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Thoughts on the Education of Daughters in Sense and Sensibility

Despite the way male behavior, good and bad, drives its plot, Sense and Sensibility is populated by mothers and their children—especially female children.  In chapter 1, the final years of old Mr. Dashwood are improved by his nephew’s family, but the son of John and Fanny Dashwood “so far gained on the affections of his uncle . . . as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters” (4–5).  Besides the mothers and children in the two Dashwood families, we meet Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars; Lady Middleton and her children; Lady Middleton’s mother, Mrs. Jennings; Mrs. Jennings’s other daughter, Charlotte Palmer (who gives birth in volume 3); and the Steele sisters, whose mother goes unmentioned.

This emphasis on mothers and children—and on daughters and their education—exists alongside a number of echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; with Reflections on Female Conduct, in The More Important Duties of Life (1787).  Wollstonecraft’s book begins with a chapter on the “The Nursery” and ends with one titled “Public Places.”  In between, nineteen chapters discuss moral discipline, dress, accomplishments, reading, love, matrimony, motherhood, and benevolence.  As Wollstonecraft’s title suggests, there are thematic links between her conduct book and Austen’s novel.  Both explore the limits and dangers of sensibility, encourage the expansion of the mind and heart, emphasize the role of reason and judgment in governing the emotions, and highlight the importance of duty to family and to God.  More significantly, in Marianne Dashwood’s education plot, introduced in chapter 1 and only concluded in the final paragraphs of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen seems to illustrate Wollstonecraft’s ideas on the problems and possibilities of education.  A conversation with Mary Wollstonecraft is part of the texture of Jane Austen’s first published novel. 

Judgment and good sense 

blake frontispiece

Frontispiece to Original Stories from Real Life, 2nd ed. (1791), by William Blake.
(Click here to see a larger version.)

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters is Wollstonecraft’s first book, written after she had closed her school and while she was working as a governess to the children of the Viscount and Lady Kingsborough of County Cork, Ireland.  It is part of a career-long focus on education, followed by Original Stories from Real Life (1788);1 The Female Reader (1789), an anthology in the mode of Thomas Enfield’s elocution text for boys, The Speaker; and, of course, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  Among the Posthumous Works that Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, collected after her death in 1797 were a series of elementary lessons written for her daughter Fanny and the “Fragment of Letters on the Management of Infants” (vols. 2, 4). 

Did Jane Austen read Wollstonecraft’s work?  The question hasn’t been settled, and, unfortunately, there’s no concrete evidence.  But looking at Thoughts on the Education of Daughters—published well before Wollstonecraft was known to the public—it’s difficult to believe that Austen had not read and remembered it. 


Mary Wollstonecraft (ca. 1790–1791), by John Opie.

We tend to view Mary Wollstonecraft through our knowledge of the notoriety generated by Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), which revealed her suicide attempts, her love affairs, and her pregnancies outside of wedlock.  Would Austen, we might ask, have been reading work by such a “scandalous” woman author?  Would she have been reading work by the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)?  Though Barbara Taylor asserts that Wollstonecraft “by the mid-1790s had become the best-known female political writer in Europe,” William St. Clair argues that because these titles were both published in pamphlet form as part of the debate on the French Revolution, “the number of [their] readers cannot have been high” (Reading Nation 278).2  If we look back, then, to 1795, when the nineteen-year-old Jane Austen probably wrote “Elinor and Marianne,” the first draft of Sense and Sensibility, our view is of a liberal Wollstonecraft, whose personal life was not a matter for widespread public comment.  Her publisher was Joseph Johnson, whose list also included the Poems of William Cowper, Austen’s favorite poet, and the educational texts and novels of Maria Edgeworth.  As David Fallon points out, “Johnson was prudent with his publications, preferring public debate over agitation” (35).  It was only later in the 1790s that “conservatives waged a campaign to discredit Johnson, his circle, and authors [including Wollstonecraft] as Jacobins” (35).  When Johnson was prosecuted for sedition and imprisoned for six months in 1798–1799, Maria Edgeworth and her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, visited him in the King’s Bench prison (McCormack and Walker xlv); even after his imprisonment, Johnson continued as Edgeworth’s publisher.  In other words, the Austen family did not shy away from Johnson’s authors. 

On its release, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters was met with approval.  If anything, as Vivien Jones puts it, Wollstonecraft’s book was “received by its contemporary audience as a judicious and unsurprising addition to the literature of female advice and instruction” (240).  The European Magazine and London Review compared her work favorably to that of a gentleman whose text had been characterized by a “needless display of book-knowledge”:  “As an authoress, Mrs. Wollstonecraft has other merits to plead; and though her ‘Thoughts’ are seldom new, nor always perfectly just, she yet knows how to communicate them with a perspicuity and judgment which we often look for in vain even in the pages of professional writers.”  The Critical Review remarked on Wollstonecraft’s “judicious” and “correct” opinions:  “The mind of the author appears to have profited by observation, and a habit of reflection:  it seems both well informed, and well regulated” (287–88).  The English Review commended her “good sense” and “mature[ ] reflections” on “various important situations of and incidents in the ordinary life of females,” adding that “these Thoughts [are] worthy the attention of those who are more immediately concerned in the education of young ladies.” 

Even if the Austen family were not enticed or reassured by the reviews or by the contiguity of Wollstonecraft’s book to other titles that Johnson offered, there is another way that Jane Austen might have come across Wollstonecraft’s earliest work.  In 1787 the Lady’s Magazine reprinted several chapters of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters in the May, June, and July issues.3  Austen, of course, was a reader of the Lady’s Magazine, and that reading is already linked to Sense and Sensibility.  Edward Copeland identifies “The Shipwreck,” a tale published in the Lady’s Magazine in 1794, as the source of the names Brandon and Willoughby and the cliché of Willoughby as Marianne’s “preserver” (lvi–lvii).  As Jennie Batchelor explains, “issues of the Lady’s Magazine would almost certainly have circulated among family members and were passed down through generations.  They were also available for loan from the circulating libraries” (9).  Although the 1787 issues containing the excerpts from Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts were published when Austen was only eleven, she could easily have read them in subsequent years.  It might not be too much to claim that she very probably read them.  For that matter, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters was still available for purchase in 1794 (St. Clair, Reading Nation 658), just as Austen was getting ready to write “Elinor and Marianne.” 

Spoilt children and foolish adults 

Children don’t play much of a role in Jane Austen’s novels.  In Sense and Sensibility, however, their behavior is used as an index to maternal effectiveness and care as well as to the sincerity or hypocrisy of other adults.  The novel’s first paragraph climaxes with “the cheerfulness of the children [that] added a relish to [the old Gentleman’s] existence” (3); the Dashwood daughters would have been eight, six, and two on their arrival at Norland (Moody 312).  The girls’ behavior is contrasted to that of the two- or three-year-old Harry Dashwood, who summons “an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise” (5).  Harry’s desire of having his own way seems to be an inherited trait.  As Wollstonecraft remarks, “Children very early contract the manners of those about them” (5). 

Sense and Sensibility’s narrator defines the Middleton children as their mother’s only interest and occupation (excepting her concern with elegance).  At their introduction to Barton Park, the Dashwoods are repulsed by Lady Middleton’s “cold insipidity”:  she “seemed to be roused to enjoyment only by the entrance of her four noisy children after dinner” (41). The Middletons, we’re told, exist “within a very narrow compass.  Sir John was a sportsman, and Lady Middleton a mother. Sir John hunted and shot, and she humoured her children.”  She “had the advantage,” the narrator adds, “of being able to spoil her children all the year round” (38).  At the very beginning of her essay, Wollstonecraft marks out maternal indolence as the central problem of parenting: 

Indolence, and a thoughtless disregard of every thing, except the present indulgence, make many mothers, who may have momentary starts of tenderness, neglect their children.  They follow a pleasing impulse, and never reflect that reason should cultivate and govern those instincts which are implanted in us to render the path of duty pleasant—for if they are not governed they will run wild; and strengthen the passions which are ever endeavouring to obtain dominion—I mean vanity and self-love.  (2) 

Lady Middleton’s involvement certainly qualifies as “momentary,” and run wild her children do.  When they are brought in after dinner, they “pulled her about, tore her clothes, and put an end to every kind of discourse except what related to themselves” (41).  When Lucy and Anne Steele arrive, Lady Middleton sees “their sashes untied, their hair pulled about their ears, their work-bags searched, and their knives and scissars stolen away” by her children with “maternal complacency” (139). 

Wollstonecraft identifies other significant problems in parenting:  the discord—or even lack of connection—between parents that engenders a competition for priority with the children, and the mother’s immature sense of the child as a kind of doll.  In a chapter titled “Moral Discipline” she writes: 

Mamma is only anxious that they should love her best, and perhaps takes pains to sow those seeds, which have produced such luxuriant weeds in her own mind.  Or, what still more frequently occurs, the children are at first made play-things of, and when their tempers have been spoiled by indiscreet indulgence, they become troublesome, and are mostly left with servants.  (12–13) 

The opposition of the Middletons’ personalities, the separation of their interests, and Lady Middleton’s unconcern about anyone else might account for her “solicitude” about her “troublesome” children (65).  Her caresses of “‘sweet little Annamaria’” as she displays the child’s temporary quietness (139) fit Wollstonecraft’s description of the maternal plaything.  The child’s “violent screams” after being “slightly” scratched by a pin in her mother’s head dress are encouraged by “indiscreet indulgence”:  the combined attentions of her mother and the Steele sisters, sugar-plums, and, finally, apricot marmalade (140).  The narrator mocks mother and child as well as the fawning Lucy Steele, whose behavior implies “that she could taste no greater delight than in making a fillagree basket for a spoilt child” (164, 165).  Sense and Sensibility provides most of the evidence for those who argue that Austen did not like children. 

The novel’s censure, however, is directed less at the “spoilt” and “troublesome” children than at their mothers—women who have not themselves reached maturity.  Wollstonecraft asks how mothers can “improve a child’s understanding, when they are scarcely out of the state of childhood themselves” (96) and adds, in a later chapter, “If she has any maternal tenderness, it is of a childish kind” (157).  Austen provides enough data points in Sense and Sensibility to calculate maternal ages:  Mrs. Dashwood, who has “yet to learn” how to “govern” her feelings (7), is now forty; since her oldest daughter is nineteen, she apparently married at or before the age of twenty.  Lady Middleton, now twenty-six or twenty-seven and whose oldest child is about six, also apparently married at nineteen or twenty.  Mrs. Palmer is “several years younger than Lady Middleton” (123); at the novel’s beginning, then, she may be as much as twenty or twenty-one, in her first year of marriage (175) and a few months away from giving birth.  Wollstonecraft warns against marrying before the age of twenty:  “Many are but just returned from a boarding-school, when they are placed at the head of a family, and how fit they are to manage it, I leave the judicious to judge” (96).  And again, “Early marriages are, in my opinion, a stop to improvement” (93).  Based on these calculations, it seems that Austen agrees. 

Wollstonecraft is critical of the education provided to adolescents, which, she argues, focuses on accomplishments, dress, and manners, although to “prepare a woman to fulfil the important duties of a wife and mother, are certainly the objects that should be in view during the early period of life” (58).  In fact, the May 1787 issue of the Lady’s Magazine reprints her chapters on “exterior accomplishments,” dress, and boarding-schools.  By exterior accomplishments, Wollstonecraft means “all those accomplishments which merely render the person attractive; and those half-learnt ones which do not improve the mind” (24). 

Girls learn something of music, drawing, and geography; but they do not know enough to engage their attention, and render it an employment of the mind.  If they can play over a few tunes to their acquaintance, and have a drawing or two (half done by the master) to hang up in their rooms, they imagine themselves artists for the rest of their lives.  It is not the being able to execute a trifling landscape, or any thing of the kind, that is of consequence—These are at best but trifles, and the foolish, indiscriminate praises which are bestowed on them only produce vanity.  (25–26) 

This description fits the musical accomplishment of Lady Middleton, who “celebrated [her marriage] by giving up music, although by her mother’s account she had played extremely well, and by her own was very fond of it” (41), as well as Charlotte Palmer’s “landscape in coloured silks,” which hangs over the mantlepiece of her former room, “in proof of her having spent seven years at a great school in town to some effect” (182). 

Wollstonecraft contrasts the accomplishments of the Jennings girls to real commitment to endeavor: 

But what is really of no importance, when considered in this light, becomes of the utmost, when a girl has a fondness for the art, and a desire of excellence. Whatever tends to make a person in some measure independent of the senses is a prop to virtue. . . . [W]hoever weighs one subject will turn to others, and new ideas will rush to the mind.  The faculties will be exercised, and not suffered to sleep, which will give a variety to the character.  (26–27) 

Marianne’s dedication to her music and Elinor’s to her drawing are significant as more than artistic production in Wollstonecraft’s terms.  The exercise of the faculties leads to further learning and growth, as is suggested in the constant “employment” of the Dashwood family, so foreign to the Middletons.  Wollstonecraft does not necessarily value the arts for their own sake.  In “The Fine Arts,” a chapter about appreciation rather than execution, she makes the point that lack of taste for music or drawing, for example, should be allowed to “lie dormant”:  “persuade them to be silent, and not feign raptures they do not feel; for nothing can be more ridiculous” (42–43).  The comic scene where Marianne first plays to Sir John and Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, and Colonel Brandon at Barton Park might serve as an illustration of this passage.  In contrast, and in line with Wollstonecraft’s strictures, “Elinor [is] neither musical, nor affecting to be so” (283). 

Wollstonecraft includes a chapter on dress, mainly to argue that “far too much of a girl’s time is taken up” with it (35).  Austen introduces the Steeles as “by no means ungenteel or unfashionable” in appearance and manners:  “Their dress was very smart, their manners very civil, they were delighted with the house, and in raptures with the furniture, and they happened to be . . . doatingly fond of children” (137).  The sentence escalates from surface appearance to the assumption of useful and presumably hypocritical enthusiasm.  Nancy Steele, in particular, is consumed with matters of dress: 

Nothing escaped her minute observation and general curiosity; she saw every thing, and asked every thing; was never easy till she knew the price of every part of Marianne’s dress; could have guessed the number of her gowns altogether with better judgment than Marianne herself. . . . The impertinence of these kind of scrutinies, moreover, was generally concluded with a compliment, which though meant as its douceur, was considered by Marianne as the greatest impertinence of all; for after undergoing an examination into the value and make of her gown, the colour of her shoes, and the arrangement of her hair, she was almost sure of being told that upon “her word she looked vastly smart, and she dared to say would make a great many conquests.”  (282–83)

Wollstonecraft all but sighs at the interests of an Anne Steele (and the more disguised concerns of Lucy):  “And how much conversation does dress furnish, which surely cannot be very improving or entertaining” (37). 

In her “Boarding-Schools” chapter, Wollstonecraft early asserts that “manners are too much attended to in all schools” while “the temper is neglected” (57), an issue that she discusses more thoroughly in the following chapter.  “The forming of the temper ought to be the continual thought,” she writes, “and the first task of a parent or teacher.  For to speak moderately, half the miseries of life arise from peevishness, or a tyrannical, domineering temper” (61).  Lady Middleton, when Sir John invites the Steeles to Barton before she can be assured of their gentility, responds with a civilized peevishness, “with all the philosophy of a well bred woman, contenting herself with merely giving her husband a gentle reprimand on the subject five or six times every day” (137).  According to her mother, “‘Mary always has her own way’” (191). Fanny Dashwood’s temper is similarly constituted.  Charlotte Palmer falls into a different category of Wollstonecraft’s:  “Those who are termed good-humored, are frequently giddy, indolent, and insensible; yet because the society they mix with appear seldom displeased with a person who does not contest, and will laugh off an affront, they imagine themselves pleasing, when they are only not disagreeable” (65).  Charlotte is “determined to be happy”:  “The studied indifference, insolence, and discontent of her husband gave her no pain:  and when he scolded or abused her, she was highly diverted” (129).  Elinor, rather than admiring her buoyancy, judges her a “very silly woman” (130). 

Thoughts on the education of Marianne Dashwood 

Although Wollstonecraft begins Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with matters of the nursery and adolescent learning, most of the work focuses on the learning that takes place while entering adulthood.  The maturity that comes with experience and an openness to learning is one of her principal themes, and reading Sense and Sensibility through this lens emphasizes not only Marianne Dashwood’s exceptional qualities but also her extreme youth.  After all, at sixteen going on seventeen, she is a bit younger than Catherine Morland—though Marianne’s talent, the breadth of her reading, and her passion for ideas might obscure that similarity. 

Throughout the novel, the extravagance of Marianne’s language and her opinions advertise her youthful immaturity.  To some degree she reflects her mother’s mode of thinking.  Just as Mrs. Dashwood tells Elinor that she “‘can feel no sentiment inferior to love’” and has “‘never yet known what it is to separate esteem and love’” (19), Marianne reacts more passionately but along the same lines to Elinor’s careful description of her feelings for Edward:  “‘Esteem him!  Like him!  Cold-hearted Elinor!  Oh! worse than cold-hearted!  Ashamed of being otherwise’” (24).  She speaks of the “‘age and infirmity’” of the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon (44).  After the revelation of Willoughby’s faithlessness, she celebrates the fidelity she assumes in Edward: 

“I really believe he has the most delicate conscience in the world; the most scrupulous in performing every engagement however minute and however it may make against his interest or pleasure.  He is the most fearful of giving pain, of wounding expectation, and the most incapable of being selfish, of any body I ever saw. . . . [T]hose who will accept of my love and esteem, must submit to my open commendation.”  (277) 

That this encomium, delivered to Lucy, Edward, and Elinor, is “particularly ill-suited to the feelings of two thirds of her auditors” (277) merely heightens the youthful comedy. 

Early in the novel, Elinor responds to her sister’s extravagance with gentle amusement rather than disapproval.  But that changes.  When Colonel Brandon offers that “‘there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way’” (66), we might hear Wollstonecraft’s counterargument: 

The lively thoughtlessness of youth makes every young creature agreeable for the time; but when those years are flown, and sense is not substituted in the stead of vivacity, the follies of youth are acted over, and they never consider, that the things which please in their proper season, disgust out of it.  (27–28) 

Elinor echoes Wollstonecraft:  “‘There are inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne’s, which all the charms of enthusiasm and ignorance of the world cannot atone for. Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought’” (66).  Marianne adopts Willoughby’s unreasonable dislike of Brandon and disregard of others.  “Universal benevolence,” Wollstonecraft writes, “is the first duty, and we should be careful not to let any passion so engross our thoughts, as to prevent our practising it” (91).  And, of course, Marianne’s passions cause her to behave in a way that allows the world to perceive her as damaged. 

Elinor looks forward to Marianne’s growth and experience:  “‘A few years . . . will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation’” (66).  But Marianne, despite reading and practicing her music, does not think she needs education.  The paragraph that introduces her in chapter 1 ends with her resistance.  While Elinor knows “how to govern” her feelings, “it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught” (7, my italics).  At seventeen, Marianne is comically certain that her growth has stopped:  “‘At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed.  It is not likely that I should now see or hear anything to change them’” (107).  Wollstonecraft ties such certainties as Marianne’s to youth and a failure to exercise reason:  “Hurried away by our feelings, we are apt to set those things down as general maxims, which only our partial experience gives rise to” (80–81).  Sense and Sensibility consistently underscores Marianne’s youth, part of the reason for our sympathy with her:  “‘Oh! my dear mother,’” Elinor worries in London, “‘you must be wrong in permitting an engagement between a daughter so young, a man so little known, to be carried on in so doubtful, so mysterious a manner!’” (188). 

Since Marianne Dashwood’s education is tied to her courtship plot, her opinions on love and marriage are particularly significant.  Wollstonecraft is adamant (intriguingly, given her later romantic history) that sense can govern sensibility:  “I am very far from thinking love irresistible, and not to be conquered. . . . A resolute endeavour will almost always overcome difficulties” (84).  She is confident in the moral responsibility to recover and the ability to love again. 

the heart which is capable of receiving an impression at all, and can distinguish, will turn to a new object when the first is found unworthy.  I am convinced it is practicable, when a respect for goodness has the first place in the mind, and notions of perfection are not affixed to constancy.  Many ladies are delicately miserable, and imagine that they are lamenting the loss of a lover, when they are full of self-applause, and reflections on their own superior refinement.  Painful feelings are prolonged beyond their natural course, to gratify our desire of appearing heroines, and we deceive ourselves as well as others.  When any sudden stroke of fate deprives us of those we love, we may not readily get the better of the blow; but when we find we have been led astray by our passions, and that it was our own imaginations which gave the high colouring to the picture, we may be certain time will drive it out of our minds.  (85–87) 

That highly colored picture Wollstonecraft traces to novel reading:  “It is too universal a maxim with novelists, that love is felt but once” (85).  And though Austen doesn’t identify any by name, it’s clear that Marianne has been reading novels of sensibility.  Not only her belief in the impossibility of second attachments but her enthusiasm for emotionally charged descriptions of landscape, her requirement that the man she will marry will display grace, spirit, fire, taste (20), and her adamant assertion that “‘if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure’” (80), all come from such novels. 

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters also predicts the resolution of Marianne’s courtship plot.  Marianne’s definition of what she expects in a man misses what Wollstonecraft sees as primary:  “if she thinks seriously, she will chuse for a companion a man of principle; and this perhaps young people do not sufficiently attend to, or see the necessity of doing” (95).  As Wollstonecraft understands, Marianne’s youth drives her love for Willoughby as well as the depth of her disillusionment: 

How earnestly does a mind full of sensibility look for disinterested friendship, and long to meet with good unalloyed.  When fortune smiles they hug the dear delusion; but dream not that it is one.  The painted cloud disappears suddenly, the scene is changed, and what an aching void is left in the heart! a void which only religion can fill up—and how few seek this internal comfort!  (74–75) 

Not till Marianne’s near death does she recognize her duty to think of others and her duty to God.4  Her “mind [is] awakened to reasonable exertion” (387); her “‘serious recollection’” leads her to feel and acknowledge her “‘want of kindness to others’” and the need “‘for atonement to my God, and to you all’” (391).  Moreover, Marianne desires to be assured that Willoughby “‘was not always acting a part, not always deceiving me; . . . for not only is it horrible to suspect a person, who has been what he has been to me, of such designs,—but what must it make me appear to myself?’” (390).  Wollstonecraft anticipates the psychology of Marianne’s depression:  “Perhaps a delicate mind is not susceptible of a greater degree of misery, putting guilt out of the question, than what must arise from the consciousness of loving a person whom their reason does not approve” (82–83).  

Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen both understand the dangers of youth and the possibility—even the probability—that women will not learn and grow.  Wollstonecraft worries that early marriage, in confining women to the domestic sphere, prevents growth: 

Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world; and this is not a woman’s province in a married state.  Her sphere of action is not large, and if she is not taught to look into her own heart, how trivial are her occupations and pursuits! What little arts engross and narrow her mind!  (100) 

The world of Sense and Sensibility illustrates Wollstonecraft’s thesis. 

What then do we make of the novel’s ending and Marianne’s transfer of affection to Brandon?  In some moods, the tone of the ending has struck me (and others) as something of a betrayal of a character whose feelings are deep and in whom the reader has been encouraged to invest emotionally.  But reading Sense and Sensibility with Thoughts on the Education of Daughters emphasizes Marianne’s youth, her emotional extravagance, and limited perspective and highlights the comic rather than the satiric edge of the ending.  The conclusion underscores, almost summarizes, Wollstonecraft’s ideas. 

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate.  She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.  She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!—and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married,—and who still sought the constitutional safe-guard of a flannel waistcoat! 

But so it was.  (429) 

The cavalier tone here seems akin to Jane Austen’s description of her niece Fanny’s dissatisfaction with a cap that she’s bought.  “I consider it as a thing of course at her time of Life—one of the sweet taxes of Youth to chuse in a hurry & make bad bargains” (23–24 September 1813).  Marianne choses in a hurry (as Elinor immediately points out) and almost makes a bad bargain.  Her marriage to Brandon seems more promising. 

Austen, however, doesn’t give us certainties in either direction.  Wollstonecraft, arguing for the possibility of second attachments, states, “A woman cannot reasonably be unhappy, if she is attached to a man of sense and goodness, though he may not be all she could wish” (84).  But, of course, Marianne is only nineteen: 

Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting,—instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on,—she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.  (429–30) 

Given Wollstonecraft’s caution against early marriages, what should we expect? 

Break Graphic true to size

“Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” might serve as a description of many novels—especially didactic novels—written in the 1790s.  And conduct literature is certainly in the background of Austen’s novels, particularly in the first three she wrote.  It’s possible, of course, as I suggested earlier, that what Austen had in mind as she was writing were general themes of the conduct literature of the period.  It was certainly ubiquitous.  William St. Clair’s graph of conduct-book publication between 1780 and 1825 (Godwins 511) shows a rise during the 1790s with a spike in 1797 and, after a fall in the early 1800s, another spike in 1807, a pattern he correlates to the anxieties of war, the Terror, “anti-Jacobin panic,” and the resumption of war (509).  A quick scan of the Godmersham Catalog, the list of books found in library of Austen’s brother Edward’s estate, reveals several texts relating to the education and conduct of women.5  And in 1805, at Cassandra’s recommendation, Austen reads and is “pleased with” Gisborne’s An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (Letters 30 August).  But if Austen did indeed have Thoughts on the Education of Daughters in mind as she composed Elinor and Marianne and revised it into Sense and Sensibility, it’s unlikely that a direct allusion to the work would have served her well by the time the novel was published in 1811, after Wollstonecraft had been thoroughly demeaned in satires and novels.  As Jane Austen revised in 1797–1798 and possibly before she sold it to Thomas Egerton in 1810, she would necessarily have suppressed any direct references while preserving the philosophical texture of her first published work.


1The second edition of Original Stories from Real Life (1791) was illustrated by William Blake. 

2St. Clair explains further: “Written in an essentially ephemeral type of print, [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] had disappeared from the catalogues of such circulating libraries as had taken it before the turn of the century” (Reading Nation 278).  In an appendix to The Godwins and the Shelleys, St. Clair remarks that advice books that followed Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication “contain scarcely a single explicit reference either to Wollstonecraft or to her book, and the almost universal misspelling of her name in all discussions for or against suggests that many people who thought they knew her ideas did not have access to her book” (508). 

3I’m indebted to Vivien Jones’s “Conduct Literature” (240) for pointing me to the Lady’s Magazine.  The May 1787 Lady’s Magazine begins the issue with Wollstonecraft’s chapters “Of Exterior Accomplishments,” “Of Dress,” and “Of Boarding-Schools” (227–30); the June issue reprints “Matrimony” (287–88); July’s issue contains “On the Treatment of Servants” and “Public Places” (369–70).  The May, June, and July issues reprint parts of Madame de Genlis’s The History of Adelaide and Theodore, to which Austen refers in Emma (Ford).  The July issue also contains a piece by Dr. [William] Robertson on “The Character of Mary Queen of Scots” (371–72). 

4See, for example, Brenda S. Cox and Roger E. Moore. 

5The Godmersham Catalog lists Madame de Genlis’s Adèle et Théodore (1772 ed.), Hester Mulso Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773 ed.), James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1775 ed.), John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1778 ed.), Thomas Gisborne’s An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797 ed.), Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), and Jane West’s Letters to a Young Lady (1811 ed.).  Some of these must have been part of the collection before Edward took over the estate in 1797; others were added by him and his wife, Elizabeth.  Only Genlis’s, Chapone’s, and Gisborne’s books are first editions.  Gisborne’s Enquiry is signed “Elizabeth Austen, March 11th, 1797” (Reading with Austen).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  4th ed.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 2011.
  • _____.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. Edward Copeland.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
  • Batchelor, Jennie.  “Embroidery in Jane Austen’s Britain.”  Jane Austen Embroidery: Authentic Embroidery Projects for Modern Stitchers.  By Jennie Batchelor with projects by Alison Larkin.  London: Pavilion, 2020.  7–13.
  • Copeland, Edward.  Introduction.  Sense and Sensibility.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.  xxiii–lxv.
  • Cox, Brenda S.  “Marianne Dashwood’s Repentance, Willoughby’s ‘Repentance,’ and The Book of Common Prayer.” Persuasions On-Line 39.1 (2018).
  • Fallon, David.  “Joseph Johnson.”  Mary Wollstonecraft in Context.  Ed. Nancy E. Johnson and Paul Keen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2020.  29–37.
  • Ford, Susan Allen.  “Romance, Pedagogy, and Power: Jane Austen Re-writes Madame de Genlis.”  Persuasions 21 (1999): 172–87.
  • Jones, Vivien.  “Conduct Literature.”  Mary Wollstonecraft in Context.  Ed. Nancy E. Johnson and Paul Keen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2020.  238–45.
  • The Lady’s Magazine 18 (1787): 227–30, 287–88, 369–70.
  • McCormack, W. J., and Kim Walker.  Chronology of Maria Edgeworth.  The Absentee.  Oxford: OUP, 1988.  xlv–xlvii.
  • Moody, Ellen.  “A Calendar for Sense and Sensibility.”  Philological Quarterly 78 (1999): 301–34.
  • Moore, Roger E.  “Is Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen’s Most Religious Novel?”  Persuasions 44 (2022): forthcoming.
  • Reading with Austen.  https://www.readingwithausten.com/index.html
  • Rev. of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters Critical Review 63 (1787): 287–88.
  • Rev. of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters English Review 10 (1787): 315.
  • Rev. of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters European Magazine and London Review 11 (1787): 407.
  • St. Clair, William.  The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family.  1989.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.
  • _____.  The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
  • Taylor, Barbara.  “Wollstonecraft [married name Godwin], Mary.”  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  1 Sept. 2017.  Online.
  • Wollstonecraft, Mary.  Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life.  Facsimile of 1787 ed.  Cambridge: CUP, 2014.
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