In honour of Women’s History Month 2018, we are sharing highlights throughout March, written by and about inspirational women. In the following blog post, Jenny Davidson considers the contributions of writer Jane Austen.

I don’t know that Jane Austen is the first author to come to mind in relation to International Women’s Day: one is perhaps more likely to think of notorious firebrands from Mary Wollstonecraft to Arundhati Roy, whereas Austen is stuck with a relatively sedate reputation. But Austen has more in common with Wollstonecraft than many readers imagine.

Like their approximate contemporary Frances Burney, both writers are powerfully attuned to the forms of constraint that limit the lives of women, even relatively privileged women. Austen in particular has an extraordinary eye for the kinds of indignity that are regularly visited on those who are neither wealthy nor powerful, and that make up the routine experience of many women as they try and live their lives.

Think of the moment in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Collins expresses his perplexity at Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal of his proposal:

“It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable perfections.”

The novel gives Elizabeth a different ending than this, but it would have been a realistic assessment of such a young woman’s fortunes in a world where upper-middle-class women of no particular wealth were almost entirely barred from making a living in the work world. Reading Austen’s fiction makes us thankful that we no longer live in such a world; it also attunes us to the ongoing slights and microaggressions that can attend the lives of woman in their professional worlds, and helps us resolve to make those worlds better for everybody who moves in them.

You can find out more about Jenny Davidson’s new book, Reading Jane Austen, here.

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