This year marks the bicentennial death anniversary of one of the greatest authors to have ever lived- Jane Austen. With that in mind I thought it was time for a tribute to her genius. Austen was brilliant, and centuries ahead of her time. In a world that had ridiculous expectations of women, she created some of the greatest female characters put to paper. She created heroines who defied the expectations and standards of their time and created a social satire out of the genteel English society.
At a time when women were expected to concentrate all their energies on one sole focus- marriage, following which they were to become baby-producing machines, she chose to write about women who refused to conform. From Elizabeth Bennet to Emma Woodhouse, her heroines were strong, sensible and as independent as was possible at the time. They refused to marry just anybody who appeared “eligible” instead waiting for true love. In fact, Emma refused to marry anyone at all for the longest time. The heroines she wrote had minds of their own and were unafraid to express their opinions. They made their own choices and did not allow their lives to be dictated by their families or by “what will people think?”
In her books, Austen took on a number of social evils and how they affected women. She satirized the society of the time with all its idiosyncrasies. This is particularly evident in Pride and Prejudice, where takes on the concept of an entail and the lack of rights a women has when it comes to her own property and inheritance. The main premise of the novel is the fact that the property of Mr. Bennet which should logically be inherited by his five daughters, would instead go to a random distant cousin who none of the family had ever seen before. Similarly, in Sense and Sensibility, the interests of the Dashwood sisters and their mother are at the mercy of their half-brother and his whims and fancies. Austen has fearlessly portrayed all that was ridiculous about the treatment of women and their rights (or lack thereof). She could be seen as one of the world’s first feminists.
But anyone can be a feminist. What makes Austen so brilliant is the stories she wrote, the intricacies of the characters, the gripping plot-lines. Her books suck you into her world, the world of early 19th century England and act like a window into the lives of the middle and upper classes of the time. She gives the readers a little slice of what it would be like to belong to the gentility of the time.
Her characters are all unique, each one different from the other and her stories are beautifully romantic, but not in the clichéd, traditional way. Austen has written some of the greatest couples of all time like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightly. Her stories are the perfect romances with the perfect happy endings. In one way her body of work can be described as the go-to feel good romances.
That being said, her writing was nothing if not practical. Not for her were the ridiculous princess and the stable boy type of story that in reality could only end in disaster. Most of her characters were rational women who did not indulge in idiotic affairs. They are accustomed to a certain style of living and they make sure to marry someone who can support that. On the off chance that they fall for someone of limited means they wait for him to get rich, regardless of how long it takes and then marry him (I’m looking at you, Anne Elliot).
Of the few characters who could be described as flighty and foolish, Lydia Bennet receives censure from all sides for her silliness with the Pride and Prejudice ending with a letter from her asking Elizabeth for money, which can only mean that her run-away marriage to Wickham did not have quite the happy ending she was hoping for. Marianne Dashwood, another such flighty character, undergoes a transformation through the story, lets go of her wild dreams of Willoughby and by the end of Sense and Sensibility she is a much more mature character.
Jane Austen’s work is something that never feels dated or old-fashioned. Her writing is unpretentious and is devoid of the weightiness that is characteristic of other classics from the same era. She wrote books that were mellow, the kind of thing you would want to curl up with on a rainy day and a hot cup of coffee. She is just so much easier to read than the other classics of her time.
Two hundred years on she is still one the greatest writers to have ever lived. Her work is timeless and her characters are strangely relatable even now (I can’t be the only one who wants to be like Elizabeth Bennet). And perhaps that is why, even today her work is read world over, and not just as a school assignment.