The Women of Jane Austen
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 can not 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. Social security did not exist at the time and a retirement pension could not guarantee comfort late in life. For women, especially, the idea of growing old without financial support caused great consternation. Thus, as illustrated in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, many married those whom they held in low esteem but who possessed a great deal of financial stability. In Newman’s opinion, “[In her fiction,] Austen exposes the fundamental discrepancy in her society between its avowed ideology of love and its implicit economic motivation” (695). 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...
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