At the beginning of this week, on March 8th, people around the world celebrated incredible women for International Women’s Day. From the Suffragettes, to the modern ‘me too’ movement, to Malala’s fight for education, the world has been reminded of the remarkable power that the ‘fairer sex’ wields. But this journey towards equality, which is still being fought around the globe, has not been easy. From a modern perspective, it can be difficult to understand the limitations women have faced throughout history. This is why more and more people have been striving to rediscover the stories of forgotten women. In the literary sphere, scholars have been working for decades to find female authors that have been lost to the sands of time, striving to tell their stories once again. But, one authoress that has been at the forefront of literature since the time of her first publication is Jane Austen.
Revered around the world as an extraordinary author, Austen has been read and praised for over 200 years. And yet, in popular culture and thought, her work has been reduced to stories of romance and the quintessential happy ending. This not only means that people simplify her writing, reducing it to the bare bones of longing stares and courtly dances, but also that readers underestimate Austen herself.
In fact, Austen’s works were culturally relevant and even radical at their time of publication. According to Helena Kelly, a scholar of English Literature and author of Jane Austen the Secret Radical, almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong. Her novels tackle serious subjects and provide deeply subversive commentary. We just haven’t been reading her properly.
Kelly’s critical book aims to change the public opinion about Austen by methodically breaking down the controversial themes in each novel, exposing the radical amongst the romance. Keeping in line with the issue of women throughout history, she argues that the novel Northanger Abbey revealed the dangers faced by married women in the nineteenth-century. In particular, the subject of childbirth and the risks faced by both mother and baby appear upon a closer reading of the text.
If you have not read this lesser-known Austen novel, the plot essentially follows a young and innocent girl named Catherine Morland as she comes of age. An avid reader of gothic tales, she finds herself in an ancient Abbey and convinces herself that a great tragedy befell the deceased Lady of the House. Her adventures and misunderstandings not only make her heart beat faster in terror, but they also lead to a romance with the clever young gentleman, Mr Henry Tilney.
The novel ends, as is typical in an Austen romance, with a wedding. But this ending is slightly different from the conclusions to her other works as we are given a peek into the couple’s future, a future which involves children. As one of ten other children, the protagonist Catherine would have been intimately familiar with the process of childbirth and its many dangers in a time before modern medicine. Without the benefit of effective contraceptives, married women had little control over how many children they had or when they had them which significantly increased the risk that they might die during a delivery. We leave Catherine to this unknown fate which could result in her great happiness or a permanent end to her story.
It would not be surprising if you missed these sinister suggestions of death and danger in your first reading of the novel. As Kelly claims, Austen addresses the ‘Anxieties of Common Life’ in a subtly subversive way which does not overshadow the obvious romance plot (the topic which female authors were expected to write about as it was women who were confined to the private sphere of domesticity). But, if you look closely at the text, suggestions of pregnancy and even infant mortality are embedded in the language.
For instance, whilst we are not told the explicit cause of the tragic death of Mrs Tilney, the Lady of Northanger Abbey, it is hinted that she may have died whilst pregnant. The ‘bilious’ symptoms of nausea and vomiting that afflicted her towards the end of her life are also signs of pregnancy, and of the early stages of labour or of miscarriage. So, the terrible secret at the heart of the novel is not that the Abbey is haunted by Mrs Tilney’s ghost, but that pregnancy can kill.
As Catherine enters into married life, she is placed in a similar position to Mrs Tilney and, indeed, all of Jane Austen’s heroines. They are taking a terrifying risk and placing their lives, potentially, in the hands of their husbands.
So, the next time you think of Jane Austen, don’t just recall the famous scene in Pride and Prejudice when Colin Firth emerges from a lake like a romantic hero. Remember that Jane Austen was a radical woman who not only wrote at a time when female authors struggled to find a publisher and earn a living, but also addressed some of the serious issues facing women using her command of language and her subtle wit.