Thanks to Anne, aka the Lit Bitch, for this post. You can read Anne's views on classic and contemporary novels on her website.
Exploring the New Woman in Jane Austen’s Novels
Jane Austen began her literary career in a time when society just began to explore what is known as ‘the woman question’. The woman question most often refers to specific constraints imposed by society such as sexuality, gender roles, suffrage, and employment. By the early nineteenth century, society began exploring these issues in depth with the common avenue being the literary medium. Literature became a safe and popular way to subvert society’s traditional expectations of women and explore concepts which appealed to women readers. As female authorship increased, many embraced the new feminist views regarding the woman question. Through the novel, readers could live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. This growth and enthusiasm is most notably seen in works by Jane Austen. Austen’s legacy can be seen in her most popular heroines who all tend to follow the same pattern of new woman meets old world expectations.
Austen wrote about what she knew. Austen’s social class hovered just outside the gentry and most of her education was self-taught. Having never married, Austen had a unique outlook on marriage. She maintained that marriage should be about love--if not the deciding factor in the match--a radical concept in the early nineteenth century! Readers can see Austen’s views echoed across the pages of her novels and most notably in the heroines. All of Austen’s novels reflect the same type of heroine which follows both feminist and patriarchal models.
In Austen’s novels, the heroine typically desires improvement through marriage and in many cases the family encourages her to use marriage as a means for improving their position in society, demonstrating the patriarchal influence of the age. The new feminist approach is seen in the final decision. The deciding factor in all the matches of an Austen novel is always love-- wealthy was considered an added bonus. By doing this, Austen is both subverting social norms and maintaining acceptability. Critics of Austen note her early novels such as Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice depict a traditional idealized version of women while her later novels such as Emma and Persuasion present a ‘new woman’.
As ideal women all of Austen’s heroines are conventionally feminine with desirable traits such as modesty, delicacy, sweetness, and gentleness. Most agree Austen’s depictions of women in her early novels were the most socially acceptable; due largely to the basic representations of the heroines and plot. In Austen’s world, many felt literature should encourage proper values and model characters, however female novelists felt women’s writing should be based on the nature and experiences of women rather than society’s expectations or idealization of women.
One of Austen’s most famous critics was fellow author Emily Bronte who suggested she lacked the passion necessary to write successful love stories and the experience to create modern feminist heroines. While this might be true, Austen chooses not to completely challenge society’s expectations so that she could reach a wider audience. This was why it was necessary to follow a carefully prescribed formula which is what Austen did in her earlier novels with her later works such as Emma and Persuasion begin to embrace a new modern woman. Interestingly enough Austen’s most popular heroine is neither Emma Woodhouse nor Anne Elliot of the later novels but rather Elizabeth Bennett of the earlier Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s most well liked heroine, not only respects herself but she does not care if the man she marries has wealth as long as he loves her and is not prejudice against her class. She stands up for herself but is not afraid to admit when she is wrong.
From the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice it is clear marriage and fortune will be dominant themes: “It is a universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have five daughters and no sons, meaning upon Mr. Bennett’s death all of his small fortune would be entailed to the next surviving male heir, Mr. Collins. For the Bennett daughters the only way salvage their family legacy would be to marry well or for one of them to marry Mr. Collin’s. Mrs. Bennett finds the latter a most agreeable option and encourages Elizabeth to consider it. Elizabeth refuses and explains to her mother she does not love Mr. Collins so she will not marry him. Mrs. Bennett is desperate for her daughters to find husbands who will insure the future of the family since there are no sons. Mrs. Bennett’s rational is aligned with traditional patriarchal thought that women can only find definition and security through marriage. While Elizabeth views marriage as a means of emotional fulfillment and enjoyment, demonstrating the new woman ideology.
When Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy she sees only a man who values money and is also required to marry well as a requirement of his status. When he asks her to marry him she adamantly refuses because he insults her family and financial position. Though she knows he is rich and would more than secure her future, she does not accept because he does not consider them an equal match. The idea of refusing a perfectly good marriage proposal from a gentleman would have been scandalous in the Regency period to say the least. Only when she is convinced of his love, commitment, and respect will she agree to enter into an understanding.
Elizabeth demonstrates a prototype for the new woman who is willing to stand up for herself placing importance on character rather than wealth. But Austen is careful to maintain within society’s comfort zone by emphasizing other story lines of other women characters--such as the indifference question between Jane and Bingley and the uber scandalous marriage between Wickham and Lydia. Many women readers were in positions such as Lydia and all the other Bennett women. Austen ends the novel with every implication that Darcy and Elizabeth will live ‘happily ever after’ in love--which suggests independence through love.
Austen knew what it was like to be a woman during the English Regency period, with no money, property, and position. Austen would have had to marry well if she hoped to be of any value to her family, which of course she did not. Austen, like Elizabeth Bennett had little money and was not part of the gentry, her only hope was marriage.
With the increasing amounts of female authors in Regency England, Austen’s heroines became the prototype for future generations to interpret and address the growing woman question. Through the novel readers live vicariously through the heroine allowing them to experience new situations and thought without threat. Unlike other popular genres of prose, Austen put heroines in positions of independence or control over their futures which drew attention to issues surrounding class, sexuality, and gender roles. Austen produced novels which incorporated patriarchal ideas while at the same time subverting tradition. Because Austen wrote about what she knew she was able to properly address the woman question while maintaining within societal expectations appropriate of the era.