Jane Austen: Her Life and Legacy
Written by Kyra McWilliams
Image via Vaughn Public Libraries
Every year, millions of students read the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. To many, it is just another boring book you are forced to read, but looking at it from today’s lens, it contains a message that is still incredibly relevant. This is a message of feminism, independence, and gender equality. To fully understand this message, you must first understand its relevance to the author.
Jane Austen loved writing from a young age and was encouraged by her family to pursue her passion for the subject. Her father was a scholar, who greatly encouraged his children to learn. Her mother was a very intelligent woman who loved to tell stories and poems. With her family’s encouragement, she penned her first work First Impressions by 1799 at age 24. This was a radical novel about gender roles and marriage told from the perspective of a woman. Austen wrote about the life she knew —the life of a middle class woman who felt pressured to marry. After finding a publisher and making revisions, her finished novel, now entitled Pride and Prejudice, was published in January 1813.
The main character of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, greatly reflects Jane and her experience. Elizabeth is a headstrong girl who is quick-witted and intelligent. She and her five sisters are expected to marry a wealthy man who can support them, but Elizabeth rebels. She rejects the notion of marrying for wealth, stability, and social class and instead marries for love.
In this time period, the early 1800s, this is an incredibly radical idea. Marriage was an economic proposition, and young women were expected to marry wealthy to support their families, Women were expected to stay entirely in the domestic sphere, being at hom mothers and wives, who were lesser than their husbands. Elizabeth Bennet rejecting Mr. Collins (a wealthy suitor) cause outrage within her family, as this was unseen in her time.
Jane Austen herself never married, deciding to not partake in a highly economic endeavor. She did, however, fall in love with a family friend named Tom Lefroy. When she was 19, she attended several parties and frequently danced with him, a large gesture of courtship in this time period. She wrote to her sister and close comrade Cassandra that if she received an offer from him, she would refuse. It is unknown if this was regarding marriage or just a dance, but regardless Lefroy moved back to Ireland, and the young romance came to an untimely end.
A large factor in their lack of marriage may have been Jane’s financial status. Traditionally, fathers would pass money down to their daughters, which would be put in possession of their husband. This lack of a dowry may have turned Tom Lefroy away. However, Jane soon had another shot at marriage with Harris Bigg-Wither, a brother of a friend. She initially accepted, but only a day after accepting his proposal, she broke off the engagement. There are many reasons she could have done this, one of which being her sister Cassandra, who was mourning the death of her fiance. It is also highly likely she simply didn’t like Bigg-Wither, who was six years her senior. She wrote to her niece about the troubles of marrying without love, like she described in Pride and Prejudice. Maybe she feared that becoming a wife and mother would interfere with her one true love- writing. Regardless, she never married and remained a revolutionary author her whole life.
Overall, Jane Austen was a revolutionary author for her time. She rejected the patriarchal idea of marriage, which confined women to their homes as wives and mothers in her novel Pride and Prejudice. In her own life, she never married- something unseen for a woman of her status. She is still talked about today and her books are still so significant because they preach messages of independence and feminism. She is an example for women all around the world to stand up for their beliefs and to never back down.
Written by writer Kyra McWilliams