Even though, nowadays, a commonly held opinion is that Jane Austen’s novels are somewhat unsubstantial and lacking of grandeur, compared to the realist masters Charles Dickens and George Eliot, researching the publication history of her works has lead me to believe that they were quite radical for their time. Austen openly defies Victorian expectations and conventions. In an unsigned review, published in 1816, Sir Walter Scott writes: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” Her novels were never bestsellers during the 19th century, but she got some recognition. Important literary figures of the time, such as Henry James, valued Austen’s work immensely and believed that appreciation for Austen is a sign of a well-developed cultural and literary taste. The end of the century also saw the beginning of the scholarly interest in Austen’s novels and life, which is very much still on going.
The accent Austen puts on her characters’ thoughts and emotions is traditionally associated with modernist literature, so it seems to me, she was writing ahead of her time. Gender restrictions did not stop her from publishing her novels and she did so anonymously. According to Victorian conventions of propriety, women were denied the liberating power of writing. Restricted access to education discouraged women from thinking for themselves and forming their own opinions. Depiction of women in realist literature was often quite shallow and very much one-sided, because the binary opposition of female representation, angel-femme fatal, was firmly in place. Women were entrapped in the cultural construct of Victorian society and Austen is one of the first female writers who attempted to challenge the status quo. Rendering women as not necessarily good or bad, but a fusion of both and as fully functioning human beings, able to think and feel for themselves (think of Emma’s numerous monologues, for instance), appears to be quite a radical step for its time.
So, next time when you pick up a Jane Austen book read beyond the surface and try to put it in context. Beneath the cheesy rom-com plots lies the treasure of beautiful writing and biting social critique.