Last week, I celebrated my birthday by introducing some international friends to the wonderfully delicious, carb-laden foods of Texas. In a spectacular case of The Lady Doth Protest Too Much, I also protested a friend who said that I had “Darcy parties” where my friends and I fawned over a fictional character. Welcome to another year of being a real adult who makes real adult decisions!
Sometime before Valentine’s Day, I’ll write a post about why it’s unhealthy to fantasize over Mr. Darcy, but today is for giving reasons to love Jane Austen besides stereotypical rom-com.
- Character caricatures– Any time I justify my love for Austen’s novels to anyone, this is one of my points. We all know people like her characters. In Pride and Prejudice, we have the matchmaking helicopter mom, the super awkward guy who can’t talk to a girl, the hot jock, the name dropper, the middle child, and the “cinnamon roll” type of girl. In Emma, we get a girl who thinks she’s the bee’s knees, but really needs to be taken down a peg. In Northanger Abbey, we get the girl who reads trash novels (or trash magazines?) and believes they’re an accurate depiction of life.
- Feminism and women’s rights– Austen wrote in the 1810’s- a time when a woman’s occupation was marriage. Only Emma is rich enough that she doesn’t need to marry; the other women must find husbands before their fathers’ property is transferred to a male heir. Through all the flirting and dancing, these women somehow have to prove that they will be good homemakers to men who can afford to raise a family. On top of that, they have to determine if the man will be kind or abusive, based solely on his conversation skills. Reading an Austen novel reminds me that I’m lucky to live in a time when I don’t need a husband in order to put food on the table. I can get a job, and I can date whomever I want. Sure, the 19th century is a romantic idea, but life in the 21st is far better.
- History– Jane Austen’s books got me interested in 18-19th century fashion and history. It turns out that fashion is a reflection of a society’s economics. When I was researching historically accurate fabric for my most recent Regency gown, I learned that there were advances in cloth production in the early 19th century that changed how men and women dressed. A new technique for printing patterns on fabric led to certain types of patterns on calico. British colonization of India brought new fabrics to England. I assume that military-inspired jackets made their way into women’s fashion as a result of the wars fought against Napoléon and everyone else. There’s fashion and then there’s what we consider history, and sometimes they impact each other.
- Humor– To bring this back to the writing itself, Jane Austen is hilarious. This might be more plain by quoting some of her lesser-known works. The dying words of one character in Love and Freindship are “Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint.” The description of King Richard III in The History of England? “It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; and if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife.” Another king is described as giving a long speech that Shakespeare wrote about. In her early works that she wrote as a teenager, she mocked everything, from kings to fainting to meet-cutes. In her famous works, she more subtly mocked and criticized her society, but she’s still hilarious in the way she characterizes people, like Mr. Collins, who are completely obsessed with themselves.
Is Jane Austen a romance novelist? Yes, of course! these are love stories. However, her stories are not just love stories, and there are more lessons than just How (Not) To Propose. If you avoid her novels because you hate romance novels, you miss out on the sarcastic characterizations of stock characters. If you only read her novels for the romance, you miss out on the ways she analyzes women’s rights in a marriage and war-focused society. Jane is deeper than her reputation as a famous romance novelist would have you believe.