Why Jane Austen Appeals to Girls (and Boys) Who Don’t “Just Want a Boyfriend”

Pride and Prejudice Three Covers (2)It is the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I could think of no better way of marking the occasion than by devoting my 100th post to Ms. Austen’s classic work. Over the last two centuries, this novel has received both praise and ridicule, and this anniversary has emboldened its detractors to wonder publicly, “Does [Austen’s] message actually translate into the 21st century world?,” with one journalist on the Huffington Post insinuating naively that the only person who could relate to Austen’s novels is “a girl who just wants a boyfriend.”

No book will appeal to everyone, but anyone who dismisses Pride and Prejudice as irrelevant and silly (and suggests that its fans are equally silly) either lacks reading comprehension skills or has never actually read the novel.

Yes, the novel is a love story at its core, but its historical context, multi-dimensional characters, and commentary on social hierarchy and human nature add weight to the “girl meets boy” plot.

The setting is late 18th/early 19th Century England, complete with pleasant countryside estates, balls with half-hour long dances, and courtship rituals based on family connections and social status. This world may feel long gone to some, but for those of us from cultures in which arranged marriages are common (often a relaxed form of it), it is easy to identify with Elizabeth and her sisters.

Pride and Prejudice features the Bennet sisters, who are on the fringe of the landed gentry and for whom marriage may be the only way to secure their economic futures. The novel assesses the merits of marriage, stating, “it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” The star is Elizabeth Bennet, a witty young woman who has little interest in marrying (“If I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband…”). Her preference is to follow her heart, rather than to seek “worldly advantage,” and so she refuses economically advantageous marriage proposals and rushes to judgment too soon on matters, a trait she learns to regret. She is an imperfect heroine whose wit, wisdom, missteps and subsequent personal growth endear her to readers. Many of us continue to identify with her, even after 200 years.

To say that this story is merely for “boy crazy” girls not only ignores the complexities of the novel, but also overlooks the many men who count themselves among Jane Austen’s fans. Two of Austen’s early fans included Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) and Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845), two of the most highly esteemed figures in American legal history (Story was quoted by the United States Supreme Court in three separate cases last year).  In a 1826 letter, Marshall congratulated Story on a speech before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa society and offered a bit of criticism for the omission of Jane Austen:

‘I was a little mortified, however, to find that you had not admitted the name of Miss Austen into your list of favorites. I had just finished reading her novels when I received your discourse, and was so much pleased with them that I looked in it for her name, and was rather disappointed at not finding it.’ The chief justice then proceeded to defend his favorite: ‘Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, and yet amusing.’ (See Alison L. LaCroix’s The Lawyer’s Library in the Early American Republic).

Story’s response did not survive history, but he, too, was a fan of Austen. Story’s son confirmed his father’s love of Austen’s work, saying that his father “fully recognized the admirable genius of Miss Austen. Scarcely a year passed that he did not read more than one of them, and with an interest which never flagged.”

I, too, recognize “the admirable genius of Miss Austen,” and I recommend that anyone who doubts the significance of Pride and Prejudice give it another chance. First impressions are often misleading.

55 thoughts on “Why Jane Austen Appeals to Girls (and Boys) Who Don’t “Just Want a Boyfriend”

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  9. James Irboxin

    Just finished reading it, the story is subpar with nothing to really define it, the “historic context” is irrelevant, the era is not extremely interesting and while she is accurate this is to be expected, the characters general personas could be adequately explained in a paragraph and are by no means complex or impressive. Overall I’d say it’s just about the most average book ever and deserves no critical acclaim. I would not advise anyone to waste time on this “classic”

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  14. Miss Alexandrina

    Whilst the real fun of reading Pride and Prejudice was sapped out by having to study it intently for school (and I’m not too keen on Austen-era books anyway), I definitely agree with the points you have argued. It seems strange to say imply that P+P is ‘shallow’ when it’s clear that it’s character are mostly multidimensional. I guess one could argue that even Mrs. Bennet has more of a personality than just an obsession with seeing her daughters married well.
    It’s not the best comparison to make, but compared to modern love tales, like Twilight, P+P is intellectually complex.
    A nice idea for a 100th post, too!

    1. I have had many classics “ruined” by its inclusion in my courses. Interestingly, I never had to study Jane Austen for school. My school’s reading list included a few notable female authors, including the Brontes, but not Austen. Thanks for the comment!

  15. 100 well delivered posts if I might say – I’m always pleased to see the email notification of a new AMB post. Never read any Austen but I imagine it rewards reading at a slower pace than we might be used to, to match the slower pace of the age it was written.
    On a philosophical note, (referring to Story’s response) how little of history is recorded, and yet that which has been recorded becomes fact in the absence of anything else to the contrary 🙂

    1. Thank you for the kind words and for reading! I like all of Austen’s novels, though Pride and Prejudice is probably my favorite. It’s hard to say. As for history, I agree. I look at history the same way I look at a matter on trial: I’m a juror and I have to weigh historical sources as a pieces of evidence, knowing they may be biased and show an incomplete picture. Based on Story’s son’s comments, I do believe Story enjoyed reading Austen, though not enough to include her among his favorites in 1826. It may have been an unintentional omission, or he may have developed an appreciation for her work at a later point.

  16. Jaclyn

    Great post! I didn’t quite know what to say about P&P that added to the discussion, but you certainly did. You’re so right that anyone who thinks Jane Austen is only for girls who “just want a boyfriend” has completely missed the point. I think Jane herself would probably be laughing behind her hand at those girls, and at everyone else who fails to grasp her sarcasm and wit and just considers her to be 200-year-old “chick lit.” Bunch of Mr. Collinses…

  17. Jane Austen is a great lesson in the importance of re-reading (carefully) with historical context firmly in place. The first time I read “Pride and Prejuidice”, I thought it was a “nice” story, but fairly dated and too proper. Then I started understanding more about the time period and about what Austen was actually writing about. It got much better then.
    –JW

  18. Congrats on the 100th post. I’ve got about another month to go myself. I didn’t read the Huff Post article and probably won’t. I’m a big Austen fan and have read all her novels. People often forget the historical context of when the novels were written. Women had very few choices back then and Austen’s novels reflect her world. Young modern women dont realize all the gains women have made in the last two centuries. I just watched Iron Jawed Angels this weekend about Alice Paul and the fight of women to get the 19th amendment passed.

    1. Thank you! It feels like I just started this blog–time flies!

      The Huffington Post article isn’t worth reading. The writer didn’t support her argument with examples from the novel, and then she called all of us a bunch of “boy crazy” girls.

      You’re right- much has changed in the 200 years since the publication of Austen’s work, when marriage was often a woman’s only way of securing her financial future. Today, women are able to vote, inherit property, and work outside of the home, but it’s interesting (in a sad way) to see how gender discrimination persists. For example, many employers discriminate against married women because they assume these women will have children and be less committed to the workplace. When I was in law school (less than a decade ago), women were advised to slip their engagement and wedding rings off of their fingers during the interview process.

      1. Wow! That’s shocking about the rings. I guess I’m too used to being in a female dominated profession (teaching) where my principal tells me “family always comes first”. Of course, I probably lost a job or two when I flat out told them that my family comes first. 🙂

    1. I’ve really enjoyed re-reading Pride and Prejudice and watching the BBC mini-series this week! It’s such a great novel. I hope you find the time to revisit it.

    1. Fen- We watched “The Jane Austen Book Club” tonight! We loved it! It was the perfect movie for us, as I am a huge Austen fan (obviously) and my husband is in the process of reading the novels.

      Thanks for the suggestion! I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before. Maria Bello is a big deal in my hometown (before she was an actress, she was a volunteer where I now work), and the subject matter is ideal for me. My only guess is that it came out in 2007, when I had just given birth to extremely premature twins. I stopped being aware of the world for a little while.

      1. It’s a good movie. I was surprised how much I liked it. I missed it when it first came out too, and now I can’t remember how I stumbled across it. Probably looking for movies with Hugh Dancy in them. ;/ This is one of those little gems many people missed.

  19. Lynette

    I love how Jane Austin perfects the tortured soul. Everyone has a little bit of pain and discomfort, and her stories are full of so much more than fluff! My personal fav is Persuasion. Read it, then watch the BBC version. The BBC always has the best interpretations!

    1. I don’t expect everyone to like Jane Austen’s books, but it’s ridiculous to dismiss her work the way that journalist did. I agree with you that the witty dialogue and clever writing are part of what makes Pride and Prejudice so great. It’s a very funny novel!

      By the way, here’s a link to “Posh Dancing” from Mitchell and Webb (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTchxR4suto). It has some strong language (only one, loud word), so I wouldn’t recommend watching it at work or near kids, but I do highly recommend seeing it. It’s very funny.

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