July 18, 2017, marked the 200th death anniversary of 19th-century writer Jane Austen and the Bank of England debuted a 10-pound note with her face on it as a tribute to her legacy.
To many people, Jane Austen’s name conjures up images of lavish parties filled with rich, snobby men and women with all kind of stuffy fashion, and love stories set in the backdrop of England’s Regency period where women are swept off their feet by dashing and undoubtedly rich gentlemen.
For me, Austen was all about those weak-kneed women and their horrendous love stories. That’s why I steered clear of her books instead of choosing classical English literature as an optional subject. But then, my English teacher asked me to do an analysis of Elizabeth Bennet from “Pride And Prejudice”, and I was forced to read Austen. However, to my surprise, her books were far beyond marriage and mannerism. They were a lot more modern than you’d assume 200-year-old literature to be.
Austen mainly wrote about women in Britain. She commented on the hypocritical English society in which men achieved success and identity by joining the military or churches and possessed far more freedom than women. The women could only acquire wealth and status through marriage.
The opening line of Austen’s famous novel “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,” took a perfect dig at the patriarchal English society with subtle satire and sarcasm. It was a comment that marriages then were based mainly on money and not love.
However, what’s actually surprising is that at a time when everyone was busy writing about the fairy-tale love (which I doubt even existed), Austen came out and wrote about real love – the love that exists but with practical benefits. For instance, the relationship between Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. That’s what made Jane different from others. Maybe that’s why, even after 200 years, she still remains immortal through her work.
But, that’s not all about her work. In her main plots, all the female protagonists talked about women’s equality and independence. This ideology, now known as feminism, lined the pages of each of Austen’s work. From the meddlesome Emma Woodhouse in “Emma” to the heartbroken Anne Elliot in “Persuasion”, to the gothic novel lover Catherine from “Northanger Abbey”, to the stubborn and independent Elizabeth Bennet from “Pride And Prejudice”, Austen’s heroines have all been literary feminist icons long before the term was actually coined. These characters existed at a time when women were expected to be anything but strong and independent.
However, Austen’s courageous work didn’t go well with some of her fellow writers or else, how would you explain Mark Twain’s nasty remark: “Every time I read ‘Pride And Prejudice’ I want to dig her (Austen) up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone” or Henry James’ petty comment on her characters: “Her heroines… had undoubtedly small and second-rate minds and were perfect little she-Philistines” ?
One of the most wonderful aspects of Austen’s stories is that her characters are applicable to any time period or scenario. You can easily recognize them in the people around you and maybe that’s why it’s not hard to imagine the ever ready matchmaker Emma as a spoiled teenager in Beverly Hills in in the teenage flick “Clueless” or as the confused rich Delhi girl in “Aisha”, or Elizabeth Bennet as a Punjabi girl breaking all the societal norms and bucking her family’s traditional conventions in “Bride And Prejudice”.
As a woman, I could relate to almost all her characters as Austen’s heroines haven’t been the most wealthy or the most attractive characters. However, these women still managed to find love in men who deserved them. Now, isn’t that what we want? To find love but not at the cost of our identities.
Although Austen did enjoy a little success before she died at the age of 42, she failed to become a household name back then. But her nephew James Austen’s book, “A Memoir of Jane Austen”, which was published in 1869 put her back on the map.
Now there is no denying that every new generation of readers has its own group of ‘Austen-ites’. And Austen’s characters will continue speaking to people throughout the changing times and will keep them hopeful for their own happy ending.
Watch this video by History Bomb as they take us on a ‘one take’ tour through Jane Austen’s life and works.