08/21/2012 12:06 EDT | Updated 10/21/2012 05:12 EDT

What Feminists Really Think of Jane Austen


The feminists have discovered The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After. Or, at the very least, decided that they can't go on ignoring it -- and they're definitely not sold on the premise.

Amanda Marcotte, writing for Slate, claims that our "obsession with finding some guy to marry us" has very little to do with why we read Jane Austen; maybe, she suggests, "women just enjoy a good story." (Isn't it an odd coincidence, though, that we happen to particularly enjoy stories built around the very theme -- the possibility of living happily ever after with some guy -- that's also the subject of the self-help books and the advice in women's magazines we consume so voraciously?)

And Sarah Seltzer complains about my "absurd direct equation of sexual mores from Regency England with those of today, "but of course she doesn't mean that I think the sexual standards in Austen's novels are the same as sexual norms today. She means that I take the principles Austen held during her actual lifetime equally seriously, instead of cavalierly dismissing them on the assumption that if Austen were fast-forwarded to the twenty-first century, then of course she'd be on board with current enlightened thought -- that she would be, as Seltzer claims, "cool with Fifty Shades of Grey."

Seltzer's assertion that Austen would approve of S&M-themed erotica gets a pass from Esther Zuckerman at the Atlantic, who (on the other hand) complains that I'm claiming Austen for conservative ideology because I figure that the author of Sense and Sensibility -- in which the heroine's tragic mistake is to let a man know she loves him before he has said he loves her -- wouldn't advise women to make marriage proposals.

Zuckerman sums up Seltzer's argument: "Trying to guess what [our favorite authors] think about concepts they probably couldn't even fathom is reductive." Yes, that's the heart of the matter. But is it really true that Austen "couldn't even fathom" the issues in modern relationships?

As a matter of fact, there are characters in the Austen novels whose love lives are quite bit like our twenty-first-century reality. There's Lydia Bennet, having sex with a man who is blatantly using her but she has no clue. There's Maria Bertram, humiliating herself for a guy who has already made it crystal clear he'll never love her. There's Mrs. Clay, living with a man who isn't ready to commit to her, hoping that he can eventually be "wheedled and caressed" into proposing.

Obviously, Austen was aware that you could have the kind of love life that defines the mainstream today. (And she was not ignorant of the fact that there are principled arguments for it, either -- free love advocates Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, William Blake, and Percy Shelley were all her contemporaries). But she didn't paint this relationship style as particularly wise, particularly admirable, or particularly attractive.

Which approach really reduces Austen's work? Taking her principles seriously, and asking how her insights might apply today? Or dismissing her ideas about love and sex -- wherever they don't overlap with modern enlightened opinion -- as blind prejudices that she would surely grow out of if only we could whisk her to the 21st century? Seltzer's proposed rewrite of the novels is in line with option #2:

"I'm convinced that if these books took place today, Austen would respond to our lives: Lizzy would sleep with Wickham, Marianne with Willoughby, Anne with Wentworth the first time around. Fanny Price might even get to second base with Henry Crawford. Then they'd be like, 'oops, he sucks. Can I date my cousin instead?'"

Something seems to be lost in the translation. Would novels along these lines still have the power of Austen's real novels?

It's a terrible pity to dismiss the principles in Austen's books as prejudices she would have abandoned in a more enlightened age. After all, her insights don't end with the (not particularly astounding) observations that living with a guy is not the ideal way to get him to marry you, and that intimacy comes with a risk of "attachment" that's higher for women than for men.

The principles her Regency heroines live by aren't really "traditionalist" at all. They just look that way in a world where some of the most obvious facts about men and women have been obscured by an ideology that was already being proposed during Austen's lifetime, that she didn't buy into, but that eventually triumphed -- so completely that it's now almost impossible for us to imagine that any intelligent person ever really thought differently. But Austen did. She didn't just blindly adhere to the beliefs of an earlier day. She really thought about love, sex, relationships, and how men and women can be happy together. And being a genius, she came up with many valuable insights from which we can benefit -- if we take her seriously.