By Sherif Abdel-Samad
The first sentence of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” (1813) sums up her life-long endeavor to reflect two main topics (namely wealth and marriage) permeating her six completed novels: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
All her books revolve around a young woman and her quest to find the right suitor in the 19th century environment, marked by chaste traditions and a firm code of conduct. Mothers annoyingly interfere in their daughters’ lives and fathers preserve the right to reject a suitor based on his lower ranking status.
Marriage was a marketplace with lucrative deals to guarantee the groom and bride a stable income, particularly since the British inheritance law excluded daughters from their parents’ wealth. A woman was denied access in the job market, thus having no other means to lead a decent life except to marry a wealthy husband.
Austen’s novels take place in the English countryside. Her world consists of two or three families, specifically the women, who spend their days cultivating their knowledge by practicing the piano, learning French, and perfecting a skilful handcraft. They wait for an occasion, like a ball or a party, to meet a noble gentleman who might ask a girl for more than one dance, a sign back then of interest.
This was the lifestyle Austen was all too familiar with. At an early age, she was engaged to a young suitor herself, since both sides of their families were poor, but her fiancé simply dumped her for a more affluent wife. Austen was later briefly consented to an engagement with a suitor five years younger than her, but she withdrew her consent overnight and remained single until her early death at the age of 41.
Despite the different settings and the time difference since her death, Austen remains as popular as ever. She sold as many books as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and all six novels of hers were successfully adapted to the silver screen. Austen has managed to still captivate a large circle of adherent readers worldwide with her incomparable ironic, wonderful sense of humour, her inimitable almost symmetrical sentence structure, a witty dialogue, and an unconventional romantic plot.
It is also a universally acknowledged truth that every Egyptian single woman sooner or later falls prey to an entire entourage of parents, relatives, and friends, leaving no stone unturned until she is safely wed, particularly if she is considered past the suitable age of marrying. In this day and age, the age to get married is more flexible compared with that of earlier generations.
Unlike Austen’s characters, women nowadays enjoy financial independence by having access to the job market. The society however is still obsessed with marriage, investing large fortunes on weddings and dowries. An unmarried woman is viewed as a deviant black sheep, squandering an incomplete existence for not having achieving the “accomplishment of marriage”, known in Egypt as “sunnet el-haya”.
Sharp-tongued and witty, Austen sublimely ridiculed all-too-keen mothers and hysterical young women bent on throwing themselves into the arms of their next good bidder. Her novels are coming-of-age-stories, with heroines experiencing a mature form of catharsis and subsequently rewarded with the rightful marriage, unlike their author, since she never found her own Mr. Darcy.
When her father, a poor clergyman, died in 1805, Austen, her sister Cassandra, and her widowed mother were financially dependent on her six brothers; they were looked down upon by their society because of their low social ranking. When Austen received a marriage proposal from a young suitor, which would have set her financially better off, she declined for lack of romantic affection towards him. It was a fate she shared with her life-long friend and sister Cassandra, whose fiancé died in the Caribbean, where he was planning to make enough money for their marriage. She also remained single.
Austen became an established writer; “Sense and Sensibility” alone earned her £250, a large sum at the time. Yet she could not long enjoy her new-found stardom because she gradually weakened from an illness, which she fatally neglected. It is believed she suffered Addison disease. When she died with her head on her sister’s lap, she left behind two unfinished novels.
Austen died on 16 December 1817. She would have turned 240 on the same day in 2015.
Shortly before her death in 1817, with the help of one of her brothers Henry, Austen published “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), a novel she wrote in her early twenties alongside “Pride and Prejudice”, which appeared two years later. She had anonymously published her novels as “a lady”, which caused immediate sensation, and soon after her brother boasted this so-called lady was none other than his sister. Prince Regent George VI greatly admired her work and requested she dedicate her novel “Emma” (1815) to him.
In a society prone to deem the success of a woman’s life according to the children she produces, Jane Austen’s “spinster” life might be regarded as a failure. Neither Austen nor her heroines were rebellious, compared to Bronte’s characters for example; nevertheless, they transcended all the barriers bound by her time.
She dominated a métier that was previously preserved almost exclusively for men. She elevated her rank not by a marriage contract but with individual achievement and art. She defined success not with a ring on her finger but with a book in her hands. It is not without irony that the greatest novels on marriage were written by a woman who was single herself, an irony typically written by perhaps the greatest female English writer of all time.