Literature is a mirror of social evolution. In it we find a living record of the progressive emergence of individuality in history. It depicts the development of political rights, social equality and psychological individuality as several stages in a common evolutionary movement.
The well-loved English novelist, Jane Austen, was a 20th century woman born 150 years ahead of her time, a prototype modern individual living in an age when female social conformity was demanded, original thinking frowned upon and creativity discouraged among women. Jane Austen lived and wrote at a time when the upper class woman of 18th century England was governed by a strict code of conduct that extended to all walks of life. Women were expected to be virtuous, submissive, modest, concealing to their intelligence and abilities and leaving matters of science, philosophy, politics and business to more intelligent and better informed gentlemen. As a renowned English writer instructed his daughters in the 1770s: “Wit is the most dangerous talent you can possess: it must be guarded with great discretion and good nature. Be ever cautious in displaying your good sense… if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men.” English law at the time forbade divorce and regarded married women much like the property of her husband’s.
Jane Austen broke the traditional mold of feminine conformity. In very unladylike fashion, she published six novels under a pen name. It was an age in which it was universally believed that every girl must marry and marry young to secure a groom for financial security and social status, in utter disregard of foolish, idealistic notions of love and romance. Yet Austen rejected one very respectable proposal and refused to marry at all because she could not marry for love.
Her writing was as individualistic as she was and her own individuality was reflected in that of her heroines. In Pride and Prejudice she portrays Elizabeth Bennet’s struggle to express her individuality in a society that demanded strict social conformity, a situation far afield for most Western women today, but closely resembling the pressures felt by woman in many Asian countries even now. Elizabeth has inner strength. She doesn’t value people and things just because society values them. She judges according to her own values. She is not socially self conscious or pretentious. She has a natural spontaneity. She has social skill and capacity, but she is not constrained by artificial social formalities. Nor is she a prisoner of her own ego. She has the sincerity to examine her own behavior and the capacity to change. She has the will, as well as the strength, to resist social pressure. Elizabeth is not aggressive, rebellious or frivolous, disrespecting societal norms and breaking rules for fun. She has high human values, and employs her good sense and strong will as she sees fit, thinking independently of her family, friends and neighbors.
Unlike many contemporary notions about female individuality, Elizabeth is able to express her intelligence, independence and strong character without in any way compromising on her femininity. She is able to stand up for her rights, speak her mind freely and disregard social status, yet she never aspires to be a successful man in a man’s world. She strives only to express her own unique feminine individuality. With her cheerfulness and goodwill, she is feminine as well as individualistic.
Elizabeth belongs to a family of five daughters, their father a gentleman farmer of moderate fortune. With no male heir, the family estate is to pass on to a cousin after her father’s time. With no suitor in sight and no dowry to recommend her in case one turned up, marriage and financial security seem like distant dreams. But Elizabeth is not daunted. Marriage, to her, is not an ideal in itself. Her mother’s one aim in life is to marry five daughters. Her younger sisters cannot wait for their turn to marry. Her best friend goads her to do all she can to secure a wealthy husband, be he a fool or a villain. But Elizabeth feels differently, and fear of neither spinsterhood nor poverty can dilute her values. At a time in England where marrying for love hardly ever happened, like her creator Jane Austen, Elizabeth is determined to marry a man she loves and respects, or not marry at all.
Her bumbling cousin Collins visits the Bennets and announces his intention of marrying Elizabeth. Collins is a decent man with a college education, respectable job and considerable income. More significantly, he is the heir to the Bennet estate. Mrs. Bennet who has intensely felt the pressure of having five unmarried daughters and dreaded the thought of their becoming poor old maids, celebrates this end to all their troubles. There is pressure on Elizabeth to accept the lucrative proposal. But she is not swayed. She cannot accept her clownish cousin just for the comforts he can supply. She does not love him, cannot possibly respect him, and seeing no admirable values in him, turns him down. Her friend Charlotte seizes the opportunity and secures him for herself, and is satisfied with the accomplishment, as is the rest of her family and neighborhood. But to Elizabeth, the idea of marriage with such a man is humiliating. When those around her see his social standing, exalted connections and financial advantages, she sees right through it all, at his core, foolishness and pomposity.
Bingley, a wealthy young man moves to the neighborhood, with his fashionable sister Caroline and even wealthier friend, Mr. Darcy. Bingley is a pleasant type, but his entourage acts proudly and haughtily. The entire town admires Caroline’s fashionable gown and dainty lace, graceful walk and superior airs. The townspeople go up to Darcy for the privilege of exchanging a word with him, and some feel gratified even to receive a gruff snub from the aristocrat. They value only money and status. But Elizabeth Bennet is not deceived by the packaging. She sees rude, uncultured, selfish people where others see fashionable, sophisticated, wealthy folks.
Much to his own amazement as well as hers, Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth passionately and proposes to her. All that he had to offer would have tempted any other girl in Elizabeth’s place to say yes before he finished speaking. But Elizabeth turns him down without a second thought. She could not accept a man with no scruples and goodness, as she mistakenly believes him to be, in spite of his fine estate, huge income, prestigious family and superior connections. She does not set her values based on the society’s, or take decisions with an eye on society’s approval.
Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine is the queen of her territory. Her imperialism, founded on the virtue of her wealth and status, is gratefully enjoyed or quietly accepted, but never challenged. Here again, Elizabeth thinks for herself. The lady, Elizabeth believes, does not deserve to be worshipped because she has immense wealth. She need not be obeyed for the sake of her aristocracy. Elizabeth could not sacrifice her good sense or self-respect to please another. She scandalizes all by contradicting the lady, while all around mumble their agreement or safely nod and smile. The lady calls on Elizabeth and abuses, threatens and coaxes in turns to prevent her from marrying Darcy. Elizabeth braves the storm that would have sunk many a mighty ship, and defiantly sails past the lady right up to the altar with Darcy.
A developed mind, good values and strong character are the source of Elizabeth’s strength. Nothing from the outside can dictate to her how to feel, think or act, and if her wishes are contrary to those external voices, she gallantly listens to her inner voice. She has great psychological strength that lets her face that impalpable, yet overwhelming foe of social disapproval and rewrite rules that define society.
Society comes around. It learns from her, and rewards her for transforming it. It raises her sky high. Elizabeth Bennet who had a mere £50 a year, a family to be embarrassed about and no high connections, becomes mistress of one of the finest estates in the country, a husband with an income of £10,000 a year who respects and loves her passionately, wealth to grant every comfort she could wish for and society that looks up to her in appreciation.
Jane Austen was a pioneering individual who showed that individuality is not breaking away from femininity, but enhancing it to make a more beautiful, meaningful personality. As she tells us through her heroine Elizabeth Bennet, individuality is not about competing with men or becoming masculine. It is not about getting rid of femininity. It is about recognizing the beauty, strength and values within oneself, nurturing them, and accomplishing a complementary relationship with the men and women in one’s life.
The growing numbers of biographies, journals and literary societies devoted to Austen, film and television adaptations of her works, online reading groups, fan sites and mailing lists are an ode to the increasing popularity and relevance of Jane Austen and the feminine individuality she epitomized.
It is interesting to compare and contrast the characteristics of individuality that emerge in Jane Austen’s and Elizabeth Bennet’s personality with the more traditional masculine conception of rugged individuality.