Jane Austen’s Guide to Subtly Undermining the Patriarchy
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single romance novel written by an eighteenth-century woman, must be nothing more than a simple love story. This is perhaps the easiest belief to maintain, though the truth of the matter may be that this mindset, when applied to legendary novelist Jane Austen, is wholly inaccurate. Indeed, one could argue that to take Austen’s work at face value is to disregard Austen herself, who had a particular talent for cynicism and burlesque; the romances for which Jane Austen is so famous are not merely pleasant stories, but were, in fact, written as a parody and critique of the life women in Austen’s time were taught to desire and how they were taught to behave. The notion that Austen’s novels are more didactic than one might think is not a new concept at all.
Northanger Abbey, one of Austen’s earlier works, was sold to a publisher who promptly sent the novel back to her, refusing to publish it due to the realization that it was not what he had originally thought and would not go over well with his audience (Southam 293). It was clear, even as Austen was still a budding author, that her writing was not so simple as good english stories about good english people. Most intelligent readers at the time found Austen’s work to declare “that the position of women as society dictated it was humiliating, dangerous, and founded on lying propositions” (Southam 295). As England during Austen’s life was still rooted heavily in outdated tradition, many members of the upper and upper-middle classes recognized Austen’s work as an insult not only to their society but also to themselves individually. It is clear that it was not beyond Austen’s ability to write in such a way that naive readers would bypass the social commentaries completely, while attentive readers and scholars saw very clearly that Austen’s works questioned and denounced the societal institutions set in place. Brian Southam, an expert on the topic, said of Austen, “Austen was fully possessed of the idealism which is a necessary ingredient of the great satirist.
If she criticised the institutions of earth it was because she had very definite ideas regarding the institutions of heaven” (Southam 296). Aside from her own intellect and understanding of the world, Austen’s beliefs were heavily influenced by the new ideas that were at that time taking Europe by storm. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu preached that it is the duty of the members of a society to question and criticize societal institutions. Austen emulated this philosophy by writing stories that poked fun at societal norms and those who perpetuated them. Any one of Austen’s works is fraught with examples of the satirical nature of her work as a whole. In Emma, one of Austen’s novels, the characters exemplify the ingrained sexism prevalent in Austen’s time.
Mr. Woodhouse, for example, scolds young Jane after discovering she’d gone out in the rain to fetch her own mail. He tells her that “young ladies are delicate plants” (Austen 34), implying that young women’s bodies are best suited for simple tasks and inactivity, and the specification of “young ladies” implies that women are inherently weaker and more fragile than men. Even the narration of the story is an example of Austen’s satire. The famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice, referenced in this essay’s introduction, reads “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1).
This sentence is a prime example of Austen’s burlesque, mocking the marriage-and-wealth-obsessed culture of the era. In addition to dialogue, Austen displays this sort of satire through characterization. Elizabeth Bennet of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is everything a young woman is not (or ought not to be), and Mr. Darcy is in every way the perfect ideal of manhood. “Darcy, though stiff, is careful, scrupulous, truthful; Elizabeth, intoxicated with the pleasure of attacking him, often says what she does not mean. Precisely the same technique is to be used with greater clarity in Emma: for there the heroine’s unreliable thought-processes are exactly defined by the accuracy and objectivity of Mr.
Knightly’s conversations with her” (Butler 238). This pattern of a flawed woman being juxtaposed against and eventually cured by a man is prevalent throughout Austen’s works, parodying the way in which regency society regarded women in their relationship to men. Indeed, by the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has changed her tune,”Jane Austen has to allow time for her lovers to come together, and especially for Elizabeth to change her emotional antipathy for Darcy into a predisposition to love…” (Butler 236). The cases of Elizabeth and Darcy and Emma and Knightley show women realizing they were in the wrong, and marrying the men who showed them the wrongness of their lifestyles. Austen here seems to be laughing at the lesson that this teaches, using her talent for satire to mock the norms of the regency society. Furthermore, worlds within Austen’s works are reflections of the life Austen and women like her were forced to live.
“Jane Austen depicts a society which, for all its seeming privileges (pleasant houses, endless hours of leisure), closely monitors behaviour” (Sutherland). Many of the significant events in Austen’s novels occur in crowded places such as a dance hall or a gathering of friends, and much of the plot is driven by overheard conversations and rumours. “The sense of being watched, hedged in and discussed by a whole community informs all Austen’s novels” (Sutherland). This reflects very clearly the society in which Jane Austen lived, where the entirety of a community closely watches, judges, and condemns the actions of young ladies. Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen was not a hopeless romantic; her work is a satirical commentary on the role of women in her time.
As an intellectual and comedic writer, Austen uses satire and burlesque to create a parody of the world she lived in, poking fun at the societal institutions and questioning the norms of her community. During the regency era, women were meant to be seen and not heard, to be smart but not intelligent, and to be a dutiful wife and mother, and nothing else. Austen defied this through her work. Her particular talent is in the subtlety of her didactic content. The average reader can bypass her meaning completely, while those who look close enough can see her work for what it truly is: a testimonial to the wrongs of regency society.