“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” – Jane Austen
“Austen’s Pride,” a musical that gives audiences a peek into the doubts and struggles Jane Austen experienced while writing and publishing the work that would eventually become Pride and Prejudice, opened on the Callahan Theater’s stage at Nazareth College in Rochester on Wednesday, July 13th. In honor of the production’s opening, we took a brief look at what it meant to be a woman in the Regency Period, and how Austen kept her independence, a rare feat for a single female in that time.
Jane Austen completed only six novels during her short life, but her works have inspired countless adaptations, including films, TV series, and books. Some versions stay true to the story, while others exercise creative license (zombies, anyone?), but all pay homage to the uniquely witty and intelligent approach Austen took regarding love and life. One of the most well known (and quoted, because who doesn’t want to hear that they’re “ardently” loved and admired?) of all Austen’s works is Pride and Prejudice. Published over 200 years ago, it remains a staple work of literature that is still loved world wide. Austen herself had a soft spot for the book, and in a letter refers to the printed manuscript as her “darling child.” Interestingly, this enduring work wasn’t always the popular piece it is now. Austen’s first attempt to get it published ended in complete rejection, and it wasn’t until years later, after she had established herself as an author, that Pride and Prejudice was able to be published.
While incorporating her own (often sarcastic) viewpoint regarding love and marriage, Austen was able to tackle many of the issues facing women during the Regency Period. A recurring theme in her novels is women’s lack of independence, whether personal or financial. Laws of inheritance at that time dictated that entailed property was passed on to the next male in the family line, no matter how many women were more closely related to the original owner. It was only marriage that could rescue these young women from a life of dependence, but although Austen “saves” many of her heroines by allowing them to wed the wealthy men of their dreams, she did not follow that path herself.
Austen chose to remain single instead of wedding her only (as far as we know) serious suitor, even though at the time her family was far from well off. However, rather than continue to rely on the men in the family to provide, Austen was able to gain her own income (and thus, independence) through her writing. Perhaps living on the edge of desperation to keep her family financially afloat was one key element that kept Austen inspired to keep writing her beloved classics, even as her health rapidly declined.
Whether Austen’s stories were the wistful longings of a hopeless romantic, a subtle encouragement for women to be intelligent and independent, or some mixture of the two, the musical Austen’s Pride proves that her work is still relevant and moving even for today’s audiences.