How Jane Austen Changed the World

Okay. While Jane Austen didn’t change the world singlehandedly, she certainly contributed. But the point remains, fiction can change the world, one reader at a time.

Austen brought the situation of gentlewomen in the 19th century to a popular audience. Before you can say “poor little rich girls,” consider this early scene in Sense and Sensibility:

Elinor Dashwood: You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever.
Edward Ferrars: Perhaps Margaret is right… Piracy is our only option.

For women of that age, marriage was the instrument to secure their future. Austen used the drawing rooms and ball rooms of 19th century England to make her point of injustice against women.

Throughout Austen’s books, social mores were used to enforce dynastic marriages, to transfer property from widows to male relatives, to limit opportunity. Yes, women could become governesses or could work, but not without losing their social standing. The term ‘genteel poverty’ too often applies.

By bringing this situation to popular attention at the beginning of the century, it gradually became an issue. By the end of that century and the early part of the next, suffragettes were marching in the streets for women’s rights.

I won’t say Jane Austen was the original feminist, but her works certainly contributed to a movement. Today, the plight of her heroines is unthinkable among a generation of women with careers and resources of their own.

So yes, fiction can spawn movements. Fiction can change the world, one reader at a time.
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