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Jane and The Austenettes: Understanding the Heroine
I hesitated a great while
in writing what I think to be the most complex aspect of the Austen universe: her heroine. There are established opinions about the Austenettes, whether you've read her or not; they're thought (by the unenlightened mob) to be boring simpletons with no real depth of feeling (I have no quote on that, only the ignorant opinions of classmates), but to real Janeites, there is more than meets the eye.
What makes a heroine? To be sure, she must be female; that goes without saying. Something distinguishes her from the supporting ladies; she’s got gumption and resolve to do what would most benefit her family. More than that, she has an indelible sense of the immortal about her, a set of qualities that have not been lost on women in the 200 years since these books were written.
At one point or another in my 22 years, I have been able to relate to each of these heroines; In making a match between friends, I am an Emma; In realizing I have misjudged someone, I am an Elizabeth; In seeking adventure outside my childhood home, I am a Catherine (The fact that I share my Christian name with two of these heroines is purely coincidental, but nevertheless exciting, though I was named for Saints Catherine and Elizabeth). The situations that these women find themselves in have not changed like the clothing fashions. Women of 2012 are still prey to their financial status, still fall in love with the wrong man, still realize that they have wronged a dear friend; the follies of women have not shifted as dramatically as we might think.
I recently made the discovery of a beautiful book
entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen Edited by Susannah Carson. At risk of misinterpreting the words of two phenomenal authors, I shall attempt to relay the thoughts of C.S. Lewis on the Austen heroine.
C.S. Lewis breaks the ladies of Austen’s six complete novels into two categories: those who are awakened to their own follies (Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, and Emma Woodhouse of Emma), and those who are subject to the follies of others (Anne Elliot of Persuasion and Fanny Price of Mansfield Park). The ladies of the first category all become aware that they have made a crucial mistake; it is the correction of the mistake that sets the novel on the right path.
Lewis points out Marianne’s catalytic moment in Sense and Sensibility: After months of depression at the loss of Willoughby and nearly losing her life to sickness, Marianne Dashwood comes to the realization that she has not only caused her family grief, but that she had behaved with "imprudence towards [herself], and want of kindness to others." She saw that her "own feelings had prepared [her] sufferings, and that [her] want of fortitude under them had almost led [her] to the grave." (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 46)
Marianne admits that her illness is self-inflicted. It is only after this realization that Marianne allows herself to become better acquainted with Colonel Brandon and fall into a kind of mutual fondness. It helps that Colonel Brandon still holds her in the highest regard, never seeking to cause her grief. Marianne’s embarrassment that she distressed her family and nearly killed herself in the process allows her to move forward with humility and a sense of duty.
On the other hand,
we find Anne Elliot of Persuasion and Fanny Price of Mansfield Park: the watchers. Both women commit no errors in their novels, instead watching other make grievous mistakes. These two women are oppressed, forced to the outskirts of their social circles and tormented watching the men they love courting other women. It might surprise you to learn that Anne Elliot is my favorite Austenette, especially in the presence of the lively Elizabeth Bennett and sassy Emma Woodhouse, but I’ll tell you why: Anne is deeply thoughtful and always sticks to her guns.
Since her refusal of Captain Wentworth’s proposal at 19, Anne takes it upon herself to manage her family’s tenuous finances. She is not swayed by money spending sprees or social obligations like her father and elder sister Elizabeth; instead, Anne finds pleasure in visiting an invalid school friend and spending a great deal of time with her younger sister Mary’s family, all without complaint. And yet, behind her stoic exterior, Anne has a passionate fervor. It’s not visible at the onset of the novel, but begins to appear when Captain Wentworth comes back into her life. She never stops loving him, and yet never allows her love for him prevent her from doing what she must to go on living without him. This is a marked difference from Marianne Dashwood, who seems to be unable to live without Willoughby initially. Anne Elliot is so complete a person, she seems to breathe beyond Austen’s limitations, like she exists for real.
One can’t help but wonder in amazement
at Austen’s genius of characterization; though we often condemn Emma Woodhouse for her chastisement of Miss Bates, it is Austen who made Emma say those things, made Elizabeth refuse Mr. Collins, made Elinor watch as Lucy Steele impeded on her future with Edward. It is Austen who then made us forget that an intelligent woman of little consequence created these characters, a woman who never found the romance she grants the Austenettes and died too young. And yet, Austen doesn’t beg our pity for her own circumstances, she teaches us about the expectations of her time.
Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Austen’s romances end with marriage (or at least the intention of betrothal) for the heroine. Without marriage, a woman of the British Regency would find herself completely impoverished once her supporting family member passed.
In A Truth Universally Acknowledged,
Susanna Clarke asserts that women didn’t simply look for a husband, they were “choosing a career;” they might “become a parson’s wife… a landowner’s wife… or a ship captain’s wife” (Carson 3), but rarely did she have her own career. If a woman laid charge to her own economy, as Austen herself did, it clashed with her marriage prospects. The Mysteries of Udolpho is central to Catherine Morland’s imaginative fantasies in Northanger Abbey and its author Ann Radcliffe was indeed married to a man she considered her greatest friend, but this was very rare.
Austen manages to save all of her heroines from obscurity, but not all of the supporting ladies are so fortunate. It seems as if she punishes them as society did; Mary Bennett, in all her puritanical sensibility, would likely live out her life a maid. She is so self-oblivious that she fails to realize her public caterwauling is bothersome, believes herself to be a great intellectual, and does not seek to involve herself with her family’s affairs. A woman without a care for her family or her own economy would not have likely secured any kind of lasting connection. A woman so self-involved and oblivious wouldn’t draw in even the silliest of men. Not even Mr. William “Desperate” Collins.
The Austenettes are set apart from their supporting ladies
by deeper self-observation. Catherine Bingley is prevented from reaching the heroine status by the belief that she possesses only correct opinions and the advantage of wealth, and yet poor, unfussy Elizabeth Bennett weds the object of Catherine’s eye, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth proves that she is worthy of Darcy by making him realize his own repellent pride, and correcting her skewed prejudices. Miss Bingley would simply tax Darcy’s patience, like Charlotte Palmer of Sense and Sensibility does to her husband Thomas. Austen wouldn’t think of bestowing a marriage of convenience upon her heroines; they’ve earned love matches by showing a greater depth of understanding and seeking to better themselves, and Austen is eager to grant them thus.
Austen seems to tie up her six complete novels with a neat bow, but make no mistake; Jane Austen never gives a character something they haven’t earned. This holds true with her leading ladies. Marianne Dashwood falls for the wrong man and earns his ultimate desertion. But by becoming aware of her faults and correcting them, Marianne earns the affection and respect of Colonel Brandon. Elinor Dashwood watches over her family and sticks by Marianne no matter what, earning the admiration of Edward Ferrars. Fanny Price endures unceasing torment by her aunt’s family, never wavers from her own moral sensibilities, and ultimately earns the companionship and love of Edmund Bertram.
No one could accuse the Austenettes of being boring simpletons if they realized the profound way in which they deal with a restrictive society. All these women must act within the rules of their time, and yet all of them still achieve some higher fulfillment in a time when women were not independent creatures. Above all else, they earn love from men with whom they have a mutual respect, an idea that we’re still fighting for in the 21st century. If anything is unrealistic about the fate of the Austenettes, it’s their fashion; what woman in her right mind wears an empire waist dress nowadays? I jest, but truly I can find no fault in the formation of Jane Austen’s heroines. We modern women could take a few notes from these ladies! Maybe we’ll find a Darcy of our own.