When I first started reading Jane Austen as a teenager, I was enchanted by her romantic universe. I adored her heroines for their audacity and defiance to tradition and social norms. I grew up idealizing the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. But maturing in a conservative community in Pakistan, the charm from Austen’s pages slowly began to fade away when I realized the real reason I had been drawn to it all along: it simply resonated with me. Much of the plot lines and the social roles depicted in the books continue to exist in the fragment of society I belong from. Jane Austen’s work ceased to become a time capsule for me. It became my everyday reality.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel opens with the words: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune is in need of a wife’. Could these words perhaps represent the microcosm of the conservative upper-class Pakistani society today? I certainly think so.
I remember admiring Austen’s satirical remarks about the institution of marriage in the pre-Victorian era, somewhat oblivious of their sheer relevance today. In Austen’s universe, marriage was considered the sole career for women. Their education was the preparation for that imminent marriage. And the prerequisites for this career were virtue and chastity.
Now to be fair, during Austen’s time girls did not even receive a formal education, let alone the opportunity of formal careers. Obviously, in a span of over 200 years, we have overcome that inequality. But even now in my society, no matter how successful a woman is in terms of career and education, marriage is considered as the single most important source of validation for her.
Another facet of marriage which I found extremely comparable, were the financial dynamics of the marriage. That is, the entire premise of the marriage was not love, but rather financial compatibility or financial progress. These values are prevalent in Pride and Prejudice where each suitor is introduced in terms of his financial worth. Mr. Bingley ‘is announced to be ‘5000 a year’ whereas Darcy is declared to be ‘10 000 a year and very likely more’.
When reading Jane Austen’s books, one can enjoy the satire of marriage that is created. She humorously portrays the institution that is a kind of market where a barter trade occurs between a woman’s freedom, identity, and virtue in exchange for a man’s money. But to realize that this practice is not a relic of the past is deeply troubling. Today, we see this trend omnipotent where the “marriage market” thrives on elements such as dowry, shifting the emphasis on weddings as opposed to marriages.
In both societies, there is also this illusion of independence. You can dress up every other day and look like a showpiece and show up to social events. But that is the extent of independence. Nothing beyond this is allowed, no financial or ideological autonomy.
Mary Wollstonecraft, (one of the key figures who influenced Jane Austen) claimed that with this lack of autonomy women are ‘Confined then in cages like the feathered race.’ Using the eloquent metaphor of a bird stuck in a cage, Wollstonecraft said that with the hope for emancipation dwindling, the focus is suddenly shifted from flying out of the cage to staying in and adorning that cage.
When I look around me, I see that intelligence is considered an attribute reserved only for men. Women, on the other hand, because of their limited prospects indulge in frivolity. Instead of rebelling against the idea of being caged, they somehow internalize the misogyny and the prescribed gender roles and begin to revel and relish the joy of having their wings cut. “Women are only to be seen and not to be heard” are words that echo from 18th century Regency England to 2020 Pakistani today.
For a long time, I told myself, that is the unique universal value of literature. It is relevant for every time and every country, in some way or another. But it is essential to realize the grave reality that Jane Austen’s era was the epoch of disparity. Women were disenfranchised and distraught. It was years before the First World War earned women suffrage. It was centuries before the Second World War began the debate on equal pay legislation. Then why does a world, a civilization which lived about two hundred years ago sound so familiar to me?
Today, when I look back at Austen’s works, I have no romanticized nostalgia attached to it. It has more of a contemporary resonance to it than a historical one. I see these same values around me every day: girls who are made to obsess over their looks and are forced to find comfort only in being homemakers, child bearers, and at best serial socializers. I can, of course, play Elizabeth Bennet, the ever so audacious protagonist who stands up to patriarchy, and questions several bizarre social norms. But then it is essential to acknowledge that Elizabeth Bennet (like myself), too, got the “ultimate validation” in marriage.
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