Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jane Austen: a lost daughter? Part one

There has been much speculation about whether Jane Austen read Mary Wollstonecraft, and if so, what the novelist made of the polemicist. I've been meaning to write about this possible connection, having lightly touched some months ago on the secret nod by which "Jane Austen's choice of the name Fanny Price [was] a coded reference to two of the most formative people in Mary Wollstonecraft's life" -- Fanny Blood and Richard Price. I have been spurred to write more by this week's offering by Lauren Gilbert, author of the recent Heyerwood, a Georgian/Regency romantic novel. Did Jane read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman? A very good question. I'll look briefly at, and devote a few linked posts to, the main arguments -- or at any rate the argumentative. I have five lined up so far.

I won't attempt to summarise all the academic and popular writing on this subject. What strikes me is the passion with which many seem to want Jane Austen to be what I call a Lost Daughter, that is, someone significantly influenced by MW, even if that influence has to be expressed covertly. And, of course, I am not a little envious (in the positive, aspirational sense) of how much attention Jane Austen receives, not only from the academy, but in overwhelming public support. She is widely read for pleasure, and even more widely appreciated in endless cinematographic re-imaginings. Both scholars and enthusiasts come together in venues such as the Jane Austen Society of North America. I could wish for nothing better for Mary Wollstonecraft - academic interest in her works is re-awakening, in fields beyond women's studies, and I have hopes for Mary: the Movie, but as yet there is no Mary Fan Club or Wollstonecraft Society. Give me time....

Wikipedia (which, as I've said before, provides an excellent overview of Wollstonecraft's life, work, and circle) give a good short introduction to the possibilities of a link. Styles and themes of Jane Austen
has, at the time of writing, 174 references, to dozens of scholarly works, even if it hasn't jumped through the time-consuming hoops to win the bronze star of a Featured Article. It sums up, "There is intense scholarly debate regarding whether or not Austen's works follow in the tradition of Enlightenment feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft." Stripped of its informative but distracting links, and of the references, which you can follow up there if you wish, the relevant section reads:
Since the rise of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s, the question of to what extent Austen was a feminist writer has been at the forefront of Austen criticism. Scholars have identified two major strains of 18th-century feminism: "Tory feminism" and "Enlightenment feminism". Austen has been associated with both.
Tory feminism, which includes such writers as Mary Astell and Dorothy Wordsworth, is a tradition of thought which recognized that "women were treated as an inferior class in a man's world". Writers in this tradition urged women to counter this discrimination through moral and spiritual self-cultivation and charitable service to the family and community. [Marilyn] Butler has argued that Austen belongs to the Tory feminist tradition because of her stylistic and thematic affinity to the writings of Maria Edgeworth Moreover, Austen's "heroines' subordinate role in the family,...their dutifulness, meditativeness, self-abnegation, and self-control" are characteristics shared by the heroines of conservative authors such as Jane West and Mary Brunton.
Enlightenment feminism, which includes such writers as Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft, is a tradition of thought that claims that "women share the same moral nature as men, ought to share the same moral status, and exercise the same responsibility for their conduct". Margaret Kirkham has argued that Austen is part of this tradition because, for one, her "heroines do not adore or worship their husbands, though they respect and love them. They are not, especially in the later novels, allowed to get married at all until the heroes have provided convincing evidence of appreciating their qualities of mind, and of accepting their power of rational judgement, as well as their good hearts." Anne Elliot, the heroine of ''Persuasion'', is an example of such a protagonist. Kirkham argues that Austen knew and admired the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Moreover, she and others argue that Austen's novels followed in the tradition of the radical Jacobin novels of the 1790s, which often dealt with feminist issues.
The main works referred to are Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction, a 1983 monograph by Margaret Kirkham, and A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft, a 2004 essay by Miriam Ascarelli. I'll write more about these next time.


  1. I read your post with great interest. One area with which I have always had difficulty
    using the term "feminist" for the women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries; it has such specific connotations today that I am not sure it can be fairly applied to previous generations. Having said that, I found your article to be well-written and very thought-provoking. I especially like the quote from Margaret Kirkman. Well done! I think, for Austen, the resonance was clearly the issue of unequal marriages due to deficiencies in education, and the financial inequities to which women were subject, and VINDICATION addresses those issues so specifically. (A link between McCauley and JA seems much more problematic to me, but I've read very little of McCauley's work-her politics, and passion for America, would definitely be an issue for JA, I think!) I look forward to the rest of the series!

  2. Thank you for writing -- and for stimulating me to begin the JA journey! I agree that the word "feminism" is tricky. "Proto-feminism" seems to be the term used: that which led to what we recognise today as feminism. There will be more from Kirkman tomorrow. Tell me more about McCauley: I don't know much about JA, except by having repeatedly read her novels.

  3. Catherine Sawbridge Macauley is more or less a contemporary of Wollstonecraft,with similar views about women's education; she wrote an 8-volume history of England. However, her main interest seems to have been politics; she is considered a Whig, with strong republican and reformist views, actually visited America and stayed at Mt. Vernon. At about age 47, she married her 2nd husband, a Mr. Graham, who was in his 20's, a serious scandal that damaged her reputation in England. She died in 1791. Jane's politics were much more Tory, and she seemed to have a low opinion of America, so one wonders...

  4. Oh, yes, *her*! I remember now. As for scandalous marriages, well, Mary's managed to alienate a fair few people: Godwin's friends saw him as transgressing the anarchist principles he had written about, and Mary's wider circle were forced to recognise that she had never had a right to the name Mrs Imlay, which she had been using for some years. And then there is Angela Burdett-Coutts, the richest heiress in the kingdom: for 52 years she was devoted to one woman, after whose death she married her 29 year old American secretary. She is the other Famous Dead Bisexual in Old St Pancras graveyard, alongside Mary.
    As for Jane Austen being a Tory - stay tuned...

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