What does Jane Austen,
the unmarried daughter of a clergyman who penned six novels about young girls on
a trajectory toward marriage, have in common with Mary Wollstonecraft, the
grandmother of modern feminism?
two would appear to come from very different places. Wollstonecraft is famous
for her contempt for marriage, even though she did break down and marry the
eighteenth-century radical William Godwin when she discovered she was pregnant
with their child, the future writer, Mary Shelley. And Wollstonecraft’s most
cited book, Vindication of the Rights of
Woman, is a strident and indignant analysis of how the education system of
her day kept women in a state of slavish dependence, turning them into
weak-minded, vain coquettes.
is not the word that comes to mind when one thinks about Jane Austen. But, as I
hope to show, Austen is also a formidable feminist critic. Austen’s voice is,
to be sure, a gentler one, softened by end-of-the-book marriages and a wonderful
irony and sense of humor. Nonetheless,
a staunch feminist stance is there, suggesting Austen, like Wollstonecraft, was
tuned into one of the hottest issues of her time: women’s role in society.
Such a conclusion would also suggest that Austen was familiar with
Wollstonecraft’s work, even though Austen never mentions Wollstonecraft in any
of her novels or in the letters that have survived.
What makes the Austen-Wollstonecraft connection so fascinating is it
helps situate Austen in the context of early feminism, or to use the proper
scholarly term, proto-feminism. Literary critics have been debating this
question since 1975 when Marilyn Butler published the first book that looked at
Austen in the context of her times, Jane Austen
and the War of Ideas. Butler concluded that Austen was a conservative
propagandist because all of her heroines got married; thus, Butler argued,
Austen was implicitly endorsing the established social order.
As Julia Prewitt Brown points out,
is precisely because Austen’s heroines marry that feminist literary critics
have had such an ambivalent relationship to Austen. Her analysis, which includes
Sandra M. Gilbert
and Susan Gubar’s feminist classic The
Madwoman in the Attic (1975), notes Gilbert and Gubar gave Austen credit for educating readers about
“grace under pressure,” but found Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to be far more perceptive about the depths of the female
psyche. Mary Poovey’s The Proper Lady
and the Woman Writer (1984) acknowledges that Austen is aware of the
limitations society imposes on women, but Poovey ultimately casts Austen as a
defender of the status quo—a novelist who sees marriage “as the ideal
paradigm for the most perfect fusion between the individual and society” (Poovey
Claudia Johnson’s influential book Jane
Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel moves Austen further to the left.
During a time when all social
criticism, particularly that which aimed at the institution of the family in
general and the place of women in particular, came to be associated with the
radical cause, Austen defended and enlarged a progressive middle ground that had
been eaten away by the polarizing polemics born of the 1790s. (Johnson 166)
is right in this debate about the woman question? To analyze this point it is
useful to pay close attention to the Wollstonecraft-Austen connection.
Wollstonecraft, by all accounts, helped set the standard for what it meant to be
a radical in the 1700s. If it can
be shown that Austen was in accord with Wollstonecraft on key points regarding
women and the family, then we will have a better idea of where to situate her
within her historical context. I believe that, placed in her historical context,
Austen comes across as a realist, someone who knows that life is tough,
especially for women. But rather than focus on how society’s restrictions
could cause someone to have a nervous breakdown, Austen focuses on the reasoning
skills women need to survive, which, to me, is the ultimate feminist statement.
what about Mary Wollstonecraft? In an era marked by the then-revolutionary idea
that humans were rational beings capable of making good choices, Wollstonecraft
was an indefatigable advocate of what was then an even more radical idea: the
idea that women, like men, were rational creatures. The book that lays out that position is Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Written in 1792, when confidence
in the French Revolution was still high, the book was an appeal for women’s
rights after the new French constitution of 1791 gave men the rights of
citizenship. It was also a critique of the French government’s plans for a
national system of education for boys and girls, which, while radical for its
time, did not, in Wollstonecraft’s view, go far enough because girls were to
be educated for a subservient role.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman
is a rambling, indignant, and forceful indictment of how the education system of
Wollstonecraft’s day conspired to keep women in a state of slavish dependency:
The conduct and manners of
women, in fact, evidently prove their minds are not in a healthy state; for like
the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are
sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a
fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season they
ought to have arrived at maturity. (Wollstonecraft 7)
For this state of
affairs, Wollstonecraft blames men, who in her day were responsible for shaping
I may be accused of arrogance;
still I must declare firmly what I believe that all the writers who have written
on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory have
contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters than they would
have otherwise been; and consequently more useless members of society. I might
have expressed this conviction in a lower key; but I am afraid it would have
been the whine of affectation, and not the faithful expression of my feelings,
of the clear result, which experience and reflection have led me to draw.
message drips with sarcasm as she sums up the accepted Rousseauian view that
women should be educated to become alluring mistresses and sweet companions for
men. “What nonsense!” (Wollstonecraft 25), she sneers.
forceful as the book is on the question of female education, it is also
important to keep in mind what the book is not. Despite the fact that
Wollstonecraft was personally against marriage, Vindication
of the Rights of Woman does not advocate a complete transformation of the
family. Perhaps because Wollstonecraft was simply being realistic and knew that
most women would end up becoming wives and mothers, she gears her book toward
imagining a system of education that enables women to become more self-reliant
and, thus, become better daughters, wives, mothers and citizens. She writes:
Do passive indolent women make
the best wives? Confining our discussion to the present moment of existence, let
us see how such weak creatures perform their part? Do the women who, by the
attainment of a few superficial accomplishments, have strengthened the
prevailing prejudice, merely contribute to the happiness of their husbands? Do
they display their charms merely to amuse them? And have women, who have early
imbibed notions of passive obedience, sufficient character to manage a family or
educate children? So far from it, that, after surveying the history of woman, I
cannot help agreeing with the severest satirist, considering the sex as the
weakest as well as the most oppressed half of the species. (Wollstonecraft
Furthermore, despite the fact
that Wollstonecraft was vilified as a prostitute after her death and her
husband’s publication of his memoirs, she was, by modern standards, a
conservative on matters of human sexuality: “I
have contended, that to render the human body and mind more perfect, chastity
must more universally prevail, and that chastity will never be respected in the
male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolized . . . ”
(Wollstonecraft 4). I
point out Wollstonecraft’s ideas about chastity and sexuality because they
help define what constituted a feminist (or perhaps more accurately, a
proto-feminist) worldview in the 1700s. As Wollstonecraft’s example clearly
indicates, proto-feminism at the end of the eighteenth century does not always
coincide with the precepts of today’s feminism, which puts a high premium on
female autonomy and sexual freedom.
how do Austen’s ideas compare with Wollstonecraft’s? A
close reading of Austen’s work reveals that she, like Wollstonecraft, was very
aware of marriage as an economic institution. She also cared passionately about
the two issues at the core of Wollstonecraft’s work: the concept that women
are rational creatures and the belief that, in order for women to fulfill their
potential as human beings, they must learn how to think for themselves.
Austen’s stories are about the reality of women’s lives, which, for
women in the eighteenth century, meant living in a straightjacket of propriety.
Women’s education consisted of a smattering of “accomplishments,” a
variety of ultimately useless skills that Wollstonecraft said only served to
“sacrifice women’s strength of mind and body in exchange for “libertine
notions of beauty” (10). Austen,
too, was interested in how the education of her day shaped both men and
women’s personalities, and, while her tone is comic–not strident like
Wollstonecraft’s—the picture she presents is not a pretty one. Austen’s
books are filled with small-minded people like Fanny and John Dashwood, whom
Austen describes in less-than flattering terms:
was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather
selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was in general, well-respected; for he
conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he
married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable
than he was: — he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very
young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a
strong caricature of himself more narrow-minded and selfish. (5)
The scenario in
which the pair justify catapulting the recently widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her
three daughters into poverty on the grounds that the money is needed for their
four-year-old son, could be exhibit A in Wollstonecraft’s analysis of how
insidious a false education can be because it turns women into jealous,
ungenerous wives and men into weak-minded, pompous fools.
antidote to Fanny Dashwood’s narrow-mindedness is independent thought.
Austen’s heroines navigate through the minefields of their lives by using
their heads. Thus, Catherine Morland, the naïve country girl, develops critical
thinking skills as she fumbles her way through Bath and Northanger Abbey; Emma
Woodhouse, the clever heiress, learns to use her mind responsibly by reflecting
on the lessons learned from her botched attempts at match-making and her
misbehavior at Box Hill; Anne Elliot, the invisible member of her own family,
comes into her own after her abilities are tested at Lyme.
interest in women’s ability to reason is also evident in what has been deemed
her greatest technical achievement: free indirect discourse. The technique
enabled Austen to portray her heroines maintaining the public appearance of
propriety while privately evaluating the true nature of a situation, a clear
mark of a thinking person. Thus, through free indirect discourse that we learn
that Fanny Price is no dummy; she pegs Henry Crawford as a selfish cad long
before he shows his true colors and has an affair with Maria Bertram as this
conversation between Sir Thomas and Fanny reveals:
you any reason, child, to think ill of Mr. Crawford’s temper?’’
longed to add, “but of his principles I have;” but her heart sunk under the
appalling prospect of discussion, explanation, and probably non-conviction. Her
ill opinion of him was founded chiefly on observations, which, for her
cousins’ sake, she could scarcely dare mention to their father. (Mansfield Park 317)
Sir Thomas’s eagerness to see Fanny married reveals another reality of
Austen’s day. Middle- and
upper-class women could not work, so marriage was truly a meal ticket for
women—economic security is one reason why Mrs. Bennet was anxious to see her
five daughters married. Austen chose to make women’s economic anxiety a
dominant theme in her work, be it through cautionary tales of fallen women who
have gone down a slippery slope into abject poverty (e.g., the two Elizas), Jane
Fairfax’s fear of becoming a governess, or the careful economy of Mrs. Smith,
left penniless because of the profligacy of her late husband.
all of Austen’s heroines marry, not all of Austen’s marriages are good ones.
Granted, Elizabeth Bennet got lucky and ended up with a rich and honorable
husband, but her friend, Charlotte Lucas, did not. Charlotte,
who had neither Elizabeth’s good looks nor her charm to trade on, knew an
economic life raft when she saw one. Her
marriage to Mr. Collins reveals Austen’s clear-eyed assessment of the economic
underpinnings of marriage:
reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither
sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must
be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – Without thinking highly
either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only
honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however
uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want
Perhaps weddings seem to get such short shrift in Austen’s work
because, as Charlotte reminds the reader, happiness is a matter of chance and
marriage provides a state of security. One would think that a writer intent on
celebrating the institution of marriage would lavish a tremendous amount of ink
on the actual ceremony, but that is not the case with Austen. All of the
weddings take place in the last chapter and action is dispatched with quickly,
often in as little as a paragraph, as we see in the last paragraph of Emma:
wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for
finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband,
thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. – “Very
little white satin, very few white lace veils; a most pitiful business! –
Selina would stare when she heard of it.”– But in spite of these
deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the
small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in
the perfect happiness of the union. (484)
Clearly, then, the wedding,
while it signals the end of the story, is not that important to Austen. Instead,
what matters is the reality of women’s lives, which is very much in sync with
Wollstonecraft’s ideas about how a false system of education denies women the
skills they need to make good choices for themselves and their families.
Why, then, does Austen fail to give Wollstonecraft any credit for
contributing to her thinking?
think it was simply too dangerous.
us consider the facts. The 1790s were critical years for Austen. Austen began
working on Elinor and Marianne (the
first draft of Sense and Sensibility
and the first of the novels) in 1794 and began writing Susan (later Northanger
Abbey) in 1798. All of her
other novels were written after the turn of the century; the last (and
unfinished) book, Sanditon, was
written in 1817, the same year she died.
1790s were also a hyper-politicized time in English history. The French
Revolution had put social change on the agenda, and the British lived in fear of
a French-style revolution in England. That climate of hysteria was reflected in
the passage of the Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings Act of 1775,
which made it illegal for anyone to criticize the English government, and in the
publication of the highly partisan Anti-Jacobin
Review, which helped turn the pursuit of the jacobinical into “a national
pastime” (Butler 89). Conservatives demonized reformers by casting them as
revolutionaries intent on destabilizing the nation by putting individual rights
to happiness ahead of the common good and casting them as dangerous characters
out to ruin English families by seducing their daughters. As a result, female
modesty–and other issues traditionally relegated to the domestic
sphere—suddenly became a question of national security (Johnson).
the midst of all this, Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, published his
memoir about Wollstonecraft’s life. Memoirs
of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) detailed,
among other things, Wollstonecraft’s affair with the American businessman
Gilbert Imlay, Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempts, and the fact that Godwin and
Wollstonecraft conceived their child before marriage. Suddenly Wollstonecraft,
who until then was not seen as particularly radical (Johnson 14), was listed in
the Anti-Jacobin Review’s index under “p” for prostitute and her
defenders slandered. Claudia
Johnson points out that
unconventional sexual conduct became public knowledge, conservative audiences
were shocked to realize that if women were indeed educated and permitted to act
like “rational creatures,” they might consider themselves entitled, as free
agents, to frame their own desires and pursue happiness on their own terms,
rather than to be content as dutiful daughters or submissive wives. (15)
could a young Jane Austen not take notice? Austen biographer Claire Tomalin offers
some convincing biographical evidence that Austen is likely to have known of
Mary Wollstonecraft and her work. She notes that Sir William East, the father of
one of George Austen’s former pupils, was a benefactor of Wollstonecraft.
Furthermore, Sir William was a neighbor and friend to Austen’s uncle, James
Leigh-Perrot. After Wollstonecraft
attempted suicide in 1796, Sir William was credited with being particularly kind
to her during her recovery. While this does not specifically link Austen and
Wollstonecraft, it makes it plausible that the Austen family knew of
Wollstonecraft and her ideas (Tomalin 158).
Austen probably made a mental note to stay away from partisan politics and to
keep her thoughts about Wollstonecraft to herself. Thanks to her skills as a
writer, her balancing act worked. She managed to infuse her books with a
Wollstonecraft-like feminist critique that is less politically charged but just
Austen, Jane. The
Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed.
Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen
and the War of Ideas. 1975; Oxford: OUP, 1987.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New
Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane
Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1988.
Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady
and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. Chicago: U. of Chicago P, 1984.
Prewitt Brown, Julia. “The Feminist Depreciation of Austen: A
Polemical Reading.” Rev. of Jane
Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel, by Claudia L. Johnson, in Novel:
A Forum on Fiction 23 (spring 1990).
Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Carol H. Poston. 1792; New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.