The Pen Has Been in Their Hands

I just finished reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion and I will admit that it’s the first Jane Austen novel I’ve read. I guess the BBC series’ don’t count, do they?

I think Jane Austen’s feminist credentials have been discussed/debated at length in various places, so this might not be earth-shattering for some. But I read a passage in Persuasion that perfectly captures an idea that’s come up a few times this year in my work. When Sarah writes about it she get wordy and needs to qualify it, and gets caught up with using the appropriate term of the moment etc etc. When Jane writes about it…well, from now on I will just refer to Jane.

To introduce the following passage, Anne is arguing with Captain Harville about whether men or women harbour heart ache longer. Captain Harville insists that men don’t get over heartbreak easily (“and that as our bodies are strongest, so are our feelings”). Anne argues that women are more fragile and thus suffer more. Keep an eye on Anne’s response to Harville.

Harville says:

‘as I was saying, we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon women’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs all talk of woman’s fickleness. But, perhaps, you will say these were all written by men.’


‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’

It reminds us why it’s so important for women to tell their own stories (and to report on the world too, as journalists, historians, academics etc). In Aceh there is a huge gap. I’m working on a book at the moment that is the first collection of essays written by Acehnese women to be published. My organisation was motivated to publish this book because there is so much written about Aceh but very little of it is written by the women of Aceh, who will give unique perspectives and reflect a whole different set of issues to the men of Aceh, or people coming from outside (men or women). We often think about ‘what issues are being written about’, but sometimes overlook the important question of ‘who is writing about the issues’.

1 thought on “The Pen Has Been in Their Hands

  1. Roro

    Brilliant post, Sarah. I completely agree and all of Austen’s relentless marryings-off have been redeemed for me by that passage. R

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