September 2019



By Anwen Crawford
Jane Austen as reviewed by men on Goodreads

Good god, Austen, I wish you had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindications of the Rights of Woman.

Jane Austen may be the most cowardly writer I have ever read, and I know this because of her complete aversion to risk.

I appreciate women didn’t have many options back in those days but this book was ridiculously boring. Basically if a lady didn’t have a man in her life she was nothing and they seemed to all fall in love with the first bloke they met regardless of his personality.

This book has all the excitement of a questionably suggestive glance from across an early 19th-century ballroom. So, who will all these silly, privileged white women end up marrying?

Austen archly remarks:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

In other words, she recommends to her female readers to allow men to enjoy their notion of being cleverer and better versed in the ways of the world than women, and, as a wise woman, to encourage men in this belief in order to seem more attractive to them, but this advice is poisonous on two heads. Firstly, it confirms the idea according to which a woman’s fulfilment lies in pleasing and attracting a man – an idea that is doubtless part and parcel of Austen’s education and that she might silently despise yet never openly rebel against. And secondly because with Catherine Morland, Austen does not create a woman that is actually clever but decides to hide her light under a bushel, but actually a young girl who is hopelessly naive and who actually confirms any prejudice her readers might entertain with regard to women’s judgement.

Furthermore, this book contributes to the ninny-headed notion that romance and marriage are life’s sole purpose.

Ah yes, Anne [Elliot]. Another largely unimpressive feature of the book. It is maddening to see her allow herself to be tread upon again and again, and by the end of the novel there is little to make me believe she has learned anything, that her spine is any stiffer.

Don’t tell me that storytelling wasn’t more complex back then. Austen was writing more than 200 years after the deaths of Marlowe and Shakespeare, and 50 years after Jonathan Swift’s profane poems about Celia and Alexander Pope pilloried this entire uptight system in “The Rape of the Lock”. And don’t you dare tell me she wrote this way because she was a woman. It’s incomprehensible that the sex of Mary Ann Evans and Anne Bradstreet only had the imagination or desire to conjure this. The English language canon disproves such misogyny. While I’ve yet to peruse the Brontës, their opinions of Austen lead me to further believe she wasn’t the benchmark of female internal life in her culture.

Bottom line according to Austen: it’s okay to settle and you’ll probably have to do so for whatever reason. Be happy with your second or third choice because that’s all you’ll be able to acquire more than likely.

So if you want to read a real love story, read Anna Karenina. If you want to read the biggest piece of anti-feminist drivel in the literary canon, then by all means, read Pride and Prejudice.

Most horrifying of all is that I know women who find the central character – Elizabeth Bennett – to be a HEROINE! A role model (heaven forbid)! This is a woman who seems at the outset to be spunky and independent, but we are privy to her inner thoughts, which show no such strength of character. Instead, she opines (ad nauseam) over her worries about Mr Darcy (who is no catch outside his inflated pocketbook) and his affections (which she has neither earned, nor deserved). That these two wind up together is a bit of poetic justice: Austen has paired the two pretty characters and the two obnoxious characters quite tidily by book’s end, but getting there is a misogynist slog that’s doubly depressing for having been written by a woman.

I don’t believe in censorship, or I’d ban this book. Certainly, if I had daughters, I’d forbid them to read this until they were adults who could understand that it’s a tragic relic of a bygone time – when marriages were more mercenary – and such stories were a precursor to Harlequin romances (but without the sex).

And let’s talk about class, or let’s not, since it’s built so far into Jane Austen that it can’t be denied. Fighting class is like fighting gravity. It’s fucking gravity, dude. Well, Jane, m’lass, we’ve figured out how to fight gravity, and we’ve done a moderate job at fighting class. It’s okay to marry below your station now.

This can’t be what 18th-century women were like. I am surprised the human race survived.

If you read this for leisure you’re probably a terrible feminist with an unusual social life.

Thank god Oscar Wilde came along.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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