Jane Austen, much more than a woman writer of courtship and matrimony
With a major plot of hers being women's dependence on an
advantageous marriage to secure social standing and economic security, Jane
Austen's works can strike a chord with readers in patriarchial societies still
prevalent across the world. But this response might be not only a misreading but
a grave misrepresentation of someone who is not only English's first great woman
writer but great beyond any gender qualifiers.
The fame of Jane Austen, whose 200th birth anniversary falls on July 18th, rests
on her half a dozen major works all published in the last half dozen years of
her all too short life (1775-1817) of which nearly two-thirds was spent
But the six -- from "Sense and Sensibility" (published anonymously 1811) " Mansfield Park " (1814) and "Emma"(1815) to
"Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion" (both published posthumously in 1818) and
"Pride and Prejudice" (1813) especially -- have gone on to become popular among
general readers, writers and literary critics and mass media with many small and
big screen adaptations of her works.
And a range of writers have gone to pen the continuing/alternate adventures of
her characters like Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr
Darcy, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse and others.
A clergyman's daughter who began writing from her teenage years, Austen was not
only a stylistic writer of what is termed comedies of manners or say, romances
with a social undertext, but one who eloquently but obliquely pitched for
women's education and emancipation.
Not averse to parodying contemporary genres and stressing more dialogue than her
contemporaries, her inimitable method was a blend of sarcastic irony -- verging
towards the biting, realism, and psychological depth in her characters.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a
good fortune must be in want of a wife," is the well-known opening line of
"Pride and Prejudice". But then it goes on: "However little known the feelings
or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth
is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered
the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."
Not only an early votary of what became the Feminist movement, Austen was also,
according to a new reassessment of her work and thought, a serious, radical, and
She was, says Oxford Professor Helena Kelly, aware of what was going on and not
afraid to deal with touchy contemporary political and religious issues,
including colonialism and its odious component of slavery, poverty, the Church's
role in society -- at a time when they were not issues for public discussion in
her time of Regency England (late 18th/early 19th century Britain) -- least by a
And Austen was not in awe of even royalty. Asked to write a historical romance
about the German Saxe-Coburg dynasty (whose fate would entwine with the British
crown when its Prince Albert married Queen Victoria), she replied: "I could not
sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life,
and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing
at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the
Invited by the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) to dedicate a book to
him, she did so with the most sarcastic way possible: "Emma" is dedicated to him
"by his Royal Highness's Permission, most respectfully dedicated by his Royal
Highness's dutiful and obedient human servant".
Though Austen had her detractors like Charlotte Bronte, Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Mark Twain, they were outnumbered by her admirers like Sir Walter Scott, Anthony
Trollope, Virginia Woolf, who called her the first truly great female author and
the first good English author to have a distinctly feminine writing style, while
Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe and a man who said he previously believed
men did everything better, deemed her the greatest English writer ever.
Her portrait on the new British 10 pound note is a tribute enough to a writer
whose contribution was only recognised near her life's end.
TAGS: Jane Austen
, Sense and Sensibility
, Pride and Prejudice