Austen 101

30 October 2013 Comments Off on Austen 101


The “Austen” I’m referring to is, of course, Jane: the influential 19th-century writer. She is not influential in the traditional sense; what she wrote did not invoke an immediate reaction — it did not stimulate a social movement or singlehandedly begin a new literary genre. She is subtle, but effective. Her masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice,” is possibly the most widely read romantic novel in the English language. She published a total of six novels, and left behind the unfinished manuscript of a seventh. There have been countless variations on and adaptations of her works, which is the reason I am writing this piece for you.

Strangely, all through the past week, I have been coming across Jane Austen references. The first one was quite surprising: I was watching the latest episode of “The Big Bang Theory” (spoiler alert), and suddenly Sheldon said that he could not use “Pride and Prejudice” to retaliate against his girlfriend Amy. Supposedly, he was trying to get back at her for ruining a movie for him, so he read Austen’s novel to ruin something she loved for her. But he couldn’t, because “it’s perfect. He’s proud, she’s prejudiced.” It made me laugh, coming out of Sheldon’s mouth, but it is actually very true. Which brings me to the point that Jane Austen, contrary to popular belief, did not write the literary equivalent of “chick flicks.” In fact, her first fans were male scholars of the time, who were the only ones who knew about her books. They even called themselves “Janeites,” a term still used today by fans who declare themselves admirers of her work (including me).

It just so happened that a new movie and a novel based on her books also came out this week. On top of the feeling of shock I experienced half-listening to “The Big Bang Theory,” when I saw that “Austenland” had finally come out, it felt as if the universe itself wanted me to reread one of her books. “Austenland” is about Janeites of the 21st century visiting a kind of Jane Austen fantasy house, where they can live under the conditions of those times: the clothes, the rooms, even the social environment. And then, I saw that a new novel called “Longbourn” has been published, in which the author, Jo Baker, explores the lives of the servants in the house of Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s most famous heroine. So what choice did I have but to return to my Austen novels? I started with “Pride and Prejudice”: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in posession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Despite being a girl, I am not particularly impressed by the romance genre, generally speaking. I’m not into romantic comedies, or unrealistic novels that talk about so-called true love and a Prince Charming. Austen’s books have a different feeling to them. They are about women. She doesn’t just create the ideal female character that everyone can relate to, who has minor idiosyncrasies that make her appear distinctive. She constructs women who have character flaws and are faced with challenges that are remedied or resolved during the course of the story.

One aspect of her works that does remind me of the traditional romantic comedy story plot is, apart from the guaranteed happy ending, that the girl resolves her issue. The guy then realizes how amazing she really is, and they can get married. Despite what I mentioned about them featuring real characters, and real women, the novels do seem to be focused around marriage, and the need for marrying above yourself. However, many critics think she did this on purpose. It seems to me also that  she presents girls with mothers and/or friends who can think of nothing but an “advantageous marriage” to criticize women’s place in society. She is one of the most subtle feminists: she mocks the societal situation and expectations regarding women in 19th-century Britain through exaggeration. A woman was not respected unless she got married, and poorer ones could find themselves out on the street because very few had money/land to their names. Property would be transferred to the son. Even in the absence of a son, it did not go to the wife or daughters, which is why Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in “Pride and Prejudice” is so worried about her daughters getting married.

Jane Austen’s subtlety is significant because of its take on feminism in general. At the time, there were emerging female authors who preached extreme measures and the transformation of the entire social structure. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the most prominent writers, publishing “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” a manifesto urging women to free themselves. This kind of propaganda usually led to the understanding of “victim feminism,” which I don’t much agree with. This concept basically presents women as being victimized by society, making them out to be superior to men in how they put up with the situation. In my opinion, this is exactly the kind of distinction we need to avoid; women should not be put on a pedestal, just as they should not be treated as if they were subhuman. Even through her male characters, Austen points out the lunacy of these extreme perceptions and implies that the sexes are equal in terms of their vices and virtues. She especially does this through her first male hero, Henry Tilney of “Northanger Abbey.” It is as if he is her ally on the inside, helping Austen explain the situation.

To anyone who wants to understand how women think and what they want, I recommend reading Austen. To the other Janeites already out there, good on you! In fact, let’s get together and talk about it. As this piece was a sort of “Intro to Jane Austen,” I have to make a little note: if you want to get to know about the stories without reading all the books, “The Jane Austen Book Club” is a wonderful movie to acquaint yourself with the Austen world (beware of spoilers, though). Enjoy!