History with Heart of Dakota
What’s so special about Jane Austen?
When it comes to classic literature, Jane Austen’s books will always have a special place in my heart. What makes her easier to read than, say, Sir Walter Scott, is that her lively sense of humor transcends time periods and is still easily-understandable in today’s age. Where most authors of her time kowtow to the societal structures of the Regency Era, Jane enjoys poking fun at their foibles. As she says through the voice of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, “For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” (Austen 407)
Nonetheless, she is not so slap-happy with her sarcasm that she pokes fun at everything indiscriminately. She paints true virtues in positive tones and portrays wrongdoing without making light of it. As a rule, she respects what is respectable, detests what is detestable, and laughingly pokes fun at everything in between.
Another strength of Jane Austen’s literature is that her characters feel unshakably-real. Rather than being flat, the majority of them have relatable strengths or weaknesses. The way they think and act seems uncannily familiar – even to 21st century readers.
These qualities are all especially evident in Jane Austen’s magnum opus: Pride and Prejudice.
In today’s world of empowered women, it is difficult to imagine the different world that was the Regency Era. At that time, the options women of low social standing had were quite limited. While men were able to get an education at universities such as Cambridge, women were unable to attend such universities. Also, aside from employment as governesses, there were extremely restricted avenues for women to earn money through employment. (Even Jane Austen herself, though she earned some money through the sale of her novels, was very much the exception and not the norm.)
Finally, there was little-to-no chance of women being able to inherit an estate. (This would only be allowed in rare cases by privilege of nobility.) Therefore, in order to obtain financial security, women were expected to marry – and marry well. In the midst of all this – at a time where ladies were expected to be ornamental and materialistically-minded – Pride and Prejudice’s main character enters the scene.
Elizabeth Bennet is easily one of my favorite protagonists of all time. While she generally stays within the boundaries of civility expected of her as a lady, she is teasingly-defiant of some of society’s sillier conventions. She is not so reverent of social politics that she is afraid to laugh at their inconsistencies. Rather, she is irreverently-unimpressed by the distinctions which title and rank alone could afford a person. She differs greatly from Regency Era expectations of women to be seen and not heard – even going so far as to tease some of the novel’s most formidable gentry!
Nonetheless, Elizabeth shows good sense and intelligence where it is necessary. Though she is a flawed character who has weaknesses like any other person, she readily admits where she was wrong and does not remain stubborn and unyielding for long. As a reader from modern times, I find Elizabeth Bennet to be a breath of fresh air from the traditional heroines of books from that era. Not so progressive as to be obnoxious, Elizabeth Bennet nevertheless exists in a manner that outclasses her times.
Another reason Pride and Prejudice is so timeless is because its themes are still relevant in today’s culture. A key theme is to never judge someone based on your first impression. (Fun fact: Jane Austen originally titled the book “First Impressions” before settling on “Pride and Prejudice”.)
Another key theme is the wisdom of choosing who you marry carefully. This is especially relevant today! Many young people (myself included!) have questions about relationships on their minds. They want to see what a healthy relationship looks like. They want to see what character traits to look for in someone they might date/court. Tired of being hoodwinked by Hollywood, they hunger to know what love really looks like.
This, my friends, is where Pride and Prejudice shines! It is far more than a manners and morality tale; it is an honest look at what character traits make a man or woman. In the novel, you see the good, the bad, and the ugly. You see stupidity, selfishness, and pride put on full display. But you also see character traits reminiscent of the Proverbs 31 woman and the Ephesians 5 man shining for all to see.
Ultimately, Pride and Prejudice perceptively demonstrates that while marriage is a huge blessing, rushing headlong into marriage often does more harm than good. “Marriage alone is not a virtue,” Jane Austen seems to counsel us. “It’s who you marry that makes or breaks your success.”
Where in HOD can you find Pride and Prejudice?
You can find Pride and Prejudice in the English credit section of our US History II high school curriculum. For those who want to dive deeper into the Pride and Prejudice experience, there is an option that includes an excellent BBC miniseries adaption starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. (Personally, I would highly-recommend seeing it; it’s true to the book and the acting is FANTASTIC!)
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2004).