"'Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,' wrote Jane Austen. 'Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.' Now women seized the pen; and female self-consciousness brought heroinism to literature. As literary women have always been grateful to say, it all went back to the first heroine of letters, [Samuel] Richardson's Pamela, not because of her virtue but because, as she says herself, 'I have got such a knack of writing, that when I am by myself, I cannot sit without a pen in my hands'" (Moers, 120-1).
Place in Austen's biography
1. Male writers have always been able to study their craft in university or coffeehouse, group themselves into movements or coteries, search out predecessors for guidance or patronage, collaborate or fight with their contemporaries. But women through most of the nineteenth century were barred from the universities, isolated in their own homes, chaperoned intravel, painfully restricted in friendship. The personal give-and-take of the literary life. was closed to them Without it, they studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex, and developed a sense of easy, almost rude familiarity with the women who wrote them. . . . Take Jane Austen* on the one hand, and her contemporaries Wordsworth,* Coleridge,* and Southey on the other. Wordsworth went to Bristol to meet Coleridge; both were Cambridge men, and they had university friends in common. At Bristol, Wordsworth found Coleridge rooming with an Oxford undergraduate named Southey: they were planning to emigrate to America. Instead Wordworth and Coleridge drew close to together, settled near each other in the lake district, and collaborated on a volume which made history, called Lyrical Ballads . Meanwhile Jane Austen, almost exactly the same age and from a similar social milieu (had she been a man, she would probably have gone to university), stayed home with mother at Steventon, Bath, and Chawton. She visited a brother's family now and then, wrote letters to sisters and nieces, and read Sarah Harriet Burney, Mrs. Jane West, Anna Maria Porter, Mrs. Anne Grant, Elisabeth Hamilton, Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, Helen Maria Williams, and the rest of the women writers of her day" (Moers, 43-4).
2. "Refusing to appreciate such angelicic paragons as [Richardson's] Clarissa or Pamela, Austen criticizes the morally pernicious equation of female virtue with passivity, or masculinity with aggression. . . . She rejects stories in which women simply defend their virtue against male sexual advances. . . . Because she realizes that writers like Richardson and Byron* have truthfully represented tyhe power struggle between the sexes, however, she does seek a way of telling their story without perpetuating it. In each of her novels, a seduced-and-abandoned plot is embedded in the form of an interpolated tale told to the heroine as a monitory image of her own problematic story" (Gilbert and Gubar, 119).
"Adolescence, that notoriously difficult time of life, appears also to be a difficult subject for fiction. The female variety offers special perplexities. . . . If conflict is the essence of fiction, adolescence provides rich material. The severe opposition of fantasy and relaity in this stage of life derives partly from the adolescent's central problem: to find the proper balance betwen the self and others. The self can dwell in fantasy, but others represent unevadable reality. . . . Any adolescent is likely to feel, in bad moments, that there's no place to go. Women have particular reasons for feeling so. In many ways, they are not encouraged to grow up" (Spacks, 113-4).
1. (a) "Marriage is crucial because it is the only accessible form of self-definition for girls in her society" (Gilbert and Gubar, 127). (b) Austen's subject, argues Moers, is not courtship but "marriageship: the cautious investigation of a field of eligible males, the delicate maneuvering to meet them, the refined outpacing of rivals, the subtle circumventing of parental power (his and hers), and the careful management, at the end of the story, which turns idle flirtation into a form offer of marriage with a good settlement for life. All this must be carried on in a way that the heroine maintains her self-respect, her moral dignity, her character as daughter, sister, friend, and neighbor, and her youth; it must be done quickly, in a year or two, before her bloom fades. (Persuasion is the exception — Austen's heart-rending final fantasy of the second chance.) . . . . Marriageship is one of those subjects that must be read imaginatively from the woman's point of view, which here differs from that of the man" (71).
3. "Authorship for Austen is an escape from the very restraints she imposes on her female characters. And in this respect she seems typical, for women may have contributed so significantly to narrative fiction precisely because it effectively objectifies, even as it sustains and hides, the subjectivity of its author" (Gilbert and Gubar, 168).
4. "Because they are literally or figuratively motherless, the daughters in Austen's fiction are easily persuaded that they must look to men for security. Although their mothers' example proves how debilitating marriage can be, they seek husbands in order to escape from home. What feminists have recently called matrophobia — fear of becoming one's mother — supplies one more motive to flee the parental home, as does the financial necessity of competing for male protection" (Gilbert and Gubar, 125-6).
6. "All of Jane Austen's opening paragraphs, and the best of her first sentences, have money in them; this may be the first obviously feminine thing about her novels, for money and its making were characteristically female rather than male subjects in English fiction. . . . From her earliest years Austen had the kind of mind that inquired where the money came from on which young women were to live, and exactly how much of it there was" (Moers, 67).
7. Put in Austen's literary relations: "Darcy himself, Austen's earliest conceived and most glamorous hero, is the least precisely imagined character in the novel. With his Norman name and accompanying ancient credentials (his first name is Fitzwilliam); with his splendid estate complete with ancestral portraits, Darcy is actually an improbable close friend for such as Bingley, and an even less probable catch for Elizabeth Bennett. Austen seems to have lifted Darcy, in all his stiff elegance, from Fanny Burney's Cecilia, one of her favorite novels; and he stands alone in her work . . . as a reminder of her eighteenth-century formation" (Moers, 69).
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000