08 March 2011 by Published in: Uncategorized Tags: No comments yet

Happy International Women’s Day!

Have you been marching on bridges to show your sisterly solidarity?  I certainly hope so.

One of the ‘forerunners of feminism’ was the Divine Jane herself, and deserves a mention on this day.

Writing in a time where the only career open to women was marriage and motherhood, Jane had a narrow scope as far as feminism went, but despite decades of feminists criticising and condemning her books as old fashioned and very retrogressive for women’s rights, Jane Austen must have been one of the earliest feminists known to womankind.
Not only did she express views at the time that were ‘far to clever to have been written by a woman’, she wrote them under the pseudonym of ‘A.Lady’ and STILL manages to sell edition upon edition, unlike the Bronte ‘brothers’, who resorted to male pen names in order to get their books to sell.
It is understandable that Jane never published work under her own name, as this was a time when other female writers said they would ‘rather exhibit as a rope dancer’ than have everyone know they had literary integrity and an imagination, but despite this setback she started a revolution.

Jane herself had a career, and was proud of it.  Elinor Dashwood confesses her envy of a man’s being able to earn a living in Sense and Sensibility.  It isn’t groundbreaking or feminist by today’s standards but I’m sure at the time people would not have liked a young woman to say that.  A woman knew her place.
Jane’s Girls must have caused controversy.  A part from the foolish Catherine Morland, who at least shows some ability to judge charachter, the heroines of The Great Six are strong, intelligent and in many cases very modern.  Elizabeth Bennet and Emma both declare they should never like to marry though they have different reasons for this opinion.  Fanny Price is principled and wise despite her young age and her belonging to ‘the weaker sex’ and even refuses and offer of marriage from Henry Crawford on these principles.  Elizabeth likewise turns down not one but two proposals as she does not need a husband or a man’s wealth to make her happy.  She is convinced that ‘nothing but the very deepest of love could induce her to marry’.

Jane herself was a modern woman.  Not only did she have a career, she lived in a male-free household during the most productive years of her life, suggesting that running around after brothers, neices and nephews had stilted her talents in past years.  She also dealt with her publisher alone on several occasions, not relying on her brother Henry’s help.  Jane knew that woman could take matters into their own hands- be they prettily be-gloved in lace or not.

So Girl-Power is the message from Jane- a message that resonated down the decades and inspired the young women who read her generation after generation to take matters into their own hands, so competently that now it is 100 years since International Women’s Day was founded.
It influenced doctors, politicians, soldiers, pilots, artists, musicians and writers.

‘Women can do anything’ was her message, although it was restricted and held back by the tight constraints of society.

It’s not Jane Austen, but I recently read feminist, progressive novel South Riding by Winifred Holtby and loved every word of it. I think Holtby heard Austen, just as I did and I hope Jane would have approved of the message it gave to the girls leaving school in the novel:

Go therefore and do that which is within you to do.  Take no heed of gestures that beckon you aside.  Ask of no man permission to perform.”

Happy International Women’s Day everyone! 

And pray remember Miss Austen when you’re next singing along to the Spice Girls.

Miss Smith, xxx


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