Jane Austen and the importance of reputation

For Day 16 of Zero to Hero, the challenge is to write a personalized interpretation from today’s Daily Prompt. Technically speaking, it is now yesterday’s prompt because this post is a day late. But better late than never, right?

The prompt: Do you have a reputation? What is it, and where did it come from? Is it accurate? What do you think about it?

Because we can do anything we like with this prompt, essentially anything about the theme of reputation, I’m not going to talk about me. Instead, we’re going to time-travel a couple of hundred years to nineteenth century England. In a little village named Steventon nestled in the rolling hills of the southern county of Hampshire, one of the world’s best-loved authors lived and wrote. At that time, she wasn’t well-known and published her books under the pseudonym of “A Lady”. Today, millions have read her works. Her name is Jane Austen.

As readers, our own personal experiences influence our interpretations of what we read. Although that holds true whatever we read, when we read books set in other times and places I think it is very advantageous to have an idea of the context of time/place. Things which seem anachronistic or outlandish in the twenty-first century did not in the nineteenth, especially the rigid societal rules which governed a woman’s choices and reputation during the time in which Austen wrote.

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

For me, as a fan of Austen’s novels, one of the delights of reading classic literature is being able to look through a window into another era. Social etiquette was much more complex in Austen’s time than it is now and women were constrained by the expectations of a patriarchal society. As Anne Elliot succinctly says in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” (ch. 23).

Strict standards of decorum applied and if a woman seriously transgressed the boundaries, it was bad news for her reputation. Austen does not shy away from depicting improper behavior according to the standards of the age. In Sense and Sensibility, the spirited Marianne rebels against the social customs of the time. She “pointedly refuses to conform to false modesty in courtship” (Todd, 2007: 301) by traveling alone with her suitor and corresponding with him via letter. But in doing so, her reputation is put at risk.

Why does it matter? A good reputation was everything, especially in the close-knit social circles of the Georgian middle and upper classes. A woman would provoke gossip if she danced more than two consecutive dances with the same partner, unless she was engaged or married to him. Young unmarried women were not allowed to be alone with male company: they had to be chaperoned. Society placed so many restrictions on women during this time, in terms of manners, conduct, education, professions, clothing and pretty much everything else.

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations – photo copyright Grace @ Cultural Life (2013)

Women were effectively competing in a marriage market and if they did not marry (Austen herself remained unmarried), the choices were limited and poverty was never far away. As Austen said in one of her letters, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. Which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.

I enjoy Austen’s sparkling prose and her well-written characters and I love watching adaptations of her novels. It is very easy to look at her world through a rose-tinted view. The film and TV adaptations of Austen novels are always lovely to look at; everything is very pretty and perfect and there is always a happy ending. But realistically I wouldn’t want to live in her era and be compelled to follow the regulations of society with hardly any freedom to choose my own future.

Bibliography

Todd, J (Ed). (2007). Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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27 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the importance of reputation

  1. Alas there is a lot to be said for such a time that had limitations since too much freedom leads to societal disintegration. Of course, the professor deals with such issues by lightening the load with levity. What do you think?

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    • That would depend on what you mean by “too much freedom”. I certainly don’t agree with placing limitations on women’s rights to make their own choices about their lives. In Jane Austen’s time, women had very few options.

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  2. Oh yes, it’s all not that far away. Hundred years ago there was no voting right for women in Germany. And my mother couldn’t have her own bank account end of the fifties. She always had to ask my father … it all seems so far away but it’s much closer than we think.

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    • Well sadly in some parts of the world the era that Austen depicted still exists…’Honour killings’ connected to a woman’s reputation in some parts of India are a sad sad yet true reality…And this in a country where women are breaking even in all fields…..

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  5. What a great tie in with the reputation prompt. Jane Austen was the first female author that I remember reading (excluding children’s books), and she remains one of my favorites. As an almost-40 woman who has never been married, I’m certainly grateful that I don’t live in her time period. I shudder to think what my reputation would have been.

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    • Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

      I discovered Jane Austen at an early age too and I’m very glad I did because her writing is wonderfully observant about human nature. It must have been very hard for women weren’t married (but perhaps equally hard, sometimes, for women who were). In Pride & Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas is only 27 but is already regarded as being ‘on the shelf’ and she marries Mr Collins (ugh) because it is the only option she has for a financially secure future.

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  6. As a mother, I think about the way the world is for my kids. While I agree that women are much more free than they were in Jane Austen’s time (and I wouldn’t want to live in that type of world); there are now a whole different set of expectations placed upon women. I’m thinking particularly of the way they look- the push for physical perfection, an impossible standard of beauty. There is still plenty of pressure to conform to certain expectations, unfortunately.

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  8. [Persuasion: โ€œMen have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their handsโ€]

    The pen has been in their hands since the Bible was written, and probably even before that. So what I find interesting about this is that with time and hindsight, we can see how reputations are merely reflections of the values and morals of the times, and those values at the time were shaped largely by a patriarchal society, as you point out. These days, the values are different, but the principle is still the same: a reputation is formed by the prevailing values, morals, beliefs and ideas of the day– but we can’t see through them because it is our own time. Whenever I get bogged down or concerned about what other people think of me, I try to think about what someone in the future would think if they read about our current lives– our prejudices, our values, our priorities, etc.– and what they would say about it. It just helps give me perspective and distance from both myself and the way I automatically judge and label other people. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • “reputations are merely reflections of the values and morals of the times” – yes, I think societal perception is the key factor which drives that. I sometimes wonder how the 21st century will be viewed when people look back on it in two hundred years’ time. No doubt it will seem as foreign and antiquated to them as Jane Austen’s era does to us now.

      I like your approach for getting a wider perspective. Thanks for your comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. My parents, who both came of age in a very small southern town in the 1950’s, always spoke of reputation as if it were the most important thing in a person’s life, male or female. I rebelled, of course, and still struggle with their way of thinking.

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    • I think putting reputation first and feelings second is a very restrictive way to live. That always strikes me when I read Jane Austen or other classic novels. I like the fact that some of her heroines, notably Elizabeth Bennet (such a wonderful character) and Marianne Dashwood (she wears her heart on her sleeve), roll their eyes at the rigid societal rules. And I think Austen herself found the whole thing rather tiresome at times. As Paula Byrne says in Jane Austen in Context, “Austen was often less interested in observing the customs of the day than in showing her heroines transgressing them” (p. 303).

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  10. Hey, that’s a very nice take on the reputation prompt. Also, it’s depressing that things haven’t changed completely even in the 21st century, in some places at least. For example, in India, arranged marriages are still popular, and girls have to ‘maintain’ their reputation to find a good match. That means no wearing exposing clothes, having relationships and going to parties.

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    • Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yes, even though there are things which still need to be changed for women in the west (e.g. the gender pay gap and, as Miriam pointed out in her comment, the pressure of “an impossible standard of beauty”), I count myself lucky to have the freedom to choose my own career, marry whom I want or not marry at all, and live my life without society dictating my options. In Saudi Arabia, women don’t even have the freedom to drive! After the horrific New Delhi gang rape case which was very high profile in the media around the world, I hope attitudes to women are starting to change in India.

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      • It is changing, although very slowly. I guess the first step to change is the realization of their rights by the women themselves. People of my generation are changing in that regard.

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  12. I would like to think that a reputation matters. When we “yelp” a local resturant we’re looking for a kind of reputation, right?
    However the world is a little different now. No matter if a person have a good/or bad reputation you can just start over by moving to a different place.

    Great post!

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  13. What a beautifully written piece. You’re so right, as a young person I watch and read Jane Austen with nostalgia – so pretty! so romantic! So rose tinted! But when I think about it, I am so glad I was born in this time. Reputation still exists today, but to much less of a degree. And you’re right that this gives us the freedom to explore ourselves more.

    On another note, you talking about Austen gave me some inspiration for my blog today. So thank you!

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    • Thank you for reading and leaving a comment! I’m so glad my post inspired you.

      I think there is a certain amount of romance and prettiness which appeals to me when I read and watch Jane Austen. I wouldn’t mind meeting a Mr Darcy. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Whenever I need a ‘comfort read’, I dive into an Austen novel and the adaptations are lovely too. But it’s nice to be able to look back at her time from the comforts of the twenty-first century.

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