“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
― Jane Austen,
Jane Austen is sometimes called a “women’s writer.” Austen’s subject matter is about romance and marriage, but her extraordinary talent, her gift for irony and character, and her elegant writing, are universal.
Austen is often compared to Dickens because of their common interest in absurd figures and the great expanse of character in their works. One of Dickens’s great failings was his lack of subtlety: he makes his point, and then he makes it again. Then he hits you over the head a little more…just to be 100% sure you got it.
Austen, on the other hand, is the height of subtlety and delicate humour. She assumes that if you’re reading her book you must be intelligent enough to “get it”. And if you’re not, you don’t interest her in any case.
Hence the brilliant first line of Pride and Prejudice, Eliza Bennett’s radiant and delicately drawn character, and the elegant wit in Austen’s collection of sparkling lines.
This subtlety is one of the most alluring aspects of Austen’s work. I think it’s one of the reasons men often prefer Dickens, and women prefer Jane Austen. Nabakov once said that Austen makes him feel constrained and Dickens made him feel free. Dickens’s writing is a volcanic uproar; Austen’s, a marvel of delicacy. Her perspicacity puts aside enough ego to place the lens on 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.”
― Jane Austen; first line of
Austen’s novels were riddled with characters derived from people in her life: her cousin Edward Cooper conceivably inspired Edmund Bertram, the stuffy clergyman – Mr. Collins, and her beloved sister Cassandra, Jane Bennett. Etc., etc.
Austen is sometimes considered a “prude” by modern readers, because of the disapproval and shock the narrating voice displays when two characters live together before marriage. The approach is perhaps a little difficult to relate to in the modern age. Nevertheless, character portraits of people who knew her and Austen’s own letters paint the picture of a feisty, playful, and spirited woman.
One neighbor called her “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembered.” In a letter to her sister, Austen wrote:
“Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C[harles] Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence.”
The “Mr. Tom Lefroy” referred to was Austen’s love interest when she was 20; he was later packed off to Ireland. Austen wasn’t considered a wealthy enough potential spouse for him. Marriages were based in large part on fiscal considerations; in fact, Austen’s novels are riddled with references to money even more than romance.
A clip from the movie 'Becoming Jane', featuring the characters of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. The movie is badly inaccurate, but I find the title,'Literary Tension' amusing, and the movie does portray some of the heartbreak of Austen's situation.
Austen supposedly also fell in love with a clergyman at Bath; the couple arranged a reunion for the following year, before which the clergyman died. Considering that all her novels are about love and marriage, it’s tragically ironic that Austen never married, or had a family of her own.
Female writers were rare until the 20th century. It stemmed in part from prejudice – women were considered unintelligent – and partially from the notion that it was inappropriate for a woman to publish. Even the famously compassionate and respectful Chekhov wrote in his correspondence that “women were terrible writers” and they were not “intelligent” enough to write. In reviewing the story of a female friend, he compliments her for “writing like a man.” The comment wasn’t meant to be glib.
Another reason for the dearth of female writers: women were busy. They got married early and had a sea of babies; Austen herself came from a family of 8 children. The few female writers able to publish were often spinsters, and even then, they did so under pseudonyms. For that matter, so did Jane Austen – she published her novels under the epithet of “the Lady.”
Austen had a few different love interests. She was engaged once; after a restless night, she broke it off. She didn’t want to marry somebody she didn’t love. She was 27. A spinster in Jane Austen’s day was an unenviable state. It was astoundingly brave to give up the conventional comforts of married life in order to churn out novels.
Concomitantly, in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Eliza Bennett rejects Mr. Collins, the stuffy and stupid clergyman. Mr. Collins marries Eliza’s friend Charlotte instead. When Eliza visits her, she’s astounded that Charlotte can be content with the small pleasures of household and married life.
Both Charlotte Lucas and Anne Elliott, the heroine of’Persuasion’, are 27 when they are proposed to; so was Austen at the time she rejected the proposal.
Charlotte Lucas appears to reflect the choice Austen might have made and the woman she might have been. Anne Elliott, on the other hand, seems to be Jane Austen’s gift to herself before she died; to be proposed to by the man she loves and had once rejected, and to get a second chance.