Jane Austen was a product of her time. Gender disparity ran rife within the time period, and the fact that all of Jane Austen’s novels end in marriage is a reflection of this. However, a woman in the Regency era being as educated as Austen was, let alone a published author is a feat in itself. Austen was famous for her use of irony and I do think she was able to subvert at least some of the gender stereotypes plaguing the Regency era, especially with her last published novel Persuasion.
Jane Austen started off her writing career documenting and commenting on existing gender relations, and I think if Austen would have lived longer and written more books, she would have definitely made the transition intro transforming gender relations through social criticisms. The foundation for social criticism is prevalent within her writing, Austen just wasn’t given the time and opportunity to fully express it. Although I do believe Jane Austen tried to change the way people see gender and it’s accompanying politics through her novels, and her novel’s viewpoints certainly evolved over time, I don’t believe she was able to challenge gender norms as much as other female authors who came after her death, like George Eliot or Mary Shelley, but she was able to pave the way for those authors to be able to subvert gender politics .
This paper will include comparisons between Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
Emma is the Austen novel that can be seen as coming the closest to ‘female empowerment’.
Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich” , comes from a wealthy family and has all of the liberties that comes with it. She serves as the mistress of her house, which grants her certain freedoms that, for anyone of less standing, would never be granted. Emma is also one of Austen’s oldest main characters (with the exception of Anne Elliot in Persuasion) who, at twenty-one, has yet to be married, which, again, is a product of her wealth and standing within the community. In this novel, although it can be seen by some as her ‘female empowerment’ novel, Austen is very much upholding the existing gender relations of the Regency era. Nothing within the narrative shows Emma subverting any gender norms, save the fact that she has the privilege of coming from a wealthy family, wealth made and given to her by her father. In fact, Emma seems to be perpetuating gender norms by forcing her friends to marry people they would not otherwise even consider marrying. Emma can risk the humiliation and embarrassment of a rejected advance because she is protected by her wealth, while someone like Harriet Smith can not because her whole sense of worth is based on her reputation within the community, which a rejected advance could irreparably damage. Through this narrative, it is obvious Austen was only upholding the gender stereotypes within the time period and doing nothing to change or subvert them.
Jane Austen’s last published novel, Persuasion, was the novel that best reflected Austen’s social criticism. The central characters, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, spend much of the novel separated and the characters’s interactions with each other are minimal. Gone is the witty repartee that makes Austen novels like Pride and Prejudice so iconic. Persuasion is a novel about the sordid history of Anne and Wentworth and the words that go unsaid between. This theme, as well as Austen’s emerging social criticism is best exemplified in an exchange between Anne and Captain Harville.