Jane Austen shows us that we can be disruptive and insightful from the safety of our garden and our carefully decorated homes.
As a woman, what’s the first thing you do when a guy that you find attractive enters the room? Do you look at him? Or do you quickly fix your hair and makeup because you want to be ready to be looked at? These stereotypical and automatic responses can be traced centuries back. While they seem to be ingrained in our society, there have been moments in history in which these attitudes have been defied and subverted, and one of the best examples of this can be found in Jane Austen's novels. Of course, this defiance isn't as obvious, and perhaps that's why the author has been often criticized for setting her love stories in a “carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden,” as Charlotte Brönte said about her fiction. But do we really need to step into open fields to analyze the subtle aspects of human relationships? Jane Austen shows us that we can be disruptive and insightful from the safety of our garden and our carefully decorated homes.
We know that intense and steamy glances across the room are a common feature of Austen’s novels. For a lot of people, it would be hard to think of those moments as erotic, especially if we’re used to sending explicit sexts without blushing, but others (Jane Austen fans) know that they’re exciting within the context of the time. When you’re surrounded by gossip and you’re acutely aware of the life-ruining potential of rumors and scandals, a glance that lasts a bit too long can be a hot and risky gesture. Such subtle moments are enticing because we crave the adrenaline that a risky affair brings to our otherwise ordinary lives.
Jane Austen wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but she gave her characters the confidence to not only recognize their desires but to take action against all odds. In her fiction, women dare to look at men instead of waiting to be looked at. Mr. Darcy, for example, is described as the hot guy women look at whenever he enters the room. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but she wrote those novels when the female gaze wasn't even explored and when financial and social advantages were the only valid reasons to marry someone. Nonetheless, her heroines marry because they want to and because they desire it.
At first sight, Jane Austen's novels are too safe and controlled. However, although her novels are mostly love stories, we always encounter a looming fear within them, often triggered or defied by female desire. In these stories, when desire is strong enough, it can wreak havoc. There isn't anything dangerous about desire, but what society considers dangerous is the deviation from the norm: women who dare to be sexual beings. Jane Austen's novels doesn't seem to be dark at all, since they show basic female yearning. And yet, they are, because they also show the ways in which women’s sexual energy was suppressed by society.
The darkness in her novels is more evident precisely when there’s no darkness at all. How can we relate, today, to the lack of privacy that incites repression and self-censorship? If we think about it, those rooms full of judging stares aren’t so different to our current virtual spaces, where we try to keep an acceptable image for an anonymous audience that will call us “thirsty” and “attention whores” the moment we upload a picture showing a little cleavage. What can this generation learn from Jane Austen’s fiction? Probably the idea that those subtle disruptions do not belong in the past. They're still relevant and necessary now.
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Images by Kimber Beck.