5 reasons why I actually love Jane Austen
As long as there are men who believe ‘Can women be funny?’ is a reasonable question then I will celebrate the recognition of women like Jane Austen whose jokes are still famous centuries after they died. I hope, as Tom Martin plans his film about women being unfunny gold-diggers, he looks into her wise paper eyes on his last tenner and a light bulb pops up over his head as he realises that Jane Austen rejected an offer of marriage from a super wealthy ‘Alpha’ man she didn’t love because she was busy writing books that more or less created British satire as we know it.
I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, and perhaps the likes of Martin find it hard to see it as comic because she didn’t stand up on a stage barking out lines about grabbing balls and raping your mate’s girlfriend. But seriously: Sexist Comedian Dudes, you should know that Jane Austen’s wit is to yours as Shakespeare’s sonnets are to my drunken Facebook statuses.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, no, sarcasm is not the lowest form of wit. You know what the lowest form of wit it? Repeating clichés that aren’t even true.
That’s my first reason. My second reason is this. Austen’s books are always being dismissed because she “just” wrote about middle-class women deciding who to marry.
Wait a minute. “Just? That whole thing that most of us take for granted in Britain nowadays, about women expressing our own agency over who we want to marry, if we want to marry? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the story struck a chord in India when the Bollywood remake of Pride and Prejudice (‘Bride & Prejudice’) was released, where that right is taken a lot less for granted.
And even if the focus on marriage now feels dated, and language is flowery, it’s not like we’ve got this female agency thing resolved here in the UK. I bet there aren’t many women who don’t relate to the ‘Mr Collins Problem.’ That thing where you say no; he hears yes. Because he knows women aren’t allowed to say yes, so he doesn’t have to take the no seriously.
And the way he puts it is right out of the male entitlement textbook. Elegant ladies torment men by saying no when they secretly mean yes? Does that sound a bit familiar? It does to me. Next time some bastard in a club tries to grind on me because he has decided I’m just being a bit coy when I push him repeatedly off me, I might do a Lizzie and shout: “Your hope is an extraordinary one, in view of my declaration.” Or, in other words: No means no.
In fact, if Mr Collins were around today he would totally be grinding up on women in clubs in that creepy way that makes it impossible to get away without making a scene and being called a frigid man-hating bitch (as opposed to the 19th century equivalent, which was demanding his cousins dance with him, knowing they have to accept because of social niceties) and following them around all evening, then finally going home to rant on tumblr about being friendzoned and cockblocked. I can see him now, uploading pictures of himself and Charlotte Lucas and Lady Catherine de Burg’s chimney on to Facebook just to piss that uppity Elizabeth bitch off. Oh, and of course, popping round when her younger sister gets abducted to remind her that no-one will ever want her now, because he’s a Nice Guy. Hell, he’d probably have Kickstarter project explaining how he pays “compliments” to “ladies” (or how he thinks he’s a PUA because he doesn’t understand that everyone is only making fun of him).
The ‘no means no’ thing isn’t me reading between the lines, either. It’s something Austen writes about a lot, and why shouldn’t she? Women have been objectified and having our agency dismissed for a really, really long time. It’s not a modern problem that only happens now we rock about drinking cider in strappy tops (however much Nick Ross tells us that wearing a frock and bonnet would totally solve it all).
There’s a reason that in the Clueless remake of Emma, apart from having it in a car instead of a carriage, and Cher saying “as if” instead of “I am very much astonished, Mr Elton. You forget yourself,” they really didn’t have to change very much at all of the scene where Mr Elton makes his awkward declaration of “love” to Emma.
The truth is, it rings horribly familiar, today, when you read it. It’s happened to lots of us. You’re getting in a taxi, and your male friend (who you’ve been nice to because you’re trying to fix him up with your mate but otherwise you think he’s a bit of a douche) is leering about. You don’t want to get in a taxi alone anyway – just like Emma wouldn’t want to get in a carriage without some sort of male companion. Then suddenly –
“Emma found, on being escorted and followed into the second carriage by Mr Elton… she would rather it not have happened. She believed he had been drinking too much of Mrs Weston’s good wine.”
Some things never change right? Your mate is drunk, and follows you into the carriage – sorry, taxi – even though you wish he wouldn’t, because he wants to be alone with you.
“To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night.”
It’s awkward, and you’re dreading what might happen. Has he got the wrong idea? Can you make sure he hasn’t, somehow? Social niceties say you have to be polite. You talk about the weather. Yep.
“…but scarcely had she begun… than her hand was seized, her attention demanded, and Mr Elton was actually making violent love to her.”
Okay, so making love meant something a bit different back then, and it’s just a declaration of “love.” But look how Austen chose to write it. Mr Elton corners her in the carriage so she has to talk to him. Strict social conventions – those strict social conventions that Austen mocks and picks apart, constantly – trap her into politeness. Mr Elton “seizes” her. He thinks he’s entitled to her attention.
And it goes on, as you will know even if you’ve watched Clueless but never read Emma: she basically says, oi, back off, because she thought he was into Harriet, so he starts being a total dick about Emma’s friend – and yes, that is still a thing too – and insisting she’s been flirting, and acting like she’s up for it, until he’s more or less singing a Robin Thicke song but with longer words and longer skirts.
And think about what happens next in the novel. Emma is wracked with overwhelming guilt. Harriet is devastated. Mr Elton skips off and marries someone else then spends several chapters trying to make Emma jealous. (As if!)
You know what else? Austen writes about male responsibility for male behaviour. When Jeremy Forrest recently ran off with a vulnerable fifteen year old, even in 2013, heaps of otherwise reasonable people were asking: “What’s the deal with that girl’s mother?”
But Jane Austen, writing Pride and Prejudice in 1797, was way ahead of them. It isn’t the dippy mother but rather the neglectful role of the father in Lydia’s life that Austen chooses to focus on. Mr Bennett isn’t a poor father. He raises his oldest two daughters as equals, and he adores them. But he openly singles out Lizzie as his favourite – which I’m sure isn’t exactly in the Good Parenting Guide – and then he doesn’t listen to her when she warns him of dangers that she understands, and he doesn’t, because her lived experience as a woman is already different from his as a man. Mr Bennett takes responsibility for that mistake, and for his condescending dismissal of Lizzie’s judgment, which was of course totally spot on. If I was feeling particularly harsh I might call the way he minimises Lizzie’s concerns “mansplaining.”
And Mr Darcy does it too: he admits his silence about his sister’s abduction was because he thought “it was beneath him” to show Mr Wickham up for what he is – that his reputation was more important than the safety of other women and girls. (Perhaps a few of the people working at BBC should have listened to that bit when they did the famous Colin Firth remake.) Austen’s male heroes always take great care in how they exercise their social capital. Remember how Mr Knightley stands up for Harriet when she’s being humiliated by the Eltons? And how he keeps one eye on Frank Churchill when he’s messing Emma around (without getting all entitled and whining about the friendzone, either)? That’s how you do it, boys.
And this kind of brings me to reason number three. Jane Austen is more progressive – and more intersectional – than you might think. The middle-class parties and sandwiches are all done with her tongue firmly in her cheek and she mocks rather than rages against the hypocritical bullshit behind society’s daft rules. But she’s not dispassionate about broader injustice, and perhaps the angriest you ever see Jane Austen’s writing is in Persuasion, when she shows the injustice of Mrs Smith’s disability, and the poverty it traps her in. She also seems pretty mad about the corrupt sexism inherent in the way property ownership works – and she specifically makes a point of mentioning the “very unkind” and “wretched” way Mr Elliot treated his former wife. In Austen’s English, those are harsh words.
You know what else? Emma is a whole novel about getting your privileged checked. At the start of the novel, Emma is kind of a nineteenth-century version of Louise Mensch. Beautiful, nice to people who are less lucky (when she remembers to be), and – this is the really crucial bit – she’s seen as a strong, smart woman because she makes choices. And they are awesome, feminist choices – like saying she never wants to marry – which win her heaps of respect. You go sister. Blah blah blah.
And she encourages Harriet to look up to her for that, without ever fully taking on board that Harriet, like many, many other women, including Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax, for instance, won’t have the privilege of making that choice on the same terms Emma did, if at all. She comes of age as she learns that choice is a privilege, and that simply giving everybody a few fashion tips and an equal amount of choice is not a meaningful solution to all the other shit they have to deal with.
It’s not exactly Bell Hooks. It’s not Charles Dickens. It’s not even George Eliot. But whenever Austen is dismissed for being so damned “middle-class” it occurs to me that “middle-class” meant something quite different in the 18th and 19th century than it does now. Middle-class people were looked down on by ‘old money’ because they often made their money through an actual trade. They were kind of considered working-class by a lot of people. When Elizabeth Bennett tells Lady Catherine de Burg “he is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter. So far we are equal,” and Lady Catherine retorts: “But who are your grandparents? Who are your aunts and uncles?” that might sound like a bad tweet on the #middleclassproblems hashtag but it’s interesting to remember that it was in fact a deeply political comment on the relatively new fluidity within the British class system.
I have two final reasons why I love Jane Austen, and no-one ever agrees with me, but I’m going to tell you anyway. She gave birth to two of my favourite characters in English literature.
No, not her! Look, I know Elizabeth Bennett is the darling of English literature. I love Elizabeth Bennett. You love Elizabeth Bennett. Mr Darcy, for goodness sake, loves Elizabeth Bennett. Dogs love Elizabeth Bennett. I like to think Mr Wickham is genuinely a bit taken with her, before sliming off with her fifteen year old sister. Even Lady Catherine de Burg is shaken out of her complacency by Elizabeth Bennett. I get it. And I do love her. But I am talking about my personal favourite: Anne Elliot, and for her, I have a different kind of love for altogether.
For a start, she’s not the walking embodiment of a ‘strong woman’ meme. Lizzie Bennett reminds me of those cartoons that say Real Women Have Curves, accompanied by a drawing of a woman who has roughly the bodily proportions of Kelly Brook. Strong female character klaxon! Go on, ladies, you can be like Lizzie Bennett. You’re welcome.
But Anne Elliot isn’t that, and neither are most of the women I know. Anne Elliot has to learn, the hard way (i.e. by losing the dude she loves), how to stand up to the people around her. Most women aren’t born with some innate ability to not take any crap.
If you disagree with me about Anne Elliot, you will really, really disagree with my last reason for loving Jane Austen. Don’t throw your bras at me. I love – and I do mean LOVE – Fanny Price from Mansfield Park.
Yes, I know. I know. Fanny Price seems to have acquired some sort of literary anti-feminist status. She’s wimpy, whiny, faints in the sun and takes shit from everybody without ever really giving it back.
You know what? When I was a kid, I was like that, and to be honest, a lot of the time, I’m still like that. I get sunstroke easily. I cry all the time. When people stand on my foot I jump out of their way and apologise for being under their foot. I am passive aggressive, introverted, and often shy. I hate confrontation – unless a friend is in trouble. And, like Fanny Price, I’ve missed out on hooking up with some real hotties because I never tell people I’m crushing on how I feel; I just assume they’re not up for it.
I’m also a fucking feminist. I am a feminist and I reject the ‘strong woman’ meme because it’s no more liberating than a flowery bonnet or a pair of high heels. Sensitivity isn’t weakness and low self-esteem isn’t cowardice. Fanny Price is brave. She has strong values and acts on them even when it’s difficult. She turns down an offer in marriage from a man that everyone not only wants her to marry – a man that, if anything, everyone reckons is a bit out of her league. She loves Edmund, quietly, with patience, without ever wanting anything back; the very opposite of the creepy self-entitled male characters that Austen writes about. She’s selfless. She’s kind and compassionate to people even when they’re assholes.
I’m not saying the idea of a woman being rewarded for putting up with crappy behaviour isn’t problematic. But Edmund Bertram isn’t abusive. And he doesn’t validate her self-worth. Fanny Price learns, slowly, painfully, how to assert herself and believe in her own self-worth. That’s not necessarily feminist, but it’s also not anti-feminist. It’s just human. And I think it’s bloody awesome.