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!