A feminist rereading of Austen for 2018

The 18th century novel is surprisingly relevant to the issues facing women today

I have always held a self-confessed fear of ‘classic’ literature. After reading, and despising, Little Women in Year 7 English I decided the black binding of Penguin classics wasn’t for me. I instead spent the majority of my teenage years perusing the work of 20th century American men.

It was only coming to Oxford, and being confronted by friends and peers who insisted I was missing out, that I re-considered. They argued that rather than reading the stagnant, contrived, drearily sexist ‘marriage-plot’ books I imagined, I could be awoken by the likes of Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

So, with relatively low expectations, I read Pride and Prejudice. I don’t think it will be much shock to you that I loved it. It seems I am not alone in loving Miss Elizabeth Bennet as a feminist hero. Every woman I’ve spoken to about the book has learnt something from Lizzie’s wit and confidence. She’s funny, snarky and never afraid to tell people what she’s thinking (whether it be to the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh or our beloved Mr
Darcy). But despite her strengths, she is not perfect.

When Jane asks her when she first fell in love with Darcy, she replies “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”. Austen does nothing to try and paint Lizzie as a woman taken over by love. Rather, a stark practicality (and possible shallowness) remains with her even when she is encountering her happy ending.

Austen is undercutting the conventions of the romantic novel, whist at the same time commenting on the constraints imposed upon both the protagonist and the author. Elizabeth Bennet’s strength and confidence as a woman transcend the times. She is an example for any woman in today’s society.

Whilst reading Pride and Prejudice one cannot escape the confines of Georgian society. Everything they do is strange. There was little chance Jane Austen encountered over 100 people in her lifetime. She knew the families around them, and occasionally went on holiday to ‘the north’, or ‘the coast’. So it is for the Bennets. They exist entirely within an almost feudal societal model. There are staff and there are gentlemen. God forbid there be a working-class character in Pride and Prejudice, let alone a person of colour. Lizzie may be able to provide us with examples of ferocity, -but we must be careful not to read the book with any nostalgia.

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Yes, they had English country dances, and weren’t weighed down with the pressure of social media and Instagram, but they also lived in a patriarchal (or rather, to use Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s term, kyriarchal) society, in which the lives of those considered lower in status were entirely dictated by the powerful. This makes the achievements of Pride and Prejudice even more astounding. Rather than looking to Lizzie the character as exemplary, we should look at Austen the author. Female writers in Austen’s times were entirely pigeonholed. Marriage-plot books. That was it.

It was more than a mere expectation; it was a necessity in order to be published. Within this context Austen managed to invert as many of the societal confines as she could. It is not the man who tames the woman into submission, but rather the woman who tames the man.

Mr Darcy is awoken by Lizzie, and has a moment of self-realisation due to her berating. Lizzie laughs at the ridiculousness of her society, the situation of her sisters and the desperation of her mother. Through Elizabeth’s voice Jane Austen was able to criticise from within.

The optimist can read Pride and Prejudice and reflect upon how far we have come. There is no denying this: my freedoms as a woman in 2018 are far beyond what Elizabeth Bennet could have imagined in 1797. In the time after the work’s publication the world has witnessed a social and feminist revolution, where women have made huge strides in both social and political spheres. However, it was not the contrasts between today’s society and that of Austen’s that prevailed, it was the similarities. The disgrace felt by Lydia which forces her into a marriage with Wickham are shockingly similar to the feelings of embarrassment, disgrace and compromise which prevented people from speaking out against Weinstein for so long, shame and guilt are feelings which transcend literature, transcend time periods.

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For a modern feminist, therefore, Austen is not just a reminder of what women have achieved in the last two centuries, but a stark notice of the institutionalised kyriarchy which continue to pervade modern society, a system which we must continue to fight against with
increased fervour.