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Lady Jane

Jane Austen
Jane Austen
Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism and biting social commentary has gained her historical importance among scholars and critics. | Photo: Archives | Jane Austen, Writer, Author, Novelist,

To Esteem and Admire

I've never been one much for personal heroes. Heroization builds a person up to a standard against which no one can measure, as we're all human beings with failings and shortcomings. History will rewrite the stories of the dead and living icons still have plenty of time to screw up. Although even a good person may be ruined by those who idolize them. Hero-worship doesn't allow for people to be the complicated and messy beings we invariably are. To me, this mess and complication is beautiful. An unyielding stone altar in someone's memory, while flattering, has the potential to erase the person who set out to live her life in a certain way and instead remake them in our own idolized image.

As I have aged, I've had to change my tune somewhat. You see, about a year ago, I decided I want to be a writer. It was one of the scariest decisions I've ever made. It meant giving up steady income and the possibility of healthcare in my own name, at least for the time being. It also meant being subjected to cute epithets like "housewife" by (now ex) friends of mine. There were days I thought, "I really can't do this." To be fair, there are days I still think that, though they're fewer and far between.

And to get through these moments, I would turn to a piece of solace in the biography of a woman I do, truly, admire: Jane Austen. Full disclosure: I love Austen's work, and I will sing her praises loudly and freely, even where they may be unwanted. But I'm actually not here to talk about her work. No, I'm here to talk about a singular, often overlooked kind of bravery that allows me to face my own fears.

I fear turning twenty-six and needing to take a trip to the emergency room. I fear the judgment I face in trying to carve out a space for a creative life's work'that others find me to be lazy, unprofessional, and goal-less. I fear failing and having to chuck this all in for a more steady, respectable job. What did Jane Austen give up to become a writer? A husband to support her. The chance of economic stability. The dream to not have to live off of her male relations.

A woman's job, particularly of Jane's station, in Regency England was to be a wife. She could be a parson's wife or a naval captain's wife or a landowner's wife or a politician's wife, but she was a wife none the less. If a woman was truly unlucky and educated enough, she could become a governess. I'm speaking in broad strokes of a privileged set, yes, but the point is not moot. Women's professional options were severely limited, and privileged women, while free from the burden of hard or grueling labor, were even more limited in the scope of work deemed appropriate for them.

Not to say Jane wasn't tempted by that stability. At the age of twenty-seven, she momentarily accepted the only proposal she would receive in her life, from a man whom she did not love, but who could give her life a decided monetary establishment. The next day she famously changed her mind. I admire her more for this momentary lapse, for her fleeting yielding to temptation. She must have known that she was giving up one of her last, if not her final chance of economic security and social respectability. She gave this away, not freely, but with much thought and consideration. She turned down the only life anyone thought possible for her'a life she had thought the only one possible for herself.

Instead, Jane Austen created a life for herself. A life where, as an unmarried woman, she would have to be chaperoned by a male relation up until her death at the age of 41. A life where, as an unmarried woman, she would be economically dependent on her male relatives for most of the remainder of her life. A life where, as an unmarried woman, she became one of the few women admitted into the Western Literary Canon.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism and biting social commentary has gained her historical importance among scholars and critics. | Jane Austen, Writer, Author, Novelist,

I hope I don't have to give up my dreams, but I know, as a woman with a post-graduate degree, I don't have to give up on economic solvency. I don't have to physically hide my writing, as Jane did, from friends and acquaintances when they come over for a visit. I don't have to choose writing over finding a partner in life, or establishing a family. Jane's strength in the face of her hardships, her ability to understand and acknowledge the temptation of giving up on her dreams, while ultimately deciding to still pursue her writing, gives me strength.

Little survives of Jane Austen biographically. What does survive has been heavily censored by her family. I'd like to think that a woman' who had the majority of her intimate correspondence with her sister burned, whose surviving family spent so much time after her death talking her up as "good-natured" and "quiet," who chose a life in pursuit of a great, creative unknown' was bold, courageous and not a little bit wild at heart.

So, perhaps, I do have a hero after all. Or at the least, I have the hope of a kindred spirit.

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Updated May 6, 2017 5:59 AM EDT | More details

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