Many non-readers of Jane Austen imagine her books to be filled to the brim with the sort of fluffy rubbish that is a dime a dozen nowadays. This is not the case. Austen’s books may mostly fall under the category of romance, but they are worlds away from the sappy and sentimental.
Jane Austen was raised in the Georgian Era in England, steeped in the cultural norms of the time. Her books contain important commentary and criticisms of this strict society. In this way, Austen was a woman ahead of her time. Her female characters seem to share this social consciousness also.
Much of the literature of Austen’s time was sentimental, with the female characters portrayed as weak-kneed, indecisive, and maybe even ditzy. However, if we take a look at the earliest pages of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and even the less-read treasure Mansfield Park, we can see a very different kind of female character in romance.
There has been a recent push for what is termed the “strong female character” in literature. Authors are encouraged to write women and girls as swashbuckling heroes who both save and kill people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this strategy, but Jane Austen chose to take a different tack when approaching her female characters: she gave them brains.
If we were to analyze the main characters of Austen’s several novels according to the Meyers-Briggs personality typing instrument, we would likely find most if not all of them to be INTJ. Introverted, intuiting, thinking, and judging; these women think with their brains, not their hearts. Austen valued the intellectualism of her female characters and wrote her male characters to value it also.
Another character quality Austen seemed to admire was good common sense. In fact, Sense and Sensibility is about the divide between sense (logic, thinking, and common sense) and sensibility (passion, impulse, and rashness). She portrays as heroines those characters who reason instead of rush.
This tradition of intellectual, culture-defying female characters was carried on by such authors as Louisa May Alcott and Sylvia Plath, but Jane Austen was truly a torchbearer for this trend. Sadly, in recent years many authors have lost this side of the female character. Most of the so-called “strong female characters” of modern literature (particularly young adult fiction) are merely cardboard cutouts of each other that do not truly portray the rich inner lives and minds of these young women. Worst of all, most romance books nowadays contain the same sappy stuff as other writers of Jane Austen’s time.