Dear Jane Austen, From a Modern Feminist

Dearest Jane,

First and foremost: thank you for giving us unrealistic expectations. Thank you for making Darcy so bloody attractive. It’s hilariously irritating for the men in our lives.

Thank you for making us all fall in love with love. Suggesting that the marriage of true minds and hearts, rather than the ‘ideal’ union of wealth and rank, is the best thing for society can’t have been easy in the class-bound culture of the early nineteenth century. Thank you for suggesting that genuine affection and understanding ought to be the prime commodities on the Regency marriage market. Thanks for the hint that a woman’s desirability as a life partner can be judged on her behaviour, her personality, and her morality, rather than her inheritance. Thanks for showing us that there’s more to both heiresses and paupers than the financial endowment that their father can give them.

Thank you for being a great. Thank you for enduring, for holding your own, for cementing your place in the canon even when the powers that be were (or are) ready to make you insignificant next to the social function of Dickens and the intellectual density of Ulysses. Thanks for flaunting your irony, for flagging up your social commentary, for so easily defending your own position and the value of your insight into society. We needed you. We needed you there, heading off the English novel, proud to be ‘a Lady’. And we still need you there: female genius can be all too easily forgotten.

Thank you for not writing about what everyone says you ought to have written about. Thank you for leaving the intricate details of the Napoleonic wars to the military historians, and simply nodding to them with your militia and your sailors. Thank you for writing what you knew – but not really, because we know you weren’t oblivious to your political surroundings, how could you be with a family of sailors and a sharp mind like yours? Thank you, then, for writing what you knew needed to be written. For creating worlds just like your own domestic one, with a pinch more luck and aristocracy.

Thank you for not making things simple. Thank you for endorsing the patriarchy in a lot of senses, and shaking it at its core in so many others. Some hail you as a radical, others say you perpetuated the myth that women must marry to be happy. Even if we put the subtle note of irony at every one of your happily-ever-afters aside for a moment, what else could you have done? Thanks for leaving none of your young women unmarried or without hope, because you really wouldn’t wish that fate in your society even on the detestable Mrs Elton, and not because you think it solves all problems. Thanks for giving us, or, rather, your female readers back then, a philosophy for survival in a mercenary and marriage-obsessed society. For showing us the dark side whilst helping us how to look on the bright one. Thanks for suggesting ever so subtly that Edward doesn’t deserve Elinor, nor Edmund, Fanny, nor even, perhaps, Wentworth, Anne. It kills us inside, but it’s a jolly good, subversive point.

There’s a good chance that what you might have been doing, you clever minx you, lightyears ahead of your time, is suggesting that feminists are not and don’t need to be man-haters. Thanks for saying it’s okay to fall in love. Thanks for making individual approach paramount, so that we can still live relatively happily in the world whilst we work to change it. Thanks for showing that we can change the world one marriage at a time.

So, thank you for recognising the constraints of your time, because staying moderate meant that you were listened to. It means that you’re still listened to. Thank you for giving us role models who we might not actually want to be role models. Reading Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Elinor Dashwood, and the rest of your diverse heroines, it’s easy to see the common morality of self-restraint, integrity, constant self-evaluation, and modesty which you’re endorsing. It’s easy to admire, to set on a pedestal, to think (discovering Pride and Prejudice at that pivotal mid-teen age) that this is the woman you want to be, and that these are the values which people ought to live by. A feminist reading at 18 starts to deconstruct some of those ideals, how relevant they are and how necessary they ought to be. Mrs Bennet might not be as foolish as Mr Bennet espouses. Perhaps Catherine’s ‘lesson’ is a little like gaslighting. Maria Bertram and Aunt Norris might be annoying for reasons other than inherent evil. Maybe Marianne is broken by the patriarchy. Thank you for teaching us virtues in the first place – really, thank you. But thanks for leaving something for us to challenge, to be uncomfortable with, to start talking about.

Thanks for not giving us the whole picture of a feminist manifesto, but for building the groundwork.

Thank you, above all, for telling women’s story. Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting women’s experience on the map. Thank you for inspiring Virginia Woolf’s female aesthetic a century later, thank you for deciding that the inner life and viewpoint of a heroine, her daily struggles and independent thought were novel-worthy. Thank you for showing us what some needed to pay attention to in real life, thank you for creating pictures of mental elation and turmoil which we can relate to centuries later, thank you for holding up a mirror in which we can see our emotions and experience exalted. Thank you for giving us the best of friends, thank you for giving us love, hope, morality, and courage. Thank you for Mr Darcy, thank you for Captain Wentworth, thank you for Mr Knightley. Thank you for Colin Firth. Thank you for Fanny Price, for Elinor Dashwood, for Catherine Morland, for Anne Elliot. Thank you for Elizabeth Bennet, for Emma Woodhouse, for Marianne Dashwood. Thank you for Lady Susan.

Thank you, more than anything, for picking up your pen – and for not dwelling on guilt and misery.

Yours &c.,


PS Gutted that you never finished The Watsons. Think it would have been your best.

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