Jane Austen & Feminism
Posted by Patricia Bingham on July 01, 1998 at 20:56:16:
I recall an extensive conversation on the Life & Times board about Jane Austen and feminism (or however one prefers to call the subject) and wanted to offer this belated but very interesting insight as it has to do with the publication (or rather the lack of it) of First Impressions and Susan. The Jane Austen Companion (numerous editors and entries, 1986, ISBN 0-02-545540-0) offers a very nice account of the subject on Jane Austen and contemporary feminism (which is the title of the chapter by Margaret Kirkham, pg. 154) and here I post the particular paragraphs with direct regards to Jane Austen and her works:
(I apologize if this has already been discussed, in the Library for instance. If interested in reading, it is a hard read so printing it or downloading it can save you time. I've made a few comments of my own and began them with all caps so as not to confuse anyone.)
Eighteenth-century feminism begins with questions about the moral and spiritual status of woman with which, from the beginning, improvement in female education was associated as the main practical concern. By the end of the century, philanthropy, often of an educational kind, has also become important. Ray Strachey speaks of Mrs.. Trimmer and Hannah More as founders of the woman's movement, though it may have shocked them to know it. Hannah More, despite her conservative sympathies, adopted a ‘revolutionary role' by ‘marking out a new sphere for the young women of the middle classes,' from which ‘their revolt against their own narrow and futile lives followed' (Strachey, p.13). Women novelists, even where, unlike Jane Austen, they showed no understanding of feminist moral agreement, fulfilled a similar role simply by becoming published authors.
But Austen does show a clear and consistent commitment to the rational principles on which women of the Enlightenment based their case. The essential belief was that women, not having been denied powers of reason by providence (no matter what was denied them by poets, rhapsodists, Rousseau, and Dr. Fordyce), must learn morals in the same way as men and must therefore be taught to think. As Janet Todd (a Wollstonecraft Anthology, p. 10) points out, Mary Wollstonecraft, by the time she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, saw the ‘revolutionary implication' of teaching women to think and made it apparent. Mary Astell perhaps did not, but the central feminist position on morals and education could be held by a ‘true daughter of the Church of England', like Astell, or by the less orthodox. Wollstencraft represents the heroine of Mary as having read "Butler's Analogy and some Other Authors,' thus having become a ‘Christian by conviction'...
...Enlightenment feminism is sometimes spoken of as though it had no English roots and as though those who supported the revolution were, in general, feminists. Such beliefs do not bear scrutiny, for feminism cut across other political, national, and religious interests, and it is worth remembering, when considering Mary Wollstencraft's ideas in relation to Austen novels, that Vindication draws on and English feminist tradition in which women of orthodox religion, not associated with revolutionary politics, have their place, as Wollstonecraft acknowledges in her respectful treatment of Hester Chapone.
Arnold Kettle, in his 1951 essay on Emma, saw Jane Austen's ‘highly critical concern over the fate of women in her society' as a ‘positive vibration' and it has become common to notice a degree of feminist concern in Austen but not to associate it with the central ‘moral interest' that Leavis, in 1948, saw as ‘the principle of organization and the principle of development' in all her work, nor to connect Austen's criticism of romantic writers with Wollstencraft's attack on Rousseau and his followers. The republication of Wolstencraft's writings, with those of others has made it easier to place Austen, as moralist, in the context of rational feminism. Some elements in the novels, attributed to Evangical influence, now need reassessment in the light of feminist strictness about morals; and Austen's antiromanticism, sometimes seen as a mark of her isolation from contemporary literary and intellectual engagement, also needs consideration...
In France, Germaine de Stael became the major woman novelist and literary historian of the postrevolutionary era. She had supported the revolution, but she was not a feminist. G.E. Gwyn says she ‘abandoned the cause of women in general' in favor of the ‘woman of genius,' whose exceptional gifts on sensibility and imagination exempted her from the restrictions generally placed on women. In England, Jane Austen declined to concern herself with the femme de genie, concentrating, like Wollstencraft, on ordinary women of the middle class, whose lives are unexceptional, though her heroines have more than their share in intelligence. Austen follows Vindication in the belief that ‘women...may have different duties to fulfill; but they are human duties,' to be regulated in accordance with rational principle. Wollstencraft, having read a ‘eulogium on Rousseau' by Mme. De Stael, expressed distaste and classed her among the ‘writers who have rendered women objects of pity, bordering on contempt'.
Jane Austen made an obscure joke about Corinne and refused to meet its author, Mme. De Stael. The ‘Myth of Corinne' took a powerful hold on the imagination of some later English women, but Austen shows no interest in ‘performing heroinism' except as the subject of satire. De Stael thought on of the Austen novels, probably Pride & Prejudice, ‘vulgar' and it is clear that ‘Love and Freinship' to Sandition, Austen mocks the literature of sensibility from which the performing Heroine' is born. In Persuasion, Sophia Croft is drawn in contrast to the ideal wife of Emile, the ‘Sophie' who represents Rousseau's restricted view of female nature, described by Wollstencraft as ‘a fanciful kind of half-being-one of Rousseau's wild chimeras'.
HERE IS THE PART I FOUND particularly interesting and I do not recall the subject being mentioned by the Biography we read in the Library a few months ago. I do remember us questioning the reasons behind Austen's rejections but not this particular reason:
Jane Austen was ready to publish her first novel in the year that Mary Wollstonecraft died. Had Cadell accepted First Impressions, it would have come out in 1798, when Godwin's Memoirs provoked a storm of hostile criticism against Wollstencraft and her ideas. Between 1798 and 1803 her reputation was destroyed and her ideas made unspeakable. The Reverend Richard Polwhele, in The Unsex'd Females, divided literary women into feminist goats and modest sheep, between whom there could be no connection. He thought it a sign of the corruption of the age that women's work should be considered on its merits, like men's, and saw ‘the sparkle of confident intelligence' as, in itself, a mark of immodesty in a female author. If Jane Austen's three novels of the 1790s had been published when they were first written, her confident mockery of Rousseauist assumptions might not have escaped hostile notice. As it was, First Impressions was rejected and Susan rather mysteriously withdrawn by a publisher who had bought and advertised it in 1803. Sense & Sensibility came out belatedly at the author's own expense in 1811, when the controversy had died down, silence on her work having replaced abuse of Wollstencraft's personal character.
DID THIS PARAGRAPH just state that Jane's novels were first rejected because of this Wollstonecraft issue or does it more insinuate the rejection as a coincidence? I understand it for the former but the dates are a little confusing me. Did Jane Austen submit these works before the controversy arose and thus, if they were accepted then she would have been unwittingly (and her publisher too) in the heat of things? Or did her submission coincide with these controversies and so that was perhaps the reason why they were rejected? In any case, when you consider this issue, the rejections, however painful for Austen, were actually in her favor (and of course we do know of her subsiquent revisions anyway and are very happy with them) or, perhaps, if these particular novels had been accepted and actually published, our view of her today would take on different ‘political' connotations or at least our approach to her might be different. Can you imagine the historical significance of this?
A BIT MORE TO FINISH:
Among early reviewers, Scott shows an uneasy awareness of Austen's feminist morals, while Whately reveals a more sympathetic understanding, but neither discusses it overtly, perhaps because it could not be discussed without resurrecting discredible scandal and misunderstanding. By the mid-19c, no one thought of connecting Jane Austen and Wollstonecraft as feminist moralists, and in the mid-20c, the ‘enduring problem of Jane Austen criticism' was defined as ‘scale versus stature; the slightest of the matter and the authority of the matter'. As more has become known about Wollstonecraft as ‘female philosopher' and about the rational feminism of her time, it has become easier to place the Austen novels in a context of feminism ideas, where the ‘enduring problem' can be seen in a new light.
In 1968 Gilbert Ryle noted that the title of Sense & Sensibility was to be taken seriously, as indicating a philosophical interest in ‘thought and feeling, judgement and emotions,' and that Austen novels generally show a deep interest in some perfectly general, even theoretical questions about human nature.' Considered in the context of Enlightenment feminism, this ‘perfectly general' interest may be seen to have a particular application. Trilling, in 1957, spoke of Emma Woodhouse as having ‘a moral life, as a man has a moral life...quite as a matter of course, as a given quality of her nature.' It is because the Austen heroines, not only Emma, are shown as representatives of ‘human' rather than ‘feminine' nature, learning morals as rational beings were intended to learn them, that we may speak of her as a feminist moralist, connected with Wollstonecraft in opposing the antifeminist view most powerfully expressed in Emile.
- Bluestockings ... Leanne S 12:18:39 7/03/98 (3)
- Splitting the difference Erin 00:58:40 7/03/98 (6)
- Jane Austen,Mary W, Rousseau and Feminism Caroline 12:36:59 7/04/98 (4)
- The Two Camps Marie-Bernadette 02:14:45 7/04/98 (0)
- I'm beginning to think we share the same bookshelf, Patricia! Marie-Bernadette 23:05:09 7/01/98 (1)
- the contraversy P. Bingham 23:54:03 7/01/98 (0)
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