(NB: When I started this series, I intended to publish every Thursday in March. However, I was in a car accident a few weeks ago and felt the need to take a week off from writing in order to better recover physically and mentally.)
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a female writer who lived shortly before the phrase “feminist” was coined. This week, I’m looking at a writer who lived about a hundred years before last week’s author. She’s an authoress to whom I have a strong connection, and many people think of her almost immediately upon thinking of me.
You got it. The one. The only. Jane Austen.
She was a lady writer in a time when that wasn’t conventional. The heroines she created tend to follow the dictates of tradition and society on the whole, but none of them is completely bound to those rules. Each of them exercises at least a bit of independence and unconventionality.
Because each of Austen’s heroines has a different personality, different people connect with different of these ladies. This allows different women to find encouragement from different stories. For me, I’ve always connected with Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse in strong but unique ways. I’ve been compared to Jane Bennet before, but I didn’t understand that. I’ve been asked if Anne Eliot resonates with me because she’s the oldest of Austen’s heroines and naturally as a single woman who is almost thirty…yeah, Anne Eliot is awesome, but she and I are VERY different people. I don’t understand Fanny Price very well, and I find Catherine Moreland annoying.On the other hand, I know women who really connect with Anne and can’t understand Emma for the wide world.
Austen crafted six novels, each of which is centered around a strong woman. These women exemplify strength in different ways. They are also surrounded by women who are strong but again not necessarily in the same way as the main character. This allows us as readers to see conflicting viewpoints, to know the heroine’s flaws, and to understand what does and doesn’t constitute female strength in a deeper way. Each of Austen’s heroines has a female foil (or more than one) who allows us to see what Austen admires in strong women and what she does not value.
(I’m going to look at Pride and Prejudice and Emma with more depth than the other four novels to save this blog post from becoming a novel.)
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen gives us two strong foils for Elizabeth Bennet. First, we meet Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth’s peer and a rival (of sorts) for Darcy’s interest. Later, we meet Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine DeBourgh.
Caroline Bingley sets herself up as Elizabeth’s rival almost from the beginning. She appears to dislike Elizabeth on sight and almost without cause. Perhaps she senses that Elizabeth will be her rival for Darcy’s attentions? Perhaps she resents Elizabeth’s less sophisticated origins? It is not clear initially why Caroline dislikes Elizabeth so much, but given the way in which she treats all of Meryton, it is most likely Elizabeth’s origins. Whatever the cause, Caroline’s resentment causes her to act in a less refined manner than one might expect from her education. In doing so, she allows us to see some of Elizabeth’s strengths. Her one real attempt to act kindly towards Elizabeth shows us two of Elizabeth’s flaws-pride and prejudice. (Wait…what is this book called again?
Lady Catherine is ostensibly a well-educated woman who ought to be refined and dignified. Instead she is rude, impertinent, and self-important. She considers herself to be an expert on everything, and she bestows her opinions on everyone who can hear her. She shows Elizabeth to be a more moderate person and a woman who is willing to listen to others even when she doesn’t agree with them. Elizabeth listens politely to Lady Catherine’s lectures, and when she does respond to them, our heroine shows herself to be intelligent and wise with her words. Lady Catherine helps us to see Elizabeth’s strengths and gifts.
Emma offers a few foils for the titular heroine. We have both Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax who show us Emma’s virtues but also her flaws.
Mrs. Elton is a self-important woman who thinks that everyone around her NEEDS her opinions and guidance. To me, the most quintessential Mrs. Elton moment comes late in the book when she scolds Jane Fairfax for acting without her guidance. After all, Jane might have lived without Mrs. E’s help for the previous twenty-odd years of her life, but she cannot proceed from here on out without the Divine Counsel of Mrs. Elton. Emma may seek to guide and arrange others, but she doesn’t get mad at them if they don’t listen to her. She will argue with people who disagree with her (see her relationship with Mr. Knightley) but she doesn’t scold people as if they are complete fools for making choices without her guidance.
Jane, on the other hand, shows a more moderated lady than Emma. Emma has her rough edges. She’s incredibly strong-willed, and she doesn’t do well when she doesn’t understand the motivations of her friends’ actions. Jane has a more temperate disposition, and through that, Austen shows us the ups and downs of Emma’s temperament.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor’s quiet strength is contrasted against both Lucy Steele’s brashness and Fanny Dashwood’s manipulation. Fanny and Lucy both scheme to meet their goals. Elinor prefers to lead her life simply and quietly. If she loses out on certain things (like Edward Ferrars), she isn’t going to throw a fit or pull someone’s hair. She will be hurt, and she will struggle internally. But she isn’t going to create unnecessary drama. She also prefers to focus on the simple things in life. She wants a quiet country life. She doesn’t need money or titles for happiness. She wants a quiet life with the people she loves most close by.
Northanger Abbey offers a more subtle contrast between Catherine Moreland’s dreamy view of the world and Isabella Thorpe’s need to manipulate and connive. Isabella lies and conspires to achieve her goals. Catherine may dream about murder or mystery, but she tends to see the best about most people. (Except General Tilney-and that’s probably wise.)
Mansfield Park makes a clear distinction between Fanny Price and several of the women around her. But her most obvious foil is Mary Crawford, a woman who can simper and charm without scruple but doesn’t value the same things that Austen (or Fanny) did. Mary will break rules and mores to get what she wants. Fanny will not. While I don’t see much of myself in Fanny, I have a great appreciation for her commitment to her beliefs and her refusal to bend her will to make others happy. To me, that is her greatest strength. She may be quiet. She may appear mild. (I’m not convinced that she really is.) But she will not bend or change to make other people happy.
Persuasion gives Anne three foils-her sisters and Louisa Musgrove. It is when Anne is contrasted against vanity and a weak nature that we need the virtue of her quiet strength. Elizabeth preens. Louisa flirts. Mary plays the perpetual patient. And through it all, Anne stands by quietly caring for The Important Things in Life. Anne is intrinsically good. (That’s probably why I don’t see myself in her; I have too much Julia Flyte in me to ever allow me to be Anne.) Anne’s life is rarely easy or simple or fun, but Anne finds contentment when she knows that she is doing what is right.
Looking over this, I am once again amazed by the strength of even Austen’s mildest woman. And I am enormously grateful to Jane Austen for sending these women forth into the literary universe. I think that they provide some pretty excellent role models.