As of late, I have begun to notice that the contrast of women and male authors fizzle down to two authors: William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. These two are often paired together to represent the best of literature as a whole, in books, magazines, and university classes. Shakespeare magazine refers to the pair as “twin icons.” However, I have a major problem with that. If males are to be represented by William Shakespeare, why on earth are women made to be equated to Jane Austen?
Jane Austen feels to me like an inside joke I just don’t understand. Austen is one of the most beloved authors of all time, and she has a legion of fans, particularly the almost-cult following, the Jane Austen Society of North America, who host conferences, regional groups, and general meetings based around Austen. Jane Austen does not strike me in a way that I feel the need dress up in 19th century regalia and attend conferences. In fact, her writing doesn’t even slightly interest me. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy Austen’s sly humor in her works, I giggle when she makes fun of her own characters, and her prose is occasionally beautiful. However, the books leave something to be desired.
My main issue with Austen’s works is how horrifically similar they all are: 19th century England featuring some sort of love story. The characters in each book do the same activities, whether it is attending functions, gossiping, or discussing the issue of marriage. Even her most unconventional plot line, Northanger Abbey, which told the store of a woman becoming brain-washed by gothic novels, featured a main female character pining away for a man. Furthermore, all of the heroines are unbearably similar. Although they may vary somewhat, some may be fierce (Lizzie Bennett), some may be ditzy (Catherine Morland), and some may be gentle (Anne Elliott), Austen’s heroines are all ultimately quiet and polite women. They may be lovely, but that’s all they are. I want varied and complex women, not women who all get married at the end. I don’t want the strict world Austen subjects her readers to. And, I’m not the only one to think so. Emerson called Austen’s worlds “pinched and narrow,” saying that, “suicide is more respectable” than the desire for money and marriage her characters often show. Charlotte Bronte claimed she “should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses,” noting the limited nature of the character’s lives. However, Mark Twain probably said it the harshest, claiming “every time [he] read Pride and Prejudice [he] wanted to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone.”
The major rebuttal I have heard against my complaint is that Austen wrote about what she knew, and, as a woman living in Bath, England in the 19th century, her scope was relatively small. However, I refuse to accept the idea that Austen’s imagination was so limited that she couldn’t conceive a world past her own door. Shakespeare (probably) was never turned into a donkey by a fairy, never lived in ancient Rome, and never was accosted by his father’s ghost to avenge him. If we are comparing authors, Shakespeare proves that writing isn’t limited to one’s own experiences. Austen isn’t a limited writer because her world was small, she is limited because she’s simply not as excellent of a writer as history has us to believe.
So, if women have to be represented by only one female author, please, give Shakespeare some competition! I refuse to be represented by the likes of Jane Austen. Possible Alternatives: The Bronte Sisters (if we stick with 19th century women), Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Sexton, Sappho, Maya Angelou, and the list goes on and on. On second thought, I don’t want any one woman representing female literature. Let all these women, and more, create the face of women in literature. Just, please, don’t let plain Jane Austen represent what so many better women authors have worked so hard to build.