“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice 1) In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was a time of male dominance in England. Women were married off very
early, not always based upon love, sometimes based on convenience. In all six of Jane Austen’s main novels, she vividly portrays the lives of woman wanting to be married, yet she herself never married. Living a rather long life, she had much time to find a suitable husband; however, she rejected the only potential suitor who proposed to her. As a result of Jane Austen’s rejection of marriage, her personal independence, and the portrayal of women in dominant roles in her novels, it is very evident that she was an early feminist who tried to hide it by the use of irony and satire.
Jane Austen published anonymously. During her time, writing was considered a trade for men and it was not feminine of a woman to do so. By writing she was proving her point and stating her independence to herself and those around her; however, by not making her name known in the literary world, she was able to maintain an amiable reputation within the neighborhood she lived. Jane wanted more than anyone to have her female characteristics maintained and emphasized. Being the daughter of a rector at a local parish, it was essential for the family name to be spotless. Jane’s father could not allow his daughter’s independence and stubbornness to tamper with the reputation that the Austen name held. Being a feminist at her time was a drastic position to hold. It meant being shunned for the most part because it was considered vain (SparkNotes). While Austen was a feminist, she was by no means vain. Vanity is something that Austen made many satirical references to multiple times in her novels. She chastised it using satire multiple times by having the main character of one of her most famous books, Emma, be the vainest of all her main characters.
In Jane Austen’s Emma, she uses a young woman by the name of Emma Woodhouse to portray a very vain, but also liberal and independent woman. Yet Jane also went on to depict the flaws of the independent Emma Woodhouse. In the story, Emma has a revelation of her self-centeredness. “The first error, and the worst, lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious-a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more” (Emma, 64). Jane allows her readers to see the good qualities of being your own person, but also retrospectively she allows her readers to see the bad ones as well. Emma’s self realization helped Emma to change the flaws of her character, but that did not mean compromising who she was and what she stood for. Through this character she was trying to show her readers that not all independent women, also categorized as feminists, were vain.
After reading Emma and comparing the plot with Austen’s life it is very evident that Jane put a part of herself into her character Emma. Emma was convinced she would never marry because of personal feelings. Jane shared that same feeling; however, she followed through with staying single her entire life. Jane even rejected a marriage proposal that was offered to her. Emma and Jane both felt that marriage was for everyone but them. Emma felt marriage must be based on feeling, while Jane’s reasons to stay unmarried were not made public. Jane’s only sister, Cassandra, censored all of Jane’s works after she died. What Cassandra did not make public to the literary world, she had burned (Tomalin 25). This indicates that there must have been something of importance that Cassandra was trying to keep hidden from the literary world. If word got out that Jane Austen was a feminist it could create quite a stir. It would cause a disruption to the lives of her remaining family, and also jeopardize the success of her literary works that were published under her name.
Marriage is a main theme in almost every one of Jane Austen’s works. Knowing this, it makes many raise their eyebrows when hearing an accusation of Jane Austen being a feminist. It is important however, to look at the context in which Jane uses marriage as a theme and the tone of it. The view of marriage is always portrayed in the woman’s point of view. No matter what novel is read, this can be observed by the reader. Whether it is in Elizabeth Bennet’s point of view in Pride and Prejudice, Emma Woodhouse’s in Emma, Marianne Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility, and the list goes on. In Jane Austen’s novels, it is clearly evident the view of marriage that the men have is rather obsolete. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice 1) This is quite a bold statement for the opening of a book. It clearly states that the men “must be in want” of the woman, and not the other way around. The man being in need of the woman is clearly a feminist view.
Many say that Jane Austen’s novels are written for women. Jane Austen’s novels appear under many best seller lists, and surely not all readers are female. Austen’s novels were intended for the general public; however, she hoped that some of her messages and beliefs would be conveyed to the public through her works. (Jane Austen: A Profile) To lighten some of the messages she wished to portray she brought in the use of satire and irony. The frequent use of her satire made any point she was trying to convey much easier to digest. For example, the idea of women being superior to men was not a popular one, so with Austen’s accompaniment of satire with a plot revolving around females, no one seemed to mind. It was quite evident that no one minded her contradictions and beliefs because it was not just one book that sold well of hers, but all six novels sold very well (Troost 37).
Jane Austen’s irony is what held many readers to her novels. It is what brings so many to read her novels today. Irony was used to deflect some of her harsh messages she wished to portray to the people of her time. She did this by throwing an unexpected event into the plot to avert the harsh message she just conveyed to her readers. In Mansfield Park, the importance of being true to oneself is very evidently portrayed. The main character Fanny Price is being pressured to marry for money alone. She rejects the proposal even though it means that her family will be greatly upset by her rejection. She does not compromise herself for any man, or anyone. Just as the plot and some of the character’s actions are becoming questionable, Austen throws into the plot an enormous amount of twists. After Henry the man who proposed to Fanny is rejected by her, he runs off and elopes with her already married cousin. Then Fanny’s other cousin out of the blue elopes as well with a friend of the family ( Mansfield Park ). Austen chooses to divert her readers partially from the main message of her stories, partly because of the questionable topics she breeches. She does this very well time and time again through her well placed use of irony (Love).
Austen knew very well the secret about herself that she was keeping from her readers. “…as omniscient narrator in various novels, she[Jane Austen] continues to convince scholars that she is not merely a writer but also a critic.”(Discourses of Feminism) By Austen portratying herself as not just the author but as the critic, she was able to draw the readers to her point of view. Austen succeeded in this very well. She was able to consitently portray her female characters in the dominant posistions without the public objecting or taking offence. Women as the aggressors was a fairly untouched subject at the time, and it was also very questionable. Aggressive women at that time could be concidered floozies, which was not at all a desireable reputation. Austen somehow manages in her novels to have her women be strong, independent, and aggressive. The female characters do all this, while keeping a spotless reputation, just as Jane succeeded in doing during her life.
Jane Austen may have been a feminist; however, she hid it supurbly in her use of well placed irony and satire, while still bringing up and addressing such issues as women dominance, and rejection of marriage. It is clearly evident throughout each of her novels that Austen held women on a higher pedistole in her mind when compared to men. While during her life she never made her views evident, she was able to stay true to herself and her beliefs by her outward display of defience. For a women to write, it was a huge deal and could have caused quite a stir. As a result of Austen never making her views evident, she was able to stay true to herself and her beliefs by her own display of defience.
Ashford, Viola, Was Jane Austen a Feminist?, Published January 30, 2005
Austen, Jane, Emma, Buccaneer Books Inc., Cutchogue , N.Y. , Copyright 1982
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Orion Publishing Group, London , Copyright 1963
Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility, Bantam Books, New York , Copyright 1983
Austen, Jane, Sandition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston , Massachusetts , Copyright
Dabundo, Laura, ed. Devoney Looser, Jane Austen and the Discourse of Feminism,
Douthat, Ross, SparkNote on Pride and Prejudice, 19 May. 2005,
Love, Cesar, Mansfield Park Pushes Feminist Issues, Published December 8 1999 ,
Tomalin, Claire, Jane Austen: A Life, Random House Inc., Copyright 1997
Troost, Lindsay and Sayre Greenfield, Jane Austen in Hollywood, Copyright 1998