Jane Austen is not an obvious ally of today’s feminist movement. All six of her novels are now more than two centuries old. All six centre on a tale of provincial domesticity and romantic courtship. And all six are full of twists and witty turns that move inexorably toward a gratifyingly happy ending.
Yet below their glittering surfaces and rose-coloured tales of well-matched couples falling deeply in love, Austen’s novels vigorously critique the patriarchal structures of her day. They bristle with anger and a deep sense of injustice. Many of her plots and sub-plots about men and power — and women’s resilience in the face of that power — sound like stories we are hearing today.
Austen wrote in the early 1800s, when life for most women involved submerging their individual identities in their responsibilities as daughters, wives and mothers. Women were considered politically, economically, socially and artistically subordinate to men. It was a life that condemned many women to half-lives of humiliation, loneliness and abuse.
The novelist and short story writer Carol Shields has concisely summarized the complicated nature of Austen’s artistry and appeal. Austen, declares Shields, exploits “an arch, incontrovertible amiability” to conceal “a ferocious and persistent moral anger.”
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