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Was Jane Austen really all that subversive?


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“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” – Jane Austen, Persuasion.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Jane Austen was born on the 16th of December 1775. She was best-known for her six novels; Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were published before she died in 1817, whereas Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published after her death. Her literary legacy continues to live on; she even features on the current £10 note. 

Austen is loved and renowned for her witty and challenging social commentary on the position of women, i.e. their dependence on marriage for a sense of societal security, which would have certainly turned heads during the Regency Period. The most iconic of these commentaries lies in the mocking and wonderfully amusing opening of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Despite this, from the eyes of a modern reader, Austen’s writing is arguably predictable and repetitive. She asserts social criticisms of marriage; of the seemingly disposability of women to men, but almost contradicts them in the endings of her novels. The prime example of this is Sense and Sensibility; Eleanor Dashwood represents ‘sense’, whereas Marianne Dashwood symbolises ‘sensibility’. Eleanor finds out that Edward Ferrars, whom she had feelings for, is secretly engaged to Lucy Steele – yet she continually represses her own feelings for the good of others, even vowing to keep Lucy’s ‘secret’. Marianne, on the other hand, is an extremely passionate character – so much so, that her extreme fluctuations between emotions compromise her physical well-being. She is melodramatically heartbroken over Willoughby (we’ve all been there), and, ultimately, she must learn to supress her passionate nature.

The ending, however, is arguably contradictory to what Austen supposes - Eleanor marries Ferrars, who debatably only comes back to her because the engagement was broken off (his mother gave all their inheritance to his brother, who Lucy eventually marries). Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, who is the ‘sensible’ choice – she appreciates him on an intellectual level but this does not touch the surface of the depths of passion that she felt for Willoughby. The novel’s ending is presented as a happy one; Eleanor finally succumbs to her sensibility, and Marianne to her senses – everyone is ‘happily’ married. This is underwhelming, though; it is not believable that Marianne truly loves Colonel Brandon like she did Willoughby, and there’s a sense of injustice in Ferrars’ treatment of Eleanor, which is forgotten when she marries him. Marianne, in particular, resides to a marriage that is submerged in ‘calm waters’, suppressing her romantic passions for societal stability.

Though there is more of an overt commentary on the prejudice surrounding inter-class marriages and relationships, the endings of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice are still predictable: the former's protagonist Anne (spoiler alert!) gets her ‘happy ending’ by marrying Captain Wentworth, as opposed to Mr. Elliot, who is using marriage as a tool for social mobility.

There is no doubt that Austen does challenge the social conventions of marriage, in such a witty and subtly mocking way. What makes her novels predictable, though, is their endings: marriages, that are often foreseeable early on in the novel. The plots of these novels, therefore, seek explore the internal conflict surrounding the women’s love affairs, evidencing the social connotations of such marriages, which the women often seek to defy. This essentially suggests that marriage is a vehicle for happiness and social security. Ultimately, though, particularly in Sense and Sensibilty, Austen creates a counterargument for the marriages of the Dashwood sisters, too, despite the imposition of a ‘happy ending’. Although these marriages are primarily Austen’s means of social criticism, they make her novels feel repetitive and predictable.

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