By Ashley Oldham
A decade ago, the United Nations General Assembly promoted the need to address pressing issues in society by creating “World Day of Social Justice,” observed annually on Feb. 20.
According to the U.N., social justice helps create and maintain peaceful existence in and among all nations. It is advanced through the removal of barriers that individuals face on the basis on “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or disability.” The U.N. hopes that their pursuit of social justice will foster both “development and human dignity.”
“World Day of Social Justice” is more than just a simple celebration. Rather, it is a reminder that society has come far, and yet, still has further to go in terms of fairness and equality for all individuals. If we are able to advance the pillars of social justice, we can enable the creation of a more equitable world for all.
Now, how exactly does this share any relation to Jane Austen?
Well, let’s examine Elizabeth Bennet’s late-night conversation with the “Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” upon her hearing that Mr. Darcy has made an “offering of marriage” to Lizzy. Namely, let’s examine a certain assertion and response between the pair:
“Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.” “But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit.”
At face value, one could claim that Lady Catherine simply wants to know the potential actions of Mr. Darcy because she is, indeed, his “nearest relation.” However, Austen is sure to throw in the age-old question “Do you know who I am?” We see it time and time again, whether in books, movies, television shows — or live and in person.
It’s a declaration of social status. It is a claim that — given her social standing and position of wealth — Lady Catherine is somehow above Elizabeth, and in that sense, somehow more entitled to know matters of perceived importance. Lady Catherine even goes so far as to say that she is not “accustomed to such language as this.”
That language? It’s the ability to say no. It is the language of speaking on equal ground —putting one’s foot down and declaring that wealth, class and social standing do not equate to the power of maintaining unkind behavior and holding authority over someone else. In telling Lady Catherine that she is not “entitled to know” her concerns, Elizabeth stands up for herself, and Austen shows that fairness and equality should reach beyond the bounds of one’s social class.
If we wanted to, we could examine this same sort of empowerment and breaking of social norms in Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins’ proposal, or in many of her interactions with Mr. Darcy.
This is not to hail Austen as a proponent of social justice by today’s standards, or by those declared by the United Nations. However, it is to say that, over 200 years ago, Austen was able to weave words of social inequalities into her writing. She was able to show that women can stand up for themselves — that they have the power to go against social norms and assert their own values in situations of inequitable treatment, or simply situations they do not agree with.
If Austen was able to show women going against the grain and standing up for their values in her time, however subtly, then we as a society should be able to address timely issues of even greater consequence today.
Taking a look back at the statement of the United Nations, it is to say that we should all do what we can to break down barriers, go against the grain in the name of our own values, and foster the pursuit of both “development and human dignity.”
Ashley Oldham is the publicity intern for the Jane Austen Summer Program.