“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.”
“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.”
– Jane Austen, Persuasion
Until Jane Austen came along, the Western Novel was rather clueless about what to do with this creature called “woman”. Authors were quite certain that a woman needed to be pretty and charming to be a heroine, but they didn’t know what else a woman could do if she was the heroine, because even when she was the heroine she either needed rescuing (in which case, she’s not much of a heroine), or was swooning in a dramatic fashion. Heroically swooning, you might say.
Then, in the midst of a spate of Gothic novels, stories that sent their (male) heroes off to bizarre lands, and medieval adventures that proceeded to drone on and on, along came a young woman named Jane Austen who, in seven novels, rather upended the idea of what the Western Novel should be. Her heroines didn’t wander through faraway castles or turn into madwomen. They didn’t need rescuing from hopeless situations, . They were normal, middle-class young women who were looking for someone to fall in love with.
There was a recent New York Times article that talked about principal components analysis, a branch of data analysis, and how it shows that, because Austen used a lot of words about emotions and time, that this is the reason Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and the rest of Austen’s novels have survived. Which, I suppose, is true in the way that the sun a thing that gives off light. Sure, a novel is a collection of words and which words an author uses is important to the story. Stephanie Meyer used words when she wrote Twilight— in fact, she used a lot of the same words that Jane Austen used– and yet it’s hard to imagine Bella and Edward having the same staying power as Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy.
After that, I found another article about Jane Austen, this one in The Atlantic, written by Megan Garber. In it, Garber discusses a vastly different topic than dry data analysis, and I would argue that it is far more on point regarding the staying power of Austen and her novels, and it has everything to do with the fact that Austen wrote from the point of view of women, those pesky creatures the Western Novel was so puzzled by.
Austen’s books are often described as being naturalistic, with careful observations of everyday life. The reader is expected to be concerned about card games and how Lizzie’s dress is ‘six inches deep in mud’. Save for Catherine Morland’s fanciful imaginings in Northanger Abbey, none of Austen’s heroines are at risk from demented potential fathers-in-law. They’re not expected to die for– or of— love; the closest calls are a couple of colds suffered after characters unwisely journey out into the rain, but they recover and all is well again. Austen’s England is full of bright women who are observing the world around them.
And they’re looking at the men.
Therein lies the revolutionary aspect. It’s quiet, to be sure. Pride and Prejudice doesn’t exactly scream “feminist manifesto”. But it does, in its clever way, introduce us to witty women looking at the men around them, judging them, and finding them attractive or not. Because we’re seeing the story from Lizzie’s point of view, we are forced to understand the world from her perspective– to see her concerns, her desires, and her opinions. We’re not looking at Lizzie from a man’s perspective, we’re looking at the men from Lizzie’s point of view. As Gruber states in the article, “Lizzie is the subject; Darcy is the object”. It is, as I understand, difficult for men to see themselves as a secondary figure in a story. But that is what they are in Austen’s novels. True, her stories are about finding love and getting married but they are, first and foremost, women’s stories.
Because we see the men through the women’s eyes, we empathize with the women. We understand their heartache and their joy. We laugh with them, and we fall in love (or out of it) with the men in the stories at the same time as the women. It shouldn’t be a difficult concept to imagine, but the idea that the Female Gaze is a thing is oddly new to twenty-first century minds. In Jane Austen’s time it was positively revolutionary. Fortunately for us, Austen wrapped her revolution up with such wit and charm that she forever inspired devotion in succeeding generations of readers.