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Jane Austen was an author who lived through an extremely hard time for women, especially those who liked to defy the natural roles provided by society. Austen’s work was filled with satire, irony, parody, and feministic qualities that had caused somewhat of a controversy among her readers. With all of those qualities, and during the Regency era, Jane Austen must have been brave for poking fun at the higher class and the normal societal roles of the time. Austen was an experimental author and she has paved the way for countless other artists, and she will always be remembered as one of the greats known for her defiance of society.
Little is known about Jane Austen herself. We know that she died relatively young, she lived with her siblings for a time, her father was a clergyman, and that she never married. Her upbringing begs the question as to where her satirist point of view originated. Jane Austen was not terribly wealthy growing up, and therefore experienced and witnessed mistreatment. Her father was a clergyman and did not make a great deal of money, while her mother did not come from a well to do family either. Jane spent most of her time indoors, this is where her fascination with literature began. “Early in her reading experience Jane Austen became obsessively interested in the form and language of the novel, and its relationship with its readers (Mary Waldron, Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time, 16). With her newfound knowledge and interest in literature, Jane spent most of her time writing. She started writing at a young age, and was apparently very observant as, “her youthful writing shows an increasing awareness of the economic realities of life for women on the fringes of the gentry, realities that channel money and land to men, bypassing women like her mother or herself”. It is clear through her writings that Austen must have been bothered by the circumstances she was living in and the struggles that not only women endured, but also the struggles of those living in poverty. Even from Austen’s early writings, she “puts a number of fashionable fictional stereotypes, often derived from the pomposities of conduct-literature as well as from fashionable progressive ideas, into a domestic frame which renders them ludicrous and, more importantly, shows them to be repetitious and stultifying” (Mary Waldron, 16). Becoming a published author was not easy for Jane Austen. She put a lot to risk when she published her novels simply because, “publishing her own writing could threaten a woman’s reputation as well as her social position”. Austen could have ruined not only her reputation, but also the reputation of her siblings and parents. Austen’s difficult upbringing only fueled her desire to fight societal standards in one of the most readily available ways open to her- writing a novel.
Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was written in the Regency era. During that era, women were very restricted as to what they could and could not do. Women were supposed to be “modest, retiring, essentially domestic, and private”. Independent women were seen as a threat and would be treated as such. Pride and Prejudice’s main character, Elizabeth Bennet, is set apart as an independent woman during her time. She is one of, if not the only woman, in Austen’s novel who would not conform to the typical role that had been assigned to by her society. The novel revolves around the concept of marriage and how it was of vital importance for men and women to make their financial alliance. It was “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 3). This quote from Pride and Prejudice makes you assume that men need to find wives in order to support themselves financially, whereas in the book it seemed much more important for women to find husbands rather than the other way around. In the novel, and film adaptations, it seemed as though a woman’s only job was to marry a man of social status higher than her own, and have a certain set of accomplishments such as singing, mastering languages, playing an instrument, drawing, or needlework. “Marriage, of course, was just about the only acceptable role for any woman”. Women had to climb the social latter through marriage, making love a commodity they could not afford. Many women had arranged marriages, organized by their parents simply so they were no longer a burden to their families. Along with stressing the importance of marriage in her novel Pride and Prejudice, Austen made the main character of her book, Elizabeth Bennet, rebel against the standard laws of marriage and courtship. Elizabeth’s family was not very well to do, so when a male suitor came along and proposed and Elizabeth rejected him bluntly, her mother was mortified and angry. She tried to force the marriage upon Elizabeth, but she would not comply to her mother’s wishes. Elizabeth was not going to marry for anything other than love, which in Austen’s day, frankly would not fly. Austen also made a brave move in poking fun at Elizabeth Bennet’s cousin Mr. Collins who happened to be a clergyman. Mr. Collins was a very awkward, annoying, and conceited character who treated women as though they were objects. Mr. Collins did not understand women, and took rejection as a sign that he needed to try harder in order to win them over. As you can imagine, the portrayal of this character in particular did not sit well for some of the novel’s readers, while other readers loved it. Jane Austen took a chance, and her bravery paid off. The Critical Review published a review in March 1813 congratulating Austen’s novel. “Elizabeth’s sense and conduct are of a superior order to those of the common heroines of novels. For her independence of character, which is kept within the proper line of decorum, and her well-timed sprightliness, she teaches the man of Family-Pride to know himself”.
In comparison to other authors, Jane Austen was regarded quite highly. The Regency era did not last but ten years, and yet there were several works that emerged from the short period of time. The authors during the Regency era mostly focused on romance and social class. Authors and poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake focused on the ideals of love and loss, while Austen focused on social standing and parody. The general public seemed to be intrigued by Austen’s refreshing new style of writing. She brought satire, parody, and gender equality to her readers. Jane Austen however, was not the only woman who was voicing her opinion on gender equality. Roughly twenty years before Austen wrote her very first novel, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. “It is popularly assumed that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was greeted with shock, horror, and derision when it appeared early in 1792, that the forces of reaction massed against this bold attempt to assert the equality of woman and spattered the Amazon with their pens”. Due to Mary’s work, Austen must have had a much easier time publishing her novel, as it was nowhere near as extreme as Wollstonecraft’s book. Other authors and poets during the Regency era were also attempting to bring their works to a new level by creating real, raw characters and providing the audience with less flattery and more realism. Leigh Hunt was a poet, critic, and novelist who wrote several works during Austen’s day such as The Round Table, The Descent of Liberty, and The Story of Rimini. Unlike Austen, Hunt focused more “on famous actors and their favorite roles, he self-consciously avoided the habit of name-dropping and flattery that were becoming customary of the time”. It is clear that the authors during the Regency era wrote about very different topics. Compared to other literary texts, Austen’s work had the biggest connection to its readers.
Austen’s work has remained timeless due to her appeal to the everyday person. Her stories relate with her readers and she was fascinated by the connection that she was able to bring between audience and novel. Austen was experimental in her writing and she thought outside the box in order to capture the emotions of those who read her work. Her writing included parody, satire, and feministic qualities that has inspired artists who have followed after her. “From the start she set out to put forms and theories to the test of everyday, without which they were, as she saw it, merely substitutes for coherent and rational deliberation” (Mary Waldron, Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time, 16). Austen’s work will continue to inspire and be known for its individuality.
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