Was Jane Austen a feminist writer?

Jane Austen, 'airbrushed' image on the right
Category: Reading
Tagged: classic books

Jane Austen has been back in the news this week - or her face has - as the Bank of England revealed the image of the Pride and Prejudice author that will be used on the new £10 banknote. The chosen image (the one on the right) has been criticised for offering a Victorian 'airbrushed' take on Austen's image. Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen, took exception to the image, claiming on Radio 4's Today programme that it "perpetuates this ridiculous myth of the safe Jane Austen" and stating that Austen was in fact "a subversive writer, she’s a feminist, she writes about social class". 

But is it accurate to say Jane Austen is a feminist writer? We put the question to two of Scottish Book Trust's most well-read Austenites, and got two very different answers:

No, she wasn't a feminist - Brianne Moore, Web Editor

Was Jane Austen a feminist? Personally, I don’t think so. I highly doubt she’d have considered herself a feminist, even if you travelled back in time and explained to her what feminism was: Jane did, after all, live a very conventional life, following the rules that a woman of her time and position was supposed to follow, to the letter. She did create some very spirited and strong female characters who many argue made their own decisions in life, rather than adhering simply to what society expected of them—after all, didn’t Lizzy Bennet turn down Mr Collins? But the thing is, those characters inevitably wound up fitting into exactly the mould their patriarchal society expected them to: they all married wealthy men of position, and took their places as good wives.

Women in Austen’s stories who are particularly outspoken or don’t behave in the way proper young ladies are meant to (polite and decorous, not too flirtatious, not too wildly imaginative) are frequently punished: overly emotional Marianne Dashwood gets her heart broken, Lydia Bennet winds up married to a rogue, and the list goes on. Those ladies who realise the folly of their ways and fall in line, however, reap their reward. Marianne becomes more sensible (less prone to wandering about the countryside and more likely to sit quietly indoors) and marries the upright Brandon; Catherine Morland gets her imagination under control and marries Henry Tilney; Emma leaves off matchmaking and controls her tongue and lands Knightley.

In Austen, whether or not you get your wedding in the end (the expected, conventional ending for a young woman) is highly based on how well behaved you are, in the eyes of a highly patriarchal society, which doesn’t read as terribly feminist to me. 

Yes she was - Leila Cruickshank, Print & Marketing Co-ordinator

'Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story’ – Jane Austen

There are many potentially anti-feminist messages in Jane Austen, including the requirement for women to marry, the depiction of some women as highly silly, and the fact that the men sometimes save the day. Yet to read Austen as anti-feminist is to lose sight of the purpose of feminism. Feminism gets bogged down today in debates about bra-wearing, misandry or ‘sisterhood’, but the key message of feminism is simple: equality between the sexes. Austen lived in a time when the very notion that women could hold rational opinions and manage their own affairs was highly controversial, and while Austen is certainly not a radical in the sense that Mary Wollstonecraft is, she repeatedly demonstrates that women who are slaves to emotion or who follow the dictates of social expectations over their own intelligence, cannot thrive.

Mansfield Park’s Fanny is accused of ingratitude for refusing to marry her guardian’s son, yet her decision is shown to be correct, and her guardian eventually recognises her superior judgement. Austen promotes the idea that women’s decisions and choices are equally important to men’s. Both Mr Collins’ and Mr Darcy’s proposals to Elizabeth fail due to their misunderstanding of her feelings of self-respect. Elizabeth could not respect herself if she married Mr Collins (indeed, although she is able to understand Charlotte’s decision, she is unable to respect it and finds the marriage comical and, frankly, embarrassing). Likewise, her sense of herself, her views of her family, is strong enough to refuse a socially-enticing marriage with Darcy, while Darcy is stunned to be turned down. This sense that women’s right to self-determination is more important than the desires of a man, is right up there with feminist mores.

Austen herself was well-read and educated for a woman, and her novels repeatedly comment on the inherent weaknesses in women’s education and the need for them to be well-read. Her interest in how women should support themselves is also clear – she sees marriage as the only option for a non-financially independent woman, it is true, but this was very much a practical consideration of the time. Emma states that there is no need for her to marry, because she is financially stable. Austen does wholeheartedly believe that men and women should be companions to each other as well as spouses – consider her depiction of Mr and Mrs Bennet. The fact that she wants women to make choices based on love as well as financial reasons asserts both their ability to make rational choices, and their right to pursue happiness. And that was pretty feminist for the time.

Do you agree or disagree with Brianne and Leila's points? Give us your perspective on Austen as a feminist in the comments below.

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