"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."
-- Jane Austen, letter of September 8 1816 to Cassandra
"I will only add in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any thing more in woman than ignorance."
-- Northanger Abbey
"...when a young lady professes to be of a different opinion from her friends, it is only a prelude to something worse. -- She begins by saying that she is determined to think for herself, and she is determined to act for herself -- and then it is all over with her"
-- the character of Mrs. Stanhope in chapter 6 of Maria Edgeworth's Belinda [Here basically "friends"="family"]
Jane Austen a feminist? That has not been the traditional view (in 1870, Anthony Trollope declared that "Throughout all her works, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is ever being taught"), but once the question has been asked (which it was not, until relatively recently), it is not hard to see some feminist tendencies.
Of course, Jane Austen is not a simple ideologue -- when a character in a Jane Austen novel makes a broad statement that seems to stand up for women in general, this is actually usually done by an unsympathetic character (such as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey or Mrs. Elton in Emma), and is not meant to be taken seriously. In Pride and Prejudice the main example is Caroline Bingley's statement to Darcy that "Eliza Bennet is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own, and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art." Here Caroline Bingley is "undervaluing" Elizabeth, and Darcy sees through her easily. Conversely, Henry Tilney's teasing remarks on the subject of women during the walk from Bath to Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey are no...
... middle of paper ...
...in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. ... 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."
Northanger Abbey not only contains the "Defence of the Novel", but what has seemed to me to be a strong statement -- Catherine Morland's faux-naïf declaration:
"But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in... I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men so good-for-nothing, and hardly any women at all -- it is very tiresome."
Here the last sentence is as succinct a summary as one could wish of the objections of feminist historiography, social history, and/or the Annales school to the traditional "Great Man" theory of history. (See also Jane Austen's own farcical History of England.)
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