Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

persuasion-1995

Was Jane Austen a feminist?

In order to answer that question, we first need a definition of feminism.  Here is how Merriam-Webster defines it: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”  By this definition, most modern women (and men) are feminists.

Of course, “feminist” is a moving target.  In the 1900s, feminist meant someone with the radical idea that women should vote.  In the 60s and 70s, it meant someone who believed women could work outside the home.  But back in Jane Austen’s time there would have been many men (and women) who disputed the basic premise: that men and women could or should be equal in rights and opportunities.  Austen’s world did not provide equality.  Unmarried women of Austen’s class could not easily support themselves and lived lives that were circumscribed in many ways.  Married women had it even worse: once they married, all of their property became their husband’s.

While the word feminist was not in use during Austen’s era, there is plenty of evidence that she was aware of and unhappy about disparities in rights and opportunities between men and women.

Austen’s life itself may be the best argument for Austen as a feminist.  Women weren’t supposed to write novels, which many considered to be lurid and in bad taste.  They especially weren’t supposed to publish them.  Women were supposed to confine their lives to the private sphere of family and the home.  (In Persuasion, Austen writes:  “We live at home, quiet, confined…”)  The “public” aspect of publication should have disqualified Austen as an author—according to the customs of the time.  But Austen did publish, and she published as “a lady,” rather than using a male pseudonym, as the Bronte sisters did later.  It was obviously important to her that readers knew her books were written from a female perspective.

In Austen’s works you can also find many demonstrations of feminist beliefs.  While none of her characters agitate overtly for changes in gender norms, they also do not blindly follow the dictates of convention.  Elizabeth Bennet is too outspoken for a woman and refuses to bow to societal pressure to marry for the sake of money.  Fanny Price sticks to her internal sense of right and wrong no matter what her “betters” say.  Sense and Sensibility is a very eloquent examination of how women wrestle with questions of being ruled by head or heart.  In all of her books, the heroines are struggling to find a place in the world where they can be true to themselves—without compromising their values and needs.

However, I believe there is no better way to represent Austen’s feminist beliefs than a quote from Persuasion.  Hargrave says,  “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”  Anne replies, “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”  When I saw this scene in the movie version of Persuasion, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

I don’t think it was until I was in college that I realized how thoroughly disenfranchised women are in the history of literature.   With rare exceptions, women’s voices were not heard and women’s experiences were not represented until the 1800s and the popularization of the novel as a form of literature.   Yes, men have written—sometimes wonderful—female characters.  But we have no way of knowing what women themselves would have written if they’d had the opportunity through the centuries.  All we do know is that it would be different from what men wrote.

Austen herself demonstrates this truth.  A man could not have written her novels.  They are about a female world and a female experience.  Readers may swoon over Mr. Darcy, but it is Austen’s exploration of the feminine that makes her books unique.  Thank goodness Austen had the courage to “go public” with her stories, otherwise we wouldn’t have them.  We can all be thankful that Austen was a feminist.

Where is the Justice in Austen?

This is a recent blog of mine published on Austen Authors.  Enjoy!  I’d love to hear your opinions as well.

wickham-wedding

Readers often comment on the fact that in Pride and Prejudice there is no comeuppance or cosmic justice for the “bad” characters.  Although Wickham is shackled to Lydia and is forced into a new job, he gets off very easily for someone who has behaved so despicably.  Other characters who are deeply flawed end up no worse by the end of the book.  Collins will still inherit Longbourn, and he gets a wife who is far better than he deserves.  Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine continue on their merry ways, protected by their wealth and status.

Indeed, one of the fun things about Jane Austen Fan Fiction is that we can imagine some kind of justice for these characters in the form of imprisonment, death, or simple humiliation.   They are so flawed that their comeuppance can serve as a great source of humor as well as providing the satisfaction of having the wicked punished.  I have written such scenes; they are great fun and very emotionally satisfying.

Yet, even when I write them, I am aware that in some ways such scenes are not in keeping with Austen’s original intent.  She clearly intends that the bad/flawed characters should not suffer an evil end.  It would be easy enough for her to serve up some kind of cosmic justice to them.  However, it is enough for her that good characters have loving marriages and find secure places for themselves.  This is true in all her novels.  Fanny Dashwood gets to live off her ill-gotten gains.  Willoughby gets lots of money.  Lucy Stone gets the rich guy.  There is no justice meted out to Fanny Price’s relatives or Anne Elliott’s.

In some ways it is unsatisfying.  Don’t you want someone to take Lady Catherine down a peg?  Or tell Collins what a fool he is?  But in other ways, it feels exactly right.  It certainly makes Austen’s stories more true to life.  Haven’t you ever met someone who doesn’t deserve the good fortune they enjoy?  We struggle to earn a living while someone who is shallow or downright nasty glides along on inherited wealth—or is just in the right place at the right time.  Or you meet a couple where you think, “he/she doesn’t deserve a spouse like that.”  I believe, one of the reasons we don’t mind the absence of the kind of emotionally satisfying closure you get with other books is because it does feel familiar to us.

They also feel true to us in the way that the flawed characters cause trouble for the “good” ones.   Some of her characters do scheme and deceive for the sake of their own ends.  But in general, the wrongs they cause are a result of carelessness.  Wickham ruins Lydia’s reputation because he’s fleeing creditors and wants some company on the road, not because of some evil master plot.  And doesn’t that feel true to life?  Haven’t you had a friend who was in a bad relationship with a guy who was just careless of her feelings—without any evil intent?   They can cause just as much, if not more, damage as someone who actually intends harm.

Certainly characters like Lady Catherine or Collins or Miss Bingley or even Mrs. Bennet don’t rise to the Lord Voldemort—or even the Snidely Whiplash— level.  Their biggest flaws tend to be excessive self-regard and lack of sympathy for others.  Again, the wrongs they cause are mostly through carelessness (or in Collins’s case, excessive stupidity).  Doesn’t that feel familiar?  How often do friends and family cause deep wounds without intending to?  You experience the pain while also understanding that it stems from the other person’s own flaws rather than malice.  Austen’s characters remind us of people we know, albeit often exaggerated versions.

Ultimately, what sets the “good” characters apart from the “bad” ones is greater self-awareness—which is its own reward.  All of Austen’s heroines don’t end up wealthy, although they all have secure homes.  But they all benefit from an understanding of themselves, sympathy for those around them, and awareness of their own flaws.  In fact, becoming aware of one’s flaws is part of the plot of many of Austen’s books.  The reward for that journey of self-exploration is the ability to form a truly loving relationship with another person.  And that, Austen demonstrates, is what the flawed characters miss out on.

 

The Secret of Mr. Darcy’s Enduring Appeal

I wrote this blog recently for the Austen Authors website.  Please share your ideas about what you think makes Darcy so appealing!

If you’re like me, since early childhood you have been exposed to a wide variety of romantic heroes:  fairy tale princes, billionaires, superheroes, spies, cops, bad boys, vampires…the list goes on and on.  But yet somehow Mr. Darcy always stands apart.  He isn’t Prince Charming or James Bond or Superman or Edward Cullen, yet Darcy somehow manages to feel more real and more romantic than his fictional counterparts.  Austen herself wrote some great romantic heroes, but Darcy is somehow different.  Why is that? What is his enduring appeal?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  Any fictional character with such a powerful grip on our collective imagination is bound to be a complex and multi-faceted cultural phenomenon.  But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Darcy’s appeal as I’ve written stories about him, and I’ve identified some salient traits. While these characteristics are not necessarily completely unique to Darcy, they do set him apart from the majority of other romantic heroes.

  1. He is steadfast. She turns him down, but he still holds out hope for gaining her love.
  2. He is willing to overlook her family. Yeah, it takes him a while to get there, but he must love her an awful lot to put up with Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Wickham. Talk about difficult in-laws…
  3. He likes her intelligence. This is a biggie.  He does think she has fine eyes, but what he really likes is her wit, cleverness, lively conversation.  Wouldn’t every woman like to be appreciated for her brain?
  4. He values her backbone. One of the first things he notices about her is that she stands up to him.  I always assume most women treat him like Miss Bingley, fawning over him and agreeing with everything he says. Darcy likes Elizabeth because she’s her own person.
  5. He defends her to other people. Isn’t this a female fantasy?  A guy who will tell other people (including catty women) you’re beautiful and smart when they’re criticizing you.
  6. He fixes problems for her. Yeah she generally takes care of her own issues, but she can’t fix the Lydia/Wickham fiasco. He wades into the scandal for her sake, and doesn’t even want to take credit for it.
  7. He’s played by Colin Firth (and that other guy who’s kind of cute too).

However, in my opinion #8 is the biggest single contributor to his enduring appeal:  Darcy is willing to change his behavior for Elizabeth’s sake.

Let me say it a different way:  He admits he was wrong and tries to be a better person so he can deserve her. 

He essentially starts as a selfish character (at least in the way he views love and marriage) and evolves into one whose primary consideration is the happiness of the woman he loves.  Who wouldn’t love that guy?

I don’t know about you, but this is a bigger fantasy for me than a guy who can play baccarat smoothly or defend me from gangsters (not just because those other situations don’t arise very often).  No matter how much you love your significant other, there are always ways you wish he or she could change to make your life easier.  But Darcy’s kind of change is a bit of a fantasy.  Real life is far more messy.  If your beloved does change his/her behavior for you, it tends to be with far more strife, more gradually, and over a longer period of time.  In other words, changing one’s behavior (at least the behavior that springs from one’s intrinsic nature and beliefs) is a long, painful process.

But in Pride and Prejudice, this rich, powerful, handsome man who could wed just about any woman, changes his behavior because he wants Elizabeth Bennet.  (Sigh. Swoon.) His willingness to change is a testament both to Elizabeth’s worth and to the power of love—which is part of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice itself.

Giveaways of A Very Darcy Christmas!

I’m lucky enough to be a guest at three different blogs which are offering excerpts and giveaways of A Very Darcy Christmas.  Check it out!

http://calicocritic.blogspot.com/2016/12/book-excerpt-and-giveaway-very-darcy.html

https://moreagreeablyengaged.blogspot.com/2016/12/available-at-amazon-happy-holidays-to.html?showComment=1482336973248#c3909149365579615725

http://babblingsofabookworm.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/a-very-darcy-christmas-by-victoria.html

Giveaway and 4.5 Star Review

There is a Giveaway and a lovely 4.5 Star Review for A Very Darcy Christmas at From Pemberley to Milton.
Rita writes, “This is a very entertaining book full of laughter and holiday spirit but it can be read at any other time of the year. It is funny, romantic and up to the standards Mrs. Kincaid already got us used to. She marvels at adding humor to her stories and yet keeping true to Jane Austen’s characters, and A Very Darcy Christmas is vivid proof of her proficiency in this type of stories.”  Thank you, Rita!

https://frompemberleytomilton.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/a-very-darcy-christmas-review-giveaway/

4.5 Star Review for A Very Darcy Christmas!

Claudine at JustJane1813.com  gave A Very Darcy Christmas 4.5 stars, writing a very insightful review:

“It’s a challenge to write JAFF that has a more humorous than serious bent without losing some credibility, but Victoria Kincaid handles this challenge with her uncanny ability to combine Austen’s storyline and characters with a variety of different forms of humor so that her jokes stayed funny throughout the story, while at the same time, the characters felt true to their original personalities. Mrs. Kincaid is also an author who has a knack for moving a story along without getting caught up in descriptive language or other superfluous details that could slow down the pacing of her story, and in “A Very Darcy Christmas,” she demonstrates this skill throughout her story.”

You can check out the review, read an excerpt, and enter a giveaway for a free copy of the book at https://justjane1813.com/2016/12/04/a-very-darcy-christmas-by-victoria-kincaid-a-review-an-excerpt-a-readers-choice-giveaway/

Two Giveaways for A Very Darcy Christmas!

I was fortunate enough to be a guest at two blogs, Diary of an Eccentric and From Pemberley to Milton, this week.  In my guest posts I discussed various things I had learned about Regency Christmas traditions.  The posts also include excerpts from my new novel,  A Very Darcy Christmas, and giveaways of the book.  Be sure to check it out!  Here are the links:

https://frompemberleytomilton.wordpress.com/2016/12/03/a-very-darcy-christmas-guest-post-giveaway/

https://diaryofaneccentric.wordpress.com/