Princesses and Generals

I am of the generation of women who have seen their princesses turn into generals — or, well, at least one: Princess Leia. In the Star Wars films of my youth, Princess Leia was very much the damsel in distress, albeit a sassy and outspoken one, rescued in turn by her brother Luke Skywalker and by the rogue Han Solo (and sometimes rescuing them back). Seeing the character then enter the scene decades later as the down-to-earth and unobtrusive, yet authoritative and respected General Organa, leader of the galactic resistance movement, with life, experience, and pain clearly visible in her expression, was a powerful narrative moment.

The Star Wars saga is a violent story of interstellar war, of good vs. evil, of heroes and witty droids fighting stormtroopers, dark lords and destruction. As such it is a classic narrative, not unknown to any genre from the Bible to Medieval ballads, from Renaissance drama to post-modern fantasy. While war is traditionally a male topic (and not a topic endorse as such, I may add), yet, the development of this one science-fictional female protagonist gives me pause. The Princess who became General.

This plot, however, is not unprecedented in fiction — nor is it unparalleled in history. In the genre of the early English novel we meet heroines who mature from princesses (or rather: young society girls) into strong, independent women making their own choices. With Jane Austen (1775–1817), for example, we far too often focus on the female protagonist’s pursuit to marry – preferably well and for love. But if we look to the continuum of Austen’s writing, from her early juvenilia and her first published titles, to her latter three novels, we can see how she eventually develops her heroine into a woman mindful of the social structures of her time (Mansfield Park, 1814), searching for her place in the world (Emma, 1815/16), finally finding herself beyond the choices made for her by others (Persuasion, 1818). Although it may seem that the victories of even these later Austen heroines are ultimately mostly romantic and thus perhaps trivial in the larger scheme of things, yet, set in the social context of the times, the manner in which these victories were achieved was indeed revolutionary. (And, to be fair, also Princess Leia gets her prince in Han Solo.)

On a professional level, Jane Austen had the good fortune to be born in a family that encouraged and supported her literary pursuits, but even then, becoming a published female author in late-18th-century England was not uncomplicated. Growing from a clergyman’s daughter with a vivid imagination and a gift for story-telling into one of the most influential female writers in England, Jane Austen shows, with her own example, what determination and resoluteness in pursuing your vision can do.

In English royal history, perhaps one of the most powerful tales of female endurance can be found in the legends of Eleanore of Aquitaine (1122–1204), Duchess in her own right and then queen, first of France, then of England. Having admittedly (and not unlike Princess Leia) inherited a title and wealth, which gave her a standing in life as well as made her the most eligible bride in Europe of the time, Eleanore also led armies and participated in crusades. Adventuring her life and freedom (and ending up imprisoned by the king for sixteen years), she took to arms to defend the legacy of her sons, and she lived to see and support two of them become kings.

What the story of General Leia Organa has in common with as well the fictional later Jane Austen heroines and both the celebrated author herself and the legendary Queen Eleanore, is showing that the true Force lies in perseverance, stamina, and faith. It is the perspective of time in each of these stories, be they fact or fiction, that helps us connect to the narrative and learn from the plot development. These women all had to struggle to follow their calling, and they may have come to share the conclusion that “God never gives us more than we can handle, so if He gives you a lot, take it as a compliment”* — and they all prevailed. Maybe these heroines, then, both fictional and real, can lead the way and show us that it is worth pursuing a dream and fighting for a cause, and that the tomorrow which we seek, whether in the area of love or labour, is out there to be reached — not only a long time ago, or in a galaxy far, far away…

Jane Austen (1775–1817), ‘The Beautifull Cassandra’, one of her first known stories, in Volume the First: autograph fair copy, 1793, MS. Don. e. 7, pp. 116–117, displayed at “Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared’, exhibition at Weston Library, Oxford, March 2018.

*Carrie Fisher (1956–2016), The Princess Diarist (2016), p. 245.

Jane Austen

At social events, from acquaintances as well as strangers, a teacher of literature often gets the question: So, what should I read? I just received that question again some days ago.  This year my answer is clear: Read Jane Austen.

Jane Austen (1775–1817) died on 18 July two-hundred years ago this summer. She is perhaps the best known and most widely read British author of the pre-Victorian era. Today, her stories also find their way to television and cinema, and the novels are loved almost to the point of metaphor: references to Pride and Prejudice (or to ‘first impressions’) as well as the concept of Mr Darcy seem to be “a truth universally acknowledged…”.

Jane Austen’s main work are her six completed novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815/16), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818). Most girls have read an Austen novel or two in their teenage years, and many have a strong favourite character or book; most men have at least seen a film of one of the novels when indulging their girlfriends – and they all have had to measure up to the hero.

Jane Austen novels are entertainment, as they should be. They were written in the dawn of the great English novel, when the strong purpose for prose writing of being educational and to engage was joined by the equally forceful need to move and entertain. The first versions of many Austen novels were first written for reading aloud to her family for entertainment. Yet, there is more to these seemingly light social and domestic novels with a heavy touch of irony and humour. In addition to writing about the social game of courtship and romance, Jane Austen writes about the intricacy of the human mind, the depth of emotion, and the pain of loss.

Jane Austen herself never married, despite the centrality of the topic of marriage in all her novels. She lost an opportunity for marriage when she was nineteen, when the family of the hoped-for fiancé rejected Jane as not socially his equal. In 1802, when she was 27, Jane herself turned down a proposal. The fundamental reason is not known, but much later, in 1814 Jane wrote to her niece Fanny in a letter instructing her on romance: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection”.

When looking at some of the chronology of Jane Austen’s own life and that of some her writing, there is some eerie number-symbolism in the intersection of the two. For example, in Sense and Sensibility (1811) there is a scene where Marianne states: “A woman of seven and twenty,… can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.” Also, at the outset of Persuasion (1818), the heroine Anne is a spinster of twenty-seven. Eight years earlier, we are told, at age nineteen, Anne had been persuaded by her mother’s friend, the widow Lady Russell, to break her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth of the Royal Navy (as he was poor and of uncertain future). – Somehow, what happened to Jane Austen at the age of nineteen and again at twenty-seven, seems to be revisited in her novels.

My challenge for anyone who asks me to recommend reading for this summer is first to read an Austen biography*, and then read the novels, all of them. This way you can follow the narrative from the point of view of the author’s own life. Because, perhaps, under the romance and day-dreaming that these novels present, we can also find some clues to Jane Austen’s own dreams. Maybe the novels are a way for Jane Austen to write for her own life the happy ending she never herself received, to give herself an opportunity, if only in make-believe, to say ‘yes’ to love before it is too late.

Portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra Austen (circa 1810), National Portrait Gallery, London.

* For example, Carol Shields: Jane Austen (2001), Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (2012), Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen (2014) – or A Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh (1869).