Was Jane Austen a feminist writer, or did she too, like the rest of her contemporaries bow down to the norms and ways of the patriarchy? This is the question I will try to answer in the following research paper. I hope to borrow from her five novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Persuasion. In addition, I believe that an author’s experience make him/her what he/she is. Hence, it is of utmost importance that Austen’s life and ways be taken into consideration also.
If one wanted to understand an era, one would need to go back to the books written in that era. I always wanted to know the position of the woman in the Georgian Era; something that would later determine how they were treated in the succeeding period, that is the Victorian era.
Austen belonged to the gentry and lived a very secluded life in the small county of Stevenson, Hampshire. This small part of the world is where she based her novels on; perhaps picking up character traits from the neighboring families she interacted with.
Although the Georgian era saw a considerable amount of change and historically important events like the French Revolution, beginning of the industrial revolution, the British Empire losing its American colonies and the coming to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, Austen’s novels don’t seem to be effected by the above mentioned events.
They are easily palpable, everyday stories of the land owning middle class and always, as a rule, end in marriage. But what all these stories have in common is the ever virtuous and strong female lead. The heroines: Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Emma of Emma, Anne Elliot of Persuasion, Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park and the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility, are flawed in the beginning of the novels but learn certain virtues by the end.
Furthermore, they, unlike many literary heroines before them, have a mind of their own despite their position in life and are seen to make their own decisions. Fanny Price, the least well off of all the Austen heroines, is as headstrong as Emma who is the most well off of all the Austen heroines.
The first glint of feminism in literature was seen in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The book was published when Austen was only 17. However, many argue that Wollstonecraft was a feminist on print only whereas Austen practiced what she preached.
A simple observation one can find from regarding Austen’s novels is that the heroines start out as strong but flawed but end up learning a lesson or two, whether it be Marianne Dashwood becoming sensible or Catherine Morland becoming practical and curbing her overactive imagination, in the end.
Also all the novels end up in marriage and never does Austen show what happens after the much awaited marriage. Does the character bow to patriarchy in the days following the marriage or does she maintain her independent stance. We can only imagine. Also, these are characters who did not necessarily want to get married or needed a man to complete them. Then why do they end up in a marriage always. Can marriage itself be considered an act of bowing to patriarchal norms?
Austen was a fairly good looking woman from a well off family. She herself defied a lot of societal expectations. For example, Jane never married although she accepted a proposal that she turned down the very next day. She was a novelist, which was a peculiar profession for a lady of that time. In such a scenario, would it be safe to say that Austen lived for what she believed to be right and that she stood up for herself in a male dominated society, thereby making her a feminist?
Or could we also think that somewhere she regretted not being married and hence ended up marrying all heroines. Could it also be that she married them off for commercial gains, because the audience would much rather have a twenty something woman married rather than a spinster.
Next thing that comes to mind is the nature of marriages in these novels. Austen shows all types of possible marriages- marriage of convenience such as those governed by greed, marriages where both parties love each other despite the other’s short comings, etc.
Marriage of convenience can either end in grief and bitterness like in the case of Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, or such marriages can end in a both parties understanding each other but not necessarily being warm to one another like in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, again in Pride and Prejudice.
Marriages where both parties show mutual love and respect, despite the social position and the short comings of the parties involved are encouraged by the author. Case in point, Elizabeth Bennet’s inferior social position to Edward Darcy; Catherine Morland’s and Henry Tilney’s difference in perspectives; Marianne Dashwood’s romantic temperament in contrast to Colonel Brandon’s realistic approach to life; Fanny Price’s lesser position in society as compared to Edmund Bertram’s, Anne Elliot’s easily pursuable character in contrast to Captain Wentworth’s steady temperament.
Austen encourages difference in her characters but after causing enough confusion and drama, reconciles them in the end. She seems to want her characters to discuss their difference of outlook and perception through eventful time frames only to reach a point of agreement in the end. This trait of Jane Austen’s where a woman is allowed to retain her usual steadfast self, is definitely very modern and pro-feminist.