I hope you will forgive the ignorance of a non-academic, but in order to continue our correspondence, I need to get my picture straight. In the arguments you put forward in your thesis, are you contending that Jane Austen was actually making the feminist points you mention, or are you using her work to illustrate contemporary feminist theory?
I'd still like to know whether or not you are an Australian (we dingbats and
wombats have to stick together, you know!)
I believe that we must try very hard to develop a clear and accurate picture of women in Jane Austen's times. That should do much to diminish the myth and misunderstanding that we so often see in the interpretations of our Lady's work. To that end, I once mentioned (10/19/98) that the contraceptive sponge was available in those times and its adoption in England would have saved the lives of a large number of English woman including the first wives of two of Jane's brothers. I thought to document that statement since so many people seem surprised to hear it.
My source is Chapter 9 of Claire Tomalin's biography of Mary Wollstonecraft
This is the chapter in which Ms. Tomalin discusses Mary's philosophical work,
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). First, I will quote from the
main body of the chapter in order to provide some background, and then I will
quote from a footnote, which is the text most relevant to this posting. This in
regard to Mary's discussion of married woman and prostitutes:
To that, Ms. Tomalin appended this very interesting footnote:
I suppose that it does not require a genius to hit upon this method. I seem to recall - this is a very vague memory - very unreliable - correct me if I am wrong, but didn't the wild and unkempt goatherds of Tasmania use dried leaves?
Dear Sir and Kate,
It isn't exactly contraception, but there is an interesting point to be made
about the relative positions of men and women in the marriage stakes in Regency
England. James Woodforde, in his diary of 1787, says:
Note on the text: These so-called compulsory marriages were not legally
enforceable. They were, however, the inevitable result of the law as it
stood, especially of the Bastardy Act of 1773. Under that Act a woman (on
oath, before a Justice) had only to name any man the father of her child
to cause his instant arrest and imprisonment, unless he offered security to
indemnify the parish. Another clause permitted the man's release if the
woman married. Not unnaturally, in numerous cases, a man unable to
indemnify the parish preferred wedlock to prison.
The Diary of a Country Parson,
The Folio Society, 1992.
It is reasonable to surmise that Jane Austen, knee-deep in parsons as she was all her life, must have known of this situation. Women have, of course, been at the mercy of their fertility, right through history, until the release of the oral contraceptive pill. Not until that time has it been possible for a woman to control her fertility without her partner's knowledge. I am implying no criticisms with this statement, but merely commenting on a fact. As an aside, let me note that in this country, as recently as ten years ago, a married woman could not obtain a tubal ligation without the written consent of her husband, which makes one wonder just who owns the tubes, anyway?
It is worth remembering, too, that an adult, income-earning male of the
period was likely to have responsibility for his dependent female
relatives. Consider Robert Martin, child of a widowed mother, with two
sisters at school during the action of Emma. The cost of his
sisters' education must have been borne by him - there was no-one else to do it
(the family did not own Abbey Mill farm, but were tenants) Robert
had to 'prove to' Mr Knightley that he could afford a wife. Jane Austen
herself comprised one of 'our three ladies' about which her brothers
corresponded - Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane were largely dependent upon
the Austen men for their maintenance, after Mr Austen's death. This scenario
puts pressures on men and women alike - an adult, earning man of a family was
expected to take financial responsibility for his dependent female relatives -
and those relatives had to bear the dreadful burden of gratitude. Remember
the Rev. Mr Farebrother in Middlemarch? And poor Miss Bates, who
must be humble and grateful, no matter what - Emma herself acknowledges that she
had often been 'scornful, ungracious', while sending off her hindquarters of
pork. Miss Bates was obliged to be grateful, as otherwise she and her
mother would very likely not have had meat at all. This is a very complex social
web of duty and obligation. In reading about it, I can imagine (and perhaps I
only imagine it) the occasional wish of an intelligent, independent woman like
Jane Austen for 'three hundred pounds a year and a room of one's
From The Meister: You are in good form again today,
Excellent posting - thank you. What did Woodforde mean with "by
Licence"? And, what did you mean by "without her partner's knowledge"?
This is only surmise on my part, but I THINK that 'by Licence' referred to a marriage taking place with some sort of dispensation, by which the customary banns were not required to be read (forthcoming marriages had to be proclaimed in church for a certain number of weeks preceding the event). Do you remember Mrs Bennet, 'you must and shall be married by a special Licence!'? So perhaps it was used in fashionable circles, as well as a means of expediting shotgun weddings?
Meister: That was my guess too. Did you
Notice that Honan claimed that Mrs. B had
it all wrong because only the nobility could
avoid the Banns? I throw in with JA and
As to 'without a partner's knowledge', I meant that, unlike mechanical contraceptive devices, the pill is not physically obvious to both partners. Sponges, condoms, withdrawal, all require some degree of co-operation by both parties. The pill is not physically 'present at the event', as it were a woman's partner does not necessarily have to know that she is using it.
I seem to remember reading somewhere that primitive IUDs were also sometimes
employed - or was that in camels of the desert? Does anyone
The stranglehold of the Church of England was beginning to loosen a little during the course of Jane Austen's life, although the marriage ceremony still made it perfectly clear that the first intention of marriage was the procreation of children and the first duty of the wife was the same--even to the extent that a woman should expect doctors and midwives to save the baby rather than the mother in the event of a choice having to be made. Barren women were social misfits and virtually "non-women".
I have been reading Fay Weldon on the subject. She seems to have done a lot
of homework for this for her "On First Reading Jane Austen" and according to
her, attitudes became more relaxed by about the time of Waterloo
Contraception, she goes on to say, was still a somewhat corrupt practice and as well as the sponge, there were condoms---heavy, thick affairs and not in popular use. Backstreet abortionists abounded, but their habit of using mercury as an abortificant often led to the death of the unfortunate woman in the end anyway.
The good old days, eh? and we haven't even started on midwifery practices yet!
Fay Weldon is an ideologue and is otherwise unreliable. She has attempted to adopt Jane Austen's creations to her own purpose and has succeeded to a certain degree in the minds of some women of our generation. She was first brought to the attention of this community by Ms. Sheila Moll on 2/16/98. I made a reply on that same date. I also had an occasion to write a short review of Fay Weldon's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to a screenplay (1979).
The thing that I don't understand is why you proclaim Jane Austen to be a social historian and then completely ignore her works when forming you opinions of that period. It is only logical to assume that you believe her to be a mighty poor social historian. If so, then why do you claim to like her novels? My own proclamations and admiration are more consistent.
I begin with your statement "Barren women were social misfits and virtually
'non-women'". You would have us add barren women to the list of female victims
of the Regency period. Apparently Jane Austen didn't know that and for good
reason; two "barren" women were the most powerful people in her family. I
am talking of Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot. They were the most powerful
because they were the richest persons in the family, a circumstance well
understood by Jane Austen who wrote these words for Emma Woodhouse:
Incidentally, you might be pleased to learn that Mrs. Knight was an outspoken feminist.
I began to suspect that you were influenced by Fay Weldon when on 10/17/98 you wrote "It is no accident that only about 40% of women married at all in Austen's day. Many couldn't find a big enough dowry to tempt a man." I say that because Ms. Moll said much the same thing (except she put the marriage rate at 30%) and she attributed Fay Weldon as her source. It will forever escape me why persons can say things like that and never think about what was happening to the men in that society. Here goes: Let us say, for the sake of debate, that this percentage is correct - I doubt that, but let us say that it is. Well then, it must be true that something less than 40% (or 30%) of the men in Jane Austen's cohort would have married. I say "less" because of the higher mortality of wives in the marriages of those days; for example, the five marriageable brothers of Jane Austen married eight different women. Why did so small a percentage of men marry? Maybe it is because so many of them were six feet under on the Spanish peninsula or in Belgium, or perhaps planted many leagues beneath the surface of the sea. I have no idea if that is the correct explanation; if it is, then it is the men and not the women who were victimized and none of this has anything to do with "dowries".
If you would care to remind me where and when I "proclaimed" Jane Austen to be a social historian I would be most grateful.
Any "assumptions" you make may be "logical" to you, but allow me to make up my own mind about that.
I don't "claim" to like the novels, I simply do.
Your "admiration" may be consistent, though whether mine is less so is really not for you to judge. Your "proclamations", however, show about as much "consistency" as an English summer. You scorn any attempt to look for social comment in the novels while worrying over the value of the pound in 1810.
Emma was talking about single women, not married childless ones--- there's a world of difference. I.V.F. clinics are full of women who feel unfulfilled, but at least they do not have a regiment of Sunday sermonisers telling them they've "failed".
Why should I be "pleased" to learn someone is a feminist? You are putting words in my mouth, and not for the first time.
"Influenced" by Fay Weldon? If you mean I liked her book, then yes. Have you
read it? If you mean--and it seems you do---that I approve of everything she has
done relative to Jane Austen, then no. What particular species of dull elf do
you take me for?
I am always surprised when someone becomes angry with me. However, it always turns out the same way; when I review things, I understand what I did wrong. My tone and choice of words were very wrong and I am sorry. I can only say that if I had thought you any kind of dull elf, you never would have become angry because I never argue with that species and only try to entertain them.
I have not read Fay Weldon's book. My judgments are based upon postings submitted to this board and upon her screenplay. Perhaps that is unfair.
I will try to go over our positions, as I understand them, but I will avoid
the language and terminology that we used before because I won't go again to the
places that frustrated me and angered you. As I understand things, you
appreciate the social commentary in Jane Austen's novels whereas I prefer to
concentrate on the human aspects and upon the art of it all. Perhaps I was wrong
in associating "social commentary" with "social history" - maybe not. This
judgment is based upon your postings of 9/6/98 and 9/13/98. I can see
now that I may have read too much into them.
My Highest Regards,
Dear Ashton and Julie,
First of all, thank you for your kind words. They are appreciated, especially in this time of massive procrastination. The reason for my well ordered ideas is that I have been doing this stuff for six years, and am onto my second year on this topic. Frankly, I had had enough of it all, but that was until I got going in my thoughts responding to yours and Julie's comments. Thanks again, because I can actually look through my stuff with a little renewed confidence.
If it wasn't for my lecturer in my BA and Honours Literature classes being a femininst and sci-fi expert, I do not think any of this stuff would be coming out of my mouth and mind. Even though I don't have nearly as close an enthusiam for these areas as she does, I have come to accept that I do understand and can write from such a view point. Feminism is new to me, and I hate reading the theory about women and the body and things corporeal (my lecturer's favourite word), I find that it is easy for me to make connections in these novels - but only in consideration of the social, historical and cultural happenings of the time.
Much like my other half, who sees nothing in Frankenstein but a good story about a man-made monster who takes revenge, I understand that NA too, has that basic level to it. It is only because of my literary background and the influence of university studies that I see other things beyond this. However, I do not wish to argue for a feminist point with you, as I really do not personally have a great deal of knowledge yet about the theory. That is my final research task. It is fine to disagree with me, but to tell you the truth, sometimes I disagree with myself. It is only the fact that I'm so close to a conclusion of my studies that I know I must push on. Literary critics agree and disagree about every author and theories they use are constructed and deconstructed to advantage their views. This is precisely what I am doing. I merely chose feminism, not for a love of it, but because I had already had experience with it.
Anyway, the point on Isabella Thope is raised in the thesis. She is a type of woman representative of the variety of women living in Austen's time. She supports my theory of the "victim" which is the role she acts out in reality. This is a character who represents the "moral corruption" that many feared would occur from women reading whatever they chose. However, the importance in Isabella is that she is a foil for Catherine - the heroine of the tale. Isabella can be called manipulative and shallow, but she is only surviving. She is trying to enhance and advance her situation in life by sifting out the possible husbands that are available. This was the life to many women of the era. Money and social status was inherent to many. Catherine is not rich, is not the most beautiful girl in the world and does not give in to living out the fantasy within the novels she chooses to read. Actually, the fact that Isabella behaves very much like a female gothic "victim" is seen by some theorists to be a form of feminism. Isabella and women like her are making the best of their situations and actively try to do something about it.
Catherine represents a young girl who grows to moral maturity. It is a story of her journey. She learns about the life in the social circle of Bath and finds that it is somewhat disturbing. For instance, John Thorpe is arrogant and self-centred, but because he is introduced with great praise by both Catherine's brother and her new best friend, Isabella, she is reluctant to let her true and accurate feelings rule. Rather, she dismisses them and holds back, but eventually she realizes that both the Thorpes are not doing anything positive. It is not a conscious realization by the character, but more so by the reader, who is also very much controlled by Austen. Isabella is a mechanism enabling the heroine to be seen in a better light. Catherine is cast in a controlled environment and succeeds, despite a few stumbling steps, to grow to a conscious and active moral individual, who finds a respect in herself and her thoughts. To me the gothic is important to highlight the fact that there may be a few or even many people who are willing to use these types of aspects, be they victim (Isabella), villian (General Tilney), hero (Henry) or heroine (Catherine).
As far as Austen and Shelley go, I do account for their radical differences, but my focus is on their goals and conclusions that are similar. Much like Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, the relationship between the two backgrounds is hugely different. Both women however, try to achieve a similar result, despite their different methods. Wollstonecraft and More disliked eachother. They chose to view their lot in life from conflicting stands, but both could be considered as feminists because of the way their writing is considered to us today. The same can be said of Austen and Shelley. The two publication dates were not part of my decision in the authors. It was a partly due to the gothic styles, but both of their novels I prove to be utilized (with great success) to different degrees. I think my choice was always to have Shelley as a constrast to her mother. Austen was new to me, but was always mentioned.
Actually, this leads me to another point which I much consider. Austen is part of the English canon. Shelley is not. Can you give me any ideas on the basis of these decisions, despite the obvious difference in their lifestyles?
Well, that's it for now. Hey, it is actually before midnight. Wow... now I can do some library links.
Looking forward to the next conversation,
Yes, procrastination is the enemy of us all and you must "push on". I am resolved to help you by relating far fewer of my ideas and devoting more space to reacting to yours. Well - sometimes I may lose my head a bit - just be patient.
You say "Actually, the fact that Isabella behaves very much like a female gothic "victim" is seen by some theorists to be a form of feminism. Isabella and women like her are making the best of their situations and actively try to do something about it." But aren't the gothic female victims pure of heart? (Do you believe in the concept of "purity of heart"? Does anyone - other than myself? Jane Austen and George Eliot?) Catherine is pure of heart and that is why male readers love her and expect much of her after she grows up a bit.
You say "Austen is part of the English canon. Shelley is not. Can you give me any ideas on the basis of these decisions, despite the obvious difference in their lifestyles?" My own view is that Jane Austen was a great artist and Mary Shelley was not. There are aspects of Frankenstein that are silly: I mean those passages where the monster is peeking through a hole in a wall to discover much about life and culture; he does that over an extended period; and, all the while he goes undiscovered. Please! At the end, the monster goes to the northpole in order to burn himself at the stake. A Jane Austen would have wondered where he was going to find the wood. On the other hand, Shelley invented some science fiction conventions; for example, her monster is superior in mind and body to humans, vastly superior. You see the same convention today in things like Alien or Terminator. I think that there is no great merit perceived for the invention of science-fiction conventions. For me, the great value of Frankenstein is its implicit criticism of the intellectual elite, those persons who would invent in private what must impact on everyone else. What she seems to capture is exactly how something of that kind would actually take place in the mind and the circumstances of the intellectual. She is quite believable and masterful in that way. However, it may be true that one must have a specialized view of what is happening in the present-day world in order to accord Mary Shelley any great credit for this. I accord her very great credit indeed; however, canons are degreed by intellectuals - the very persons she criticizes. So, maybe your explanation is to be found in that arrangement.
We all struggle to maintain integrity and dignity while doing what must be done. One must be practical and so everyone makes accommodations. There is nothing wrong with that as long as one truly struggles a bit. My sense is that you know what I mean. I should think that writers who belong to a coterie or literary movement might have something of the same kind of struggle within their intellectual community. Do you not recognize that Jane Austen avoided all that? She could have been introduced to Maria Edgeworth or Fanny Burney, but she refused. Interesting? Admirable and enviable?
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