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Friday, December 5, 2014

Priyanka Chopra quotes Mrs. Norris and Malala Yousafzai channels Anne Elliot: Jane Austen’s “one pen” continues to “change the world” for women



I just read an Op/Ed piece in the NY Times today…
…by the Indian actress/singer/activist Priyanka Chopra entitled “What Jane Austen Knew: Priyanka Chopra on Educating Girls”

I urge you to read the whole column, and contribute what you can to her philanthropic cause. Today I want to focus on the part of Chopra’s piece that connects directly, in a couple of interesting and important ways, to Jane Austen:

“… That experience, and the time I spent working with my parents after that trip, are what drove me to use my name and my voice to support the education and empowerment of girls. I was a girl, from a modest background. I have two loving parents who educated me and gave me the opportunity to chase my dreams. I worked very hard, and today I am financially independent and successful in my chosen career. If I can do this, so can countless other girls! They can do it, but not alone.
…[2014] ended with a schoolgirl in the headlines for all the right reasons, being celebrated for her achievements: In October, Malala Yousafzai, a student and an education advocate, and the Indian child-rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education,” as the Nobel Committee explained. The committee noted that Malala had shown by example that children and young people can help improve their own situations. We can make 2015 a turning point for girls across the world. As Malala said: “Let us pick up our books and our pens — they are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.”
.. The best part about all this is that no matter where I go, I always find that efforts to improve a girl’s life are rarely about just the individual — the goal is always to help her family and her community as a whole. Girls want to help themselves so they can help everyone they hold near and dear, and that’s where the positive ripple effect of change comes into play.
THIS IS NOT NEW. JANE AUSTEN KNEW IT TWO CENTURIES AGO: “Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”  END QUOTE

At first, I was stumped—where had Jane Austen written those quoted words about giving a girl an education? Google quickly led me to the surprising source---Mrs. Norris, not a character that most Janeites normally associate with female empowerment---in the beginning of Mansfield Park, when she convinces brother-in-law & family patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram to take their 10-year old niece Fanny Price out of the urban squalor of her overcrowded family in Portsmouth, and raise her in the rural splendor of Mansfield Park:

“My dear Sir Thomas, I perfectly comprehend you, and do justice to the generosity and delicacy of your notions, which indeed are quite of a piece with your general conduct; and I entirely agree with you in the main as to the propriety of doing everything one could by way of providing for a child one had in a manner taken into one's own hands; and I am sure I should be the last person in the world to withhold my mite upon such an occasion. Having no children of my own, who should I look to in any little matter I may ever have to bestow, but the children of my sisters?-- and I am sure Mr. Norris is too just--but you know I am a woman of few words and professions. Do not let us be frightened from a good deed by a trifle. Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody. A niece of ours, Sir Thomas, I may say, or at least of yours, would not grow up in this neighbourhood without many advantages. I don't say she would be so handsome as her cousins. I dare say she would not; but she would be introduced into the society of this country under such very favourable circumstances as, in all human probability, would get her a creditable establishment.”

Mrs. Norris goes on to reassure Sir Thomas that Fanny will never marry one of her cousins, and of course we all know that Mrs. Norris proves to be a poor prophet, as Fanny does indeed marry cousin Edmund, in no small part because Edmund becomes her mentor: “Having formed her mind and gained her affections, he had a good chance of her thinking like him…” 

So, in a way, Edmund wins Fanny’s love through education, adding irony to Mrs. Norris’s statement which Chopra quoted in support of Chopra’s worthy and important advocacy for education of girls in the 21st century in parts of the world, like India, where female education is widely ignored, feared, and even actively condemned and forbidden.

But I hear a distinct echo of yet another, more famous line from an Austen novel in the quoted words of Malala Yousafzai, the incredibly brave young Pakistani woman who narrowly survived an assassination attempt prompted by her advocacies for women, and fearlessly returned to her extraordinary mission on behalf of women’s rights, and just won the Nobel Peace Prize:

“Let us pick up our books and OUR PENS — they are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and ONE PEN can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

Yousafzai has clearly drawn inspiration from the thrilling words at the end of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot defeats Captain Harville in their amicable debate about gender:

“…Well, Miss Elliot," (lowering his voice,) "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 woman'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 had 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."

Sure enough, in a 2013 Salon.com piece about Yousafzai, we read “In her new book “I am Malala,” Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai …offers up surprising bits of information about her life in Pakistan, her recovery and her adolescence – including a liking for both Jane Austen and Stephenie Meyer.”

And I found this at the Facebook page for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation:

“Similar to Jane Austen’s father, who was a rector and a teacher in the village of Steventon, the father of Malala Yousafzai supported his daughter’s education. He explains in this video how he encouraged his daughter to join the school he was teaching at in order to further her 'emancipation through education'.

And...I just found another quote from an article about Malala's father...
 http://www.insidetoronto.com/news-story/4425185-malala-yousafzai-s-father-ziauddin-speaks-to-students-at-secord-elementary-school/

...which shows that he and his daughter share a love of Anne Elliot's famous quote:

"He enthusiastically said he loved Canada for it had given so much love – honourary citizenship to Malala – to his family. After an uplifting greeting to the kids, calling them “diverse, beautiful flowers,” Yousafzai explained the challenges that inhibit some children in Pakistan and other countries from receiving a proper or any education.
“You can imagine how difficult it is,” he said. “They should have BOOKS IN THEIR HANDS AND PENS IN THEIR HANDS, but they don’t. They have hammers in their hands, some work in workshops, some in domestic child labour.”

So, I believe that if Jane Austen knew two centuries ago that her words would inspire extraordinary real life heroines like Yousafzai and Chopra to carry forward the cause of female education worldwide as they are now doing, she would smile with satisfaction. Why? Because I am 100% certain that Austen’s prime purpose in writing her fiction, even more than to express her creative artistic genius and make an independent living, was precisely that much larger goal—i.e., to in effect give girls and women everywhere another powerful tool for growing their minds—a novel---a tool that would not require taking those girls and women out of their homes, but would empower them to change their own living conditions.

We can see clearly that Jane Austen has inspired Yousafzai and Chopra to grab the pen, as is their right as a human being, because they can see that Jane Austen, even now, two centuries after she published her novels, remains the preeminent female holder of that “one pen” that has indeed “changed the world” -- because Jane Austen recognized that “education is the only solution” and had the vision and genius to wield her pen effectively beyond her own wildest dreams.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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