While they didn’t cross paths in their lifetimes (Dickinson was born 13 years after Austen’s death), they led strikingly similar lives. Both were the second daughters of well-respected families, and they never married or had children but were extremely close with their kin—especially their older sisters. In fact, each of their older sisters went on to help publish their literary works after the writers’ deaths. The two did not witness a majority of their works get published: Austen wrote six novels in her lifetime, in which only four were actually published, and Dickinson only saw seven out of eighteen hundred of her poems published in her lifetime.
In terms of their writing, Austen and Dickinson both wrote a new prototype for a woman: one rooted in self-respect and personal agency, rejecting the societal expectations of the 19th century.
The 19th-Century Woman
During the 19th century, many literary works written by women were not widely accepted. In fact, a significant amount of Austen’s work went to print without her name to avoid the negative stigmas associated with female authorship. Writing was considered a profession for men, and women were usually expected to remain in the household and be submissive to their husbands. For most 19th-century women, the pressure to marry was crucial for financial security and overall well-being.
Both Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson detested the idea of marriage and conveyed these thoughts through the characters and themes within their writing.
Jane Austen’s Novels
Not all of Austen’s female heroines hail from the same social class, and each character has a distinct personality. Her female characters are educated, independent women that dream of marrying for love—not money. They are fearless with their opinions and exert a self-confidence that wasn’t typical of women during that time.
Anne Elliot, the protagonist of Austen’s novel Persuasion, says, “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. I will not allow books to prove anything.” Anne Elliot’s character traits can be considered passionate yet practical and are very similar to those of Elizabeth Bennet from Austen’s most famous work, Pride and Prejudice.
After Lady Catherine de Bourgh, inflated with narcissism, tells Elizabeth Bennett she is unworthy to marry Mr. Darcy, Bennett retorts with one of the most prominent lines from Pride and Prejudice: “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”
To Austen, money and social status does not determine a person’s worth—men and women should be equal, regardless of society’s imposition.
Emily Dickinson’s Poetry
Holly Rimmer-Tagoe from The Skinny wrote, “for feminists, Dickinson’s experience has become symbolic of the loss of talent that results from women not being able to fully participate in public life and flourish as members of society.” Dickinson herself might have purposely led a secluded lifestyle to escape a world that would force her into a traditional role as an inferior individual. While she never married, much of her poetry evokes a heart-wrenching tone of a helpless wife trapped in a union deprived of compassion and love.
In Dickinson’s “I gave myself to him,” she refers to marriage as the “solemn contract of life.” She believed that when a woman is married she no longer has any hope of achieving a personal identity. Further, she thought a woman never had the opportunity to construct her own identity in the first place since, before her husband, she looked to her father to dictate the ways to live. This poem—amongst many other of Dickinson’s work—was quite rebellious at the time.
In her poem “They shut me up in Prose,” she writes, “they put me in the Closet / Because they liked me still.” In two lines, Dickinson was able to sum up the essence of a prominent female experience: women were encouraged to maintain a “still” and docile presence, hidden away in a closet.
By no means should Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson be viewed strictly through a feminist lens. Their works are dynamic and complex, exploring universal themes that go beyond gender inequality. However, it’s important to note that without their revolutionary voices, their works may not have had such a lasting impact.
Austen and Dickinson were innovators of literature, who produced countless works that continue, to this day, to inspire writers to use their voices as platforms for self-expression and social critique. Though these women never lived to see the full impact of their works, their legacies lives on through their words.
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