The Many Ways in which we are Wrong about Jane Austen

She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, 33 children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of 36; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.

No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal—certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.

My favourite paragraphs from Helena Kelly’s fantastic essay, The Many Ways in Which we are Wrong about Jane Austen 

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Jane Austen, Persuasion (1817)

I’ve been sick all week and when I’m sick I usually turn to Jane Austen.  Last year’s seasonal flu was accompanied by Sense and Sensibility; this year I decided to re-read Persuasion.  Persuasion was Austen’s last complete novel written during 1815 and 16 as her health failed.

The heroine, Anne Elliot, is 27 and the daughter of a Baronet. Eight years previously she was persuaded by her friend, Lady Russell, to give up her engagement to a penniless young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth.  Since then, Anne, neglected and put-upon by her snobbish family, has been stricken by regret, losing her bloom and peace of mind.  Then Wentworth returns to the area, now a wealthy, successful man in search of a wife, and with no intention of forgiving the girl who jilted him.

I think Persuasion, like Sense and Sensibility, is one of the Austen novels that you appreciate more as you get older.  Reading it again, what struck me most strongly was the text’s insistence on the importance of female sexual fulfilment.  This is a book that fairly pulsates with sexual desire.  Austen gets about as close to saying that Anne and Wentworth are hot for each other as an early nineteenth-century woman writer could.  It’s all about the blushes and the averted glances.  It’s in the repeated references to the “warmth” of their earlier attachment and, perhaps most tellingly, in Anne’s constant painful/pleasurable physical awareness of Wentworth’s presence or absence.  Anne’s renewal, the return of her good spirits and good looks (Austen seems to equate the two things) is dependent on the reawakening of sexual desire and the possibility of its fulfilment.   Austen makes it clear that Anne could marry someone else, and two other possibilities present themselves, but she insists on her heroine’s right to hold out for the man she really desires, the one with whom she has an emotional, intellectual and sexual connection.  This theme is present in her other works, especially Pride and Prejudice, but as I get older, I think I find Persuasion the sexier of the two.

Since Austen, the question of female sexual fulfilment has continued to be a theme in women’s writing, from Charlotte Bronte, to Kate Chopin, and onwards; and it’s still not uncontroversial today.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

 

Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel that I’ve read least over the years.  This is odd, considering how much I love the late eighteenth-century gothic that it satirizes so well.  Austen started writing the book in 1898 when she was 23 and while it’s not as sophisticated or well-written as her later works, this is Austen at her liveliest – witty, sarcastic and impudent.

Seventeen year-old Catherine Morland sets out on her career as a heroine with a trip to Bath, where she has to negotiate her way through the perils of insincere friends, boorish admirers and rainy days which foil her plans to take a walk with Henry Tilney, the man she really likes.  In the meantime, she reads a lot of gothic novels and starts to get a little confused about the distinction between fiction and reality.  Invited by Henry’s bad-tempered father to stay at Northanger Abbey, Catherine begins to wonder what really happened to Henry’s mother who seems to have died mysteriously … Much misunderstanding and embarrassment follows before our hero and heroine can be brought together.

The ending is rushed and feels contrived, and the love relationship between Henry and Catherine is not tremendously believable, but Northanger Abbey is more about fiction and reading than it is about romance.

Reading the novel again, I think its critique of the female gothic actually affirms the importance of that genre for women of the period. Gilbert and Gubar in their book The Madwoman in the Attic point out that, although Catherine over-reads her situation, she isn’t entirely wrong.  General Tilney is a villain and Mrs Tilney has been mistreated and “killed”.  And, since Catherine is going to be the next Mrs Tilney, she really does need to find out what happened to the last one.  The female gothic, which Jane Austen is poking fun at in this novel (but obviously loved too), provided a space for women to express and explore jusifiable anxieties about patriarchy.  Perhaps Catherine’s real problem is that she takes the gothic too literally and, in so doing, doesn’t appreciate the metaphorical warnings it contains.  I’m not sure I’d want to be shut up in a vicarage with Mr Henry-uses-humour-as-a-defence-mechanism-Tilney for the rest of my life!