What can Jane Austen show us about the 21st Century?

I’m not exactly sure why I enjoy reading Jane Austen’s novels. Her work almost entirely revolves around marriage plots within 18th century English nobility. To many readers of my generation, the subject matter of Austen’s novels can be very boring. The narrative moves slowly, and nothing particularly exciting captivates our short attention spans. I enjoy reading Austen, but I don’t want this declaration to sound arrogant. After all, I really have no idea why I like reading about the marital status of rich people from another era. I just finished reading Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. This is the third work I’ve read by her, and I believe I am now capable of slowly beginning establish some observations about the world she describes in relation to our modern world.

It is apparent in Mansfield Park, and Austen’s work in general, that marriage and sexuality is topic of incredible significance. This stems from the value of inheritance in the English nobility. Optimally, when a young woman from a noble family is prepared for marriage, potential suitors have to meet certain standards (This is obviously also the case for men seeking women as well, but most of Austen’s protagonists are female). Money is obviously a key factor in seeking a desired mate – In Austen’s opinion, this obviously is not the most important factor in marriage, and she typically illustrates a character’s obsession with wealth as a flaw. Manners and morals are also important factors – this is actually a huge part of Austen’s work, because it is clear that as an author, she seems entirely alienated from lower and middle classes. Beauty and intelligence are also vital in relatively smaller degrees. In Austen’s plots, the most desired matches are the love interests that sprout within the English nobility. The attributes lightly detailed above are usually inherent in the families of baronets, barons, viscounts, etc. From what I can tell by reading Austen, it is this class system that enables interest in her readers. The English nobility is always the overarching principle or rules in which the gears of Austen’s novels operate.

I’d like to focus on one particular aspect of what is expected of an Austenian English noble, and how it might relate to how we conduct relationships in the twenty first century. Manners are a vital part of how the nobility are expected to act. I’d argue this is especially apparent when men and women form attractions to each other. In Austen’s novels, a degree of restraint is expected from a potential suitor. This is exemplified in Mansfield Park with the character Mr. Crawford, who is in the possession of a lot of money and independence, is intelligent, gallant, attractive, charismatic, and energetic, while also conforming to accepted notions of how to conduct oneself in the presence of English nobility. These attributes make him nearly an ideal match for almost any woman who interacts with him. Marrying such a man promises an exciting and secure existence. However, his flaw is in his tendency to be flirtatious. Mr. Crawford’s courting and flirting with particular characters in the novel is portrayed as a major breach in moral conduct (The effects of this breach is magnified by the fact that he flirts with women who are already engaged to be married). By our modern standards, Mr. Crawford’s flirting wouldn’t be considered at all improper. He flirts by way of his charisma in his conversations with ladies, and by showing a sense of attachment and friendship. The most sexually heated moments in Austen’s work are conversations between characters or, sometimes, the holding of a hand. The effect of all this in a literary work, is that illustrating the values of this restraint (which some characters lack) adds to the significance of the marriage plot. Sexual repression is quite obvious in Austen’s work, but I think this is partly why she is a powerful writer.

Similar to this idea of restraint in the manners of English nobility, is the immense sensitivity that seems to bleed from Austen’s writing. Too often I think we are too jaded in our modern times. Technology has dulled our senses to the (almost) utmost extreme. In Austen’s 18th century England, it is apparent that in addition to the fragile and strict structure of manners and morality in the English nobility, a degree of sensitivity also adds to the significance that is built in the marriage plot. The protagonist of Mansfield Park, Fanny, is perhaps Austen’s most sensitive character.  She was born to a rather poor family, but was brought to her rich uncle’s house at the age of ten in order to be, more or less, assimilated into the English nobility. Fanny arrives at the impressive Mansfield Park grounds with nervousness and reluctance. She is caught between her impoverished past, and her incredibly prosperous future, and constantly struggles with feelings of guilt because of her innate sensitivity and good nature. Throughout the novel, the reader follows Fanny’s life and changing situation at Mansfield Park. She is often the most powerless character, but she feels the most intensely. This is shown in how Austen simply describes how Fanny reacts to every notable event in the novel. Fanny trembles, blushes madly, cries, smiles, and loses sleep over what seems like trivial matters. A lot of what she reacts to has the importance of the English class system behind it – in other words, dire consequences having to do with place in society, money, etc. In this sense, it is understandable that such a sensitive character should react passionately. But Fanny reacts passionately to everything – she sometimes cries due to the guilt and shame of others. Fanny might be an extreme example of character sensitivity in Austen, but such intense responses can be observed in almost all of her characters. I think this sensitivity also adds a great deal of significance and interest to Austen’s work. Today, it seems as if human emotion is a mere shadow of what it once was in Austen’s time.


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