The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world – and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

A colourized engraving of Jane Austen (1873).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in Persuasion (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about genteel women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in Sense and Sensibility (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in Northanger Abbey (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics* in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.

*This article was written before J.K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets and editorial piece were published. The Mindful Rambler does not condone transphobia (or trans-exclusionary radical feminism) in any form, whether the dismissal of a person’s gender and pronouns or otherwise. We stand in solidarity with the trans community.

Well-Read: On Breaking Up with the Great Books

As literary scholars, book lovers, and participants in popular culture, we are conditioned to become “well-read”. But what weight does the established canon really hold? What is the reward for pursuing literature that is widely lauded as a “great book”?

By Jenny Lee

If you are a sad, nerdy, self-serious reading person, you know about the Lists. The BBC has one, every liberal arts school has one, Harold Bloom had one that would require several lifetimes to finish. The Lists are there to tell you about the Great Books.

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The author’s copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which is naught but a particularly large List of Great Books. Photo: Jennifer Lee.

The arguments against the Western literary canon are well-rehearsed. The Canon is dominated by the Dead White Male, with a smattering of token female authors, authors of colour, authors with disabilities. It’s a gatekeeper: people who aren’t familiar with the Canon are excluded from our cultural conversations, because they don’t really know about books. It trains us to extend endless sympathy to angry white men and none at all to … anyone else.

The Canon is the guy at the party who won’t stop talking about Dude Books, but has never read Pride and Prejudice (and yet has an argument about why it’s not a great literary work). The Canon makes you read everything he thought was good when he was fourteen, but leaves every book you lend him on his bedside table, untouched. Every time you struggle through one of his Dude Books, two more appear, like the heads of the Hydra. Admittedly, sometimes they’re good, but they’re not Zadie Smith good.

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Oh! It’s another book! That you want me to read! Thanks, I’m actually allergic to Salinger, it’s the weirdest thing, I get hives. Huge bummer but what can you do? Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Canon is inside my head, like the Phantom of the Opera, if the Phantom of the Opera did not offer singing advice but instead just exhorted you to read Dostoyevsky.

The Canon is a bad boyfriend, so why is it so hard to break up with it?

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“CHRISTINE! Did you finish Atlas Shrugged yet? I know it’s 1200 pages long, but it only took me four days once I got into it. I just feel like Rand was really prescient.” Photo: Matthew Murphy.

I know, intellectually, that these Lists are restrictive, limiting the stories we read and talk about and write, that they arise from power structures I don’t want to uphold. But letting go of the Great Books is more frightening than liberating. If I admit that I think Restoration drama is uniformly terrible* and will never like Wordsworth, then who will present me with a great big trophy and universal approbation for finally being a Well-Read Individual?

There are the stories in the Canon, and then there’s the story of the Canon: the lie that running on the hamster wheel of European thought makes you some kind of literary Ubermensch, that there is only one way to cultural competence and only one culture worth being competent in.

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It turns out you can just BUY THESE on the internet and no one even makes you take a quiz. Photo: Paper Pastries.

I know this, and yet a set of leatherbound classics still makes my pupils dilate in a Pavlovian reaction. There is no prize for being ‘well-read’, but so much of my early formation, as a reader, a critic, a person, was staked on the premise that there might be.

Is it enough to see the Canon for the arbitrary racket it is, to choose instead the company of authors I love, who speak to me? To catch myself before I ask someone else, with reflexive incredulity, “You haven’t read any Auden?” Or do I need to delete the Canon’s number from my phone and start again, building my own Great Books from scratch? Can I finally ghost on The Faerie Queene? 

*COME AT ME

The Curse of Not Teaching Cursive

Some school boards won’t teach cursive writing anymore. The impact of this decision bears heavily on the ability to write and read handwritten documents, with possible implications for historical interpretation.

By Serena Ypelaar

In our increasingly digital age, what will become of handwriting?

I’ve always found it fascinating to see people’s handwriting, and I associate the way they write with their personality, almost. At least, it’s a part of their identity. Being able to recognize people’s handwriting is also useful when you’re trying to tell who wrote something (it’s always interesting that Santa seems to have the same penmanship as Mum or Dad…).

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Photo: Michal Jarmoluk

Yet, with the domination of smartphones and laptops, we don’t have to hand-write notes or messages as often as before. As a lover of the written word, and a typography nerd, I feel a bit wistful reflecting on the disappearance of paper and pen.

One thing that strikes me is the choice of some school boards to cease teaching cursive writing to children. It’s something that’s happened in my own province of Ontario – kids are no longer going to learn cursive penmanship, meaning that they will have to resort to printing, in the case that they do write.

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A letter handwritten by Walt Whitman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I myself write an approximation between printing and cursive writing, wherein I drag my pen to connect the letters (it’s much easier and quicker than printing, but it’s not by-the-book cursive). However, I know how to read cursive writing – but will the people of the future?

Take this letter from American poet Walt Whitman, for instance. We can probably decipher the text, as Whitman’s scrawl is fairly legible compared to countless other cursive letters, but we’ve also learned in school how to recognize the script (the letter “Q” in cursive always looked like a silly “2”, or a swan, but we get taught to recognize it – something our children won’t receive).

It’s difficult to say whether people who haven’t been taught cursive writing will be able to read letters like these. Whitman’s hand is one thing, but how about those who wrote much more sloppily in the past, or with a much steeper slant?

Writing woman a letter, with her maid, by Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid”, Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not too long ago, I was at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, where I completed my master’s degree. I spent a few days reading through the correspondence of General James Wolfe, the leader of the victorious British forces at the fabled Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1763) which defined the colonial future of Quebec and ultimately Canada. Wolfe’s writing was quite elegant, but I often had trouble deciphering some of his words (I’d like to illustrate my point, but the original copies of his letters are protected in the library, so I don’t have photographs).

Letters like these, and early manuscripts, are extremely important documents to study, both in a literary and historical sense. In the humanities, we’re working with written documents all the time, and being able to read as much as we can is a necessity. Even just for leisure, being able to write and read cursive is a special and worthwhile skill. It’ll be interesting to see how reading evolves in the future when most of the documents we produce will be typed.

It’s a little ironic: I almost wish I could have handwritten this post for effect.