Jane Austen: the Proto-Feminist.

Jane Austen is famous and loved for her sharp wit and for creating dreamy regency-era men. One key feature of her novels is that of a proto feminist narrative for an age of early and unsatisfactory marriages. Austen gave a voice to the meek Fanny Price, and gave her admired protagonist Lizzie Bennet human faults. She created REAL characters, and acknowledged their decisions as perfectly acceptable and each as respectable as the other. Whilst Austen is sometimes typecast (very much incorrectly) as stuffy walks in bonnets, Austen wrote potentially some of the most radical literature in Regency England. In writing, she challenged a writing industry entirely dominated by men; and her writing was defiantly published under the title of ‘A Lady’, opting out of a male pseudonym. Austen’s feminist leanings bled into her literature and her female characters; resulting in an eclectic set of characters.

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In Pride and Prejudice, the headstrong Lizzie openly disapproves of her best friend Charlotte Lucas’ marriage to Mr Collins. Mr Collins is a truly repulsive character. Arrogant and lacking in common sense, he provides laughs in Austen’s comedy. He proposes to both Jane and Lizzie, and is rejected by both. Charlotte is presented as being in a dire position from the outset of the novel. In her mid-twenties (above marrying age for a woman in Regency England) and of average looks, Charlotte faces a fate of spinsterhood and destitution. Lizzie, aged only 20, described as having “fine eyes”, and the daughter of a landowner, is not acquainted with such a situation as Charlotte’s. Upon the reveal of Charlotte’s engagement, Lizzie is angry with Charlotte, and this reaction makes her even more human and admirable, for her problematic traits. Lizzie, despite being a symbol of feminism in regency England, shames Charlotte for her decision, failing to understand Charlotte’s situation. Charlotte had actually played a shrewd hand and secured her financial security and social status. Austen presents two examples of feminism: the independent Lizzie who denounces marriage; and the cool and calculating Charlotte who manipulated the conventions of the time to her own good.

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Recent queer readings and interpretations of various Austen novels have shed light on the arguably radical characters in Austen canon. For example, readings such as Charlotte Lucas being in love with Lizzie; Mary Crawley a gay woman wishing to marry to secure financial stability; and Mary Bennet also being a lesbian. These readings have been embraced by some, and abhorred by others. Kelsey Hercs wrote the stage play ‘The Queer Musings of Miss Mary Bennet’, and said that “there is a general squeamishness about queer readings” in classical literature forums and fanbases. When the popular Facebook page ‘Drunk Austen’ shared Hercs’ article it was met with angry reacts and some disgruntled readers. These readers insisted that Austen was completely naive to homosexuality and meant to make no reference in her literature. I personally believe Austen very much meant to make such suggestions. Her feminist leanings are shown in her novels, and her awareness of close female communities and relationships is shown in novels such as ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Even in ‘Mansfield Park’, arguably Austen’s safest novel, Mary’s sexuality can be interpreted in different ways. After all, Austen’s own sexuality will probably remain unknown; yet her reluctance to marry and close female friendships can be interpreted in different ways.

Austen defied regency attitudes towards marriage, especially in ‘Persuasion’. Arguably her most autobiographical text, Anne Eliot’s status as a spinster with a lost love due to a bullying family translated into Austen’s own life as she continued to live with her sister having gone through with none of her three proposals. Was Jane happy as a spinster? I am inclined to say yes, as her own characters achieved happy endings (Anne and Captain Wentworth are reunited in what I believe can only be referred to as one of the most beautiful pieces of English literature), and maybe Jane’s own idea of a happy ending was her being able to write, surrounded by her friends and family and her beloved surroundings. ‘Persuasion’ lacks the comedic element present in all of Austen’s novels, instead making for a heart-wrenching read as Anne watches as, she believes, her true love falls in love with another woman. Whilst Anne eventually ends up with Wentworth, it could be argued she will be miserable: a sailor wife unable to see her husband. Equally,  Austen presents less than satisfactory marriages such as Mr and Mrs Price in ‘Mansfield Park’ or Mr and Mrs Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In fact, in P+P, Austen writes “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”; ever the skeptic. In ‘Sense and Sensibility’, the young Marianne ends up married to the 36 year old Colonel Brandon, the man she had dismissed as “forlorn”, only to marry him after enduring a form of nervous breakdown. Austen herself of course never married, engaged to Harris Big-Wither for a single night before changing her mind. Were her quietly satisfactory endings a nod to her own disapproval of conventional marriage?

Austen wasn’t all turns about the room and hushed discussions of gentlemen’s incomes; she was a radical female writer who touched on subjects such as the abolition of the slave trade and the Napoleonic Wars in her novels. She was a fiercely intelligent and independent woman: an obstinate, headstrong girl, if you will.

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