by Nyds L. Rivera
My first introduction to Jane Austen was when I was twelve years old, on the brink of coming out to my family, caught in the throes of questioning my sexuality. Pride and Prejudice was the first romance novel I ever read where I actually found some level of identity in it. Now, nearly a decade later, and still as enamored with Austen’s work as I was in middle school, I’ve discovered that this is far from a unique experience. Much of my close circle of friends is comprised of queer people, and most, if not all, of them are also fellow Austenites (Janeites? I’ve heard both). So why is this?
We know Jane Austen’s work, and if you don’t it’s easy to guess the content of it—the same basic narrative arc that one would expect from a rom-com: a woman and a man don’t get along, some antics occur in which they discover they have more in common than they previously thought, and they end up happy and in love, sometimes getting married, almost always wrapping up the story with a first kiss. In Austen’s work, the third-act marriage is a must—after all, how else would they get their happy ending?
Austen’s writing has long been a standard in the genre of romance—you’d be hard-pressed to find any modern romantic comedy that isn’t touched by Austen’s writing in some way. Whether it be the tropes, the archetypes, or even a direct adaptation of one of her novels, her work has influenced (or, one could even argue, created) the genre of romantic comedy in a way that very few authors can claim. Still, by virtue of the period in which they were written, all of Austen’s characters are straight—so where do we come in?
Jane Austen’s work has long been intertwined with the queer community. According to Devoney Looser’s “Queering the Work of Jane Austen is Nothing New,” there were many stage adaptations of Austen’s work featuring all-female casts, around the time of their original publication. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising; it was once quite taboo for women to be seen acting romantically with men, and thus most shows featured same-sex casts. Austen’s work has also, apparently, received many queer adaptations and interpretations. Admittedly, though, I did not know about any of these adaptations or works until very recently—I especially didn’t know about them when I was first introduced to Jane Austen.
All I knew, when I first read Pride and Prejudice, was that these women were weird.
I had never seen a character like these before in romance novels—Jane Bennet, who is intelligent yet has a certain kind naivete; Charlotte Lucas, who is perfectly content to marry without love, and who is justified in doing so; and, of course, Elizabeth. Headstrong and unwilling to compromise in life and love, book-smart but lacking common sense—Elizabeth Bennet, who changes herself for no man but can admit when she is wrong, who unintentionally endeared herself to the most eligible, desired bachelor in the area, who influenced him to finally, finally change, laughing in the face of society and her family, following love. Always love.
It didn’t matter that they were straight or that they were set two centuries and an ocean away...all that mattered was I finally found a book where the protagonists were different, just like I was.
If you are at all familiar with Austen’s novels, you have no doubt noticed that all Austenian protagonists have one thing in common— they are, without fail, the odd woman out. There’s the reserved-to-a-fault Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility. Anne Elliot, after succumbing to her family’s persuasion, eventually turns around entirely and marries the man she once turned down for being of lower status than herself. Emma Woodhouse carries herself with a level of confidence and self-assurance that few women of her age and status share, and this stubborn behavior is often seen as being to her detriment—another young woman unwilling to compromise on her independence for the sake of a male suitor…the list goes on.
As a queer kid, these women were my idols. How many of us can relate to the experience of being a young weirdo, knowing that something was different about you but not yet having the language to express it? It didn’t matter that they were straight or that they were set two centuries and an ocean away. It didn’t even matter that the prose was so dense I had to read it twice over to glean any meaning—all that mattered was I finally found a book where the protagonists were different, just like I was. Not only that, but their character development didn’t lead to some grand change in their personalities. It was good that they were the odd women out, it was what made the narratives so compelling to read!
Another common theme in Austen’s work is secrecy—elopement, secret engagements. Even if it’s not part of the main love story, there’s always at least one sordid side couple. And the best part of this? No one cares. Okay, well, not no one per se, but surprisingly few of the main characters seem to care in many cases (notably in Sense and Sensibility and Emma). In many cases, these secret partnerships are the only way for two characters in love to escape public scrutiny.
Unfortunately, many queer people face similar experiences, even now. According to a recent study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine, at least 83% of the world’s queer population is still closeted, at least to family members. While there is increasing acceptance for LGBTQ youth, it happens all too often that at least one member in a queer relationship has to hide the relationship around family, coworkers, even friends. Even in accepting environments, we often feel shameful about our relationships when, really, we know that there’s no reason to be ashamed for loving who we love. The secrecy that many Austenian characters have to maintain in their relationships is a fitting (if unintentional) parallel to the reality of many queer relationships.
It seems that many Austenites—queer or otherwise—discovered her work around their adolescent years. Is it any surprise, then, that so many of these individuals ultimately go on to learn that they’re gay, bi, trans, or otherwise deemed “different” by the expectations of society? It only makes sense that so many of us find solidarity with these characters who are the odd ones out, following their unconventional hearts to unconventional happy endings.