On the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, there is still no sign of her work fading to the background of the literary world.
Dr. Robert Morrison, a professor of 19th century literature and culture at Queen’s, has taught Austen to students for the past 25 years. For him, the reason is simple: Jane Austen is “the cleverest woman in the history of the world.”
With her novels translated into over 40 languages, Austen boasts a worldwide fandom of ‘Janeites’ who adore her novels for their romance and escapism. Consequently, this extensive fan base fuels the Jane Austen tourism industry in the South of England, worth millions of pounds. Come September, her face will even grace the new £10 bank note.
However, Dr. Morrison’s first run-in with Austen as a 21 year-old undergrad didn’t share this enthusiasm. In fact, he “didn’t like her very much.” Like many of his students since, he didn’t understand the centuries-long Austen hype.
“I thought well, this is a story about a guy and a girl, and they’re going to get into a fight and then they’re going to get back together again,” Morrison laughed at the typical Austen stereotype. “I didn’t really see the power of what Austen was doing.”
At the time she was writing it was nearly impossible for a woman to support herself alone. Despite her success as a novelist, Austen was entirely financially dependant on her male relatives.
During the 19th century in England, marriage was the only way to secure a woman’s future and the window for it was minute — the poverty of spinsterhood threatened any woman that was still single by her mid-twenties. In a time where it was almost necessary to comply, women had little freedom and were submissive to men’s demands. It was a difficult world, and as Morrison argued, “it’s not as different now as it should be.”
What makes Jane Austen’s novels revolutionary — and resonant — is her dedication to illuminating the reality of women’s lives and her insistence reality needed to change.
“There are women in Austen who show a tremendous amount of courage by standing up to patriarchy,” Morrison said, “and Austen was one of those women. Through sheer talent and bravery, she stood up and said women deserve better.”
He describes Mr. Darcy’s failed first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice as a key example of this,
“When Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him in that self-satisfied way, she gives him the dressing-down of English literature,” he said. “Darcy has a problem, he’s fallen in love with a woman who doesn’t believe that his big house and his income mean that he is deserving of respect.”
“Yes, the novel is funny, and, yes, it’s a very compelling romance, but for me. Austen standing up and saying the way men treat women has to stop [is what] makes her brave, prescient and invaluable.”
This social commentary’s weight relies on believable characters — Austen wrote flawed, realistic characters that readers could identify with, regardless of when they read her books.
Much of her work contemplates the mistakes that people make and the journey they undergo to grow and forgive. Through all six of her official novels, Austen never stops exploring the different ways love, romantic or otherwise, pushes people to be better.
Morrison said Elizabeth Bennet resonates for society now because “she is an […] intelligent, witty, compassionate woman who gets things wrong. It’s not like Austen gives us this perfect woman, she gives us a person. She is saying that women are people who should be treated with respect.”
And it might just be that simple reality that’s given Austen the longevity she has enjoyed.
Despite the small scope of her novels — all focusing on a few families in country villages — she has struck a chord in the hearts of readers worldwide.
“Nobody is better at revealing the tensions, the injustices and the excitement within that world,” than Jane Austen, according to Morrison. “She’s got it all out so vividly in front of us.”
At it’s heart, “it’s about females saying, ‘I want a decent partner for the rest of my life’. That is what’s attractive to readers, you’re in a novel where women get a voice”.
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