Some weekends are not meant to be productive or engaging or even relaxing. This was one of those weekends. And what do you do then? I for one am all for music, a confirmed mood elevator and a soothing balm to the overworked nerves. And with Tina Turner in the news (God bless her soul), Tina Turner it was. She had one incredibly inspiring life. But for me, the go-to, whenever I’m feeling uninspired or demotivated, is to pick up a book. And that too preferably a Jane Austen. Any book by Jane Austen is fine by me, I’ve read them enough number of times to know them inside out. So, it was Jane Austen time with Tina Turner. I guess subconsciously I had decided on women as the underlying theme. And powerful, strong women at that.
Jane Austen and her women
The settings of Jane Austen’s books are in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. The stories depicted the middle-class landed society, which was full of restricting norms for women. Women were the homemakers, with their life’s ambition being getting a husband for themselves. Remember the first line from Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”? Jane Austen tries to speak out, through her protagonists, against what she feels are the unfair standards set for them. But you can see glimpses of the restlessness or her impatience at the enforced regulations and expectations. Though her progressive thoughts sneak out from time to time.
If you’ve read any Jane Austen book, you will notice that among all the women characters in the book, there’s one who is distinctly different from the others, one who is challenging certain societal norms and expectations of their time. Like Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She’s one of the most complex characters I’ve seen. She’s intelligent, witty and has a keen eye. She refuses to settle for societal conventions by refusing marriage proposals, not once but twice. That’s some gutsy, independent thinking!
Another protagonist from Jane Austen is Emma Woodhouse from Emma. Brought up in an entitled household, she has a strong sense of self-assurance and self-confidence. Though she engages in the conventional habit of matchmaking and meddling in the lives of others, she’s not afraid to learn from her mistakes. She is open to new ideas leading to personal growth, understanding the vagaries of the human mind, and accepting all this with humility.
Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility displayed a different kind of strength. She is wise, practical and her strong sense of responsibility makes her exhibit resilience and emotional depth. The strength of her character lies in her intelligence, wit and ability to navigate complex social situations with grace and dignity.
Another progressive woman in literature
There’s another strong and popular character in literature that comes to mind – Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women‘. Jo March is a strong-willed, fiercely independent and determined young woman. She’s passionate about writing, with a burning ambition of becoming a successful author. She defies social expectations and pursues her ambition with unwavering dedication and sincerity. She loves her family and she uses their love and support to continue on her path instead of compromising on her principles.
Jo March challenges traditional gender roles and strives for personal fulfilment and independence in the novel. She rejects the idea of conforming to the expectations of society and chooses to follow her own path at the cost of facing criticism or censure. Jo’s character is multi-layered and as complex as Elizabeth Bennet’s. She’s shown as both strong and vulnerable. She struggles with her own flaws and learns valuable life lessons about love, family and personal growth. The novel is replete with instances which show her resilience and determination in the face of adversity.
Struggles, then and now
But what we must understand is we cannot compare their progressive attitudes with ours. They operated within the confines of their society which was much more constricted and rigid. These women did challenge certain aspects of the expectations, but they did so by working within the confines of the period’s gender roles and class distinctions. They still sought the approval of the people around them by settling for martial duties. After all the sole objective of women in those times was to get married and have children. Any other ambition was looked down upon.
As for Elizabeth Bennet and Jo March, both these women are iconic literary characters, celebrated for their intelligence, independence, and refusal to conform to societal norms, yet evolving into their own within the very same society which restricts their personal growth. They continue to inspire women today with their spirited nature and strength of character as they face the challenges head-on.
Force to reckon with
Each of Jane Austen’s female characters had a distinct personality yet what binds them together is how they challenge societal expectations, and yet pursue personal growth. Jane Austen’s novels provide a rich exploration of the complexities of womanhood of that era.
If you haven’t read any of these books, don’t wait. These are masterpieces with beautiful storylines and filled with a medley of characters. Jane Austen was a pathbreaker in her own way. Be it her or Tina Turner or Elizabeth Bennet or Jo March, they have all set the standards for us and all we need to do is muster the courage and follow it. Happy Women’s Day – it’s celebrating women every day!
Disclaimer: In case you decide to read these classics and use the links below to buy them, I’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.