First, I should probably start with this: I am a Jane Austen agnostic.
I am neither an Austen fanboy nor hater. I enjoyed reading her in college, but not so much that I was ever drawn to pick her back up in subsequent years. I have seen most of the better known modern adaptations, most notably the critically acclaimed A&E Pride & Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth and the art-house version of Emma that served as a breakout vehicle for a young Gwyneth Paltrow. I found each charming, but not so much so that I’ve ever wanted to see any of them twice. Until this weekend, that is, when I sat down yet again to watch Ms. Paltrow attempt to play matchmaker for the Regency era’s well-to-do Surrey set.
Over the past decade or two, I have noted that Austen has become something of a feminist icon. I don’t know that I ever thought that much about it, even as I saw her sainthood blossom. She was, after all, incredibly popular with the women in my literature classes. But I confess, I had assumed at the time that this was a solidarity thing. I went to school in the very last days of the White-Men-Did-Everything-Worth-Studying era of academia, and I think the only other woman we ever read was the dry and tedious George Elliot, who had set herself up perfectly as someone we could all pretend was just another white dude.
The other night when I watched Emma, however, I found myself having similar reactions to that of my good friend Russell when he revisited Peter Pan. Indeed, I found Emma’s casual discussion of class and breeding to be outright offensive. If you have not read the book or seen the movie, (and I think this does not count as spoiler-worthy), the plot revolves are the titular character’s wanting to take her female friends and set them up with gentlemen just a bit above their own station. A sort of watered-down Cinderella-esque fairy godmother, if you will. Her folly is eventually made clear, however, as we learn how important it is for people to stay with people of their own stock and breeding.
But leaving aside the nauseating classist issues, the story seems to me to be the very antithesis of a feminist tale. The supposed folly of Emma’s matchmaking aside, the plot depends upon the notion that the success (or failure) of a woman is entirely attached to the status of the husband she can catch. Indeed, the climax of the story isn’t when Emma “learns” that slightly poorer people are people too, but when she herself catches her metaphorical Prince. And though it’s been a few years since I’ve read the books or seen the adaptations, my memory is that Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility have similar things to say about class, station, and the worth of a woman.
I recognize that I am a poor student of Austen, and that likewise I am not a woman. So I’d like to throw this question out to the hive-mind, and especially to OT’s female readers:
Why is Austen so revered amongst modern, educated women and feminists?
This is less a challenge than it is an admission that there is clearly a disconnect that I can’t get over, due to my gender, outlook, or lack of education about Austen and her works. So as always when I pose these questions, I ask that you talk to me like I’m stupid, that I might come away with a better understanding.
Thanks in advance.