Adventures in Feministory: Jane Austen

portrait of Jane austen

200 years ago, on January 28, 1813, Jane Austen published what would become her most celebrated and widely read novel, Pride and Prejudice. The story of Elizabeth Bennet, whose fate hangs in the balance because she lacks a large dowry and whose family estate is entailed—i.e., can only be inherited by a male relation—is not only loved on its own behalf, but has also inspired countless adaptations and spin-offs. From The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, from the BBC miniseries that famously featured Colin Firth in a sopping-wet shirt to Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden getting passionately drenched in the rain (love is so messy!) to Bride and Prejudice and its Bollywood dance-floor moves, the novel has been open to a wide array of interpretations.

Many a young girl, encountering Pride and Prejudice for the first time, has identified with the witty protagonist. Elizabeth stands up for herself, and she doesn't accept her society's view that her choice of a partner for life should be dictated by financial concerns. When her father's cousin comes courting and thinks he's doing her a favor by offering to marry her because he will inherit her home (no dreamy Downton Abbey Cousin Matthew here), she turns him down–even though he can't believe she's actually saying "no" and thinks she must be faking it to increase his passion for her (ew!). Then, when Mr. Darcy declares that against his better judgment—because she has no fortune—he loves her anyway, she says that's not good enough and turns him down, too. (If you want a quick introduction to the book's basic plot, check out cartoonist Jen Sorensen's bicentennial treatment, which nicely encapsulates the obstacles faced by Elizabeth en route to her happy ending.)

Austen may have a reputation in the popular imagination as the author of proto–chick-lit novels with sentimental love stories, but readers who pay close attention know that there's quite a bit of realism–and feminism–in her fiction. Elizabeth has backbone. She knows what she's worth, and she holds out for what Shakespeare would call a "marriage of true minds." To those of us who value equality in relationships, the resolution of Pride and Prejudice speaks to our highest ideals. In keeping with the feminism of her day espoused by writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and the Bluestocking circle, Jane Austen saw the faculty of reason as a social equalizer. According to Enlightenment feminism, women and men had equal capacities to learn and grow as rational beings, so when Elizabeth Bennet declares herself "a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart," and when Mr. Darcy tells her that he admires the "liveliness of [her] mind," we can hear echoes of the 18th-century human rights discourse that would evolve into the modern women's movement.

The novel's oft-quoted opening line lets us know that this book will challenge conventional wisdom. By imperiously announcing, "It is a truth universally acknowledged," the narrator throws down the gauntlet and invites us to view universal truths with a good dose of irony, so that the rest of the sentence—"that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"—comes across as far from endorsing those who hold such beliefs. Even though Elizabeth ends up with one such wealthy man, it's her personal happiness that we root for and believe in.

Yes, the novel ends in marriage, and yes, marriage in the 19th-century (and in some cases even now) was not an egalitarian enterprise. But Pride and Prejudice makes us believe that strong women will be rightly valued–and that equality can be the most romantic trait of all.

by Audrey Bilger
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