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Unorthodox Heroines and Jane Austen

            "A woman," Caroline Bingley of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice affirms, "must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages."1 Her comment demonstrates the rigid view that members of the upper class had regarding the requirements a woman needed to be called "accomplished" (38). As well as these skills, a woman must possess a natural grace and flawless manner "to deserve the word" (39). Elizabeth Bennet's reply of "I never saw such a woman" highlights Austen's concern with the notion of the ideal woman within her nineteenth-century English context. Commonly regarded as a realist writer in her accurate portrayal of everyday, Regency era life, Austen was moreover "one of the great formative and founding influences on how we think about 'England' and 'Englishness,' as well as class, ideology and gender issues."2 Her novels raise central matters within her society, often challenging their foundation and meaning through her portrayal of them. .
             One of the most significant concepts that Austen illuminates in her work is the relationship between women's roles and social order, two issues which are irrevocably intertwined. In her treatment of marriage, happiness and gender inequalities, Austen unpacks and critiques these matters as parts of society. Through an examination of her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, and with reference to her later 1815 novel Emma, it is evident that Austen's attention to women's roles and social order broke conventional ideas of class hierarchy, the ideal woman and the heroine. Furthermore, Austen's use of the romance genre and her incorporation of irony to express her views demonstrates the possibility of an atypical heroine and emphasises its importance. With both Elizabeth Bennet and Emma's protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, we are presented with unconventional protagonists who present a progressive and more realistic portrayal of the heroine, and, on a deeper level, women and social class.

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