The radical Ms Austen

It is an untruth far too often acknowledged that Jane Austen's work is little more than a light, frothy souffle of witty repartee between young people trying to navigate relationships in 19th century England. Her novels, Pride and Prejudice included, are dismissed as Regency versions of the genre unkindly referred to as chick-lit, placing them along roughly the same continuum as the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey. In many ways, romantic love and especially its fulfilment is, in her novels, merely a happy coincidence.

Just after the 200th anniversary of her most famous novel, we present, instead, the radical Austen, carving rebellious patterns in her square inch of ivory. An unblinkered reading of P&P reveals a pragmatic work about the lives of impoverished genteel young women struggling to secure their futures in the only socially acceptable way available to them: marriage. But in the Bennet sisters' struggle for social survival there lies a deeply radical impulse, one that disrupts accepted class and gender hierarchies.

Austen's tendency to marry off her heroines has long sullied her feminist credentials. Her happy endings, where the heroines settle down in advantageous matches, are seen to further a conservative agenda. Yet it is impossible to miss certain resonances between her novels and that much-vaunted tract for women's lib, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 and still widely discussed in 1813. If Wollstonecraft deplores a system of education that turns women into "alluring mistresses rather than rational wives", Mr and Mrs Bennet's unhappy marriage seems to be the result of just such an education. Once "captivated by youth and beauty", Mr Bennet is soon disillusioned by his wife's "weak understanding and illiberal mind". Jane and Elizabeth's happy marriages are based on very Wollstonecraftian ideals of mutual respect and friendship. And we may be assured that the lively, well read Elizabeth will often question "the divine right of husbands".

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