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 was on July 18, 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 writing. But the six — from “Sense and Sensibility” (published anonymously 1811) 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 even subversive. 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 woman.
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 first chapter.”
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.