"Miss Austen’s novels … seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer … is marriageableness."
#pride and prejudice
#ralph waldo emerson
This Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about Jane Austen seems to me to have the ring of some of the criticism about Lena Dunham and Girls. These are just silly women’s problems! They’re so narrow! Unrelatable! It’s not art! It’s just women whining about their lives! The same old story - men’s stories are universal, women’s stories are niche.
Austen’s novels thrum with indignation and frustration at the narrow range of options provided to women of the time. Take Pride & Prejudice, the best known: Jane and Lizzie are considered exceedingly lucky to marry men they love, because so many women were compelled to marry out of necessity; Lizzie is forced to endure nasty comments about how she’s only marrying Darcy for his land and status because her family situation makes them appear desperate (partly because they kind of are); Charlotte Collins nee Lucas is clearly a figure to be sympathised with and pitied when she pragmatically accepts a proposal from a repulsive man in order to secure a roof over her head. Austen comments on the facts of life for her social class, particularly the economic constraints of patrilineal inheritance and marriage. Her novels are not “imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society”; her characters are.
Did poor women, tavern prostitutes, women in countries being “conquered” by soldiers dressed like Wickham - did they have an awful time of it while these kinds of dramas played out in parlours and ballrooms? Absolutely. But Austen wrote about the problems of being a woman in her place, in her time, as Dunham does, and she was dismissed as a writer of trivial and self-indulgent entertainments, by men who saw her problems as trivial. Trivial compared not to the plight of the brown woman or the poor woman, but to men’s problems, like Business and War. The struggles of women against the daily oppressions visited on them by society (as well as their own weaknesses, a theme favoured by many a male writer!) are too often seen as insignificant, “pinched and narrow” by men who see themselves as the gatekeepers of art and meaning – men who actually just lack the imagination, intelligence and compassion required to understand and value a woman’s point of view.