Home » 9th Season (2021-2022) » 2021-2022 v.03 (May) » The Evolution of Jane Austen

The Evolution of Jane Austen

By Sydni Williams, VI Form

The Evolution of Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”1

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, upplaga (ex pbk ed.). ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).

This opening line from Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, is a summation of the time period in which Austen lived and wrote. The quote proves that, in eighteenth century England, an economically stable, unmarried man should pursue an agreeable, unmarried woman to acquire as a wife. After courtship, proposals, and financial negotiations with the woman’s father, a man and woman would be married through a process devoid of love. From the perspective of an eighteenth-century woman, Pride and Prejudice’s opening line demonstrates that a woman’s marital status decided her economic security and quality of life. Women had little to no opportunity to advance in society, beyond the man they married. Therefore, proposals, marriage negotiations, and weddings were an important landmark in the lives of many women; the landmark that decided their future. 

Jane Austen, living among the eighteenth-century gentry, witnessed these events in her everyday life and wrote novels about this world: about marriage, love, hate, family, relationships, and humanity. Unlike many women of her time, Austen never married and spent her life dedicated to a writing career. Austen’s stories have transcended centuries, influenced the film industry, and remained on bookshelves and in classrooms. Although Austen’s “universally acknowledged truth” may no longer be true after the women’s rights movement, Austen and her novels have somehow remained relevant. 

There is not much information existing on Austen’s personal life. Historians, biographers, and writers have theorized about her sexuality, gender identity, political views, and career goals. For almost a century after her death, Austen’s family members rewrote her life in biographies, profiting off of her successes. When remembering Jane, they manipulated her image to fit into society’s standards of a spinster, creating “Aunt Jane,” a caricature of Austen since used in many accounts and biographies. As a result of this image, Austen was an ideal conservative icon used in support of marriage. 

In contrast, twentieth and twenty-first century perspectives on Austen have often differed from these earlier portrayals, instead using her as a progressive icon. As a woman writer, Austen was always distantly attached to the feminist movement. In the suffrage movement, she became an iconic writer, representative of women who chose to pursue careers over domestic life. Later, Austen was a source of contention for second wave feminists, who argued over whether or not she represented ideals of feminism. In the most recent wave of feminism, as gender binaries have begun to break and marriage is no longer the status quo, Austen’s popularity is greater than ever because of the multitude of film adaptations. With all the contrasting depictions of Austen’s life, her true self is a mystery and her identity as a feminist is highly debated. 

Since the 1940s, Austen’s novels have been transformed on screen as documentary series, Hollywood motion pictures, and modern adaptations, providing audiences with entertainment, historical accuracies and inaccuracies, and sexualized characters. All of these adaptations reflect cultural and social movements from the time of the film’s creation, as told through the lens of Jane Austen. As writers and directors use Austen’s work for their own purposes, it is difficult to decipher Austen’s intentions and her social and political opinions. 

Suffragists, conservatives, liberals, feminists, writers, filmmakers, biographers, activists, and media outlets have used Austen as a cipher to support their own social and political agendas. To unravel these opinions of Austen and portrayals of her novels, it’s crucial to consider Austen’s role in her time, in the suffrage movement, in second wave feminism, in Hollywood, and in twentieth century entertainment.

Click HERE to read Sydni’s full Fellowship paper

Sydni Williams is a VI Form day student.

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