Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Five Feminist Footnotes

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and in her 41-year life produced literary works that have enjoyed mass popularity and acclaim that only increases over time.

Two hundred years ago, as she enjoyed her 37th birthday, Austen would have been anticipating the publication of her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, arguably the most famous of her works, with Elizabeth Bennet ranking as one of the best-loved heroines in all of English literature. Celebrations of the novel’s anniversary will commence in earnest on January 28 of next year, the date Pride and Prejudice was published,  and so, too, no doubt, will countless  essays and articles that incorporate the famed opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged.”

Most likely much of the attention will focus on Austen as a writer of romances. Each of the novels concludes in marriage, after all, and the marriage of Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy is a particularly happy ending. We should also pay tribute, however, to Austen’s early adoption of feminist ideals and her insistence that women’s voices and experiences be taken seriously.

As someone who has taught Jane Austen in undergraduate classrooms for the past two decades, I have found that Job One is getting students past a widely held view that her novels are trivial love stories written for a silly female readership. When we look closely at the messages of Austen’s novels, we can see that she consistently rejects ideas about women’s inferiority to men and challenges the system that disenfranchises women. That phrase, “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” calls into question the concept of “universal” knowledge, and in emphasizing the female point of view–albeit that of middle- and upper-class white British characters–Austen invites readers to pay attention to women’s issues.

To celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday in feminist style, here are five “footnotes,” highlighting the feminism to be found in her writings:

1. On solidarity among women:

Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.  Northanger Abbey

In this excerpt from a well-known passage (commonly referred to as the “defense of the novel”), the narrator steps forward to defend novels as important works of literature, identifying the genre with women writers and female protagonists and, in the process, criticizing those who view women’s literary productions as trivial. The defense singles out novels by fellow authors Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth as examples of works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” Required reading for anyone who has wondered why “chick lit” is a term of disparagement.

2. On sexist ideas about women’s education:

A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can. I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and well informed themselves to desire any more in women than ignorance. – Northanger Abbey

Here, the narrator slyly dismantles the cultural bias against women’s learning. Conservative conduct book writers in 18th-century England actually advised women to hide their knowledge, lest they overwhelm or intimidate men. This satirical statement is typical of Austen’s feminist humor. (Something I explore at greater length in my book Laughing Feminism.)

3. On women’s rationality:

Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart. – Pride and Prejudice

When the foolish and bombastic Mr. Collins proposes to heroine Elizabeth Bennet, he won’t take no for an answer. In fact, his absurd ideas about women who say no when they mean yes–typical of a culture that values female timidity and encourages inauthentic behavior in courtship–prevent him from hearing her many clear statements of rejection. In this speech, Elizabeth, at her wit’s end, demands that she be recognized as a “rational creature,” claiming one of the principles of enlightenment thinking and revolutionary rights-of-man discourse and opposing nonsensical ideas about “elegant females” who cannot say what they really mean.

4. On the perils of limiting women to the domestic sphere:

We [women] live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You [men] have aways a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions. — Persuasion

These words, spoken by heroine Anne Elliot in a discussion about whether men or women are more constant in loving, compare women’s confinement with men’s agency and activity and more than imply that women would benefit from getting out and doing more. When you hear people talk about the sentimentality of Austen novels, consider that this declaration, spoken in the presence of Anne’s loved-and-lost hero Captain Wentworth, helps to bring about the novel’s resolution. She is not passive here; her speech inspires him to renew his declarations of love. Incidentally, Anne is quite likely to join her husband when he next ventures out to sea, rather than remaining home to be plagued by her feelings.

5. On biases against women in books:

[I]f you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.  Persuasion

In that same speech, Anne Elliot speaks out against evidence of women’s inconstancy as depicted in literature. The obvious criticism of male advantages and female deprivations contributes a significant literary example to counter those books that do not “prove any thing” about women’s character. Northanger Abbey‘s protagonist Catherine Morland also noted that history books typically contain “hardly any women at all” and thus declared that “a great deal of it must be invention.”

This list is, of course, far from complete (feel free to add your own examples!). The tendency of much of Austen’s writing is to put women in the spotlight and to give them their due. She seldom proselytizes. Instead, she shows middle and upper-class women in action, coming into their own within a society that offers them few avenues for exertion.

As we commemorate Austen’s 237th birthday and look forward to the Pride and Prejudice bicentennial, let’s also honor her contributions to the history of feminism. “Let us not desert one another,” the narrator of Northanger Abbey admonishes sister writers in the defense of the novel, continuing, “We are an injured body.”

Next time you hear someone dismissing Jane Austen’s work as “chick lit,” send them back to her books for some feminist schooling.

Drawing of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra from Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. Lisa Willinger says:

    I took a wonderful class on Austen’s work with a Professor who really brought her work to life and helped me see the humor and sly social commentary in it. However, he repeatedly asserted, “Jane Austen was NOT a feminist.” I decided to write a paper in which I argued with his assertion by proving that in her work, she DID articulate feminist views, even if the term “feminist”(or the concept as we now understand it) may not have existed in her day and I had a GREAT time doing so. When I looked very closely at her work, however, I saw that while Austen seemed to believe that a women (like men) needed meaningful WORK and that a woman without such work was in a very unfortunate position of financial and emotional dependency that left them in a state of great anxiety, sometimes so extreme as to border on illness, she really can’t be folded easily into the feminist canon. I think that Austen disapproved of the inequities that caused such situations but it is true that she was NOT a feminist per se since she mocked people who got swept up in grand ideas and ideological beliefs in general. Thus while it is tempting to try to recruit her as a feminist foremother, she was not really feminist in that she resisted allying herself with any ideological or political doctrine.

    • I’m glad you argued against your professor, but she really is a feminist foremother. You have to look at the time she lived in; her writing was extremely progressive for the era. There wasn’t really an aligned political movement for her to become a part of, there were just a few intellectuals making similar arguments. The Women’s Suffrage movement didn’t really gain traction until a decade or so after Pride and Prejudice was published. It’s not reasonable to say a feminist can only be a feminist if they fight for specific things; if they argue for more equality in whatever issue was the biggest problem of their day, then I’d say they are a feminist. She argued that women deserved to be viewed as equals, and that the spheres they had been limited to were actually the cause of the all of the perceived deficiencies.

      • I agree with your 100%. If you read about the onset of the women’s movement in the USA – the women initially had men doing the speaking for them at Seneca Falls because it wasn’t proper for women to speak in public! This seems absurd and anti-feminist to us now, but at the time they probably didn’t even think of doing it differently! I believe change has to start in small steps – and small ideas – and she presented those things to her readers!

      • I consider myself a radical feminist, and I have always been, since the childhood, before knowing the word “feminist”. You don’t have to be affiliate to an ideology or political doctrine to be a feminist, right?

    • I see Austen as a brilliant observer of the human “comedy” . She presents quite a balanced depiction of the flaws that can be found in any of us today or yesterday both male and female. As for social structures and the role of females she seems to want the best that can be had within the limits of her time and place. She confines her observations to worlds that she knows well and in them she is a master psychologist, sociologist, and humorist. Austen’s personal values can be “read” in those characters that she admires and it is remarkable that those values are so relevant today. Can she be called a feminist ? for me she is a bit beyond that as she doesn’t limit herself to the problems of women and their role but see also sees the problems of men and the issues that they deal with in a sympathetic way,

  2. AWESOME article! Northanger Abbey has always been my favourite Austen novel and now even moreso :D

  3. Jane Austen says:

    This is great stuff! Very interesting.

  4. If you learn to read Jane Austen’s “shadow stories” (alternative parallel universes that she brilliantly embedded beneath the apparent sole reality), then you will understand that Jane Austen not only was a feminist,she was a RADICAL feminist, much more out there even than Mary Wollstonecraft, her famous contemporary.

    Cheers, ARNIE PERLSTEIN
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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