The Independent Jane
For all the love, romance and scandal in Jane Austen’s books, what they are really about is freedom and independence. Independence of thought and the freedom to choose.
Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins offer of marriage showed an independence seldom seen in heroines of the day. Her refusal of Mr. Darcy while triggered by anger showed a level of independence that left him shocked and stunned.
The freedom she exhibited in finally accepting him in direct defiance of Lady Catherine and knowing her father would disapprove was unusual even for Austen. In her last book Anne Elliot is persuaded to refuse Captain Wentworth at Lady Russel’s insistence.
Although Jane played by the rules of the day, all of her writing is infused with how she wanted life to be. She ‘screams’ her outrage at the limitations for women in Emma.
When accosted by Mrs. Elton, Jane Fairfax says,
“Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”
“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”
That same sentiment is emphasized in Emma’s shock when Mrs. Weston tells her of Frank Churchill’s secret engagement to Jane.
“Good God!” cried Emma, “Jane actually on the point of going as governess! What could he mean by such horrible indelicacy? To suffer her to engage herself — to suffer her even to think of such a measure!”
I find it interesting that at the moment of Austen’s birth or there about, John Adams left his farm in Massachusetts for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Doesn’t sound particularly interesting, I know but consider this.
John Adams left his home in mid-December 1775 to attend an unprecedented meeting of colonial representatives to consider severing ties with their mother country and her monarch; a decision that culminated in a document unlike any ever written. In the mother country, one day in that same cold December a baby girl was born at Steventon Rectory. Her cry was heard by only the people in the house but the years to come would see her pen create works unlike any the world had ever seen.
Comparing Austen’s words with Thomas Jefferson’s may seem a trivialization but I believe that Austen’s impact on the world is no less important than Jefferson’s. The effect of Jane’s writing maybe more subtle than that of the Virginian but it is no less influential.
Jefferson’s words instigated and promoted a revolution, a war of independence. Jane’s words had no such excessive consequence. Still in her own quiet, genteel yet powerful way she declared and promoted the same principles of freedom and self-regulated independence as our American forefathers. In all her novels Jane advocates independence of person and thought, the rights of all and acceptance of responsibility for those rights.
Jane may not have incited military action as Jefferson did but even as an avowed royalist, I doubt not that Jane Austen firmly believed in his declaration of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.