Like many people, I want to write a novel about my first year out of college. If the many of us have something alike, it’s not because I had fun during my first year out of college. To name just a few of its developments, I had to deal with breaking up with my two best friends from college at the exact same time, my parents constantly threatening to withdraw the help they were giving me because they thought I should be turning my unpaid internship into a job (even I didn’t believe that!), all the while living in the same apartment as a couple who threw things at each other every night (the girlfriend maced the boyfriend eventually).
The only reason my most-mentally-ill year of all time isn’t the year after my graduation is because that honor goes to the year leading up to my graduation. Youth is wasted on the young, I guess.
We’re all obsessed with telling the story of our youth because it was/ is a time of uncertain futures, unstable relationships, and physically intense emotions. In other words: because being young is like living inside a story. When most of us look back on our youth, or what parts of youth we’ve survived, we can identify lessons learned, trials endured, loves won and lost. Everything seems to mean something in retrospect, even if the pain seemed senseless in the moment. For instance, shedding relationships with friends I met the first week of freshman year helped me learn my boundaries, and gave me space to meet people who would treat me the way I wanted to be treated. Struggling to find my feet prepared me for a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet under late capitalism. And hearing a guy (who a friend of mine had described as a diehard feminist) get maced by his terrified girlfriend taught me…well.
Anyway, we narrativize our youth because stories help us make sense of our own lives; first we identify with protagonists who overcome hardships, and then we identify our own hardships with those of our favorite protagonists. This relational feedback loop is one reason why the kinds of stories we tell are so important, and why the right stories become so important to us. As we grow up, we check our progress by our favorite stories, and re-evaluate our old favorites based on wisdom from our own personal coming of age stories–because after all, every story is a coming of age story; at its core every story is about growing up. What we can imagine for ourselves, at any age, from the basic plot of a story to its possible endings, is dictated by the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Narrative therapy is even a growing discipline in psychology; teaching people to imagine different stories around issues like rape or childhood abuse can help them write themselves a way out of the story of victimhood.
One story that has been with me for much of my growing-up has been Pride and Prejudice, with Emma being a close second. Jane Austen novels feel like they were written especially for aimless young women and femmes who grew up privileged but restricted, and who are ambivalent at best about love. That is, they feel like they were written especially for me–but of course, I’m one of the people who’s been colonially raised with the privilege to relate to Jane Austen protagonists. Novels like Mansfield Park make it nose-wrinklingly clear that Austen might have had a keen eye for gender roles among the elite, but not for many other systems of oppression in her society. Many of her protagonists are slaveholders, and all of them benefit from England’s imperialism in every detail of their lives, down to the tea they drink.
I’m not here to tell you that a rich white lady from the 18th century isn’t racist. But if you’re thinking you might be inclined to engage with the Western canon at some point in the near future, I am here to tell you that if you’re going to read a rich, white, dead, racist author, there are choices much worse than rich-white-dead racist Jane Austen. Austen was one of the first authors to draw attention to the raw economic desperation that lurks underneath our sappy romantic daydreams. As Jenny Holzer says, “romantic love was invented to manipulate women,” and Austen’s stories focus on the absurdity of 18th century society’s injunction toward women securing a man who can be both her soulmate and her de facto employer for the rest of her life.
Jane Austen’s protagonists are mostly all trying to get married, yes, but that didn’t mean the same thing in the 18th century as it does in a shitty romcom. It was, as Amy March explains in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, a strictly economic proposition.Millennials wondering how to relate to Jane Austen protagonists can look at the struggles of her heroines to find husbands as the 19th century version of a freelancer’s hustle, or an overqualified PhD’s search for a teaching position. At their core, these books are about economic precarity and how people are warped by it. What’s more relatable than that?
Emma is a bit of an outlier in Austen’s body of work because it’s about a woman who is independently wealthy without having to marry, meaning that she doesn’t actually have the problem common to most Austen heroines. Emma’s economic stability draws attention, though, to the extreme economic dependency of virtually every other character in the book–her penniless friend Harriet, the spinster Miss Bates, and the orphan Jane Fairfax are all examples of women who do have to contend with dependence on men. With one character in the story who is basically free to fuck around with other people’s lives as much as she likes, it becomes all the more obvious how dependent everyone else is on the kindness of others, whether it’s a relative, a spouse, or a patron of some kind.
With everyone enmeshed this way, who could fail to understand that the resulting society is full of empty politeness and unscrupulous social climbing? If popularity is literally your livelihood (like that one Black Mirror episode), of course your incentive structure will lead you to suck up to people who can help you elevate your position. Austen’s protagonists are all in danger of sliding down into the middle class, which is why her characters and their families exemplify the pathos of this world so well.
Jane Austen novels might not intentionally extend their satirical eye to race and empire, but it’s easy to read them with those axes of oppression in mind considering their social model of dependence and privilege. Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price has to struggle to secure a place for herself after growing up as the ward of a rich man won’t leave her any money. However, Fanny still ignores the fact that her adoptive brother Edmund, who she thinks is the pinnacle of virtue, is the partial owner of a sizable number of slaves. In fact, the “””villain””” of Mansfield Park is considered to be Mary Crawford, a woman who has the gall to speculate on whether Edmund might inherit all the slaves his brother would have gotten now that his brother has made a scandalous marriage. Yep, sounds like she’s the problem there! The layers of colonial complicity that make Austen heroines so morally grey arguably make this analogy with millennial job seekers more complete, since us urban creatives benefit from these systems of oppression ourselves.
What this means for the everyday reader or moviegoer of Emma is that every character, or at the very least every unmarried female one, should be considered as having the same creeping panic we all remember from the year or so after we graduated college. Remember what it was like to apply to jobs in your field and only hear back from unpaid internships. Remember what it was like to not even be good enough for the unpaid internships! Meanwhile, your fucking mom is breathing down your neck saying that you and your eight sisters will all be employed by Michaelmas if she has anything to say about it, and all your friends from school are getting paired off with snazzy jobs that pay fifty thousand pounds a year! These stories are about feeling more and more alone as you are admonished by society and compete against your friends, and all just to get the same mediocre life of stability and boredom as your parents. A Jane Austen protagonist’s trademark sass springs from the same exhaustion as an “ok boomer” meme.
Jane Austen’s grasp of how fucking freaked out everyone in the 17th century aristocracy was about losing their position led her to write stories about the manic social climbing that resulted from their frantic attempts to stay afloat. Now, all of us who are freaked out in the present can benefit from her insights into the abject sucking-up everyone had to do back then. That’s the #hustle, am I right? In this sense, Austen shows that the best comedians are really tragedians. Larry David is a great modern example; how many times have you watched Curb Your Enthusiasm and felt horror as you laughed? Considering that Larry David writes about the bourgeoisie of our own time, he can be said to fill a similar niche–as can HBO’s Girls and Broad City. Critiques of sensibility. When young ladies in the 18th century were depressed they reread all of Jane Austen’s novels instead of rewatching The Office for the 50th time.