To some people the name ‘Jane Austen’ conjures up images of tea parties, stuffy fashions, and high-society events where women are swept off their feet by dashing gentlemen. But despite these widespread perceptions, Austen is an author equally celebrated for her notoriously sharp mind, frank descriptions, and acerbic social commentary. In the repressed atmosphere of Georgian England, Austen and her characters found many ways to circumvent the strict moral codes of the day. Through veiled satire and carefully constructed plots, social conventions were examined, re-assessed, and frequently mocked — often in a manner that was truly ahead of their times.
In light of these contradictions, we’ve highlighted 10 examples of Austen’s writing — all demonstrating her truly unique style. From post-truth sensibilities to taking time to slow down in our everyday lives, and from true love to the fight for female education, discover 10 times that Austen was ahead of the times…
Instead of gauging success through strict social conventions, Austen’s Edward Ferrars suggests that happiness is an entirely individual affair:
“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else it must be in my own way.” (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XVII)
In reply, still on the topic of happiness but quite out-of-step with Georgian sensibilities, Austen’s Marianne wryly reminds us that material gains are no balm for the soul:
“What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XVII)
From happiness to politics, Austen provides an important reminder for our twenty-first century ‘post-truth’ world. She notes that “seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken”:
“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure.” (Emma, Chapter XIII)
Again, in words which can easily be applied to the modern age and our current ‘climate of fear’, Austen’s Mr. Gardiner berates the doom-mongers:
“Do not give way to useless alarm… though it is right to be prepared for the worst, there is no occasion to look on it as certain.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter V)
Pre-dating much of the nineteenth-century fight for women’s rights, Austen was a pioneer in suggesting that women should marry for love, with an intrinsic right to their own happiness:
“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning.” (Persuasion, Chapter IV)
Austen was not only a forerunner regarding marriage, but unusually for the times repeatedly highlighted the true intelligence, rationality, and wisdom (in the face of often difficult circumstances) of her female characters:
“I hate to hear you talking so… as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures.” (Persuasion, Chapter VIII)
In an increasingly separated society, and in a lesson just as applicable to cultural attitudes as it is to generational divides, Austen’s Mr Woodhouse reminds us that it is important to understand and respect the needs of all:
“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” (Emma, Chapter IX)
In an important message given the ubiquity of technology and social media in our day-to-day lives, Austen’s reminder to guard against the “busy nothings” is more imperative now than ever:
“From the time of their sitting down to table, it was a quick succession of busy nothings.” (Mansfield Park, Chapter X)
The fight for female education still continues today, and Austen was no stranger to the benefits of scholarly edification. In Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris somewhat ironically argues for the case for female empowerment:
“Give a girl an education… and ten to one but she has the means of settling well.” (Mansfield Park, Chapter I)
And last but not least, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen demonstrates the ever important skill of couching bad news!
“I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.” (Letter to Cassandra Austen, 31st May 1811)
Featured image credit: Jane Austen. CC0 public domain.