Jane Austen writes in Northanger Abbey that “a woman, especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” It’s a piece of advice that may sound peculiar coming from arguably the most widely read female author in the English-speaking world, but it is nevertheless advice Jane took to heart. Sense and Sensibility, Jane’s first published novel, originally advertised the author simply as “A Lady.” It would have been socially unacceptable for a woman of Jane’s good standing to write a novel, and Jane was not one to challenge social norms. In her personal life, that is. Her characters were, if you’ll excuse the expression, a whole other story.
Take Marianne, for example. In the contest between sense and sensibility, Marianne falls firmly on the side of sensibility. While her older sister Elinor models the reserved and discreet behavior deemed appropriate for a young lady, Marianne never holds back. She expresses herself fully and unapologetically, refusing to tailor her conduct to the standards of societal expectations. Originally, Austen had intended Elinor as the role model and Marianne as the cautionary tale – a silly girl who indulges her whims and finds herself worse for the wear. However, as the story unfolded, Jane Austen found herself sympathizing with Marianne. Marianne, as Austen critic Claire Tomalin puts it, became a woman who was both “fierce and fiercely intelligent… [her] honestly expressed opinions were not silly at all.” Even Elinor, who throughout the novel chastises her sister’s imprudence, can’t help but admit that Marianne’s opinions are valid. The ending of the novel was hailed by the critics of the time for its “sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life,” but left many readers (and even Jane herself) a little unsatisfied. Ironically, Marianne’s ferocity and unrestrained spirit, which the critics of Austen’s time were pleased to chasten, is the very thing that draws us to the story today.
Even in the twenty-first century, there is still something unique and compelling about a female character who is fiercely intelligent, unfailingly honest, uninhibitedly passionate, and wholly unapologetic. Why is that still such a rare and exciting thing to see a woman who will not apologize for how she feels and how she goes about getting what she wants? Because make no mistake, it is rare. Even today, women are much more likely to apologize for their behavior than their male counterparts. In fact, it is a phenomenon that linguists and social scientists have been studying for decades. A 2010 study found that while men and women are equally likely to apologize when they believe that they have committed an offense, women are far more likely to believe that they have committed an offense in the first place, and also to perceive their offenses as more severe. When you consider the particularly harsh social scrutiny that women face now and have faced at least since the time in which Austen was writing, perhaps this information is not so surprising. And perhaps then it makes sense that it would be equally exciting then as now to hear stories of women who break out of this paradigm.
Knowing the extent to which women still struggle to free themselves from restrictive societal expectations makes Austen’s work all the more revolutionary in the context of its own time. Though Jane Austen led a quiet life, she produced work that pushed boundaries and grappled with questions that even she herself could not answer. She crafted characters full of wit and humor, sorrow and joy, love and life, who most importantly did not apologize for any of it. No matter what standards Jane adhered to in her life, her characters refused to conceal what they knew, and today we love them all the more for it.
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Top: Morgan Lauré and Laura Gragtmans. Photo: Karen Almond