Is Jane Austin relevant?

Today’s edition of The Guardian contains a short but measured assessment of Jane Austin and her worth to the young women of today by Germaine Greer.

Her heroines too are middle class, ordinary, with no special advantages of looks or education or wealth, and yet they are heroines. The battles they fight are the battles of every day. They struggle for self-control in agonising circumstances. They turn aside so that other people can’t see the hot tears that start into their eyes.

For hot tears do start into their eyes: Austen’s heroines are all passionate, all proud, all sensitive. They must deal with the common trials of every young woman’s life, bullying, disappointment, misunderstanding, and, most unbearable, helplessness to influence the course of events. Though 190 years have passed since Austen’s death, women’s emotional lives still present the same challenges.

What gives the Austen heroine her power is her self-discipline. In all Austen’s novels, the heroines, no matter how scatty, deploy immense reserves of self-control. It is as if they all knew that it is fatally easy to be mad, to “give way” to excessive feeling, to sink into melancholia, or hysteria, or self-starvation. Fanny Price, who at Mansfield Park has to endure the daily humiliations that were the lot of any poor relative, develops her spiritual muscle by exercising almost superhuman patience. She never points out to her thoughtless relatives that she might be tired, that she could do with a fire in her room, that she would like to ride out occasionally, because refraining from doing so makes her stronger.

There is more and it’s all as good as that.


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