What Jane Austen Taught Me About Being a Strong Woman

Her lessons were incredibly modern.
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Her lessons were incredibly modern.
Illustration by Alessandra Olanow

Illustration by Alessandra Olanow

It was my mom—a strong and resilient woman—who first introduced me to the wonderful world of Jane Austen. Of course I’m delighted by the amazing British movie actors, the classy British accents, and the wit and humor found within the pages of the novels. But what draws me to Jane Austen’s works are her strong female characters. Her characters are smart, dynamic, and beautiful in a way that is just as relevant for women today as it was in the nineteenth century.

If Austen has taught me anything, it’s that not only are women strong, but there is also an incredible amount of ways with which they can manifest this strength—that society’s definition of a strong woman does not always account for the strength in her heart and for the thoughts, feelings, and hopes that bloom there, which say more about her than the self she communicates on the outside.

Jane Austen has taught me that there is . . .

01. STRENGTH IN GENTLENESS.

When I hear “Jane Austen,” I almost immediately think of Lizzy Bennet, the lively heroine of Pride and Prejudice, who is not afraid to initially turn down the handsome yet arrogant Darcy with words of fire: “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Lizzy’s character is imbued with a spirit that we can’t help but admire as she makes her way through interactions with haughty members of the upper class and conversations about marrying for love instead of position. Her independence from the opinions of others is refreshing.

Though Lizzy is a definite favorite among Austen fans, another heroine worth noting is Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. The daughter of a working class family headed by a drunken father, Fanny is adopted into the family of her richer relations. Whereas Lizzy doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind, Fanny is timid, shy, and not prone to sharing her emotions. Whereas Lizzy can walk three miles to visit a sick sister, Fanny gets tired strolling through the shrubbery. Whereas Lizzy can think of a witty comeback to silence a slight, Fanny only blushes and later reacts to the situation through tears.

But there’s a lesson in Fanny Price’s character. In today’s world, she might be considered someone who “needs to grow a backbone” or who should “come out of her shell.” But what’s striking about Fanny is her strong moral compass—her ability to discern if something is good or bad. She’s a person in whom many of the other characters see flaws (e.g., her relatives want her to marry an eligible but inconstant man and accuse her of being ungrateful to them for not accepting him), but Fanny does not bend to the misled desires of those around her. And to help us understand her, Jane Austen introduces us to Fanny’s heart.

From Fanny, I’ve learned the amazing strength it takes to be gentle and kind in the “real world,” where the pain of injustice and of being misunderstood could lead to bitterness. I’ve learned that her gentleness is a choice and does not necessarily mean she’s a doormat. For Fanny, her gentleness actually allows for proper discernment of the decisions that come her way. Like Lizzy, Fanny loves deeply and will not settle for just any man. She’s looking not only for a husband but also for a friend. And needless to say, she finds him.

02. STRENGTH IN FACING SUFFERING.

No character reveals this more poignantly than Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion. Whereas other characters balk at the little inconveniences of life or wallow in feelings of melancholy and self-pity, Anne faces with grace the suffering of having refused the dashing Captain Wentworth eight years before, the man she still loves. Austen makes it clear that this proposal was not refused out of weakness of heart on Anne’s part: “. . . it was not merely a selfish caution, under which she acted, in putting it to an end. Had she not imagined herself consulting his good, even more than her own, she could hardly have given him up.” At the time, Anne was persuaded by an influential family friend that this would be best for her family, that she and Captain Wentworth were young, and that it would be foolish to marry when he was just starting to make a living for himself. Though this decision meant she would have to suffer greatly, Anne felt she needed to consider more than herself in the decision.

Rather than becoming immobilized by regrets, especially when Captain Wentworth reenters her social circle, Anne’s focus is always centered on others. She does not let her pain eat away at her. Because Anne has suffered, she’s able to support the people in her life who have experienced similar loss. She grows from her heartache, and because of the strength of her character, Captain Wentworth is able to emerge from his own pain and bitterness about the past and admit his unfailing love for her.

Fanny’s sufferings also allow her to be more compassionate toward others. She sees the inconstant nature of a man who claims to love her but has also been carrying on a flirtatious relationship with her engaged cousin. Though her family can’t understand why she won’t consent to marrying him, she stays strong. When her cousin is brought to ruin for running away with this man, Fanny is genuinely sorry for her. Because she knows what it is to feel lonely and misunderstood, like Anne she is able to both stand firm in her beliefs and to empathize with the sufferings of others.

Instead of portraying suffering as an insurmountable barrier to happiness, Austen shows that it can lead her heroines toward wisdom and virtue.

03. STRENGTH IN GROWTH.

A recurring motif in Austen’s novels is that we are works in progress. None of her heroines are flawless; most must stumble and struggle to arrive at growth.

Emma Woodhouse (Emma), for example, must learn to put the good of others before her own. Unlike Anne, who never fails to consider others, Emma is prone to fanciful imaginings about others that don’t end up playing out in reality. In the beginning of her story, Emma’s attempts at matchmaking and quick assumptions about other people get her into trouble, which forces her to realize her mistakes and to try and right them. Being called out for projects such as persuading a friend to refuse a marriage proposal of which Emma doesn’t approve and embarrassing a long-winded neighbor at a picnic causes Emma to reconsider the effects of her actions on others, which ultimately leads her toward change. Whereas Anne’s character was strengthened by years of suffering, the little stings Emma receive help her to do what Anne has already done: to put others before herself.

Lizzy too must learn to face her own prejudice against Mr. Darcy in order to see him for the man he is: an imperfect but multifaceted individual with many good qualities. In doing so, she discovers that “[t]ill this moment, I never knew myself.” Like Emma, she had been blindsided by her own assumptions.

The heroine that emerges from a Jane Austen novel is typically different from the one we meet in the beginning. Lizzy learns that her own impressions are not always an accurate depiction of reality; Emma realizes the value and dignity of the people in her life; Anne, through patience and forbearance, discovers that love can be rekindled; and Fanny finds happiness in holding on to her values. It’s not that the essence of each character changes. Rather, she becomes happier because of it.

04. STRENGTH IN BEING A WOMAN, PERIOD.

I love that Austen’s characters vary vastly but that no matter if we’re a Lizzy or an Anne, a Fanny or an Emma, we are all strong women—just of a different brand than popular society typically promotes. Jane Austen encourages the strength that sees people’s hearts, especially those of our fellow women.

The moral of the Jane Austen novel is that strength is dynamic, and it stems from the heart of every woman on this earth. The way our inner strength manifests itself will be different for each of us. It’s not always easy to detect; it sometimes shows itself in quiet, secret ways. But we all have it within us: strength that makes us gentle and perseverant; strength that opens us to growth and writes itself into the stories of our lives. And that’s a lesson worth passing on.

Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Jane Austen.

Lindsey Weishar is a twenty-something who enjoys traveling, exploring the origins of words, and writing poetry. An English major in undergrad whos getting ready to pursue an MFA in creative writing, she likes finding little gems of meaning in what shes reading and in the world around her.