Elizabeth. Emma. Anne. Elinor. Marianne. Fanny. Catherine.
Each one is an individual with a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses. One thing that they have is common is that they are all characters created by Jane Austen. One other thing in common is that they are considered role models loved by millions of readers for two hundred years. Timeless classics.
But should we really be surprised? I mean, how could we not help but love these pre-feminist role models? Women who dealt with morality, education, manners, and marriage in a period of time that gave gender equality little to no consideration.
I’m writing this from a pretty treehouse that overlooks the ocean in San Pedro, Belize—you know…la isla bonita…the island made famous by Madonna’s 1987 hit song by the same name. I hadn’t made that connection until my husband pointed it out just yesterday morning.
SIDEBAR: For all of you Jane Austenites, I bet you’d never read a blog about one of Austen’s characters that contained a reference to Madonna in it! Frankly, I never thought about writing anything (good, bad, or worse) about Madonna and definitely not in connection with our dear Jane Austen. Funny how that worked for me…
However, while we are spending a month in Belize to escape the drudgery of harsh New Jersey winters, since I’m here on the very island that Madonna wrote about, I’ve been seeing it with a different pair of eyes—Madonna’s eyes that were younger and innocent by far than they are today. I try to see what she saw thirty years ago for, surely, it could not have been developed that much since that time (it isn’t very developed now so unless she stood on a beach wearing coconuts for a swim suit, the evolution over thirty years of her isla bonita could not have changed that much).
In fact, the town of San Pedro reminds me so much of what a seaport city in England would look like in the late 1700s. The closer to the port, the further removed from cultured sophistication. The class system remains with the elite tourists held in higher regard than the working class residents of the town. Narrow roads, cobblestone-ish in construction, lead the visitor to small primitive type stalls along the street that sell fruits and vegetables, car supplies, bicycle rentals, drinks, ice cream, and necklaces. The more “elite” dine in well-lit restaurants with live music and free Wi-Fi. There are gathering places with fresh pastry and cold beers, but you never see the locals there…only those with non-Belizean dollars to pay.
I wonder if Bath was a little like this San Pedro place. If I shut my eyes to reality, I can almost imagine Fanny’s family living on the edge of the wharf or see Anne walking with Benjamin along the pier. And, without doubt, I can see Kitty and Lydia misbehaving in the company of their aunt.
Overlaying the world of Jane Austen from 1795 England to my own observations of 2016 Belize has been easy to do. Well, easy but only with a hard stretch of my imagination and several days of overcast skies that leave my mind wandering. But when it comes to the Austen women and Madonna, the connection is easier to find.
Jane Austen wrote about subject matter (women!) that were not often considered worthy of a topic to begin with. Yet, she did more than just write about them. She used her words to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of society with their “rules” about which social status could marry each other, the laws about inheritance (especially concerning women), and the roles within a society about how to behave and interact.
After all, Madonna helped raise public awareness to female rights in the 1980s, a period of modern day time that, just as in Austen’s era, gave few rights to women…despite the increasing rise of women’s rights being turned into law—laws that did little to glass ceilings, educational rights, and marriage rights.
Madonna paved the path to new freedoms afforded to women on the very topics that society wanted to sweep under the rug: decreases in manners, reversal in morality, unequal education (and career) opportunities, and the increasing tendency for the dissolution of marriage resulting in single mothers juggling children and careers without the support of a husband. For the first time, women had the right to choose their path, thumbing their nose at social expectations in a way that Elizabeth Bennett could only wish to do…if the thought had ever crossed her mind. And I assure you that it most likely never did.
Which brings me back to Austen’s characters and how they have impacted our lives. Books can do that, you know. Impact how we live…and not just from how WE read them but from past generations reading the books and slowly acting upon the messages hidden within the content.
What a strange connection. But often from these strange threads that we find woven between time, space, and people is how we realize how strong the interconnection truly is. 200 years apart, separated by time, society, and class—oh how the class!!!!—but with the common idea of raising awareness to the plight of women that, in many ways, has not changed over time.