Friday, 17 March 2017

Jane Austen Was No Proto Feminist




The historian, writer and TV presenter and firm favourite of this blogger, Lucy Worsley, has a new book coming out soon. It is a biography of Jane Austen, everyone's favourite teller of stories about Napoleonic era romance in England.

As is the way for such a book and on a subject oft written about before, Lucy has had to think of a new angle. As such she propounds the theory, in addition to the usual one about Jane Austen having been an early feminist, that she also chose not to marry to concentrate on her writing.

Now much as I have admired and enjoyed much of Lucy's work in the past, I have to take issue with her here. She is talking rot.

Indeed I have always taken issue with the revisionist notion that Jane Austen was an early feminist, in so much as that word has much meaning at all these days. It certainly had none at all in the early nineteenth century when Jane was writing and romanticising the often entirely transactional nature of marriage in her era.

If you take feminism in its loosest sense, Austen might just about qualify, since she wrote strong female characters that have resonated across the centuries. But that's not feminism. She was ultimately writing chick-lit, a high quality chick-lit, but chick-lit all the same.

And it is ridiculous to argue, as Lucy Worsley does, that Austen turned down marriage to concentrate on her writing. She earned a little from her books but they only became popular and wildly successful many years later and after her death at the comparatively early age of 41. She never married like many women in that age because a suitable match never presented itself. Like her best and most enduring character, Elizabeth Bennett, she only had her charms to recommend her to suitors since she was comparatively poor. Thus she never married. It's as simple as that.

And to my mind the books of Austen were more about her living out a fantasy of romance and marriage for love that were entirely at odds with the times. She yearned for some rich and eligible man just like many women of her day and did so until the march of time rendered her a confirmed spinster. What her writing did do though was popularise a more romantic approach to marriage. Is that feminism at work?

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