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Feminist Consciousness in the Novels of Jane Austen

Updated on September 25, 2011

Jane Austen as a Feminist Novelist

The literary genre 'novel' has been presented as the 'female form' because it is invariably associated with women. Its development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coincided with a historical shift in women's position. The novels of this era gave men and women new ideas about the society they lived in, including a wide variety of ideas about how to understand themselves and vis a vis. In an age of novel detractors, who feared the novel was dangerously influential, especially for impressionable women readers, Austen declared herself an avid novel reader and admirer, and wrote her own novels in reaction to conservative ideas about gender roles and relations.

Austen is perhaps the first of the woman writers to receive a great deal of critical attention and work has been done on several aspects of her novels. Conventional approaches have focused on the Comedy of Manners, on the sense of prudence and morality and the didactic element; on the centrality of the marriage theme in her novels, on the minuteness of social depiction and class differences. Austen has also been viewed as a critic of the genre of sensibility and of the Gothic tradition. She is also criticized as a proto-feminist, who laid foundation of feminism. The question of Austen's feminist credentials has long been a puzzling for critics. The six novels-those "little bits of Ivory" on which she worked "with so fine a Brush", hardly seem the canvas for revolutionary expression. Modern feminist critics are trying to find in Austen the kind of explicit message that associates her with more modern feminist writers.

Austen, an ordinary woman, operating within the parameters set by the society of her time, was able to make a significant contribution to the literary world. She has the reputation of writing only about young women whose only interest in life was marriage and is often denied because of it. However, this is not completely true, she wrote about the relationships between men and women, the problems of women in her day and had some scathing criticisms of society, especially as it affected women. George Henry Lewes comments about the exquisite art of Austen:

We recognize the second and more special quality of womanliness in the tone and point of view: they are novels written by a woman, an Englishwoman, a gentlewoman; no signature could disguise that fact; and because she has so faithfully (although unconsciously) kept to her own womanly point of view, her works are durable. There is nothing of the doctrinaire in Jane Austen; not a trace of woman's "mission"; but as the most truthful, charming, humorous, pure minded, quick witted, and unexaggerated of writers, female literature has reason to be proud of her. 3

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    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 5 years ago

      jane austen is one of my favorite authors. the other one is agatha christie.

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      Anushika121 5 years ago

      Jane Austen is a good novelist.

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      Anjana121 5 years ago

      Jane Austen is one of the greatest writers.

    Feminine Characteristics on Austen's Works

    Her Works

    Austen revises established novel conventions to take issue with conservative ideas about women, defends novel readers and novels written by and about women and proposes a new feminist behavioral standard for heroes and heroines that she makes pointedly relevant to novel readers. Her six novels, for which she is most well known, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818) were written with a feminine, and, one might say, feminist vocalization. These works reveal Austen’s feminist impetus and intentions and demonstrate the strategies of parody and irony for which she is famous.

    The feminist tradition in the English world was well established when Austen began writing. Writing was one of the few possible occupations for an intelligent, educated woman. Women could write at home while fulfilling their traditional role of running the household and raising children. They could stay out of the public eye, hiding behind the pseudonyms. Mary Ann Travers wrote as George Eliot (1819-1880), the three Bronte sisters wrote under the names of Acton (1820-1849), Currer (1816-1855) and Ellis Bell (1818-1848), and Madame Dudevant assumed the name, George Sand (1804-1876). When Austen’s books were finally published, thanks to the persistence of her brother Henry, the title page simply read, “By a Lady.”

    Austen comes across as a realist; someone who knows that life is tough, especially for women. Now more than ever, she is also identified as a penetrating and even prescient witness to transformations in conceptions of sex and gender in her period. But rather than focus on how society’s restrictions could cause someone to have a nervous breakdown, Austen focuses on the reasoning skills women need to survive, which, is the ultimate feminist statement. Claudia Johnson’s influential book Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel moves Austen further to the left. Johnson concludes:

    During a time when all social criticism, particularly that which aimed at the institution of the family in general and the place of women in particular, came to be associated with the radical cause, Austen defended and enlarged a progressive middle ground that had been eaten away by the polarizing polemics born of the 1790s.4

    In her attention to the anonymous sex, and in her articulation of the feminine ethos, Austen was as revolutionary in her own way as modern feminists are.

    As Austen’s life began, the global power that was Great Britain, under the rule of King George III was in the midst of a growing conflict with its American colonies which would result in the American Revolutionary War. This military conflict would be the first of three wars Great Britain would participate in during Austen’s short life. A decade after the North American colonies gained independence, the British Empire in the wake of the French Revolution would enter the Napoleonic Wars, and by 1812 was once again clashing with its former protectorate the United States. During this period of foreign upheaval the domestic English society in which Austen was born into, did not provide women educational opportunities offered to men and marriage was the only viable option for economic security and for being part of the social norm. As Mrs. Mitford comments about Austen “the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly”. Ironically, while most of Austen’s works centered on the business of providing husbands for daughters.

    Austen’s main characters, mostly females, were increasingly unafraid to speak their minds. Her protagonists spoke and thought independently and were intelligent and articulate; they possessed a female awareness that was being localized, and vocalized, by their own sex. Most importantly, her characters verbalized an expanding feminine perspective of men, society and women’s place in the society. She never wrote a scene involving men alone; there is always a woman present because she said she did not know how men acted by themselves. She placed herself in the midst of an ongoing dialogue within and between novels about women’s true nature and proper role in order to engage her readers in dialogue and debate. As Katharine M. Rogers, in Feminism in Eighteenth Century England (1982), discusses the progress women writers, like Austen, made in the eighteenth century, and attributes such progress to the benefit they received from:

    feminine awareness developed by earlier women writers. Like them, she [Austen] focused on an intelligent young woman, through whose eyes she presented women, men, and, the world. 5

    Austen’s novels are through the strong heroines she creates. In the history of the novel, these heroines did not arise simply. Austen was a great consumer of eighteenth-century fiction and she spent a good part of her childhood parodying it. She continued this parody somewhat in the six complete novels, particularly Northanger Abbey, but she also wrote deliberately against it. The women in most eighteenth-century fiction most frequently needed to be saved by men. Austen’s women are still confined to one kind of dependence economic, but she tried to make her characters physically and intellectually strong. The clearest case of this is in an early scene in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet walks three miles across muddy fields to tend to her sister Jane, who became ill while visiting the new family in the neighbourhood, the Bingleys.

    Unlike modern feminist’s tradition, marriage plays a pivotal role in Austen’s novels. Some characters marry for security, others for wealth, while some for love. The idea of marriage is very important throughout the novel, primarily because it was often the only way for a woman of the period to secure her freedom, social status, and living standard. In that age, women became more and more economically dependent on their husbands and their plight is highlighted in the literature of the period. Jane Spencer comments:

    As women became more dependent on marriage for their livelihood and dignity, marriage itself seemed to have become more and more difficult for them to achieve.” 6

    Austen accepted this truth that marriage was the only means of determining their own identity in a society that denied them any kind of social, economic or political autonomy. Security and freedom of self through marriage in itself may be very illusionary but for women with no inheritance or fortune to fall back on, marriage was a necessary economic need, especially under the patriarchal social set up which allowed very little opportunity or sanction for middle class women to earn a living. But personally as can be inferred from her letters, it is seen that she was not very keen about matrimony in real life. In a letter to her favorite niece Fanny, in 1817, she writes:

    “Oh what a loss it will be when you are married. You are too agreeable in your single state, too agreeable as a niece: I shall hate you when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into conjugal and maternal affections.”7

    Here the word ‘hate’ indicates the strong aversion that she feels against the sobering and rather the subjugating effect of matrimony on the ‘delicious play of mind’ of a female. Austen does not allow her heroines to be pushed into totally subservient roles in their married status. She shows them to be able to achieve as much freedom as possible within the given boundaries and set limits of society, which are strictly defined by morality and prudence.

    TWO INCHES OF IVORY

    TWO INCHES OF IVORY

    As Austen wrote, so she lived. She, too, had limited marital prospects because of her small dowry, despite being described in contemporary accounts as very pretty, lively, witty, even flirtatious- the kind of fun-loving, whip-smart girl-next-door many men would dearly love to meet and marry. Unable, for financial reasons, to marry the young man she truly cared for at age twenty, she resisted attempts to set her up with a local reverend in Cambridge the following year. In 1802, then in her late twenties, she briefly succumbed to temptation and accepted a marriage proposal from one Harris Bigg-Wither, a man six years her junior, quite prosperous, but “big and awkward.” She repented the next day and rescinded her acceptance, choosing to live out her life as a spinster rather than marry for anything other than love, even if it meant sacrificing financial stability. In the end, Austen had the courage of her convictions. (A similar fate befell Austen's older sister, Cassandra, who was engaged for several years to a young man who died before they could marry.)

    Under English laws of the time, the first-born son of the family inherited most and sometimes all the wealth. Women had no rights at all and received absolutely nothing from the family estate. Their occupational choices were also extremely restricted. Society assumed that women were subservient to men, that their natural destiny was marriage. Austen herself felt and experienced this problem, because after her father’s retirement they had to leave her dear Steventon, because that house transferred to her elder brother, James. Not only that, after their father’s death they (she, her sister Cassandra, and her mother) had to live on the mercy of their brothers. They had to suffer because both sisters were spinster.

    Literature is the mirror of society, a literary person writes what he experiences, what he sees around himself. Therefore, Austen wrote what she saw around her, what she experienced. That is why, there is a hidden didacticism in her novels. She knew what were the demerits of spinsterhood, for example, one had to remain on the mercy of her brother or father. In fact, spinster did not have any identity, she could not enjoy her life, not only that, but her life became limited too. She was referred to as an “old maid”. Eventually she would become a burden on family as well as on society. Probably that is the reason for the main theme of her novels is love and marriage. She propagated that marriage is a very important part in women’s life, they should get married, but to the right man.

    In the eighteenth century English society, in which Austen lived, male members of a family were given educational opportunities that were not always afforded to the ladies of the household. In most cases education for women was not advocated- it was thought to be detrimental to the traditional female virtues of innocence and morality. The whole education ought to relate to men. It taught her that every pleasure must come as a favour from men, and when to gain it she decked herself in paint and fine feathers, as she had been taught to do, it called her vain. Fortunately for Austen, she was born into a family that valued education to both sons and daughters, and she was encouraged by her family to produce literature. But later in the era, because of the rise of many women novelists, they seized the pen; and female self-consciousness brought heroinism to literature.

    Austen’s protagonists are young people in the process of shaping their lives and natures. In this, education plays an important role in influencing their outlooks and ability to choose the right thing in life and create space to grow in the positive direction. Austen emphasized the importance of true education in all her novels. All her heroines believed in self-improvement and if they found themselves lacking in some area, they were frank enough to admit as much. Austen’s most heroines, Emma, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Mary, are good readers, they liked to read novels and influenced by them; and sometimes try to get solution of their problem. She was herself very fond of reading, and from books she inspired to write.

    According to literary historical standards of subject matter, war is historically not a noble subject to women. Until this century, women did not participate in war except through the intensification of its ordinary pursuits, such as nursing. And while democratic conscription of men is a relatively modern phenomenon, participation in war has always signified a possibility in the minds of men: the opportunity to become hero or coward in the face of death. It does not represent the same possibility to women, not even the possibility of dying, except passively, through invasion. Because war has not wrenched women from their communities and placed them in a separate community, and often in a foreign country, to fight, war has not changed women as immediately as it has changed men. And although women incur loss in times of war, they also incur loss in times of peace.

    War is a horrifying time for women, as Homer well knew in his portrayal of Andromache. They have nothing to gain and everything to lose. And while it is not necessarily ignoble, war is no more a “noble” subject to women than gambling is to men. In fact, had she chosen to examine in itself, Austen might have viewed war the way Pushkin views gambling in “The Queen of Spades” as revealing desperation that is both symptom and cause. The indirect view of war in Persuasionis decidedly satirical; the navy men long for another war to make money, and Captain Wentworth goes on enthusiastically about his war profiteering. The novel closes with the wry observation that the navy is “if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.” Such a statement is consistent with a feminine viewpoint. Nancy Armstrong states in this regard:

    During the eighteenth century, one author after another discovered that the customary way of understanding social experience actually misrepresented human value. . . . Literature devoted to producing the domestic woman thus appeared to ignore the political world run by men. 8

    In her novels Austen created the comedy of manners of middle-class life in the England of her time, revealing the possibilities of “domestic” literature. Her repeated fable of a young woman's voyage to self-discovery on the passage through love to marriage focuses upon easily recognizable aspects of life. It is this concentration upon character and personality and upon the tensions between her heroines and their society that relates her novels more closely to the modern world than to the traditions of the eighteenth century. It is this modernity, together with the wit, realism, and timelessness of her prose style; her shrewd, amused sympathy; and the satisfaction to be found in stories so skillfully told, in novels so beautifully constructed that helps to explain her continuing appeal for readers of all kinds.

    Austen's Teachings

    Instruction with Amusement

    Art for Changing the Society

    Instruction is always blended with amusement. A finer moral lesson cannot anywhere be found than the distress of the Bertram family in Mansfield Park, arising from the vanity callousness of the two daughters, who had been taught nothing but ‘accomplishments,’ without any regard to their dispositions and temper. These instructive examples are brought before us in action, not by lecture or preachment, and they tell with double force because they are not inculcated in a didactic style. The genuine but unobtrusive merits of Miss Austen have been but poorly rewarded by the public as respects, fame and popularity, though her works are now rising in public esteem.

    Austen’s interest in women’s ability to reason is also evident in what has been deemed her greatest technical achievement: free indirect discourse. The technique enabled Austen to portray her heroines maintaining the public appearance of propriety while privately evaluating the true nature of a situation, a clear mark of a thinking person. Thus, through free indirect discourse that we learn that Fanny Price is no dummy; she pegs Henry Crawford as a selfish cad long before he shows his true colors and has an affair with Maria Bertram as this conversation between Sir Thomas and Fanny reveals: “Have you any reason, child, to think ill of Mr. Crawford’s temper?’’ “No, Sir.” She longed to add, “but of his principles I have;” but her heart sunk under the appalling prospect of discussion, explanation, and probably non-conviction. Her ill opinion of him was founded chiefly on observations, which, for her cousins’ sake, she could scarcely dare mention to their father.

    Her men are less remarkable. The men are kind of feeble. They are knightly as one of the characters is named. They're patient when they're good. Sometimes they're impatient when they're bad, and they serve as a kind of, I suppose, a sort of stalwart trees of nobility when their time comes, but the women are stunning. They have everything, that is, the true heroines have everything. They have got great minds, great souls, and here they function under her wonderful ironic eye. These are real heroines, and they are- they have no political power, no economic power, but they control their own lives, and in a very real way they conduct and control their courtships. All these heroines make for fine role models: intelligent, strong, mature, and admirable in many ways, especially for their time. But it's the fascination with that backward time that seems puzzling.

    Austen has often been considered a woman who led a narrow, inhibited life and who rarely traveled. These assertions are far from the truth. Austen traveled more than most women of her time and was quite involved in the lives of her brothers, so much that it often interfered with her writing. Like most writers, Austen drew on her experiences and her dreams for the future and incorporated them into her writing. Her characters reflect the people around her; the main characters reflect her personality to some extent. In Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Fanny Price all reflect aspects of Jane Austen and dreams she had that were never fulfilled. All of Austen’s female characters end up happily married, a state Austen herself never felt. A woman was defined in terms of her husband; if she did not marry, she had nothing.

    The existence of a feminine consciousness is suggested in Austen’s first five novels. Although her women lead restricted lives, her novels are not about restriction, nor even about expression, but about the relationship between the two, about how women find ways to develop and assert their womanhood despite the restrictions placed on them. Though there are women in the novels who fail to do so- who, like Charlotte Lucas, settle for demoralizing compensations- the heroine always succeeds. The world in which we find her at the close of the novel is as much molded by her as she has been molded by the world.

    In the educated class of Austen’s society, the influence of women was especially powerful. Because their oppression did not extend to the experiences of poverty and illiteracy, educated women were more equipped to counter their political unimportance. They were also the members of a class that had reached a point never reached before in the cultivation of arts and letters. Many great and small houses of the gentry made art, science, and polite letters as central to rural society as sport, agriculture and politics. And for the first time among gentleman a regularized standard of manner and speech was observed.

    As eighteenth century fiction testifies, women were as actively present in this society as men. And Austen seemed to be aware that women in her own class received better treatment than in any below it. It is not surprising, then, that the class and atmosphere of the gentry produced in the first major woman author in English, a novelist who undertook not only to reveal the influence and importance of women in her class, but to articulate the unspoken for values of her sex. Austen herself well knew that novels do not endeavour to prove the little claims and opinions of mankind, but that they do testify to something larger, the energies of culture and spirit. The feminine consciousness may be seen as one such unacknowledged energy. For until the feminist movement began to succeed, feminine history was, by and large, a great anonymous tradition, a set of values and tradition, a set of values and beliefs that were passed on through generations of women, from older to younger women, from mothers to daughters. Following certain crude models in earlier fiction by women, Austen’s novels were the first to voice this consciousness.

    Austen is the proto-feminist, who lays the foundation of feminism.

    Jane Austen as Proto-Feminist

    Margaret Kirkham portrays Austen as a proto-feminist who purposefully argued in her novels against the social, political, and economic limitations placed on women by patriarchal English society. Susan Fraiman differs in her assessment of Austen's treatment of women's issues. She notes that although Austen's heroines are often witty and independent, offering an observer's perspective on women's inferior position in society, by the end of the works the heroines are reincorporated back into patriarchal society, no longer free agents and independent thinkers but wives subsumed by their husbands' households. Political and feminist scholarship on Austen's novels was further invigorated by the rise of postcolonial criticism. Moira Ferguson contends that Austen's novels offer a reformist critique of imperialism and finds a close link between the reformist impulse and women's status in English society.

    Austen and her contemporaries were continuing to break new ground by entering a profession traditionally dominated by males and just then beginning to attract female readers and writers. Anger is not the word that comes to mind when one thinks about Jane Austen. But, Austen is also a formidable feminist critic. Austen’s voice is, to be sure, a gentler one, softened by end-of-the-book marriages and a wonderful irony and sense of humor. Nonetheless, a staunch feminist stance is there. Lewes sets her apart as being somewhat unprofound when he differentiated her as a female author, an “other”: “they are novels written by a woman, an English woman, a gentle woman . . . but as the most truthful, charming, humourous, pureminded, quick-witted, and unexaggerated of writers, female literature has reason to be proud of her.”

    In this way, Austen dealt with the major subject of her era and tried to explore the way and moralize the society. She shares with us her feminine awareness and brilliant articulation of it by using various narrative techniques, irony, moral lessons and feminist stratagems. Along with the increasing female authorship, she proved that one did not have to be a male to write, to have something to say, to have a place of importance in the world around her, to interact as a sentient being in the network of the society. She continues to speak to today’s women of the importance of their place in the world. Therefore Austen was a feminist to some extent according to modern feminist notions, but she is the forerunner of feminism, who made its voice high to go in the ears of male dominated society, although she presents a rather cool and objective view of the limited options open to women.

    Feminism

    The foundation of feminism was laid in the eighteenth century.

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      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        I like Austen very much and enjoy all her books.

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        oxfordian 5 years ago

        Wonderful quality essay! I'll feature it on my lens on Austen's Emma. Here's a squid blessing for you.

      • goo2eyes lm profile image

        goo2eyes lm 5 years ago

        thank you for sharing this lens about feminism which was upheld by jane austen.

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        Anushika121 5 years ago

        Good Work

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        manish02jan 5 years ago

        good job

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        Archana121 5 years ago

        Great work on Austen's feminism.