Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                            Pages 76-82


“Woman’s Place” in Jane Austen’s England




Elmhurst, Illinois


What was “woman’s place” in the actual world in which Jane Austen set her novels – the world of southern agricultural England of this period, the world centred on the country village and the lives of small landowning and professional families?

Some social historians have depicted “woman’s place” as very low, indeed: with few legal and economic rights or even receiving little respect, women can be seen as oppressed victims of a patriarchal society, subordinate first to their fathers and, then, to their husbands who had, of course, been selected by their fathers; some late eighteenth century authors of advice to girls and young women regarded women’s minds as limited in reason and not to be overtaxed with serious, intellectual education.  Dr. John Gregory, writing in 1774, said: “Men have a larger share of reason bestowed on them.”  And, David Monaghan, writing in our time, says, “Women can rarely have been held in lower esteem than they were at the end of the 18th century.”

As readers, we see that woman’s role, her “place,” is a central subject in the Austen novels; as David Spring asserts, “Jane Austen’s major preoccupation was the fate of women in the society of her time.”  In her novels, the pictures of women and their lives are very different from the pictures painted of women as suppressed, passive victims of their society.  Jane Austen’s heroines are intelligent; they exercise reason; they are held in high esteem by the men whom they love, who love them, and whom they marry.

We wonder then, if Jane Austen represents “woman’s place” idealistically or realistically; we wonder if her attitude toward “woman’s place” is conservative – seeking to slow the social changes of this revolutionary period – or radically feminist –seeking to revolutionize the status of women – or romantic – seeking to idealize love and marriage.

To find answers to our queries, we must look in such places as letters, conduct books, novels, comments quoted in biographies, historical documents, and the like – for traditional histories of this period tell little about the lives of women.  As David Spring points out, what women did and thought has generally been left for men to record, and Anne Elliot similarly observes, “The pen has been in their hands.”  We hope that a systematic history of women in eighteenth century England will soon be forthcoming.

In this essay I would like to present some of what it is possible to discover about the actual status of women during Jane Austen’s time and to consider how these data correspond to Jane Austen’s representation of “woman’s place.”

What do we know about woman’s legal place?  Certainly it was limited, for, of course, a woman could not hold public office or vote.  Prior to marriage, a woman’s legal protection and status were vested in her father, but after marriage, her legal status “disappeared”; the Law of Coverture at this time made it clear that “the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended during marriage – or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection and cover she performs everything.”  Her children, her residence, her way of life were completely under her husband’s legal control.  If she were widowed, she had no control over her children unless her husband had named her as guardian; if she were separated from her husband, she was disgraced in the public eye and her husband had legal possession of the children.  It was not until 1839 that a new law allowed a separated or divorced woman to sue for custody of her children under seven years of age and for visiting rights to her older children.

A 1770 statute passed by Parliament reveals some of the attitudes toward women at this time:


All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin maid or widow, that shall from and after such Act impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, ironstays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors, and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.


A widely held opinion about women’s legal rights was expressed by Dr. Samuel Johnson, renowned man of letters and much admired by Jane Austen as well; he said: “Nature has given women so much power that the law has wisely given them little.”

English common law left a woman very little economic freedom, for it ruled that whatever property a woman owned before marriage or might receive thereafter automatically became her husband’s.  Thus, daughters of wealthy fathers frequently became prey of fortune-seeking men, and daughters of fathers of limited fortunes often had difficulty finding husbands at all.  The laws of inheritance further limited women’s economic freedom for they often excluded settlement of property on women.  The entail of Mr. Bennet’s estate and the economic plight of the Dashwoods are instances in the Austen novels of the operation of these laws of inheritance.

A woman’s economic independence was further restricted because of the stigma attached to a woman who earned money through working.  For instance, Dr. Johnson thought that portrait painting by women was “indelicate.”  An unmarried woman could become a governess, but this was a position beneath the social rank and status of middle and upper class young women and was thus regarded as humiliating.  Jane Fairfax suffers over the possibility that she must become a governess.  Some unmarried women conducted girls’ schools, but most women lacked sufficient education to fill this or other professions.  By the late eighteenth century even occupations which had been filled by lower middle class women were disappearing – fewer women took part in their husbands’ businesses or conducted small businesses of their own, such as stationers, print and book shops, dressmaking and millinery establishments.  Even the profession of midwife was being supplanted by that of the male obstetrician.  Katherine Rogers, in her book, Feminism in Eighteenth Century England, points out that women were not only deprived of their fair share of inherited wealth and disabled from supporting themselves because occupations and professions open to them were very limited, but also in England there was no possible life in a convent for a woman who wished to choose a religious life instead of marriage, as did many women in continental countries.

However, writing as a profession for women developed steadily during the eighteenth century.  Some women wrote scholarly works and translations, but overwhelmingly, women writers wrote novels.  As the reading public enlarged and novels increased in popularity, some women writers made independent livings, and in some cases, earned substantial amounts of money.  For Jane Austen, as the daughter of clergyman, there would have been no possibility of her owning a small business – or being a midwife – but it was possible for her to become a professional writer of fiction – and, respectably, from this work to earn money, albeit, a very small amount.

For most women, marriage was the only real choice in order to have economic security and a respectable, fulfilling life; her place as a woman was determined by her status as a wife, legally and economically subservient to her husband.  In Jane Austen’s novels, as well, we find that marriage is the only real choice to insure a woman’s place, her happiness, and her successful future.

What were the views of marriage in Jane Austen’s England?  What were the essential concerns involved in choosing a spouse?  What was considered the proper basis for marriage itself?  And to what extent do the patterns of happy marriages in the novels correspond to the actual practices and attitudes of this period?

Traditionally, marriage had been regarded as an alliance between families, as a pairing on the basis of wealth or birth, or as an arrangement made by parents without regard to the personal preferences of the young woman and the young man – especially without regard to the feelings of the young woman.  However, in the latter part of the eighteenth century – certainly in Jane Austen’s England – radical changes in attitudes toward marriage were occurring.  Marriage was coming to be regarded as a lifetime, intimate, happy companionship based upon love, esteem, and compatibility, and both woman and man were to have voice in choosing the spouse.  As positive as this new attitude seems, however, the woman was still subordinate to her husband legally and economically, and now as Rogers emphasizes, the woman was further bound to her husband by love as well.

The happy marriages with which Jane Austen’s novels conclude correspond, indeed, to these new models of proper marriage: Catherine and Henry; Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward; Elizabeth and Darcy; Fanny and Edmund; Emma and Mr. Knightley; and Anne and Captain Wentworth.  In each marriage, love, esteem, compatibility and mutuality, capability and respect – and equality – are essentials to be discovered during courtship and strengthened throughout life.  Though some readers of the Austen novels have felt that these happy marriages give the novels romantic and unsatisfying Cinderella endings and thus weaken Austen’s realistic mode of story telling, rather, we now understand that these marriages represent the views of her society – its new and advanced ideas about marriage.

The kind of education that girls and young women needed to carry out successfully the role of wife was a controversial topic in Jane Austen’s England.  Much was written on all sides of the question; from conduct books setting forth the accomplishments and graces the perfect young lady must possess in order to capture a future husband to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued forcefully for improved education as one of the rights of woman.

Most writers held that girls of the middle and upper classes had intellectual abilities that were not only different from but also greatly inferior to those of boys and men.  It was believed that women were incapable of serious study, that the study of philosophy, science, mathematics, and classical languages would overtax the limited female intellect.  Also, for young women to become Learned Ladies of any kind – metaphysicians, historians, speculative philosophers – would cause them “to lose in softness what they gain in force.”  Frequently, these writers asserted that “women’s minds do not much generalize ideas.”

If girls and women did not have educable intellects, what qualities were they to develop to be perfect young ladies and thus good wives?  Dr. Gregory, in his Letters to His Daughters, wrote: “One of the chief beauties in a female character is a modest reserve, that retiring delicacy which avoids the public eye and is disconcerted even at the gaze of admiration.”  He and Dr. Thomas Gisborne held that women can thus “soften men’s hearts and improve their manners” and “diffuse throughout the family circle the enlivening smile of cheerfulness.”

However, other writers of this period of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century took different views of the proper education for girls and young women.  They asserted that men and women were equally endowed by Providence with reason and moral nature and capacity.  Thus, girls and women must be taught to exercise their reason – must be taught to think – and must be educated to make sound moral judgements.

How was a proper education to be achieved?  Almost all thinkers on the questions of women’s nature and roles wished women to acquire some solid education, and they were critical of the shallow education girls were commonly offered.  The usual pattern of education was that first the girl was taught at home by her mother – in Northanger Abbey, we see Catherine Morland’s mother so engaged – then, the girl either attended a boarding school, as Jane and Cassandra Austen did, or were taught at home by a governess, as was Emma Woodhouse.  In either case, a limited course of studies, conducted mainly by rote learning, was offered: drawing, dancing, piano playing, penmanship, grammar, spelling, elementary arithmetic, sometimes French.  These studies were thought to be sufficient to provide a girl with the accomplishments necessary to attract a suitable husband.  Even these shallow studies were frequently weakened by the spread of theories of permissive education in the late eighteenth century.  Some girls brought up permissively by their nurses and governesses were not taught to control their tempers and tongues – let alone how to use their minds; the Bertram daughters in Mansfield Park reveal the results of such poor education.

How was a girl at this time to acquire a more substantial education?  Primarily through continuous, serious reading.  If a girl had a learned father or brother – and consequently, a good library in the home – a wide range of significant books and conversation about them were available to her.  A few girls even learned Greek and Latin at home from their fathers and brothers.  By the late eighteenth century, women’s social life was broadening and was, also, thus, educational as women participated in dinner parties, assemblies, and the like where it was possible to converse with better educated men on an equal basis.  But there were for girls no public schools, like Winchester or Eton, or universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, as there were for boys.  Therefore, each girl and young woman had to seek and carry out her own education.  In Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine expresses horror that Elizabeth and her sisters did not have a governess to educate them at home – “without a governess you must have been neglected” – Elizabeth replies, “Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means.  We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary.  Those who chose to be idle certainly might.”

A “proper” education, although variously defined, was necessary for a young woman in Jane Austen’s England so that she could assume her role in the society.  Opportunities for self-assertion – for an independent life – were severely restricted, but within the home and within the social community, a woman exerted considerable influence, not only in educating her small children and older daughters and in improving the manners and sensitivity of her husband, but also in refining and conserving the morality of the community.  The writer Hannah More said, “To women moral excellence is the grand object of education; and of moral excellence, domestic life is to a woman the appropriate sphere.”

Which of these aspects of a “woman’s place” seems to be important in Jane Austen’s novels?  Matters of woman’s legal status, her political rights, and opportunities for professional careers play little, if any, part in Austen’s stories.  But, issues about economic security confront most of her heroines – Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, the Dashwoods, and Fanny Price in particular.  Further, a good marriage, which offers not only this economic security and social position, but also love, respect, compatibility, equality, and happiness, is presented as the satisfying conclusion to each novel.  The choice, the discovery, of the good husband forms the main line of the action of each novel: how each heroine and her future husband learn to love and esteem each other and thus choose each other.  Jane Austen’s views of a proper marriage would at first seem to be at odds with the main stream of the thought of her contemporaries, but, as I have tried to clarify, her views of marriage as a wedding of a woman and a man who are equally rational and moral does correspond to the new attitudes toward marriage which were occurring at this time.

What seems to be the most important of the late eighteenth century issues about “woman’s place” for Jane Austen’s novels is education – the development of the mind and character of the young woman – upon which the issues of marriage and economic security depend.  The novels show that Jane Austen disagreed with many of her society’s stereotypes about women’s nature, characters, minds, and roles.  The image of the perfect young lady as passive is ridiculed in Mansfield Park in the representation of Lady Bertram, who is so passive that she can rarely rise from the sofa, let alone have an idea of her own.  Even Jane Bennet, lovely as she is, is shown to have erred by concealing her feelings in the name of modesty.  The image of the young woman as entertaining, even frivolous, in order to capture a man, is satirized repeatedly in the novels – in the representation of Lydia Bennet, Mary Crawford, Isabella Thorpe, among many others.  Austen’s representation of her heroines shows that she believed that women possessed both intelligence and moral capacity and that it was important to develop both of these faculties through proper education.  Most of her heroines are deficient in traditional accomplishments (Elizabeth and Emma do not practice the piano and Anne plays only moderately); in fact, the traditional accomplishments such as “netting a purse” are ridiculed.  But, in each story, the improvement of the mind and character of the heroine is an essential part of the main line of the action.

How does this education, this improvement, come about in the Austen novels?  In the main, the heroine educates herself – by observing, listening, travelling from place to place, participating in the life of her society, and by thinking about, reflecting upon these experiences and her own actions and responses.  The stories imply that self-awareness, rationality, and moral excellence are the result of observation and experience plus thoughtful reflection.  Significant passages in each novel tell of the heroine withdrawing from other people and activities to think about what has happened, what has been said, what she has seen, how she has behaved, and to arrive at new and improved understanding of herself, of others, and of the world around her.  In the world of the novels the responsibility for the heroine’s education is her own.

The novels all imply that this educated young woman not only can achieve a happy marriage based on equality rather than subservience, on love rather than submission, but she also can play a crucial role in insuring the moral health of her society, for she can effect order and harmony to manage her household, to promote the happiness of her husband, to provide moral leadership to her family, and to strengthen the life of her community.

In Jane Austen’s novels, these issues of “woman’s place” – economic security, proper marriage, and sound education of girls and young women – are represented realistically – sometimes with sympathy and approval, sometimes with wit, satire, or harsh criticism, but never with didacticism, for Jane Austen’s intellect and artistic genius effectively blended these topics both thematically and aesthetically so that each novel tells the distinctive story of an individual young woman who achieves rational self-awareness, who learns to make sound moral choices, and who chooses a husband whom she loves and esteems and with whom she will live a happy, intimate, compatible, and economically secure life which enriches their society as well.  All these values are among the noblest ideals of Jane Austen’s England.



Selected Works Consulted


Brown, Julia Prewitt.  Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.


Hund, Linda, “A Woman’s Portion: Jane Austen and the Female Character.”  Fetter’d or  Free, ed. Schofield and Macheski.  Columbus: Ohio University Press,  1986.  8-28.


Monaghan, David, ed.  Jane Austen in a Social Context.  Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981.


____.  Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision.  London: Macmillan, 1980.


Poovey, Mary.  The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.


Rogers, Katherine.  Feminism in Eighteenth Century England.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.


Smith, LeRoy.  Jane Austen and the Drama of Women.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.


Todd, Jannet, ed.  Jane Austen: New Perspectives.  Women and Literature New Series, Vol. 3.  Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1983.

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