On Jane Austen and feminism

Sometimes we get posts that say out loud something that you knew subconsciously, but didn’t realise you knew. This is one of those posts, at least for me. I have always loved Jane Austen’s books, ever since being given Mansfield Park to read as part of my A-Level English Lit course. Asked to read the first three chapters over the weekend, I’d finished the whole book by the next day, and had gone on to devour Pride and Prejudice on top of that by the time Monday morning came. A lifetime’s love was born that weekend, and as Amy says, I go back to her novels time and time again. 

I’d never really taken the time to analyse exactly WHY these books spoke to me, though. What made them so appealing? Well Amy has done just that. It think this post perfectly explains why so many of us at AOW love and cherish these books. I’ll let Amy explain….

As you will all know (being AOW) this year marks the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. As I’m sure is the case with many of you, this is the novel I come back to time and time again, it featured heavily on my #bookswap questionnaire, and, alongside her other novels, has a special place on my heart as well as my bookshelf.

Above all else, Jane Austen created heroines I can believe in and care about.  Austen was a single career woman in an age before that was even a thing (let alone a perfectly normal existence), and her characters are thoroughly modern and believable. Had they been alive now they would be commenting on here, moaning about their boss on twitter and reading Stylist just like the rest of us.

From Lizzie Bennett who turns down two marriage proposals in the space of a year as neither was deserving of her, to Anne Elliot who blossoms not in beauty but in wisdom and forbearance, and Catherine Moreland who seeks interest and adventure in the same way as her brothers and male friends Austen created characters who knew their own minds and weren’t afraid to go against the grain of society. I’ve even, thanks to a commenter on here (sorry, I can’t remember who) been convinced that the meek and mild mannered Fanny Price has a bit of gumption about her (having previously written her off as entirely drippy).

These are strong women who seek solace in other women – they do not need a man to rescue them when they have friends, and sisters and mothers (perhaps excepting Mrs Bennett). When contrasted against her contemporaries (the Bronte sisters in particular creating leading ladies who happily put up with any old twaddle providing the romantic lead looks hot in his breeches and says sorry) Austen’s skill and subversiveness is highlighted all the clearer.

Even when it comes to the ‘bad guys’ we get formidable female characters like the strong and powerful Lady Catherine (enjoyably contrasted against the ridiculous Mr Collins). Austen knew the power of her sex. In an era where the men held all the cards, Austen made her women characters the better players.

The reason I love P&P in particular is that it’s hero learned, throughout the book, to love Lizzie for her personality, her very ‘her’ness. Despite his proclamations about her fine eyes it was her determination of spirit, her forthrightness, her conviction and her strength that he fell in love with. Because of the example she set him he was able to be a better brother, a better husband and a better man. She didn’t soften him so much as she educated him. It wasn’t that he overlooked her background or her status or her family – all those things which he first found so abhorrent, it was that he learned that these things were not important. I truly believe that their marriage would have been one based on equality and respect, which is exactly what I hope for in my own.

Categories: Books, Politics and Feminism, Uncategorized
52 interesting thoughts on this

51 Comments

  1. Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    *cheers*
    I ruddy bloody love Austen, although I have to say I think I initially fell in love with her through her comic characters – the silly ones and the bitchy ones and the Mrs Bennetts – all so brilliantly and cleverly drawn. As I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate how three dimensional her leading ladies are, and the fact that they’re flawed is what makes them so great.

    Still don’t get Fanny Price though…. she needs to pull herself together!

    Px

  2. Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    PS. Anne Elliott (Persuasion) is my favourite – lacks the courage of her convictions at first but still ends up with the socially inappropriate boy – for love and no sign of money or status! Cried when I read that book.

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      I must admit sometimes Persuasion threatens to knock P&P off my top spot. I think it’s a more rounded story.

    • Zan
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Oooh Persuasion is one of the few Austen’s I’ve not read! That’ll go on the list now :)

      • Amanda M
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        I love Persuasion. I didn’t love it as a teenager as much as I do now – I think it’s a subtle, slow-burning book that you need a bit of maturity to really fall headlong into. Now I would say that it has possibly sneaked above P&P to be my favourite Austen. And Captain Wentworth is just as swoonsome as Darcy!

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        I have a confession: I didn’t like Persuasion when I read it. I’m not sure why, but it irritated me, I think I was so annoyed by Anne’s lack of courage early on that I decided she was a drip and I couldn’t identify with her, and switched off. I was probably being a really dense, self-righteous teenager though, because as an adult I can definitely identify with struggling to be brave enough to stand up for what you want.

        I think I will reread Persuasion after this!

        K x

        • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          It’s definitely a story I’ve only come to appreciate with age KL!

          • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

            It’s definitely my favourite Austen. I really identified with Anne who was basically just trying to be a grown up and do the sensible thing by choosing head over heart. I’ve made so many life mistakes that way too!

            Px

            • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

              Penny have you read this? They do them for all the books but this one is the best!
              http://www.amazon.co.uk/Captain-Wentworths-Diary-Amanda-Grange/dp/1402218117

            • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

              I think I was just too young and naive and hopeless when I read it. I was only about 12, and I think I just felt she should obviously have followed her heart straight away, because I was 12, and that totally made sense back then! I will definitely reread it though, because all your comments make me realise that I would appreciate and understand her decision better now that I’m not 12 anymore.

              K x

              • Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

                I read Persuasion at about the same age. Time for me to give it another go too, methinks.

        • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          See this is when kindles are awesome! I just downloaded Persuasion for free, yay free literature!

  3. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I read a lot of Jane Austen when I was younger but I have to admit it has fallen off the reading list a little of late. This has definitely encouraged me to revisit some old favourites, and discover some new Austen….I think Persuasion is going to be first on my ‘new discovery’ list after the above comments :) xx

  4. Fran M
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Ok, I have a confession to make…

    I’ve never read any Austen.

    Despite having studied English lit at a pretty decent university.

    *the shame*

    I’m not sure why exactly. I have devoured plenty of other what you’d call ‘classics’ – and had three years (THREE YEARS) to read whatever caught my fancy. Might have to remedy this soon – looks like they might be my kind of novels.

    • Amanda M
      Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Oh man, are YOU in for a treat!

      • Fran M
        Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Big grins over here (mentally planning reading night with chocolate and a blanket – one thing this crappy weather is good for is reading).

        Any recommendations for a first Austen read: where should I start?!

        • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

          Personally I wouldn’t start with Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey but any of the others are equally a good first read.

        • Fran M
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          I think I attempted Mansfield Park a good few years ago, after someone bought it for me. I didn’t get very far… Shall avoid Northanger Abbey too then!

          I think it has to be Pride and Prejudice to begin. Just remembered that I have actually read Jane Eyre.. just pass me the dunce cap.

          • Amanda M
            Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            I agree with Amy – those are the two to avoid. Eventually you will be sucked in and end up reading them and they’re good books – Northanger Abbey is very tongue in cheek and although Fanny can be a bit wet, Mansfield Park is also gently compelling. But it’s got to be Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, then Sense and Sensibility to kick of the Austenfest.

            • Fran M
              Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

              Thanks guys…

              ..and I meant Emma – NOT Jane Eyre, which would be by a completely different author altogether. Oh dear. Too much wine this weekend – early night tonight to regain some brain cells needed!

  5. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    So true! Such a great post. It might be time for me to go and read Persuasion again for about the 400th time.

    I’ve still never warmed to Fanny Price, though – the only strength of character she seems to show is in being a massive kill-joy!

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      I think she had strong morals and stood by them and saw through people well but she was very dull.

  6. Kandra
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Nail hit firmly on the head. Miss Austin was a genius pure genius

  7. Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I have to say like pretty much everyone I know the stories, I have read bits and pieces here and there (most notably Northanger abby, that I found lonely at a bookshelf while I was working at a farm and had long afternoons to myself) but I still have to get myself to read most of her work.
    I really really should get to that.

  8. Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    For me, it has always been Pride and Prejudice. It will always be Elizabeth Bennett. The book, and the woman, that caught me as I was just starting to slide into wanting to be a perfect princess, and shook me up, reminded me that I what I wanted to be was a strong, well-read, compassionate, clever, brilliant woman. Not a Barbie doll. And that I wanted to be loved for what I am, not how I look.

    I also have a soft spot for Sense and Sensibility, which I know a lot people don’t like as much. It’s Eleanor, I just adore her, I love her character, her bravery, her selflessness. She’s all at once everything that she is supposed to be on the outisde, and yet none of it at all inside. That struck a chord with me at school, as I pretended to fit in.

    K x

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Ah now this is why you’re so wise! As a teenager I was still firmly rooting for Marianne & Willoughby. My conversion to Eleanor/Edward may or may not have been due to Hugh Grant.

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Of the men, I was always for Colonel Brandon. This only intensified when I saw Alan Rickman play him in the film *swoon*

        K x

        • Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          Oh nowadays I LOVE Brandon (especially when he’s Alan Rickman) but the first time I read it I was devastated that Marianne ended up with him.

          • Amanda M
            Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            Again comes with age – I can now see how much happier Brandon could make Marianne rather than the selfish, shallow and self-centred Willoughby (who you just KNOW would have been off having affairs as soon as the initial glow wore off with Marianne). The recent BBC adaptation was very good and David Morrissey was a nicely smouldering Brandon (although Rickman all the way for me too).

  9. ClaireH
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    This is a great post Amy – thank you for reminding me how great Austen is. I think it’s definitely time for a re-read of my Austen books…although I don’t appear to have ever read Persuasion which is a travesty I will rectify immediately!

  10. Gemma N
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Glad I’m not the first to admit I’ve never read any Jane Austen!

    I read Jane Eyre at school when I was about 14 and didn’t like it at all… and I think that put me off all those types of ‘classics’ and I’ve just never gone back to them.

    I do remember watching the film version of P&P fairly recently and noticing that Lizzie Bennet was quite a ‘feminist’ character for the time.

    Maybe I should give some Austen a go, although I have quite a few unread books at home also waiting for my attention at the moment!

    • Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Gemma I’m really surprised you haven’t read them!

      I keep putting off having another crack at Jane Eyre because I really didn’t like it when I tried before.

      • Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        I hated Jane Eyre. Just thinking about that book makes me angry. Totally put me off the Brontes and I’ve not read anything else by them.

        Px

        • Amanda M
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think I’ve ever re-read a Bronte. I’ve read Villette, Shirley, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and really only remember the last two. And I found pretty much all the characters in WH too loathsome to care about.

          • Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

            I cna’t get along with the Bronte sisters’ writing and I feel like you have to be a teenager to like Wuthring Heights (like with Cathcher in the Rye which is a whole different story). I think I hated how Jane’s obedience seemed to be her most alluring quality. Ick.

            I do however LOVE Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys which attempts to give voice to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. I’d recommend that to anyone who read Jane Eyre and wondered about her story. x

        • Gemma N
          Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          Glad I’m not the only one who didn’t like Jane Eyre! I also hated the teacher I had when we were studying it so think that also put me off!

          Will try and get over the prejudice and give some Jane Austen a go.

          Amy, I know! My knowledge of literature is a bit rubbish. I loved reading when I was a kid, but then didn’t really like the ‘teenage’ stuff everyone seemed to read (like point horror), and think I stopped reading for quite a while. Now I do enjoy it, but don’t read as much as I’d like, and feel like there’s lots of stuff I ‘should’ have read but didn’t. And at the moment, for some reason, I’m finding it difficult to get into books. Think I’ve started about three different books in the last six months and not finished any of them.

          • Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

            I have to admit my assumption was based entirely on the fact i seem to remember your wedding dress was quite Austen-y (and therefore totally dreamy) in the pics I’ve seen!

          • Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

            I have to admit my assumption was based entirely on the fact i seem to remember thinking your wedding dress was quite Austen-y (and therefore totally dreamy) in the pics I’ve seen!

            • Gemma N
              Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

              Ha Ha! Yes you’re right it was. But that was just the dress I happened to love. It wasn’t planned as part of a themed day or anything! :)

              • Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

                Ahem. I might have looked into a Bath Assembly Rooms wedding and dreamt of an empire line gown. James would have drawn the line at breeches though.

                • Gemma N
                  Posted March 25, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

                  Ah, that will be why you remembered the dress. Thought that was a good memory!
                  Think they did a P&P theme on don’t tell the bride once, Although cant remember if the groom dressed to the theme as well!

  11. Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    This makes me want to go read pride and predujdice again. I’ve never finished sense and sensibility, maybe should read that first. This is after I finish what I’m reading and read the new Maggie O’Farrell, too many books as always!

  12. Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Makes me want to go read P&P again! Never finished S&S, should maybe do that first?!

  13. Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, I’m going to have to try harder! Think the only one I’ve read is Pride and Prejudice but wasn’t hugely grabbed by it, although I got the impression that it would have been better to read it all across a weekend with tea and chocolate, rather than over a month of morning commutes – it just didn’t feel like much happened. I liked Lizzie Bennet as a character though, and as a product of its time I do think Jane Austen was streets ahead in her desire to portray women as strong characters with minds of their own.

    I have Sense and Sensibility somewhere so will add it to the reading list…

  14. Posted March 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I do love a bit of Austen, but less so Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, the former because I cannot stand gothic noveels and the latter for the reasons noted above and because I can’t think of Mansfield Park withoutb thinking of the PhD student who taught me about Mansfield Park and his obsession with Fanny’s good riding skills. He managed to make it sound like “riding” should look like I just did it there.

    But yes – hurrah for flawed three dimensional women, who were allowed to be silly and make mistakes and figure it out along the way!

  15. Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Love this post. P&P is pretty much an all time favourite of mine but I also love S&S and Emma. Shhh, I haven’t read the other 3 (despite the fact I inherited my mother’s ‘Complete works of Jane Austen’ and can see it staring at me from my bookshelf right now…). I remember when I first heard that Austen had described Lizzie as ‘one of the most enchanting characters that ever appeared in print’ and thought ‘yep, I get that…’

  16. Emily
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    This is brilliant. I have read P&P so many times I have lost count and never get tired of watching the BBC adaptation. Colin Firth – swoon! And I also love Sense and Sensibility. I do now really want to read Persuasion and it has been added to my already ridiculous reading list! Austen creates such wonderful characters and definitely stands out for the way she presents the women in her stories. I always dreamed about being Lizzie Bennett (the version who gets Colin Firth, of course) and never of being, as Katielase describes, a perfect princess. I’m not sure at the time that it was down to her being strong and intelligent and independent as much as Mr. Darcy but as I’ve matured I realise what a fantastic character she is (still want a Mr. Darcy though…)!

  17. Beth
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Late to this but for London based AOW Austen-nuts: I’m going to this with a friend next Tuesday http://austentatiousimpro.com/shows/ “A seasoned cast presents an eloquent, irreverent, 100% improvised take on the works of Britain’s best-loved novelist. Performed in period costume with live ‘cello accompaniment, Austentatious is an immersive and hilarious treat for fans of Austen and improvised comedy alike.” It comes highly recommended and looks like wonderfully geeky fun… interested?

  18. Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    For any lovers of Jane Austen who would like a deeper insight into the life of the author, I recommend the newly published book “Jane Austen – a New Revelation”.

    • Louise Consterdine
      Posted December 13, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Of course you do, Nicholas Ennos. You wrote it! And you’re sure that the novels of Jane Austen and Fanny Burney were all written by one of Jane Austen’s cousins and that Austen’s family destroyed all her papers to cover up this fact. I love the smell of conspiracy in the morning, but do stop trolling the internet to push your book.

  19. Posted December 28, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    I suggest that Ms Consterdine should calm down and first read my book before she talks about conspiracy. If she reads it she will find that I provide irrefutable evidence in several different ways that Eliza de Feuillide was the author of the Jane Austen novels. Eliza was not able to publish the novels under her own name as she was the secret illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India. I think that it is useful to look at the life of an author before deciding whether the author is a feminist or not. This cannot be done with any profit until the correct author is identified. By the way, if what I have written is not true, why did the Austen family destroy all of Eliza’s correspondence and ninety per cent of Jane Austen’s correspondence?

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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