Jane Austen wrote about nuanced, flawed and complex people — so why is there a perception her fiction is only for women?
The answer has little to do with her books, and everything to do with the cottage industry of romantic comedy Austen adaptations — what Olivia Murphy, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, refers to as the “Bridget Jones phenomenon”.
“I think that these novels get adapted often because they have pretty archetypal romance plots,” says Dr Murphy.
“Austen is a victim of her own success.”
The ‘Bridget Jones phenomenon’
With no other form of income, Austen wrote novels to make a living, developing plots she believed would be popular.
Yet Dr Murphy says the novels’ popularity belies their complexity.
(Books and Arts)
“The novels are so complicated, and yet they seem almost so perfectly simple,” she says.
In fact, she believes it’s actually modern stereotypes about women desperate for relationships that rob the stories of their nuance.
“These adaptations ignore the aspects of Jane Austen’s novels that detract from the romance plot,” she says.
“They strip everything out of it and make the whole narrative about the heroine’s quest to get married.”
Both feminist and anti-feminist
The historical understanding of Austen’s position as a feminist writer has varied throughout history.
Literary academic Devoney Looser says Austen has been claimed as both a champion of feminism and an example of restrained femininity.
“There was very much the sense of Austen being a polarising political figure as early as the 1870s,” says Professor Looser.
Professor Looser plays roller derby using the moniker “Stone Cold Jane Austen”. (Supplied: Devoney Looser )
Some readers celebrated her for what they considered to be her restrained manner and “appropriate” subject matter for women.
“I think that a lot of male writers feel that she is a kind of archetype of domestic fiction,” says Professor Looser.
On the other hand, Austen has been lauded by some feminist critics, who consider her novels to be breakthrough works of fiction.
“Later in the Victorian period, women would be portrayed in fiction as being somehow perfect, pure and angelic. Austen doesn’t do that,” says Dr Murphy.
“Austen’s heroines — all of her characters — are like real people. They have faults, they’re impatient, they’re rude, they’re selfish, or they get annoyed with people too easily.”
“That in itself was a really radical and adventurous thing to do — to show women being wrong, to show women being imperfect in fiction, but also women standing up for themselves, and women deciding that men were idiots.”
Dr Murphy says that contrary to popular belief, Austen’s first readers were fairly evenly split between men and women.
One of the earliest reviews of Austen’s work was written by Sir Walter Scott, one of the most successful living writers of her time.
“From that point on she really had a higher reputation with male members of the literary scene than she did with women.”