Reading Jane Austen as a teenager taught me to make my own choices, no matter what society told me to do

Author Jane Austen was born on December 16th, 1775. On her birthday, an HG contributor reflects on how Austen’s writing taught her to choose her own passions over social and family expectations.

Oppressive social norms in Georgian-era England formed the framework for the box women were kept in, and Jane Austen found the cracks. More than any of the authors I read as a teenager, Jane taught me to ask for more than what I’m presented with—to find those cracks and escape through them. She showed me that my life should be spent doing more than toeing the line, more than following a narrow path edged with obstacles and blockades.

When I read Pride and Prejudice in my bedroom under the covers as a teenager, I considered it a love story against all odds, even though I understood the unfairness of the societal structure it existed within. I didn’t have to be familiar with the time period in England, or the setting, to fundamentally understand that Elizabeth should have been valued for more than her dowry, for more than being suitable marriage material. She was intelligent and brave.

“Till this moment I never knew myself. ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

While I grew up in a society and in classrooms where I was more exposed to stories for and about men, Jane showed me that delicately revealing irony in situations was as effective as blunt aggression. She taught me about subtlety. She showed me that influence could come from witty dialogue, and that cultural truths could be exposed by simply displaying the foolishness of what society expects from a demographic.

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way. ― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

When I was 13 years old, more than anything I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to travel to Paris and paint in the streets below the shadow of Notre Dame. One afternoon, my grandmother was visiting and asked the traditional question all children are asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I shared my love for painting and sat crouched on the floor beneath the sofa; my grandmother towered above me, scoffing that I’d never make a living as an artist. To this I exclaimed, “Then I shall die a pauper.”

Jane taught me that passion trumps worldly goods, that a woman should make her own choices outside of social or familial norms.

My choices and passions mattered more than what my grandmother thought.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive. ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Jane showed me walls, and when we see walls, we can imagine what’s beyond them. We can rise to overcome our own limitations to discover what’s beyond. Jane taught me to find the cracks in what’s expected, and the humor in it. She said to draw the line between your wants and what the outside world expects, and go with your desires. She proved that there is more to life than meeting beauty standards, bringing “enough” to a romantic relationship, or forming relationships to elevate your social standing.

Jane’s point of view may have come from Georgian-era England, but her words are just as relevant today. When we can make our own choices solely based on our own expectations, we can find true freedom.

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