When I first started to explore the conservative Christian blogosphere, I was surprised to learn how much affection there is among these folks for my very own Jane Austen. If there is one thing extreme social conservatives and raving feminists have in common, it is a strong affection for Jane. I suspect, however, that we see quite different things in her novels.
The thing is that Jane Austen harshly criticized the social structures of her era but she was no revolutionary. She wrote in a clear-eyed fashion about the very unromantic consequences of complete female dependence. Notwithstanding the frothy, lighthearted surface of many of her novels, she always makes it quite clear that the marriage and courtship game was one of great and serious risk for women. Refuse a man's proposal and you might well wind up enduring a lifetime of poverty and humiliating spinsterhood. Austen, however, never proposed any alternatves to the strictures placed on women. All of her heroines, spirited though some of them were, operated within the confines of their societal roles.
The lack of any open rebellion against patriarchal norms in Austen allows social conservatives to embrace her as one of their own. Pride & Prejudice ends with a happy marriage, exults Charlotte Allen of the Independent Women's Forum. The Feminists must hate that! And oh how wonderfully chaste and "proper" the manners were in those days, notes Plugged In, the Focus on the Family online entertainment magazine. (That is assuming one considers it "proper" to obsessively discuss other people's income and to make material considerations primary when assessing another person's suitability as a marriage partner.) Such interpretations, of course, completely overlook the fact that much of what conservatives love about Austen were simply conventions of her time (like the title "Mrs.," the fact that Austen remained in her father's household into adulthood or the fact that Mr. Bennet was the "head" of his house). The areas in which Austen deviates from the conventions of her time however reveal the heart of a feminist forerunner.
The agency with which Austen invests her female protagonists -- even in the face of unimaginable social and material pressures -- is in and of itself feminist. In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet refuses to pander to Mr. Darcy, even though he was an eligible bachelor of rank and wealth, well situated to rescue her from a difficult future. Ultimately, when Lizzie finally wins Mr. Darcy, it is not because he has been captivated by her "fine eyes," but because he respects her intelligence, respects her spirit, and repsects her character.
Even more impressive, Elizabeth Bennet declines quite decisively a marriage proposal from the dreadful and pompous Mr. Collins. It is impossible to overstate what a gutsy move this is for Lizzie Bennett. Due to the quirk in the manner in which her father had inherited the house in which they all lived, Lizzie and her mother and her four sister were all to be turned out off the house upon the death of their father so that the house could pass to Mr. Collins. And still Lizzie said no to Mr. Collins's proposal. Jane Austen wrote this chapter in the most hilarious way possible -- with the condescending Mr. Collins refusing to take Lizzie's refusal seriously ("I shall chuse to attribute [your rejection of me] to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.") and Lizzie insisting, "Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart." Jane Austen may have been the first woman to insistently make the political point that No Means No!
I don't mean for my discussion of Austen to be overly divisive. There is something for everyone to love in Austen whether you are a feminist or not. One loves Austen not only for the spiritedness of her protagonists and harsh social critique, but for her witty dialogue, the intimate portrait of domestic life in this period, strong characterization, and her basic values regarding the development and honing of one's character and behavior. One romanticizes Austen's time and place at one's peril, however. While there is no way to know what Austen would have thought about modern day feminism, she definitely didn't let the patriarchy off the hook and for that, among other things, I will always love her.
NOTE: I found some good stuff while I was surfing around to see what other feminist bloggers have to say about Jane. This review by Bad Feminist of the recent Pride & Prejudice movie starring Keira Knightley is right on target. And a major Austen fan, Amanda at Pandagon, notes about the movie as well:
. . . it irritated me to no end that Austen’s delicate portrayal of Charlotte Lucas’ decision to marry Mr. Collins was changed from a sad statement on the state of women to a tedious swipe at women who had to make unfortunate choices under oppression. And that’s mostly because the filmmakers’ didn’t want to trouble the audience with the idea that Mrs. Bennet’s desperation to marry off her daughters might have more to it than just a stereotypically shallow love of weddings.
SECOND NOTE: The other reason Austen qualifies as feminist is that she's funny as hell. She's exhibit A in opposition to the old canard that women aren't funny.