Beneath the cleavage: Jane Austen’s closet feminists

Austenmania: Moral fables for modern times

3 minute read
These heroines have principles— and so do their men.
These heroines have principles— and so do their men.

Although Anthony Lane characterized Austenland as an “all but unwatchable mess” (The New Yorker, Sept. 8), I went to see it. Lane was right. I sat through it only because I’d paid $7.50 for a ticket.

Nevertheless, this puerile would-be satire about a young woman who finds true love in a Jane Austen theme park got me thinking about the many Austen-derived dramas that have popped up on our movie and TV screens over the past two decades.

What, aside from the obvious appeal of Colin Firth as a conflicted, waterlogged Mr. Darcy, is responsible for the contemporary popularity of these period comedies of manners? In particular, as a highly educated woman friend of mine asked, why are we attracted to narratives featuring heroines whose economic survival depends upon snaring a wealthy husband? Is this Austenmania an atavistic longing for pre-feminist subjugation to male power, a kind of elitist version of Fifty Shades of Grey?

Elevated cleavage

Not exactly. Yes, it’s clear that Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price and Ann Elliott have few options open to them other than marriage. It’s also clear that they don’t overtly challenge the existing social order; they play the limited roles assigned to them: the dutiful daughter, the loyal sister, the poor but grateful cousin. They attend to their needlepoint, play the piano prettily and minister to the less fortunate, all the while looking adorably feminine in Empire gowns that combine girlish puffed sleeves with low- cut bodices revealing dramatically elevated cleavage.

But they aren’t passive victims. In their own way, Austen’s heroines are closet feminists. Unlike the social butterflies and social climbers that Austen lampoons, they have principles and they stand up for them. They display intelligence, strength of will and loyalty. They may not flout convention, but they do refuse marriages of convenience, putting themselves at risk of spinsterhood, which was no small matter in those days.

The reward for their moral fortitude and patience? Somehow, despite the social constraints that hobble them, they find true love— with conveniently prosperous gentlemen— without compromising their personal values.

Principled but not rebellious

These same gentlemen— Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy, Edmund Bertram and Captain Wentworth— also operate within the highly defined roles that respectable society imposes upon them. They don’t rebel by becoming artists or musicians or swanning off to the colonies. They stay at home and attend to their estates and vicarages.

However, they too have principles and they stick to them. They risk approbation by speaking out for truth, justice and social responsibility. Like Austen’s female protagonists, they’re paragons of virtue in a culture rife with artifice, hypocrisy and the glorification of wealth and status.

Distant mirror

The parallels between Regency England and our own increasingly stratified society seem obvious (possibly because I just read an entire issue of Vanity Fair in one sitting). Our media-hyped celebration of name brands and name bands, movie stars and professional athletes, technology wizards and financial titans, our insatiable appetite for gossip and scandal are contemporary counterparts of the superficiality of upper-middle-class society in early 19th Century England— a superficiality that Jane Austen exposes with wit and humor.

Yet in the midst of pervasive falsity and social inequity, on a personal level honesty and goodwill triumph in Austen’s world. Women of integrity find honorable men and, against all odds, live happily ever after. Austen’s moral fables are as applicable to modern times as they were to her own, and we love them because they give us hope.

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