Saturday, 6 May 2017

Jane Austen – Feminist Icon? by Val Tyler

Jane Austen

According to the historian, Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen was a feminist icon ‘ahead of her time’. She also states that Miss Austen, ‘turned down four or five proposals of marriage and financial security to have a go at living by her pen,’ listing six possible suitors.

These claims are extraordinary. I do not believe she was a feminist icon and the most likely explanation for refusing her one and only proposal of marriage was because she was not in love with the young man. His man was Harris Bigg Wither and he was a rich family friend. Like all good early-19th century young ladies she initially accepted him, but unlike the majority, she changed her mind overnight.

Manydown, Harris Bigg Withers' home

We cannot know for sure why she did this. It was a prudent match and would have secured the futures of not only herself, but also her mother and unmarried sister. But something stopped her and, soon afterwards, she started wearing a lace cap. At 26 she was effectively proclaiming she was no longer on the marriage market.

These are verifiable historical facts. What we don’t know is why she acted as she did. Lucy Worsley would have us believe it was to follow a career that was not socially respectable. I think it is more likely she turned to writing simply because needed the money. As a woman her options were severely limited. If she was rejecting marriage, writing was all she had. Some years later she wrote, ‘...tho I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward (her brother) calls Pewter too.’

Without verifiable historical facts, I turn to Jane Austen’s novels to help me understand her actions. All her heroines finish their story by marrying, even Emma who initially had no intention of doing so – she was rich and did not need a husband – but she did marry and not just anyone. None of Jane Austen’s heroines fell for a man below their social status. Emma could have fallen in love with Robert Martin and shocked her family and friends by marrying him, but she did not. Instead, she says that a young farmer was the very last sort of person to raise her curiosity.

If Jane Austen had been passionate about taking a career, surely Anne Elliot would have done the same instead of languishing over the loss of Frederick Wentworth. Poor Anne spent years longing for the man she felt she had lost forever and, consequently, lost her bloom.

Jane Austen’s heroines never challenged the status quo. They accepted that marriage for financial security was a prudent action. Even Lizzy Bennett eventually accepted Charlotte Lucas’ marriage to the stupidest man in England because it gave her financial security and social status.

Jane Austen’s heroines were fulfilled by marriage; they never spurned it in favour of a career. Where she did challenge society was by continually affirming that only the deepest love would draw her ladies into matrimony. Most fell in love with men of considerable means. Elinor Dashwood and Catherine Morland married clergymen who were not rich, but had adequate means and social status. Fanny Price also married a clergyman, but not before refusing a rich man. Her family was horrified and put all sorts of pressure on her to accept Henry Crawford, but she stood firm. I wonder if this corresponds to Jane Austen’s own experience after she refused Bigg-Wither.

When I look at Jane Austen’s novels I conclude that she refused Bigg Wither because she did not love him. Initially, she had tried to do the right thing by her family, but she simply could not accept the idea of marrying a man she did not love. Having put herself in this situation, she had to find a way of earning some money. She not only enjoyed writing, but was extremely good at it. Consequently, she finished Susan and sold it the following year for £10.

I think Jane Austen was a brilliant writer who was ahead of her time when it came to her writing style, but she never railed against the woman’s lot. She is not a feminist icon.

I wonder whether Jane Austen would have minded Lucy Worsley’s speculation. I suspect not. She would probably have understood the historian’s need of ‘Pewter’.


Becca McCallum said...

Yes! I love this post. It's good to recognise that historical figures were people just like us, but sometimes it can go too far in giving them ahistorical values because we want them to be like that. Or because it helps make a point.

Val Tyler said...

Thank you, Becca. I agree wth you.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, yes, class was very much in there. When Emma tries to get a "better" husband for Harriet, Mr Knightley points out that she has done the wrong thing by getting Harriet to turn down a nice, intelligent farmer in favour of a man who is unsuited to her and who won't be interested anyway ... Because, of course, class. Harriet is an orphan of no class, and not likely to end up married to someone much above her. Well, yes, Lizzie marries up, but she considers herself okay with that, as her father is a gentleman, and that should be good enough for Darcy, thank you very much!

And yes, her heroines do all marry, but only men they love.

Val Tyler said...

Thanks, Sue. I love talking Jane Austen with fellow enthusiasts.

Lynne Benton said...

I'm inclined to agree with you, Val. A most interesting post - thank you.