Jane Austen & Social Distancing: Memes

We are living in a Jane Austen novel. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.


Whether you are more like Mr. Woodhouse, who felt “there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort” or the lively Lydia, continually walking into Meryton to meet the officers, you are probably staying inside much more than usual.


Social distancing is living the life of Lizzie Bennett: we keep respectful distances, wait indoors for hours, and take “turns about the room” after “sitting so long in one attitude.”

I myself spend many more hours staring out of windows and reading novels than usual.


People also compare the current pandemic to post-apocalyptic literature and film, of course. Imagining ourselves as rugged zombie slayers and imagining ourselves as Austen hero(ines) is equally appealing (although one could certainly be both!).

The important thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that, no matter how many zombies decompose your social agenda, ordinary people still need basic necessities, amusements, and love. It’s just that there are more obstacles to getting them (hordes of ravenous Unmentionables, for instance).


Like Regency subjects, we once again have social norms about where to go, what to do, and how to do it. We’re worried about the future, our role in it, and whether or not the world will be the same when we wake up tomorrow. Leaving our stately homes involves a complicated arming scene of gloves, headgear, and iron-willed resolve.


We’re not used to it.


Thankfully, literature is here to save the day.


Stories help us to make sense of the world, and our world now seems more likely to hold uncertainty, intrigue, and social devastation more than most of us can remember.


While there are more accurate (if more obscure) literary references we could use (for instance, the end of Wives & Daughters, when a scarlet fever outbreak separates Molly from her Intended), we are drawn to Austen’s novels for their emphasis on social norms.

Austen “depicts a society which, for all its seeming privileges (pleasant houses, endless hours of leisure), closely monitors behavior,” according to expert Kathryn Sutherland.


Today, social distancing norms threaten us with judgment, punishment, and, well, you know…death…if we don’t comply.

In Austen’s time, illness threatened death far more than it does today. Mrs. Bennet, a notoriously foolish and flippant character, placed her daughter in harm’s way and then callously joked “Oh! I am not afraid of her dying. People do not die of little trifling colds!”

Lizzie, of course, rushes off to be with her sister, as colds actually were serious without proper care.


Now, we suddenly find ourselves in the same boat. The modern first world has plenty of wealth and luxury, just like Austen’s upper-middle-class sphere. We also spend plenty of time visiting, gossiping, and recently, well…sitting inside.


Going outside has real consequences for us now, just like ruining one’s reputation did back then.

In Austen’s day, loss of reputation meant poverty and obscurity. Daring heroines (and heroes) that disobeyed social norms ended up miserable and alone. Hence, Willoughby’s ignominious choice of Miss Gray’s £50,000.


Interestingly, Jane loved to write about characters that flouted social convention. Actually, most of her villains were fuddy-duddies who preached about the rules. Her best heroines break all the rules to follow their hearts.


No, I’m not saying we should all rush outside. I’m just pointing out that we suddenly see ourselves as literary characters on a grander scale than ever before.


The main difference, really, is that for Austen, social norms were the guiding principles of everyday life. Ours is a temporary measure. Still, it doesn’t always feel temporary. And the comfort of a literary character that overcame all odds gives us just a glimmer of hope.


Enter: the Austen meme.


Here is a meme set comparing our current situation to Austen’s novels. Relatable, much?


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Sarah Beach is a writer, editor, and researcher with an intense need for herbal tea. She writes about a variety of subjects, including social media, mental health, memes, and holistic wellness. Sarah is a graduate student in the field of Communication Studies and teaches rhetoric. She is also a registered Reiki practitioner and enthusiastic ukulele player. When she’s not writing, you can find her wandering aimlessly outdoors or watching period dramas.

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