If you have been within earshot of my brazen voice in the past ten years, you are probably keenly aware of my love for Jane Austen. My colleagues in graduate school are not an exception to this rule, and as a result she has been the topic of many lively debates within the walls of the writing center. As with any riveting discourse, there are individuals who are partial to my opinion as devoted Austen fans, and others who respectfully descent.
Unfortunately I have realized that, whenever someone chooses to think of Jane Austen as anything less than a revolutionary author, my initial response is to stare in utter disbelief, and squeak out the words, “but….you’re….you’re WRONG!” This reaction is usually followed by a string of sassy, poorly constructed language that is not in the least bit constructive. At best it leaves my opponents feeling confused and slightly put-off.
Thus, I have ventured to write a brief (I promise, I will try to make it brief) retort to the commonly held view of Austen-haters that her novels are narrow-minded, singular, and devoid of any worthwhile social commentary.
Ill-informed readers believe that her novels are simply about love and marriage, and serve as a 19th century prequel to the Twilight Series. I cannot blame them for that, as Jane Austen has become somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon, and I’ll admit that I don’t watch the Pride and Prejudice BBC mini-series without repeating the scene of Colin Firth in the bathtub over and over again.
That being said, I firmly believe that the subject of “love and marriage” in Austen’s novels was simply a tool she used to veil her radical social views so that they could be read by a wider audience. Austen herself, in a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1813, voiced her concern that Pride and Prejudice was too “light, bright, and sparkling,” and that her readers would perhaps miss her larger point.—and miss it, they did.
As informed readers of the 21st century, though, we don’t have to miss her larger point. It is clear to me, and many other well-known critics and devoted fans, that her novels are an in-depth study of social interactions—a study that, quite literally, can be as life changing to ones’ worldview as it was to mine.
I know that many anti-Austenians will see the word “worldview” and wince. I was prepared for this. The greatest argument I have heard against Austen’s merit is the fact that she wrote about a narrow, extremely privileged section of society. I couldn’t agree more. What I disagree with is the idea that we should expect her, as a middle-class, privileged woman, to do anything else except write about the privileged segment of society she lived in; she had no experiences that exposed her to any other way of life.
Frankly, any kind of commentary on her part in reference to the underprivileged in society would be insulting and inaccurate.
Should Jane Austen have made an effort to better understand “how the other half lives?” Perhaps—but as a woman in the 1800s, walking through dark London alleyways was generally frowned upon, and would have damaged her family’s reputation immensely. Some might argue, still, that she should have done so regardless—in that case, I would direct them to her many novels which describe, in detail, the lack of decision women of that time period had over any aspect of their existence.
Jane wrote about what she knew, and that is all that should be expected of any author. I can honestly say that her ability to analyze, in thrilling detail, the ways in which various personalities respond to significant events in their life, has made me a more open-minded and forgiving person. Through Austen’s words I have seen the pitfalls of my own inflated confidence in being able to judge others accurately, and for that, I am grateful.
I am thankful to live in a time where I can read a variety of books, written by authors from all walks of life, and grow from their stories. I just hope that Jane Austen will never be faulted simply because of the section of society she chose to write about, for she writes about it in the voice of a forward thinking 19th century female, which is a voice that deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated.