We’re celebrating Jane Austen on this, the day of her death, with a bevy of posts about her work and legacy. See all the posts here.
A few weeks ago, my friend and I decided to read a book together. I led her up to my collection of books, which ranged all the way from the Renaissance to recent publications. Browsing through the collection, I decided to suggest a Jane Austen book, seeing as I still had multiple unread Austen books sitting on my shelf.
My friend had an almost visceral reaction to that suggestion, shaking her head almost immediately. As if I had suggested something truly unpleasant.
“Have you read her before?” I asked, expecting that maybe Jane Austen wasn’t exactly her cup of tea. She admitted that no, she hadn’t read her.
She explained, “a friend told me that Jane Austen just wrote about silly things like tea parties.” I was taken aback by her admission. Not only because it was a totally wrong judgement on Jane Austen, but because this was a judgement that I had myself when I was just a few years younger and absolutely refused to read Jane Austen books. But why, is the question? Why is this a judgement that so many of us are quick to make about Austen, without often knowing the first thing about her?
It might seem a funny thing to ask when Austen is arguably one of the most famous writers in the world. And her works have not only been adapted over and over again but have been re-imagined into multiple formats. You could even say that much of modern romance would not exist if it weren’t for Jane Austen.
So why is it, then, that there is such a large population who feel they can easily dismiss Jane Austen without any forethought? Without deciding that they ever need to give her a chance?
The answer is, unfortunately, obvious: misogyny. For all of Jane Austen’s talents, she has been pigeonholed into romance, a genre that is still seen as inferior, and often not considered to be serious literature.
I began reading Jane Austen during an academic internship. Writing a paper on explorations of class relations by Dickens and Austen, I was finally forced to address my own prejudices and problematic views. The more I read Austen, the more I realised just how important her work was. Austen was not only a famous novelist who paved the way for more female writers, but she was also a writer who heavily engaged with criticism of her times.
She wrote about the social pressures that women faced. About marriage and class constrictions. And her allusion to slave labour in Mansfield Park has been widely interpreted. But many interpretations do suggest that it was Austen’s way to show how wealthy families of that time benefitted from slave labour in the Caribbean.
Her female characters were also totally feminist. Especially for their time. They were turning down marriage proposals and making their own decisions about love and marriage, in a time when these choices were not necessarily afforded to women. Whatever else Jane Austen was doing, she certainly wasn’t writing books about silly things. She was, in fact, writing books that gave voices to women. And these books have resounded with people for centuries.
There are so many things that are admirable about Austen’s books, and clearly many who think so. But for those, like past-me or my friend, who have prejudiced views about her work, I urge you to broaden your horizons and not fall into the kind of thinking that dismisses literature about women as frivolous.