Is there more to Jane Austen than romance? (YES) | Discussion

Jane Austen’s works are often lauded as masterpieces of romantic fiction, and with good reason: her winding plots of courtships, engagements, and marriages have managed to captivate readers for centuries. Take the famous Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, for example, who seems to have been placed upon a pedestal as the ideal male love interest (though that’s a problematic topic for another day). Though Austen’s novels are multidimensional works of literature with numerous fascinating facets to consider, the majority of the discussion surrounding these texts (particularly in the online bookish community) focuses solely on the romances they contain. While there is certainly nothing wrong with highlighting the romantic relationships and how they inevitably unfold, I can’t help but feel as though we are missing out on some great discussions by not opening ourselves up to other topics.

For instance, why does no one seem to be talking about the socioeconomic divisions and hierarchies driving these plots forward?  In Emma, the protagonist initially convinces her friend Harriet to not marry Robert Martin because he is not of a sufficient social status and doesn’t possess impressive, influential social connections. Harriet’s eventual rejection of Robert Martin based on a class distinction is what allows her to later grow romantic feelings for Mr. Elton, etc. Towards the end of the novel Emma realizes that she has always thought of herself as the perfect match for Mr. Knightley—and what better way for them to be suited for each other than through their similar social statuses? From this perspective, the entire plot of the novel is in some way motivated and driven by an awareness of class. In fact, it could be argued that many of Austen’s fictional relationships are founded on the basis of class.

Another interesting topic within Austen’s works is the position of women in society. Obviously this comes into play when discussing romance, but here it is viewed from a slightly different angle. To use Emma as an example once more (can you tell which of Austen’s novels I recently read?), she makes it clear from the beginning of the story that she does not wish to be married anytime soon. I would describe Emma as an independent, strong-willed, bold, opinionated, intelligent young woman who can certainly take care of herself—that is, until she ultimately resorts to marriage like nearly every female character in the novel. I don’t mean to suggest that marriage reduces a woman’s independence, or that Austen didn’t believe in the resilience of her gender. Rather, I think these inevitable courtships, engagements, and marriages that keep happening in her novels are Austen’s way of showing us how trapped women were during her time. Even a strong character like Emma can’t make it through a novel without a ring on her finger.

This rambling post is merely my way of wishing for a broader, more varied discussion of Jane Austen’s works (and literature in general, ideally). Talking about books is so much more fun and interesting when a lot of new and different ideas are thrown into the mix. So why not start with these old favorites?

What do you think of Jane Austen’s novels? Do you have a favorite? What are some topics that you wish were more discussed in relation to literature? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “Is there more to Jane Austen than romance? (YES) | Discussion

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! Your right about us missing big discussions because we are blinded by the romance. Even Mr Darcy says in pride and prejudice that he is going against his better judgement and the wishes of his family to love someone of so little connections. Class is a very big part of Jane Austen’s work and I genuinely never really thought about it until after reading this post! So thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so with you! I have read Emma and P& P and half of S&S and I have Persuasion languishing on my kindle and I have seen and read lots of adaptions (the best being Diana Peterfreund probably but also shout out to Pemberly digital) I don’t know if I have a favourite…it has been a while. But I agree that class and money matter in these books; they are quietly subversive and endlessly interesting. I also loved these Jane Austen infographics! https://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2017/jul/18/jane-austens-facts-and-figures-in-charts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those infographics are so cool! Also, I agree that “quietly subversive” is a great way to describe Austen’s novels. Social class is certainly there– it’s just a matter of our willingness to see it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree! There’s a lot to chew on in Austen’s novels if you just look a little beyond the surface of the plot. And I think it’s interesting to think whether or not Austen actually intended to make all of this social commentary. I would also like to expand on your point about the position of women. For me personally, if we’re talking about Pride and Prejudice for example, I believe Austen wrote women who were ahead of their time. Lizzie Bennet refuses to marry for stability and to have a good name, and defies the propriety that was expected from her, and “waits” for love in order to get married. While I agree that women in her novels can’t escape marriage and all end up married (I personally feel that that’s a consequence of the time Austen lived in), her heroine’s a lot more out spoken and independent than women actually were back then. Awesome post by the way, I really enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much!! I really love your point about Austen’s women breaking free from societal expectations of them. The tendency of them all to end up married is a huge marker of the time period, which I’m so glad you brought up because it’s easy for me to forget that sometimes. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. To my mind Austen is an overrated writer because she does not seem to take a position about the social pressures and horrible class issues to which her characters respond. Yes, she tells a good tale about romance and marriage. Her writing is clever and extremely well structured, but fundamentally she has nothing profound to say about her society or the plight of women. She seems to accept quite jovially that since all people have to marry, why not enjoy the game? Her characters seem fulfilled when they find the right match and society is well ordered when they do. For me, the hallmark of a great writer is a emotionally convincing thesis – not just pointed observations. Yes, women were desperate to marry for their financial survival in Austen’s novels, but does she really find that so terrible? We seem to have greater pity for Mr. Bennet having to marry off a whole brood of daughters than we do for Elizabeth’s friend who agrees to marry the unctuous Mr. Collins, for instance. Each sex is using the other for their own motivations. That is Austen’s world and she accepts it with arch wit rather than the criticism it deserved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tend to view her writing as a way to highlight how ridiculous the conventions of her time period were. Many of her characters are over-the-top to the point of comedy, which in itself may be a way of criticizing societal expectations (whether or not Austen intended this criticism to be apparent in her work, I can’t say). However, you make a great point about her lack of an obvious stance on the topic. She definitely could have been more bold– though I wonder whether she would have been allowed to publish such scandalous work.

      Like

    1. I agree!! I feel like screen adaptations tend to water down Austen’s novels to pure romance, when in actuality there is so much more going on below the surface of the story.

      Like

  5. thanks so much for this post! i really enjoyed reading it! 🙂

    i am currently in a one-austen-a-month-project and the last book left for me is “emma”. i have read all her other works and yes, i am very focused on the romance because i am a hopeless romantic. but i agree with you, that there is so much more.
    for example “sense & sensibility”. it wasn’t my favorite, because i was annoyed by marianne. she was too whiny for me. i didn’t like it at all. elinor on the other hand was a very strong female character, that i adored. she wasn’t a woman who would let decide her happiness because of a man. i loved that so much. she was strong and there was much more to her than just romance.
    my favorite novel is “persuasion” (again: romance lover) but my second favorite is “northanger abbey” because this one is really funny. all the conversations and things happening are really ridiculous and i laughed out loud.
    “mansfield park” is also a favorite of mine, because i am a huge fan of fanny as a character and the way she grew up during the novel. she’s living away from home. she is afraid and she goes through a huge development. that’s what i really liked about it. it’s more about her and not the romance.

    what is your favorite austen?

    Like

  6. I completely agree with you! I’ve read all of Austen’s works except Mansfield Park, and there’s so much more to them than simply the romances (although, of course, Austen does know how to write a great romance). Her books are FULL of social commentary– on marriage, family, the role of women in society, social class, and everything in between. She doesn’t necessarily buck the social conventions of her time (all her heroines do end up married in the end, after all), but she does subtly question a lot of those conventions. Plus, I feel like people often overlook Austen’s sheer wit. Her writing is unbelievably witty and smart. Great post, Holly!

    Like

  7. Definitely…Class, economic status, sexism and how women had to marry in order to survive, all all part of her books. The reason for the romance and constant talk of marriage is because without the security of marriage women were in a terrible position forced to become caretakers and survive on the kindness of others. A woman’s life was all about making a good (economically sound) marriage. That’s all there was.

    Like

    1. I was always struck by the issues that resulted from the way women and property were viewed under the law of Austen’s time. Im not an expert, but in a world without honorable divorce, where chaperones were recommended for single women, where women could not own property and property was often entailed to the next male heir to keep it whole, women were at the mercy of fate and their male relatives, economically. For a woman in such a precarious position, money definitely loomed large. Deprived,for the most part, of a formal education, women in Austen’s class bettered themselves through cunning. I don’t think we should judge ill of them but rather applaud them. Would we be able to do as much with so many strikes against us?

      Like

  8. THIS IS MY FAVORITE POST EVER.

    i fully think that Austen’s books are so overly simplified in the majority of discussions. when you think that the reason they’re still even known in today’s literary canon is because of Austen’s ability to encapsulate and describe the culture of the time, it can seem a little crazy that we rarely talk about that in the face of how dreamy Darcy is or whatever. i love Jane Austen so much and it makes my eye twitch when people boil her works down to fancy-sounding romance (not that there’s anything wrong with that either!)

    Like

  9. Absolutely! Austen’s works are excellent social commentary for her time. I think we focus on the relationships because we want to romanticize certain historical periods. Oftentimes we tend to ignore the social hierarchies or the health/wellbeing/cleanliness of the time period for some idealized image of what it might have been like to live in a time that is not like the one we live in now.

    Like

  10. I think it’s very reductive to say that Austen is “just romance” (and there isn’t anything wrong with a book being “just romance”, but to claim that’s all there is to Austen is to deny the other elements of her work). As you point out there is a constant awareness of class, economic status and gender roles in all of Austen’s novels. But more than that, Austen was critical of the status quo at a time in England when questioning the status quo was seen as a threat. Because there was a lot happening in the world (England was at war with France and the US, the French Revolution was happening) the British were paranoid to threats from within. Mansfield Park can be read as an attack of the Church of England’s complicity in the slave trade. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen mocks the general prejudice toward the nobility and the clergy by making Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins two of the most absurd characters. That was a risky move in a society where more progressive minded writers chose to look to nature or historical/foreign settings, rather than risk getting in trouble by setting their work in England in the present.

    She focused on marriage plots because as you point out, that was really the only path in life open to women in Austen’s world. The alternative was living with family for their rest of their lives (if they were lucky enough to have that option!) When a woman married, all of her property legally belonged to her husband. He was allowed to beat her if he wanted. If she were to leave her husband she would be penniless. So making a “good” marriage was in many ways, a matter of life and death. I think in the 21st century we look at the marriage plot through the lens of contemporary marriage: we see it as the thing people eventually do after they fall in love and decide to make a life together. A woman can live her entire life without marrying. Or she might get married for the first time at 60. Or she might marry at 30 and then divorce. The point is that a single woman is capable of working to support herself, and a married woman has certain rights within the marriage. None of that was the case in Austen’s world. She depicted women trying to navigate their options in a society that didn’t really give them any.

    I was in the book store the other day, and I saw this: http://amzn.to/2vzrWQJ
    I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it! It seems like it discusses a lot of these issues in more detail.

    Like

  11. It’s a great post and I agree with what you wrote, Jane Austen was never just romance, it was about so much more…Her work was a subtle rebell against class and position of women in her time.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s