It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen radically transformed our understanding of female desire and relationships– and for the better, too.
We know instinctively, that any Jane Austen film adaptation will be filled to the brim with bonnets, loaded parlour conversation, and deep, meaningful glances across the library/ballroom/dining table.
And, when we think of her novels, the words “decency, domesticity, and Darcy” tend to stamp across our minds. They stamp so loud, in fact, that they drown out the truth about Austen’s work completely.
Because, sure, her books offer us comfort and escapism in a world dominated by social media, Love Island, and Tinder – a chance to fall down the rabbit hole into a wonderland where love and fairness reign supreme. But it’s actually because of Austen and her trail-blazing novels that women everywhere have been empowered to search for love and sexual fulfilment on their own goddamn terms.
And, through her impossibly romantic stories, Austen radically redefined how we view women, female desire and relationships, too.
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In the 18th century, women did not marry for love. Instead, they were expected to secure a proposal strictly for financial and social reasons, and the vast majority of marriages among aristocratic, wealthy, and middle-class families were arranged by parents. The prospective bride had basically no say in her own future whatsoever.
As such, a gentleman of high rank – like, say, Pride and Prejudice’s Fitzwilliam Darcy – would never consider marrying a woman from a poorer family (sorry, Lizzie Bennett). She wouldn’t possess the social graces required to marry into society. Her dowry wouldn’t be enticing enough. And, worse still, gossips would soon begin to speculate that the match had only come about because he had gotten said woman “in the family way” – a humiliating and scandalous rumour that could ruin the reputation of both parties.
Divorce, likewise, was extremely rare: women who left their husbands had no viable means of income or survival. Because of this, a woman would seldom question her husband’s decisions, indiscretions, and treatment of her: instead, she would bite her lip and do her utmost to live by his rules
As Lord Halifax put it in his Advice to a Daughter, published in 1688: “It is one of the Disadvantages belonging to your Sex, that young Women are seldom permitted to make their own Choice.”
But then along came Austen.
The author – who never married herself – makes her thoughts on 18th century matrimony abundantly clear in Pride and Prejudice.
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” she writes.
And yet, as we all know, Austen’s novels tend to end with an “I do” – or, at the very least, the prospect of an “I do”.
So what gives?
Well, Austen’s novels champion a new world order, one which puts women – rational, intelligent, and independent women – at the front and centre of their own stories. Her unhappy women characters are abandoned by scoundrels, mocked by uncaring husbands, forced to choose between a loveless marriage or destitution. Her happy women marry men who treat them as partners. Matrimony is not the goal: love and happiness is.
And, brilliantly, it is the men who are reduced to traditionally “female” gender stereotypes, not our heroines.
We see it in Sense & Sensibility, when John Willoughby – not Marianne Dashwood – is forced to give up his one true love and marry for financial security. Elsewhere, the eligible Colonel Brandon finds himself overlooked by the object of his affections, and mournfully relegates himself to the sidelines, hoping against hope that she will someday change her mind. Persuasion’s Commander Frederick Wentworth sees his engagement broken by his betrothed’s mother, who deems him an unsuitable match for her daughter.
Mr Bennett defies convention as a father determined to see his daughters marry for love over money in Pride and Prejudice. George Knightley (who can’t even afford a pair of carriage horses) moves in with Emma and her father at their estate, Hartfield, rather than insist she joins him at his home. In Mansfield Park, Edmund is infatuated with the beautiful and talented Mary Crawley – and spends much of the novel chasing after her like a puppy and doing his utmost best to win her heart.
And Darcy? Darcy doesn’t appear in Elizabeth Bennett’s story until the third chapter of Pride and Prejudice – and, when he finally pops up, it’s not in the way you might expect.
“Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” writes Austen. With these words, she makes Darcy’s position very clear: he is someone to be looked at, marvelled over, and whispered about behind fluttering fans.
In short, he is the eye candy.
“The ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening,” the author writes.
All good news for Darcy, it seems, until his stock takes an almighty plummet when his personality fails to match up to his good looks.
Austen writes: “His manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”
That’s right, personality and sexual desire are every bit as important as someone’s socio-economic status, you guys.
Because of his glaring faux pas, Darcy is forced to redeem himself throughout the novel. He craves Lizzie’s approval – and he intends to work for it, too. Yet, despite all of his industriousness (he saves Lydia from ruin, remember?), Darcy is not the subject of this story, Lizzie is. It is she who acts as our viewpoint: her story is our keystone, and her thoughts and feelings are given precedence above all others.
She is, in short, our hero.
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Darcy may be a man, and he may be landed aristocracy, but he absolutely does not determine Lizzie’s worth. She remains every bit as independent and free-spirited throughout the course of the novel, and she loses none of her spirit, temper, or stubbornness in order to “win” the heart of her Mr Darcy.
Indeed, come the end of it all, it is Darcy who bares his soul and exposes all the secrets of his heart. It is he who is overcome by love and emotion. And it is he, the man, who is forced to admit that he doesn’t just desire Miss Bennett – he needs her.
“You have bewitched me, body and soul,” he tells her, choking on the words, “and I love, I love, I love you.
“And wish from this day forth [I wish] never to be parted from you.”
It’s a quiet form of revolution – but it is a revolution, nonetheless. Through her cosy romantic tales, Austen quietly and skilfully undermines the concept of arranged marriages, fuels expectations of romantic love, champions self-expression, reminds womankind of the importance of free will, and – above all else – teaches us that we deserve more.
‘You should be with someone who respects and loves you as you truly are,’ she may as well have whispered to us through her writings. ‘You’re sexual beings, with real and vital wants, needs and desires all of your own.
‘So remember that there is more to a good match than the promise of a proposal and a wealthy estate. Find someone who makes you feel good, and confident, and happy. Above all else, make sure he (or she) leaves you hot under your petticoats, too.’
Guess that’s excuse enough to give in to our primal urges and re-watch Pride and Prejudice, eh?
This article was originally published in July 2017.
Images: Rex Features