Updated: Oct 16
As a teenager, I turned my nose up at female classmates that read and admired Jane Austen’s work. “Why would you read books that imply a woman's existence revolves entirely around marriage? It’s demeaning!” And with that huffy remark, I’d march off to read Vonnegut and Heller. It took me seven more years to pick up a Jane Austen novel; I have been devouring them since. I realized that my initial notion about her work was only correct insofar as it related to the plots of her books. My assumption failed to acknowledge the subtle comedy, satire, and social commentary Austen incorporates into her novels. But, Austen readers would likely agree that her greatest strength lies in character writing. Each character the reader meets feels lived-in and like someone they know in their own lives. Everyone knows a mother as anxious and embarrassing as Mrs. Bennet or a neighbor as gossipy as Mrs. Jennings.
My late arrival to Austen’s work also revealed certain similarities between my own struggles and those of her heroines. When I began discussing the novels with South Asian friends, most of whom are in their 20s, they too resonated with the heroines’ stories. I realized that much of our experiences as South Asian women echoed those of Austen heroines, from being pressured to marry to managing difficult and embarrassing family members. Here are three reasons South Asian women relate to Jane Austen’s leading women.
1. Facing Pressure To Marry “Well”
Once a South Asian woman is about 23, she will be peppered with questions about her love life. “When is your turn [to get married] coming?,” or, “Do you have a biodata I can share?,” and, my favorite, “Do you have a ‘special friend’?,” become constant refrains at family gatherings and functions. Suddenly, her family and friends make it their mission to marry her off to a “simple” South Asian boy of the same caste and from a “good” family. Distant relatives and family friends become overenthusiastic, albeit well intentioned, matchmakers.
Austen’s characters face similar pressures to marry well and whilst in their “bloom”. In Pride and Prejudice, 23-year-old Jane Bennet’s youngest sister tells her that if she does not marry soon, she will become “an old maid”. Because the Bennet sisters have no brothers and cannot inherit their father’s estate, they face additional pressure to make an “advantageous match”. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is also pushed to accept the affections of Henry Crawford, a wealthy neighbor intent on “making” Fanny love him. When she refuses to marry Crawford, her relatives berate her for throwing away such an eligible match and, because she came from a poor family, caution her that she may never receive such an offer again.
South Asian women may find the aforementioned characters’ experiences alarmingly familiar. Navigating the expectations of heterosexual marriage, especially when and who to marry, can be daunting and even disagreeable for women that are disinclined towards marriage or for members of the queer community. Increasing pressure from family and friends to find the right person, at the right time, from the right family makes this experience even more demoralizing.
2. Being “Accomplished”
South Asian parents, especially members of the diaspora, expect excellence from their children in school and within their careers. Excellence often means partaking in as many extracurricular activities and becoming as educated as possible; most of the South Asian women I know in their mid-twenties already have two degrees. This degree of excellence has become more of a norm than an achievement. However, for many South Asian women, accomplishment also includes being able to cook a three course meal daily and skillfully, despite demands from work or home. The ideal woman not only masters multiple talents and manages a household, but is perfectly pleasant while she does it. As Jane Austen might write, “She has something in her air.”
Austen heroines face similar unreasonable expectations from society concerning accomplishments in the arts. In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley remarked that for a woman to deserve the word “accomplished”, she must “have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages…” . Regency women perceived that a knowledge of these disciplines would improve their prospects and act as a testament to their status— only wealthy gentry could afford the best governesses and instructors to foster prowess in the arts. Because accomplishment seemed crucial to a woman’s marriageability, most women of the gentry possessed some skill in the arts. As Mr. Bingley said in Pride and Prejudice, “It is amazing to me… how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are…. They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time without being informed that she was very accomplished.” Similar to South Asian women who pursue advanced degrees, becoming accomplished served to meet expectations rather than to distinguish a woman from her peers.
Curiously, most of Austen’s central protagonists lack significant accomplishment. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, for example, lacks the means to attain adequate tutelage. Therefore, her skill in piano playing, drawing, and similar arts remains limited. In Emma, the titular character receives the finest instruction in the arts, but lacks the discipline to master any of them. Interestingly, these women end up with the happiest fates compared to the other women in their novels. Each finds a loving, understanding partner and attains the life that she desires. Perhaps Austen attempts to caution the reader that accomplishment is no guarantee of a woman's happiness, advice which might not be lost on the South Asian community.
3. Dealing with Difficult Family and Friends
Politeness and saving face, especially amongst extended family and friends, is among the earliest learned behaviors of South Asian women. Such politeness not only extends to being generally pleasant to people, but to spending time with family one dislikes, making visits to distant relatives while traveling “near” them (even if inconvenient), and singing their praises, especially if they happen to be rich. Though I thought such behavior was the norm across South Asian society, I have recently found that this dynamic is highly gendered. For example, when my brother in-law talks back to older family members or responds to their problematic comments with, “That was weird,” he seldom receives a rebuke, whereas the same conduct from me or my sister would result in ignominy from our parents or older family members. Instead, whether they needle us about our marriage prospects, criticize our bodies, or diminish and downgrade our careers, we must politely endure, dancing around the conversation while maintaining respect for the relative in question. We are forced to interact with such characters despite their toxicity and/or cringe factor.
Throughout each of her novels, Austen proves herself a master of writing cringe. She portrays mortifying situations with a subtlety and relatability that resonates with audiences 200 years later. Austen especially has a knack for writing realistically embarrassing, overwhelming, and, sometimes, downright unpleasant characters. In Mansfield Park, the heroine Fanny Price deals with the latter. She must constantly bear her Aunt Norris’ remarks about her ingratitude and inferiority to her cousins with either silence or quiet politeness. Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility navigates a lesser evil in the gossipy, shallow Mrs. Jennings. Though Elinor does not enjoy the widow’s company, her wealth and high standing in society as well as the Dashwood’s precarious financial situation compel her to visit Mrs. Jennings often. Finally, Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice is among the best examples of Austen's hilariously cringeworthy characters. Blissfully ignorant of his shortcomings, Mr. Collins believes himself skilled in the art of flattery and attempts to use his charms to woo his cousin Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth never encourages his affection, but attempts remain polite towards Mr. Collins, considering he will inherit her family’s estate. When he proposes to her, she kindly and civilly refuses him. He persists, insisting that she must, “...simply seek to increase my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.” When she remains firm, he even insinuates that his could be the last offer of marriage that could be made to her, considering her low prospects. Each of the heroines maintain a facade of eloquent, albeit firm, politeness, even when the offender crosses multiple boundaries or disrespects them.
Though this brand of agreeableness and “happy manners'' were the pinnacles of womanhood during the Regency period, they are no longer idealized today. Women coming of age now champion maintaining and enforcing boundaries as healthy rather than rude. As a South Asian woman, despite my deftness at dodging cringy relatives with smiles and nods, I am periodically unlearning quiet politeness and practice standing up for myself in turn.
Reading through Austen’s work and relating to her heroines gave me a sense of solace. Though the novelist's world of landed gentry, balls, and polite society seems disparate from that of the South Asian community, her heroines face similar challenges. Women marrying well, their accomplishment, and their politeness remain priorities within the South Asian community. I don’t doubt that the next generation of South Asian women will succeed in dismantling these expectations, even if they are over two centuries old.