Historian Paula Byrne argues that one of the greatest female writers ever, Jane Austen, was both a transformative artist and a powerful career woman ahead of her time.
Consider Austen in comparison to her contemporaries. Instead of big gothic novels with windswept moors, ruined chapels, grisly murders, long-lost relatives, and aristocrats – some serious Brontë territory – Austen took a very different approach. “Here was Jane Austen writing about ordinary people and ordinary settings,” Byrne says. “It was so pioneering to write about women who struggle with money, who struggle with class.”
Even more shocking was Austen's take on marriage and motherhood. Though the two subjects preoccupied her characters, they held far less sway over their creator: Austen was pursued by many suitors, and rebuffed them all in favor of a life dedicated to her craft.
She had a similar attitude toward children. When one family friend wrote to her with news of a new baby, Austen responded: "You have your Jemima. I have my Emma," suggesting that her books and characters held just as pivotal a role in her life as children did in the lives of other women.
"She was totally committed to her art," says Byrne.
To hear more about Jane Austen's innovative career, tune in to our full interview with historian Paula Byrne, above.