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Debunking The “Alternative Facts” About Jane Austen

Debunking the “Alternative Facts” About Jane Austen

July 18, 2017 marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. It was on the 100th anniversary of her death that Reginald Farrer’s essay, “Jane Austen, ob. July 18, 1817,” published in the Quarterly Review, pages 1-30, observed that Austen is not a “limited writer” and that “Jane Austin’s personality may be much more profitably reconstructed in her work than from the superficial details of her life” (page 4).

 

The first sentence of Karen Joy Fowler’s popular novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, states: “Each of us has a private Austen.” With that sentence in mind and as a longtime close, in fact, professional, reader of literature in general and Jane Austen, in particular—having read, studied, taught, and written about literature to earn my living as an English Professor for some forty years—I’ve been struck by a reactionary “private Austen” that has unfortunately resurfaced: I would call these views “alternative facts” about the novelist and her novels.

This reactionary view of Jane Austen (1775-1817), who lived during the sub-period (The Regency 1811-1820) of the Georgian Era of British culture (1714-1820), is that she was demure Aunt Jane who unquestioningly accepted the patriarchal society in which she lived and about which she wrote approvingly just to pass her time in peace and quiet. This reactionary reading of Austen’s novels also suggests her championing a strictly Caucasian society. So “alternative facts” even strike the literary world. But they didn’t first surface in 2017.

The novelist’s nieces and nephews, who lived well into the Victorian Age (1837-1901), promoted and idealized their maiden aunt as a pious Christian and “genius” who wrote her novels as a quiet, harmless hobby in her country cottage. James-Edward Austen Leigh (1798-1874), who as a teenager was Aunt Jane’s favorite nephew, aged into a mutton-chopped Victorian gentleman, a retired Anglican clergyman, by the time he wrote his Memoir of Jane Austen (1869, 2nd ed. 1871). His sisters, Caroline (1805-1880) and Anna (1793-1872), assisted him in creating “dear Aunt Jane” for the Memoir.

This Jane Austen met the ideals of Victorian womanhood that are most fully represented in Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem, The Angel in the House (1854-1862): passive, meek, charming, graceful, powerless, pure, and submissive to male authority. Such female characteristics echo those recommended nearly a century earlier by the Rev. James Fordyce in his Sermons to Young Women (1766), advising them how to attract husbands by showing female inferiority and meekness and “melting into tears at the sight or hearing of distress.”  The quiet, comfy Jane Austen who never wanted to rock the societal boat is an alternative fact that can be debunked by following Reginald Ferrar’s advice printed in bold under the byline: “Jane Austen’s personality may be much more profitably reconstructed in her work.” This method, in fact, is the model of study used by the most highly respected late 20th and 21st-century Austen scholars.

What Austen thought of Fordyce’s advice is crystal clear in Pride and Prejudice (1813). After teatime, Mr. Bennet invites the visiting Rev. Mr. Collins to read aloud to the five Bennet daughters (vol. 1:chapter 14). “Protest[ing] that he never read novels [a bad sign, as Austen and her family were “great novel-readers,” and Austen, of course, wrote novels!] . . . [Mr. Collins] after some deliberation chose Fordyce’s Sermons.” That Collins chooses Fordyce is telling. Austen’s narrator states that Collins was “not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society” (1:15).

And as for Fordyce’s dictum about young ladies “melting into tears at . . . distress,” Austen ridiculed the call for female sentimentality and tear-drenched frailty in her juvenilia (i.e., youthful works), which she began composing at age 11. For example, in “Edgar & Emma,” written between 1787 and 1790 (when Austen was between 12 and 14/15), she snidely wrote that when Emma does not get to meet her beloved Edgar, she goes “to her own room,” where she “continued in tears for the rest of her life.” In one of young Austen’s earliest works, “Jack and Alice,” characters attending a masquerade are “carried home, Dead Drunk,” writes the smirking 12-year-old novelist. The Jack of the title does not appear in her novel until the very end, when he also immediately dies of drink. As Virginia Woolf wrote of Austen’s youthful writing, “Brothers and sisters must have laughed when Jane read out loud her last hit at the vices which they all abhorred” (“Jane Austen” in The Common Reader, 1925).

But the Memoir presented “dear Aunt Jane” as if she were a Fordyce / Patmore-proselyte: a meek, demure, pious, and quiet spinster, whose writing was inspired genius. The Austen siblings did this both verbally and visually in the frontispiece they had created for the book. It is an image of an image of the life-drawing of Austen that her sister Cassandra drew in 1810 (figure 1). That is, James-Edward Austen Leigh hired James Andrews of Maidenhead to paint a watercolor copy of Cassandra’s drawing of her sister. He then hired Lizars Etching and Engraving to copy the watercolor for the Memoir’s frontispiece. Figures 1, 2, and 3 below, show the changes made.

 

Figure 1, above: Cassandra’s 1810 life portrait of Jane Austen reflects a determined, thin-mouthed Jane Austen with arms crossed, displaying resolve. Her facial features are sharp; she looks feisty and no-nonsense. Cassandra and Jane were best friends throughout their lives, and Cassandra knew Jane better than anyone. By July 1809, the Austen ladies, Mrs. Austen and two daughters, were settled at the Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen revised her earlier “Elinor and Marianne” into Sense and Sensibility and “First Impressions” into Pride and Prejudice, and composed Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and the incomplete Sanditon. She was living and working at the Chawton Cottage, now the Jane Austen House Museum.

Figure 2, above: James Andrews painted a watercolor copy of Cassandra’s drawing.

Figure 3, below: The prominent Lizars Etching and Engraving Firm created the Memoir’s frontispiece, which is most frequently reproduced as it is not under copyright.

 

 

When the Memoir appeared (December 1869, 2nd edition 1871), Charlotte-Maria Middleton Beckford (1795-1889), who spent her adolescence and teen-age years at Chawton Great House with her father, who rented the property (1795, 1803-1813) from Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, faulted its frontispiece. Accompanying her aunt, Miss Maria Beckford, Charlotte frequently visited the Austen ladies who lived a short walk from the Great House. Consequently, she saw and knew Jane Austen at home. Charlotte complained:  “Jane’s likeness is hardly what I remember. No, Jane Austen was rather different: There is a look, & that is all—I remember her as a tall thin spare person, with very high cheek bones, great colour—sparkling Eyes not large but joyous & intelligent, the face by no means so broad & plump as represented. . . . [H]er keen sense of humour I quite remember, it oozed out very much in Mr. Bennett’s style. . . . [H]er sister Cassandra was very lady-like but very prim, but my remembrance of Jane is that of her entering all Children’s Games & liking her extremely.”

Charlotte calls Austen “tall.” After studying Austen’s pelisse (coat) and references to her height in her letters, fashion and clothing historian Hilary Davidson (University of Sydney) told me that Austen was likely about 5’7”, tall for a woman in that day. Cassandra’s 1810-life portrait speaks to the spirit of Charlotte Beckford’s remembrances of the shrewd novelist who created the witty, sharp, and frequently belittling zingers of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Beckford’s recollections and Cassandra’s drawing also reflect the Jane Austen who wrote in her letters to her sister comments like this: “Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband” (27 October 1798). Austen sneeringly jokes in another letter, “Only think of Mrs. Holder’s being dead!—Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her” (14 October 1813). In Mansfield Park, written when Austen was about 37, Mary Crawford’s joke about admirals, “vices” and “rears,” in the Royal Navy, where sodomy was practiced, obviously came from her creator, who had two brothers in the Royal Navy with whom she spoke frankly at home. A dear, gentle Aunt Jane? Rather, she is, at times, bawdy, coarse, and remorseless.

Her remorseless satire about the society in which she lived is nowhere more evident than in the opening two chapters of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). Along with their mother (Mrs. Dashwood), father (Mr. Henry Dashwood), and younger sister Margaret (age 13), the heroines Elinor (ages 19) and Marianne Dashwood (16), live at Norland Park with elderly Uncle Dashwood, for whom they have been warmly caring during the last decade. As Austen establishes in the first paragraph:  “The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.”

The heroines’ father, Henry, is the “legal inheritor” of the estate until visits by his son John from his late first wife, accompanied by John’s wife and their toddler son, change Uncle’s mind and will. Now the satiric Mr. Bennet-like voice of our narrator unmistakably oozes as she writes about the little boy: “who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his uncle, by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old; an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise, as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters.”

Smitten with the child, Uncle alters his will, leaving Norland Park to the now four-year-old boy, whose father John Dashwood will manage the estate, of course, until his son comes of age. Consequently, Henry Dashwood has only a life interest in Norland, and his three daughters get £1,000 apiece. The year following Uncle Dashwood’s death, Henry is on his deathbed, extracting a promise from his son to look after his stepmother and stepsisters, a reasonable request because his son, John Dashwood, inherited half his deceased mother’s fortune, “which had been large,” on his coming of age, and on his father’s (Henry’s) death, he will inherit the other half.

But by the end of the second chapter, John’s wife, “who was a strong caricature of himself;—only more narrow-minded and selfish,” convinces him to convince himself to give his stepsisters and stepmother nothing (1:1, 2): she appeals to the future of their “dear little boy.” Austen shows us by the novel’s second chapter how blithely family patriarchs can marginalize the very females they are supposed to protect. In fact, it is hard to find a family in an Austen novel where there is no friction among the members and where full domestic happiness reigns.

While the pious Memoir inspired pious commentary about “dear Aunt Jane’s” novels and life, Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant (1812-1897) unmasked the demure-looking writer of the frontispiece as early as 1871. Comparing the Memoir’s Jane Austen with the Jane Austen who wrote the novels, Oliphant deemed Austen’s novels “calm, cold, and keen” with a “fine vein of feminine cynicism” running through them. Austen “tells the story with an exquisite sense of its ridiculous side, and fine stinging yet soft-voiced contempt for the actors in it” (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, March 1871). Alice Meynell (1847-1922), another Victorian writer, went even further, stating that Austen’s “irony is now and then exquisitely bitter” (The Pall Mall Gazette, 1894). And as we have seen, that bitter irony is evident right at the beginning of her first published novel.

Interestingly, a scenario that might have inspired Austen’s Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility appears in über-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), chapter 4: “When a brother marries—a probable circumstance—his elder sister, from being considered the mistress of the family, is viewed with averted looks as an intruder. . . . The wife, a cold-hearted narrow minded woman . . . is jealous of the little kindnesses which her husband shews to his relations . . . and her sensibility not rising to humanity, she is displeased at seeing the property of her children lavished on a helpless sister” (my italics).  Notice that Austen repeated in Chapter 2’s description of John Dashwood’s wife, Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s expression, narrow minded.

Jane Austen was sixteen when Wollstonecraft’s book appeared: just the age when a clever teenager would want to check the book out from the local lending library.

I have always been intrigued that the wealthy Austen brother, Edward Austen, only offered his widowed mother and unmarried sisters the bailiff’s cottage on his Chawton Estate just weeks after his wife, Elizabeth, died. Elizabeth came from a wealthy, titled family (her father was a baronet) and always seemed to prefer the more ladylike, prim Cassandra Austen at their Godmersham estate when a new baby was coming. So between Mary Wollstonecraft’s hypothetical “narrow minded” wife and Elizabeth Bridges Austen’s behavior, I wonder, “Did Jane Austen meld the two to create the character of Fanny Dashwood for her 1811-novel?”

Mary Wollstonecraft also argued that women should have educations commensurate to men’s, and should be treated as “rational creature[s].” Again, Austen uses Wollstonecraft’s very words, this time for Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, when she tells the persistent but bumbling Mr. Collins, who cannot take “no” for an answer when he proposes: “‘Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart’” (1:19, my italics). That Austen continued to believe that women should be treated as rational creatures is evidenced in her final completed novel, Persuasion, where she gives the same phrase to Sophie Croft, Admiral Croft’s admirable wife: “‘I hate to hear you talking . . . as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures’” (1:8).

Austen clearly found much to agree with in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. But rather than writing a fiery tract, she wrote novels that had a façade of calmness. In her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, Darcy admires and loves Elizabeth not because of her Fordyce-induced meekness, but, as he tells her, “‘For the liveliness of your mind’” (3:18). And while reactionary readers may point to Mr. Bennet’s telling Elizabeth, when he learns she will marry Darcy, “‘I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior,’” as exemplifying Austen’s upholding female inferiority, we need to remember Mr. Bennet’s very next sentence: “‘Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage’” (3:17, my italics). This illustrates that cherry picking isolated lines out of context in Austen’s novels is careless reading.

Understanding Mr. Bennet’s remark also requires us to remember from Chapter 1 in the novel that Mr. Bennet favors “little Lizzy” because she “‘has something more of quickness than her sisters.’” Furthermore, Mr. Bennet, as the narrator explicitly tells us, had wed Miss Gardiner, whom we know as Mrs. Bennet, because some 25 years earlier, “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, [he] had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever” (2: 19). Had Mr. Bennet married a “rational creature,” he would have spent less time hiding in his library and become a more involved father to his daughters.

Poor Charlotte Lucas in the same novel deliberately secures Mr. Collins’s attention. While Charlotte is clever—she has to be in order to be the clever Elizabeth’s best friend—she is also at the very end of the age of marriageability: she’s “twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome.” So she is content to put herself in Mr. Collins’s way and receives a proposal that she accepts, recognizing that, as Wollstonecraft warned, her younger brothers would now be “relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid. . . .  Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still, he would be her husband.— Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (my italics).

Charlotte Lucas knew, as did her creator, and as did Mary Wollstonecraft, that one could not always rely on the kindness of brothers. While wealthy Edward Austen, as well as the other Austen brothers, helped their widowed mother and two unmarried sisters, Jane Austen was highly conscious of her earnings: she wrote to her brother Frank on July 3, 1813, after she had published two novels (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice): “You will be very glad to hear that every copy of Sense and Sensibility is sold & that it has brought me £140–besides the Copyright, if that should ever be of any value. I have therefore written myself into £250–which only makes me long for more.” She writes to Frank as a professional author, who is shrewdly aware of her sales and anxious to increase them by securing the copyright.

Back to Charlotte Lucas: Austen recognized that without Mr. Collins as a husband, Charlotte might well face the predicament of another Austen character, Miss Bates, “neither young, handsome, rich, nor married,” in Emma: “Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible” (Vol. 1, chapter 1).

The only “career” open to a gentlewoman who had fallen on hard times was that of governess, a position in a gentry-household that put the born-gentlewoman in a state of limbo. That is, a governess was a gentlewoman (like the mother of the children whom she minded and taught), but she was still a servant. Miss Bates’s niece, Jane Fairfax in Emma (1815), faces this prospect. Jane Fairfax’s parents died when she was still a child, and the Campbell family took care of her. But while raising Jane as a gentlewoman (with French, music, English, dancing, arithmetic, and singing lessons), the Campbells could not provide the money required for a marriage settlement: “The very few hundred pounds which [Jane] inherited from her father [made] independence impossible. To provide for her otherwise was out of Colonel Campbell’s power; for though his income . . . was handsome, his fortune was moderate and must be all his daughter’s; but, by giving [Jane] an education, he hoped to be supplying the means of respectable subsistence hereafter” (Emma, vol. 2, chapter 2).

What Jane Fairfax (and her creator) thought of this “means of respectable subsistence” is clear from Jane Fairfax’s observation about future employment possibilities: “‘I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town [i.e., London], offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect’” (vol.2, ch. 17). Jane Fairfax’s remark, aligning the sale of human flesh with the sale of human intellect, touches a nerve in Mrs. Elton (from Bristol, an important location in the Atlantic Slave Trade Triangle), who defensively retorts, “‘If you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling [her brother-in-law] was always rather a friend of abolition.”  The officious Mrs. Elton has been pushing Jane Fairfax to secure a governess position with one of Mrs. Elton’s sister’s (Selina Suckling’s—don’t you love the surname Austen gave Selina, whose husband is nouveaux riche) friends. Jane Fairfax then clarifies her meaning, “The guilt of those who carry it [the slave trade] on’” would differ widely, “‘but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where . . . [the difference] lies.’”

Although Austen hands the microphone to Jane Fairfax, these lines reflect the author’s abolitionist views. While Austen writes about the English gentry, in her time a completely white world, she was sympathetic to abolition. In a letter of 1813, Austen jokes that she is in “love . . . with Clarkson”: Thomas Clarkson, author of History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament (1808) (Letter 78, January 24, 1813).  Clarkson quotes at length in his book a Parliamentary speech by one of the most famous abolitionists, William Wilberforce.

Growing up, Jane Austen was highly aware of the slave trade and related events in the West Indies as her father had friends from Oxford who were Antiguan slaveholders, just like Mansfield Park‘s Sir Thomas Bertram. Jane Austen’s maternal aunt was an heiress to a plantation in the West Indies. And her sister’s fiancé, who died in the West Indies aboard a naval ship, was there because of a 1791-slave uprising in Santo Domingo. Jane Austen’s naval officer brother Frank intercepted Portuguese slave vessels in the Caribbean, while her brother Charles commanded a Royal Naval Ship in the waters around Bermuda, where he met and married his wife, the daughter of Bermuda’s British attorney-general. In March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act made slavery illegal in the British colonies. Frank’s letters home display his disgust for the entire slavery system. Recall that in Mansfield Park, when Fanny asks her uncle, Sir Thomas, about slavery in Antigua, an uncomfortable silence reigns. Is it a coincidence that Austen named the Bertrams’ mansion and estate, Mansfield Park, sustained by the profits of the family’s Antigua Plantation, after Lord Mansfield, who in 1772 ruled in the case of James Somerset vs. His Master that “The state of slavery is so. . . odious that nothing can be suffered to support it”? His ruling effectively ended the institution of slavery in England and greatly influenced the official cessation of slavery in England in 1833.

Of course, Austen lived and wrote about a Caucasian world in English city and country settings between 1803 (period of Northanger Abbey) and 1814-1815 (period of Persuasion, her final completed novel, published posthumously in 1818). But in Sandition, her last incomplete novel, written when she was becoming terminally weaker— most likely from Addison’s disease—she presents a rollicking satire of hypochondriacs at a health spa. Among the arrivals is a Miss Lambe: “A young West Indian of large fortune, in delicate health,” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender.” A “mulatto” usually meant the child of a slave-owner and a female slave. Where was the dying Jane Austen planning to take this “half mulatto” character in her final, incomplete novel?

While Wollstonecraft’s male contemporaries deemed her “a hyena in petticoats,” Austen delivers her “feminist” message in calm, but deliberate prose. This is why so many readers, also influenced by the “dear Aunt Jane” image of the Memoir, saw Austen’s novels as consoling and reassuring about the world in which they lived or desired to live. Too content or uncomprehending to catch the satire and bitter irony that Victorian writers Margaret Oliphant and Alice Meynell saw in the novels, these “gentle Jane” readers—and most of them were gentlemen who called themselves “Janeites”— were flabbergasted when Reginald Farrer published an essay in the Quarterly Review (July 1917, the 100th anniversary of Austen’s death) in which he pointed out not only Austen’s conscious artistry (as opposed to the Memoir’s stressing her unconscious genius) as a writer, but also the “remorseless Jane” as a satirist. She is, he wrote, “the most merciless, though calmest, of iconoclasts,” and a “subversive” writer about the very culture she depicted.

Farrer’s insights would have encouraged D.W. Harding to read Austen’s novels earlier than he did. In the mid-20th century, on March 3, 1939 to be precise, the eminent British literary critic and psychologist, Professor [Denys Clement Wyatt Harding (1906-1993)] D. W. Harding further shocked gentlemenly British Janeites when he lambasted their “gentle Jane” interpretation in a lecture he delivered at the Manchester University Literary Society. The lecture and subsequent essay are called “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen.”

Initially disinterested in Austen’s novels because he had heard only about the “gentle Jane” who revealed “with inimitable lightness of touch the comic foibles and amiable weaknesses of the people whom she lived amongst and liked,” Harding finally read her novels. He soon discovered that this light-hearted Jane Austen was “a false impression, [which] is an indication of her success as a writer.” Austen, Harding contended, should not be read “with a sense of relief but with the zest with which you turn to a formidable ally who stands with you against the things you hate”; hence, the “Regulated Hatred” of the title. Harding saw Austen as a fierce social critic.

In 2010, Wendy Anne Lee argued in her essay, “Resituating ‘Regulated Hatred’: D. W. Harding’s Jane Austen,” that Harding turned “gentle Jane” into “fierce” Jane, who was a hostile spinster, alienated from society. I agree with Lee’s position that Jane Austen was a model of “diplomacy” in her social criticism of the world in which she lived and thrived among many friends and a warm family (English Literary History. vol. 77. 2010, pp. 995-1014). She was not a misanthropic spinster. But she was a satirist, and as Reginald Farrer stated in 1917, “the most merciless, though calmest, of iconoclasts.”

Jane Austen was a product of her Georgian culture, a social satirist with a biting sense of humor. Reading Austen’s novels as calmly reassuring about a world where women had neither financial nor legal rights and patriarchy ruled is to miss the irony and satire that are her forte.

I conclude this piece by turning to her biting criticism of the monetary basis of gentry marriages. The gentry class was the land owning class: having from 200 acres to 1000s of acres. Austen’s novels were frequently called “courtship novels” because courtship was the major life focus of young ladies, marriageable at age 16, in the gentry or landowning class, to which Austen and her family belonged. (Poor persons simply lived together as husband and wife.) Thus, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice correctly tells Lady Catherine, who angrily discourages a marriage between her nephew Darcy and Elizabeth, “‘He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’” (3:14). And to this, Lady Catherine must admit, “‘True.’” Mr. Bennet’s annual income is £2,000, while Darcy’s is £10,000, and the Duke of Devonshire’s was at that time £100,000. But all three are gentlemen: members of the gentry class, and the Duke is also a member of the nobility, which is comprised of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron: Baronets such as Austen’s Sir Thomas Bertram and Sir Walter Elliot are commoners, though they may also be gentry.

At their engagement, gentry couples entered into marriage “settlements or articles” negotiated by their fathers, elder brothers, or (male) legal representatives because women had neither financial nor legal rights. And because gentlewomen (women of the gentry class) had no opportunities for higher education or careers (other than governess), they knew an appropriate marriage was their only chance of financial and social survival. Marriage articles (settlements) ensured that the future children of the gentry couple, as well as the gentry widow, would have financial provision in the event of the husband’s/ father’s death. The potential bride, then, needed to have money behind her to enter into a marriage settlement: because of his parents’ marriage settlement, John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility secured great wealth after his mother died. But because neither Jane Fairfax nor Miss Bates has family money behind her for a marriage settlement, Jane plans to be a governess to earn a living, and Miss Bates remains a poor spinster, living with her elderly mother above a store in town and grateful to get the apples that the kindly Mr. Knightley sends to their kitchen. In each of her novels, Austen reminds her readers of the heroines’ families’ wherewithal to provide marriage settlements for their daughters. Moreover, none of her heroines marries for money, but none marries without it.

Jane Austen’s satirical view of this monetary-marriage system is clear in her snide opening lines of Mansfield Park (1814):”About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it.”

The last sentence of that opening paragraph ends with an irony and sarcasm, worthy of Mr. Bennet. But Jane Austen wrote it, and it is one of her most self-revealing comments in her fiction. Despite the sanitization of her reputation by her Victorian descendants, Austen was no upholder or epitome of the ideas that females should be meek and demure, or dependent on the vagaries of male or social beneficence. Neither was she unaware or uncritical of privilege, whether in the form of race, gender, wealth, or social status. The reactionary “private Austen” who holds such views has no basis in fact.

As Jane Austen herself shows us repeatedly in her novels and letters, she was a clear-eyed social critic, as often sharp-tongued as she was diplomatic.

 

 

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. I’ve always seen Jane Austin as a sharply observant and subversive feminine voice of her time. It’s clear to this reader that she was critical of the marriage/money/inheritance social construct that women were trapped in, she herself avoiding the same with her own life. Thank you for the essay.

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Joan Klingel Ray

Joan Klingel Ray

Originally from NYC, Joan Klingel Ray received her PhD in 18th-century British Literature from Brown University and retired in 2012 as Professor Emerita of English from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. In 1994, she was named a University of CO President’s Teaching Scholar, a lifetime title. She served three terms as the President of the Jane Austen Society of North America and written three books and numerous scholarly articles on Austen and other writers.

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