What’s the Big Deal About…Jane Austen?

(Image Credit: kozirsky)

(Image Credit: kozirsky)

I only recently got bit with the Janeite bug. I know, I’m late to this party, but pass me a mug of mulled wine and I’ll explain here by the crackling fire just how I got here and why I think I’ll stay a while.

I have always liked watching Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy’s independent state of mind reminds me of my own, and while she eventually ends up with the love of her life—who just so happens to be insanely rich—it is her pursuit of what is right by her own standards while she stays true to her family’s needs for upward mobility in a society that seems stagnant that wins my heart.

It wasn’t until I took a Jane Austen class, though, that I realized how much I loved looking further into this world so tightly wound around social structures Austen masterfully both upheld and questioned. Reading her works as a 27-year-old woman helped me not only understand the world I live in, but also how we got here, and why it’s important to understand the rules by which I am expected to live in my own society.

For Example…

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s naïve and gullible personality, paired with Mrs. Allen’s relentless selfishness and materialistic outlook as well as Isabella’s blatant disregard of her friend, annoy me. Also, what is up with her mother’s goodbye? The whole mother-daughter relationship in Austen’s novels is a real problem, but Catherine’s farewell discussion with her mom is straight out of an etiquette lesson book.

It wasn’t until the second reading that I realized I was supposed to feel this way, and it was because of this feeling that I felt compelled to write about it—to join the conversation.

While living in a world that is continually shaped by the gravitas of pop culture, I began to understand the navigation and intelligent societal dancing in Austen’s works, more choreographed than any of the balls within them.

Catherine’s character (clearly a response to Austen’s society’s understanding of women’s response to their surroundings and the necessity to keep them from anything that might ruin them) is exemplary of female prevail, proving Isabella’s strategies for social mobility are no match for Catherine’s strength of character within in her own growth. Isabella’s dramatic behavior is repeatedly met with Catherine’s honest, “Nah, girl. I don’t know what you’re on about” style of response, and this clash of characterization of femininity in Austen’s novel shows that this whole female/lady thing is totally bogus and just a performance.

While Henry Tilney is by no means the perfect mate, repeatedly mocking her intelligence, I see his promotion of her use of critical thinking skills ignites Catherine’s pursuit of not only her love for Henry, but also an appreciation and acceptance of her individual thought process she has possessed throughout her life.

And then there is… 

Mansfield Park. What a shitshow. This novel is another reason that Austen both infuriates and excites me. I cannot stand any character here. I literally hate them all. BUT, is that not a sign of a good novel? When analyzing this text, I had to ask myself why I hated these characters.

The bottom line is this: Mrs. Norris is terrible and Fanny Price is my worst nightmare. She is just as manipulative and strategic as Mary Crawford, but Fanny’s mode of operation is more dangerous because she subscribes to the code of conduct that society condoned.

Mary is made the villain by challenging social norms—she is a sexualized villain. However, is she not looking for the same thing as Fanny? Is she not seeking a husband, but rather than the quietly, and might I add creepily, way that Fanny has mastered, Mary’s conduct lays open for conversation the rules by which she is governed in her society.


So what?

Before you walk home from this pub gathering, stumbling in my rambling speech, know that I am making three points here, and my first point is this: Jane Austen’s works were revolutionary because of the ways that she sheds light on women’s positioning in society—the rules they must navigate in order to obtain personal fulfillment. Her heroines are rewarded with marriage which creates a mask of conventionality, but how they reach their social salvation from eternal spinsterhood is a thinly veiled trope of female empowerment to navigate the society in which they live.

These characters are not only brilliant; they create their own happiness in unique and interesting ways. What’s more is the relationship between females and their cultivation of female bonding in order to manifest their own empowerment—oh, the drama! There’s nothing like some early 19th century gossip!

Their fight for independent thought and the autonomy to create a life of their own is what makes Austen’s heroines stand out and stick around in exciting and fun ways that Mr. Collins can’t latch onto.


Remakes and Reimaginings

So, you might ask, why does this matter? Why should I care about Jane Austen’s works when she is long gone and I can read someone’s works that I can actually see and feel having a conversation with my society? Well, because she is too. Believe it or not, Austen’s works are still alive and thriving. Bridget Jones’ Diary is coming out with another installment (I can’t wait!), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies just hit the silver screen, and there is a long history of remakes and reimaginings.

Literary critic Deidre Lynch calls explores Jane Austen’s “social machine” in her work, and it is this duplication of her society and consequently her works within new societies that makes Austen’s mark still relevant. She is reworked, remade, reimagined in new and exciting ways. Austenland is basically me when I went to England—though, I didn’t return home with a gorgeous British boyfriend, but that’s neither here nor there.

My second point is that Austen is and always will be remade for the current time because the issues she tackles and the characters she employs work to address social constraints and performativity within them—what binds us to the rules of convention and how our identities are shaped.

What is love? What is marriage? What is femininity? What is masculinity? Austen’s representations of these inquiries are vastly different from today’s, but the questions are still being addressed. If only love looked more like Colin Firth leaving a lake like the winner of a Darcy wet t-shirt contest.


Janeites Unite

While we don’t send pregnant women to the countryside out of humiliation, we live in a society that still slut-shames. Just recently Kim Kardashian was shamed for posting a naked picture online (her reply to the haters was pretty genius, BTW). I can’t believe we are still having this conversation. Who cares?! #FreeTheNipple

We don’t send women to their rooms if they are having an emotional episode like Marianne’s complete breakdown in Sense and Sensibility, but we do look down upon emotional over-sharing, often calling people crazy or hormonal for feeling feelings and crying over them.

We have shows like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Millionaire Matchmaker because “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice). This notion of class, marriage, and mobility in society is still hounding us as we watch TV that, while incredibly addicting, perpetuates ideas Austen grappled with in her works.

Jane Austen might roll in her grave if I compare her works to today’s most famous celebs and issues, but that was the society in which she lived. Reimagining Austen’s works in my world, to make them relevant today, entails attacking the issues within them: female autonomy, identity creation, and self-fulfillment. These issues have not been remedied and are still being discussed daily.

We have reached my third point and why I love her works: the issues in her works, the ability to explore and create a self that is personal and not expected while accepting that there is a social structure within which we live, is still and always will be relevant so long as identity and its construction is an issue in society.

So, that’s my Janeite manifesto. I love her stuff and I think we should all read it and talk about it at our next pub gathering. Who’s in?

I want to know why you do or don’t like Jane Austen. Share with me in the comments below, but if you don’t like her, I’m just warning you, you’re wrong (I’m kidding, but not really).

Hey, before you leave the party, pass me another mug of mulled wine, would ya?


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