Three Awesome Moments from Austen Women You Might Have Overlooked
For many people, Austen’s works are a shrine to genteel Regency manners and pastimes. They are full of romantic escapism, dashing heroes and feisty heroines.
D. W. Harding, a literary critic writing in 1940, wrote an essay called ‘Regulated Hatred’ where he railed against this idea of Austen and instead pointed to ‘unexpected astringencies’ that at first appear to be at odds with Austen’s image as a discreetly comic author, but instead changes it to a bitter satire of Regency culture.
Here are three moments from Austen’s less popular novels – Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion – that appear to demonstrate Austen’s convictions about the time she lived in.
1. Anne Elliot calling out Regency sexism in Persuasion
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any one of Austen’s novels must include a bombastic man who often doesn’t think very highly of women.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. But there are so many appearances of pompous and ridiculous men in Austen’s fiction that it is difficult to pick just one. A great example comes from one the novels Austen wrote last, Persuasion. Its heroine, Anne Elliot, is the oldest of any of Austen’s main characters at twenty-seven, and she has already spent enough time around self-important men to last her a lifetime. Hence, when she has a conversation with Captain Harville about whether it is men or women who are most likely to stay faithful in their love, Anne Elliot shuts him right down:
“But let me observe that all histories are against you – all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of women’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Anne insists that men have had many more opportunities in life to promote their own views through the inherent biases present in Regency society: they have access to education and legitimacy in writing, which women are not given. Perhaps this is Austen herself speaking through her heroine. Either way, it’s pretty badass.
2. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey
Around the time of Austen first writing Northanger Abbey, one of the most popular genres for women to read was Gothic novels. Catherine Morland herself notes that her favourite novel is ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe, which was a staple of the genre, and featured all of the common elements – a beautiful, rich heroine who was often passive and fragile; a remote, frightening castle with a mysterious black veil, and terrifying supernatural events.
Austen clearly found most of these elements laughable, as she directly parodies them in her first introduction to her heroine:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. […] Catherine [was] for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. […] She was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.
Northanger Abbey is an elaborate writing against the Beauty and the Beast myth – Austen creates her character of Catherine as decidedly not beautiful, nor the feminine ideal of the Regency period – and her love of Gothic romance is almost her undoing, as she becomes convinced of some wrong-doing in Northanger Abbey, only to find that she is vastly mistaken. In Northanger Abbey, Austen writes a novel that forces the reader to confront the ways that fiction can conflate beauty with goodness in women, and that in most people ‘there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.’
3. Fanny Price refusing to marry Mr Crawford in Mansfield Park
Fanny Price is, at first glance, quite a timid character, who Austen’s own mother famously found insipid. Fanny sticks quite rigidly to the definitions of womanhood provided by society: she struggles to walk for long distances without becoming exhausted, becomes distressed easily, and disapproves from the start of her cousins embarking on a plan to put on a play. As a far poorer cousin to the Bertram family who she lives with, she is often side-lined, and the same in modern culture, where she is the least popular heroine of Austen’s least popular novel.
Despite this, Fanny Price has many redeeming qualities that often get forgotten. She is, after all, beholden to the Bertram’s, who have taken her in, but would drop her in an instant should she offend them, which is precisely what happens when Fanny refuses to marry Henry Crawford.
Fanny’s justification of her refusal to her Uncle is full of defiance:
“Have you any reason, child, to think ill of Mr Crawford’s temper?”
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. Maria and Julia, and especially Maria, were so closely implicated on Mr. Crawford’s misconduct, that she could not give his character, such as she believed it, without betraying them. She had hoped that, to a man like her uncle, so discerning, so honourable, so good, the simple acknowledgement of settled dislike on her side would have been sufficient. To her infinite grief she found it was not.
Fanny will not implicate her cousins, who are regularly mocking, cruel and patronising towards her, to their father, but neither will she accept that anything more than her own dislike of Henry Crawford is needed to justify not wanting to marry him. In Regency times, based on her position in society and her reliance on the Bertram’s, as well as being a woman who was expected to marry for monetary convenience, this would have been astonishing.
On the whole, Fanny Price is quite as ground-breaking as Elizabeth Bennet in her refusal.
Which women in Jane Austen inspires you?
This post was written by Abigail Jaggers
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