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Jane Austen has attracted a great deal of critical attention in recent years. Many have spoken out about the strengths and weaknesses of her characters, particularly her heroines. Austen has been cast as both a friend and foe to the rights of women. According to Morrison, 'most feminist studies have represented Austen as a conscious or unconscious subversive voicing a woman's frustration at the rigid and sexist social order which enforces subservience and dependence'; (337). Others feel that her marriage plots are representative of her allegiance to the social quid pro quo of her time: 'Marriage, almost inevitably the narrative event that constitutes a happy ending, represents in their view a submission to a masculine narrative imperative that has traditionally allotted women love and men the world'; (Newman 693).
In reality, Austen cannot accurately be evaluated as an author (or feminist subversive) without first examining the eighteenth century English society in which she lived and placed her heroines. Watt says that Austen's characters cannot be seen 'clearly until we make allowances for the social order in which they were rooted'; (41). Austen lived in a society where women were expected to be 'accomplished,'; as Darcy states in Pride and Prejudice, but not well educated ('Notes';). Women of the late eighteenth-century could not attend educational institutions like Oxford or Cambridge. It was not considered necessary for a woman to have knowledge of either Greek or Latin. If a woman received training, it was usually religious or domestically practical. The expected accomplishments of a woman at the time included the ability to draw, singing, speaking modern languages (such as Italian or French), and playing a musical instrument, usually the piano. These accomplishments were required to attract the right (rich) kind of husband.
A woman's financial status was very important, and yet there was little she could do to improve it. Women of some social standing could not just go out and get a job. The only opportunities for support outside one's family was work as a governess, or live-in teacher. Money for a woman usually only came through marriage or the death of her father, and then only if she had no brothers or other male relatives.
Marriage, then, was looked upon by both men and women as a necessity for security, regardless of a lack of attraction or love. Long-range financial stability had to be procured at an early age.
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Of course, marriage did not guarantee a woman's happiness ever after in the late eighteenth century. Newman says that many Austen readers do not know that 'marriage [was] a real social institution that, in the [late eighteenth century], robbed women of their human rights'; (694). Within the marriage partnership, only the man had the right to petition for divorce (in the case of a wife's supposed adultery) and all child custody rights rested with the father ('Notes';).
These are the realities that four of the most popular of Austen's heroines had to face. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's future prospects of happiness are greatly diminished when they are forced out of their family manor by their father's death, 'and their great-uncle's injudicious will'; leaves the four remaining Dashwoods with little income (Liddell 25). Elizabeth Benet is the second-oldest daughter in a family with five young women and a lack of societal recommendations. Emma Woodhouse is the younger daughter of a widower. She has reached the point that she can no longer require her governess, who gets married, and, as the younger, unmarried sister, she appears headed for a life of spinsterhood occupied with the care of her aging father. These four women navigate a tricky road toward happiness, sometimes falling into the pitfalls of love and money, or love of money, but it is the gradual revelation of their character in comparison with others that displays Austen's writing at its best.
The average reader will find that Austen is a master at revealing the true nature of a character through his/her interactions with others. As found in all of her other novels, Austen presents significant foils, in Lucy Steele and Mrs. Ferrars, against whom her Sense and Sensibility heroines 'shine,'; but the characterizations of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are perhaps best found in a simple comparison of the two of them (Kirkham 86). They are almost as different as night and day. After all, Elinor and Marianne are 'contrasted heroines, one representing female good sense and prudence, the other led into error and difficulty by impulsiveness and excesses of feeling,'; and, thus, they personify the title, Sense and Sensibility (Kirkham 86).
According to Watt, Elinor 'consistently tries to relate her imagination and her feelings to her judgement and to the moral and social tradition on which her society is based'; (49). In other words, Elinor is not led by her emotions. She never tells Edward that she loves him even though it is obvious that a mutual attraction exists. Even when she learns that the man she loves will marry another, she placidly talks to Lucy Steele about her engagement and upcoming marriage to Edward. Instead of breaking down like her sister, she 'fulfill[s] her obligations as a daughter, a sister, and a member of society'; while trying 'to control the anguish of disappointed love'; (45). In most of her dealings with the outside world, Elinor represents the sense side of the equation.
Her sister, Marianne, is quite different. Marianne, according to Liddell, 'lays an undue stress on the feelings and is blinded to reality by her overwhelming tide of emotions'; (16). Morrison says '[m]ale critics, in particular, have an alarming tendency to fall in love with Marianne'; because of her heavy-heartedness, which fits into the feminine stereotype (339). She allows her feelings to control her so much that she becomes ill. Southward calls Marianne's emotional reactivity a 'moody openness [or] a distinctly unself-conscious expression of feeling'; (776). Liddell concurs with Southward that, though she is 'a charming girl,'; Marianne's largest problem is a deficiency of self-knowledge (16, 17). Marianne follows her sensibilities to the extreme and embarrasses herself and her family in the process.
At first glance, Austen's reader seems without a heroine for whom to root. Marianne needs to calm her emotions, and Elinor needs to gain some emotion. Although neither of the women is perfect, '[Austen] shows that both sisters have superior abilities, neither both totally lacking in sense or sensibility'; (Kirkham 86). Watt states that Austen designed Sense and Sensibility to portray the interaction 'between reason and rapture, between the observing mind and the feeling, between being sensible and being sensitive'; (51). It is in their interaction and mutual influence on each other that Marianne and Elinor discover the answer to what makes a good woman: a combination of both sense and sensibility.
Elinor's poise can be shaken, as illustrated when Marianne is by publicly humiliated by Willoughby in London, but it is her acceptance that Edward is to marry Lucy that forces her to face the irrational, emotional side of herself—her heart. She realizes that there are things, especially significant people, that are important enough for which one should disregard perceived social expectations. This new understanding of the proper place for emotion enables her to sob in front of Edward when he tells her that his brother, Robert, has married Lucy Steele and that he wants to marry her.
Marianne's emotional reactivity softens while she is sick and can observe the way the Elinor intensely loves Edward without the tears and anguish she has wasted on Willoughby. Marianne's 'marriage [to Colonel Brandon] symbolizes the growth of herself'; (White 83). She is no longer ruled tyrannically by her heart, although it has some voice in her decision to marry a man who has been patient, kind, and generous to her. While some critics 'bemoan Austen's pairing of Marianne in the conclusion with staid, middle-aged Colonel in his flannel waistcoats,'; Marianne's choice reflects the fact that she now understands the balance between head and heart (Morrison 339). In the end, her marriage allows her to remain close to her family and ensures that she and any subsequent family will be covered financially, while enjoying the whims of a man she greatly admires and who is deeply in love with her.
Austen again uses a comparison with other women to detail the character of her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice. Eliza is shown to be compassionate, intelligent, witty, strong, loyal, and beautiful—inside and out. Margaret Kirkham states, 'None of Austen's heroines is more attractive than Elizabeth Bennet, none more clearly possessed of intelligence and warm affections'; (92). Regardless of all of her good qualities, Elizabeth Benet has not surrendered her heart to any man and must learn what it is like to be a single woman from the middle classes.
Elizabeth is not alone in her personally uninitiated quest for romantic education because Mrs. Benet (and at least one other mother in Pemberley) is strongly concentrating on 'the business of getting her daughters married'; (Brower 64). Therefore, several other women share Eliza's plight. Jane Benet is obviously the first woman with whom Elizabeth should be compared. Jane is well aware of the societal structure in which she exists. Jane knows that she has reached the age where it is beyond proper, rather necessary, for her to marry. Her father's house falls to a male cousin, so she will be penniless after the death of her father. Also, she must be the first of her sisters to marry if the Benets are to obey societal customs. Jane, like Eliza, is ashamed of the actions of her younger sisters, especially Lydia. She is also mortified to ride over to Netherfield in the rain and even more distressed, although only on the level of propriety, that she must remain because of her resulting illness. Jane falls further in love with Mr. Bingley while trapped at his residence. Unlike what might be imagined, Jane admires Bingley for his person, not his yearly allotment. Therefore, Austen shows that Jane is unimpressed by social status alone.
Yet, Jane seems a bit naïve in certain ways of the social world. She does not heed Elizabeth's warnings concerning the intentions of Mrs. Lucas and Miss Bingley. Jane does not even doubt Caroline Bingley when she writes to inform Jane, in terms of great affection and the highest esteem, of course, that Mr. Bingley has returned to London suddenly (sliding in the suggestion of Bingley's attachment to Georgiana Darcy) or when the rest of the Netherfield party follows him thus shortly afterward. Although Austen never allows the reader to observe what passes between Jane and Bingley, she makes it very obvious that Jane loves him and that Jane believes that he feels the same about her. When she learns of his departure, her 'countenance change[s],'; and she must 'recollect herself'; before continuing with conversation (Austen 233).
Because she cares so much for him, it is somewhat surprising to the reader that Jane cannot or refuses to see the biggest obstacle to her goal of marrying the man she loves: his sisters.
Jane's long-term reaction, her 'steady mildness,'; to Bingley's abandonment reminds the reader of Elinor's denial of her true feelings concerning Edward (Austen 239). She does not allow herself or anyone else (except Mrs. Benet who never handles anything tactfully) to dwell on the situation: '[W]hatever she felt she was desirous of concealing, and between herself and Elizabeth, therefore, the subject was never alluded to'; (Austen 239). She does eventually deny the intensity of her feelings and promises to be over him soon. Jane Benet closes down emotionally to prevent the stabbing pain that she deeply feels from becoming public.
The next woman that Elizabeth can be compared with is Caroline Bingley. Miss Bingley is a cruel, vicious, lying, superficial snob, and Austen does nothing to shield the reader from that truth. Her treatment of all of Pemberley, especially the eldest Benet sisters, is utterly brutal and totally unnecessary. She obviously wishes that she were anywhere else, yet the reader sees her almost-sick enjoyment of her superiority and the manipulation of those that are below her in her estimation. Miss Bingley wants Mr. Darcy for herself and is constantly reminding Darcy (by making snide comments about his life as the husband of Eliza), and Elizabeth, that the Benets are not of their class and breeding and, therefore, no unions can ever occur between Mr. Darcy or Mr. Bingley and one of the Benet daughters. Caroline is constantly trying to impress and flatter Darcy. In some of the funniest parts of the novel, Caroline attempts to embarrass and deflate Elizabeth in front of Darcy, especially while Elizabeth is temporarily staying at Netherfield to attend to Jane, but Miss Bingley underestimates her rival and is usually embarrassed when her plans backfire and make Elizabeth seem more desirable to Darcy. Caroline Bingley is proud, manipulative, vindictive, phony, and actually unworthy of the status that her family name grants her.
The last woman with whom Elizabeth Benet should be compared is Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte finds herself with little to recommend her and even fewer options on the marriage front. When her friend, Elizabeth, rejects Mr. Collins, Charlotte (and her mother) sees an opportunity. Even Jane sees the wisdom in the marriage:
Remember that [Charlotte] is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody's sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin. (Austen 241)
Charlotte is one of those women mentioned at the beginning of this paper that marries out of practicality, not love. Her husband has a house and a benefactress. She is rising to a respectable level in society and she will want for nothing that is essential for her or her future children's survival. It does seem a little underhanded both to the Benets and to the reader that Charlotte is engaged to Mr. Collins less than a week after Elizabeth rejects his marriage proposal, but such was life at the time. Charlotte does pay a price for her prudent choice. She moves away from her family and becomes her husband's servant and Lady Catherine de Bourgh's stoop and clawing post. In the end, Charlotte Lucas Collins becomes a reflection of her pompous, yet cowering, husband--the worst fate possible.
Elizabeth stands out against these three examined women. She is more discerning as to the character of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Lucas than Jane. Yet, she is very supportive when she is proved to be correct: 'The united efforts of [Bingley's] two unfeeling sisters and of his overpowering friend, assisted by the attractions of Miss Darcy and the amusements of London might be too much, she feared'; of a disadvantage for his feelings for Jane to overcome (Austen 239). While Jane quietly bides her pain at the loss of Bingley, Elizabeth displays her emotions openly and proudly, sometimes to her own detriment.
In regard to Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth is proven to be more beautiful, witty, and deserving of Darcy's attentions than this underhanded vixen. Miss Bingley is acting partly out of concern for her brother, but her jealousy and obsessive desire for Darcy overwhelm any good that she might be trying to achieve in the lives of the men closest to her. Miss Bingley will end up like her sister: married to a cold, stupid, brash, yet rich man with whom she does not desire to share the same room. Liddell says, 'Elizabeth's intelligence and independence seemed all the more admirable, her pertness more forgivable in contrast with Miss Bingley's vapid flattery'; (51). Elizabeth, in comparison, will marry a man whom she respects, trusts, and loves. Elizabeth Benet looks like an excellent woman and possible wife when compared with Caroline Bingley.
Although Charlotte Lucas cannot be blamed for her choice of marriage, she proves Elizabeth to be correct in the rejection of Mr. Collins. Mrs. Benet is furious that Elizabeth rejects Mr. Benet's arrogant heir because society recommends that all women accept the marriage proposals they receive. She reminds her daughter that there is no guarantee that another proposal will ever follow. Ironically, another proposal shortly follows, and Elizabeth rejects that one also. Elizabeth already knows what Charlotte and her mother and the rest of society cannot see. Yes, if she married Mr. Collins she would be provided for, but she would be miserable. She would be unable to breathe or function as herself. Elizabeth sees that a loss of her personality in the name of security is worse than starvation or penny scrimping. Even when faced with rejection by Catherine de Bourgh, Elizabeth stands her ground. Austen moves the reader through Elizabeth's change of perception concerning Mr. Darcy. She claims that she did not even know she had feelings other than mild interest til after she has rejected his proposal, but Austen has masterfully 'prepare[d] [the reader] for Elizabeth's revised estimate of Darcy, for her recognition that Darcy regards her differently, and for her consequent 'change of sentiment' toward him'; (Brower 71). She is confident enough in herself to know that happiness will come to her and that she should not sell out to anyone. Thus, she ends up with Darcy.
One of Austen's last novels features a heroine who is 'superficial, ill-conceived, and snobbish'; (Waldron 146). Emma Woodhouse 'knows exactly where she stands in her society and what it can offer her'; (Bayley 12). Austen has been quoted as saying that she did not think anyone but herself would like Emma as a person. Emma's main problem throughout the novel is 'her fundamental lack of self-understanding,'; which leads her to make incorrect, and sometimes disastrous, assumptions about others, especially in relation to matters of the heart (Litz 427). Austen's desire in creating Emma was to show the movement from 'delusion to self-recognition, from illusion to reality'; (Litz 427). Craik states that the action of the novel illustrates Emma's 'gradual enlightenment'; as she moves toward a state of 'moral and emotional maturity'; (436, 449).
In a novel where the heroine seems to be of dubious character, it might initially seem hard to show her in a good light, even in a comparison with other members of her fictional society, but Austen purposefully includes two women with whom Emma can be compared. The first is Harriet Smith. Schorer describes Harriet as 'a silly, but harmless girl educated by Emma into exactly the same sort of miscalculations'; (106). Harriet becomes Emma's pet project because she represents a mystery of sorts. No one knows exactly what kind of family Harriet comes from, and this gives Harriet a degree of freedom in the class-conscious Highbury society of the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately, Harriet is not especially bright, witty, beautiful, wealthy or anything else that could recommend her to a marriage partnership with a gentleman.
Knightley is correct in his assessment that Harriet's best-case scenario lies with Robert Martin, a man who loves her and can provide for her. Harriet does not even think enough of her relationship with him that she defends it to Emma. At the drop of Emma's hat, Harriet is off to the races, with Mr. Elton as the intended rabbit to capture. Harriet is not discerning enough to realize that Emma's guidance of her has much more to do with Emma's own desires and needs rather than any attention to Harriet's feelings. When Mr. Elton is no longer available, so to speak, Harriet falls for a man significantly out of her range--Mr. Knightley. As he warns Emma when she persuades Harriet to refuse Robert Martin, 'Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief'; (Austen 615). Harriet's lack of self-knowledge reflects Emma's own. Harriet serves the reader best as a simple mirror of Emma. No, she cannot be considered Emma's equal, but she does show in great detail the failings of her teacher. Regardless of her lack of intelligence and birth, her snobbishness, her cruelty toward Mr. Martin, and her willingness to abandon all rational thought in the face of fancy all echo her mentor's thoughts and actions. Sadly, in the end, Emma's only real use for her is that 'Harriet effects for Emma the service that Frank Churchill effects for Mr. Knightley--the revelation of their true sentiment through jealousy'; (Liddell 98).
The second woman Austen uses to further characterize Emma is a young lady who does not have a single line of dialogue in the entire novel, Jane Fairfax. Austen tells her readers that Jane and Emma 'are alike in many ways: age, station, accomplishments,'; and yet it is their differences that so clearly portray to the reader what reality is, versus what Emma thinks it to be (Schorer 107). Though Austen never describes Jane Fairfax to the reader beyond Emma's perceptions, it is obvious that Jane is passionate, spirited, elegant, beautiful, intelligent, and well aware of her unfortunate plight in life. Jane has not wasted time in attaching to a young man of fortune, Frank Churchill. Unfortunately, neither of them has decided how to announce their engagement, so they both allow Highbury, and even Emma, herself, to believe that Frank's affections like with Ms. Woodhouse. So, Jane also has a great deal of self-control. She allows Emma and her fiancé to make total fools of themselves while she is receiving attention from Mr. Knightley. Jane's vitality and appreciation of the simple joys of life make her attractive to Mr. Knightley and every other red-blooded man in the area. Emma is not joyful, vital, exuberant, exotic, or any other thing out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, Schorer feels that Emma is cold and emotionally aloof from everyone. Jane's flirtations with Knightley are markedly different from Emma's sparring sessions with the man she sees as a brother. Jane is everything that Emma is not just as Harriet is everything that Emma actually represents.
Emma must strive toward a balance between the heated emotionality of Jane Fairfax and the snobbish aloofness and cruelty (especially toward Miss Bates) Emma has exemplified up until the point that she realizes that her heart has been lost. Craig writes, 'At the moment of her most intense self-knowledge, Emma herself imputes feelings to a suddenly recognized form of conduct, feelings that she did not know she was expressing—and her imputations do not disclose truth so much as they continue a characterization'; of Miss Woodhouse (422). The reader finally understands that his/her guide through the world of Highbury 'is deceived as to the outside world . . . and deceived as to her own emotions,'; thus invalidating any previously-held expertise regarding her world (Litz 429). Her marriage to her moral guide and guardian, Mr. Knightley, illustrates her renewed desire to know her heart, her lover-friend, and her world better, thus journeying toward ultimate self-knowledge--a true understanding of one's place in the world.
Jane Austen is considered 'a keen observer of human nature and a creator of vital and convincing characters'; (Morrison 338). She realized that characters could only truly be
discernable to the reader if they were placed within a context and given positive and negative foils. Kettle states that to have written with such intricacy, Austen obviously was 'fascinated by the complexity of personal relationships'; (913). While '[h]er novels unquestionably reflect her justified frustration with women's economic dependence, the neglect of their education, and the unfair inheritance laws of her day,'; Austen's women are not that different from the women of today (Hudson 101). They win, they lose, they fail, they triumph, they win the heart of the man they love only to lose it and win it again, and while all of that is going on, they try to figure out who they are, who their friends are, what they believe, and what is really important in life.
After resolving all of these opposing conflicts, Austen's women deserve to ride off into the sunset with their prince charming. Morrison says, 'Austen can so confidently predict her heroines' happiness at the end of her novels because their happiness depends on so much more than the character, disposition, or continued affection of their husbands'; (344). Many critics still view Austen's writing as 'romantic love stor[ies] in which social and economic realities of [late eighteenth] century women's lives are exposed but undermined by comedy, irony, and most tellingly, marriage'; (Newman 693). While this may be true, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse each represent the rebirth of a woman within the context in which each exists.
Only within the context of a subtle comparison with other women is the reader able to see each Austen heroine for who she really is, whether or not she is able to see that yet. Elinor and Marianne learn from each other that a real woman must possess a balance of both sense and sensibility. Elizabeth Benet sees that both her pride and her prejudice have prevented her from loving her only equal. Emma greatly embarrasses herself and others until she realizes that she is wrong about almost all of her life's focus (matchmaking and remaining single). When she realizes that she loves Knightley, she finds a place to start an internal reformation. Whether or not Austen was trying to be an early writer for women's rights is really unimportant. Austen's works are about women discovering who they are and that discovery must take place for a woman to truly live and love, regardless of her social position or the century in which she was born.