are bloodless. Bloodlessness—as in passionlessness—is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the novels will seem passionless to those readers who are used to a lot of sex in their novels. Austen’s stories don’t ignore the purely passionate side of life. Au contraire! Out of all the novels, only one doesn’t deal with either the act, or the effects of, extra-marital affairs, which is Northanger, and even then Belle (one of Austen’s funniest female characters) sails pret-ty close to the wind with Captain Tilney. More important, though, is how skillfully Austen depicts attraction and its results. One can feel the sexual charisma between Darcy and Elizabeth, and that Willoughby exudes. I suspect one of the main reasons why modern audiences are upset by the ending of Mansfield Park (“That Fanny is such a wimp!” “Edmund is such a stick!”) is that the attraction between the Crawfords and Fanny and Edmund was so skillfully—realistically— developed.

The point I’m trying to make is that I find the people in Austen’s novels complex and true to life. I also find that most of the truly human problems depicted in those novels face us now—they are universal problems of human existence. The time, almost two centuries ago, and the settings, country villages in England, make the reading safe for the modern person who needs to escape from the sturm and drang of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the novels aren’t wise, or thought-provoking. Every time I reread one, I find something new to ponder, which is one of the reasons I get them down for yet another session every few months. And Austen’s wit and snark always delight me anew.