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Womans Place in Jane Austens England


Elmhurst, Illinois

What was womans place in the actual world in which Jane Austen set her novels
the world of southern agricultural England of this period, the world centred on the
country village and the lives of small landowning and professional families?
Some social historians have depicted womans place as very low, indeed: with
few legal and economic rights or even receiving little respect, women can be seen
as oppressed victims of a patriarchal society, subordinate first to their fathers and,
then, to their husbands who had, of course, been selected by their fathers; some late
eighteenth century authors of advice to girls and young women regarded womens
minds as limited in reason and not to be overtaxed with serious, intellectual
education. Dr. John Gregory, writing in 1774, said: Men have a larger share of
reason bestowed on them. And, David Monaghan, writing in our time, says,
Women can rarely have been held in lower esteem than they were at the end of the
18th century.
As readers, we see that womans role, her place, is a central subject in the
Austen novels; as David Spring asserts, Jane Austens major preoccupation was
the fate of women in the society of her time. In her novels, the pictures of women
and their lives are very different from the pictures painted of women as suppressed,
passive victims of their society. Jane Austens heroines are intelligent; they
exercise reason; they are held in high esteem by the men whom they love, who love
them, and whom they marry.
We wonder then, if Jane Austen represents womans place idealistically or
realistically; we wonder if her attitude toward womans place is conservative
seeking to slow the social changes of this revolutionary period or radically
feminist seeking to revolutionize the status of women or romantic seeking to
idealize love and marriage.
To find answers to our queries, we must look in such places as letters, conduct
books, novels, comments quoted in biographies, historical documents, and the like
for traditional histories of this period tell little about the lives of women. As
David Spring points out, what women did and thought has generally been left for
men to record, and Anne Elliot similarly observes, The pen has been in their
hands. We hope that a systematic history of women in eighteenth century
England will soon be forthcoming.
In this essay I would like to present some of what it is possible to discover about
the actual status of women during Jane Austens time and to consider how these
data correspond to Jane Austens representation of womans place.
What do we know about womans legal place? Certainly it was limited, for, of
course, a woman could not hold public office or vote. Prior to marriage, a
womans legal protection and status were vested in her father, but after marriage,
her legal status disappeared; the Law of Coverture at this time made it clear that
the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended during marriage or at
least incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband under whose wing and
protection and cover she performs everything. Her children, her residence, her
way of life were completely under her husbands legal control. If she were
widowed, she had no control over her children unless her husband had named her
as guardian; if she were separated from her husband, she was disgraced in the
public eye and her husband had legal possession of the children. It was not until
1839 that a new law allowed a separated or divorced woman to sue for custody of
her children under seven years of age and for visiting rights to her older children.
A 1770 statute passed by Parliament reveals some of the attitudes toward women
at this time:

All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin maid or widow, that shall from
and after such Act impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majestys subjects by
means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, ironstays, hoops, high-
heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like
misdemeanors, and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.

A widely held opinion about womens legal rights was expressed by Dr. Samuel
Johnson, renowned man of letters and much admired by Jane Austen as well; he
said: Nature has given women so much power that the law has wisely given them
English common law left a woman very little economic freedom, for it ruled that
whatever property a woman owned before marriage or might receive thereafter
automatically became her husbands. Thus, daughters of wealthy fathers frequently
became prey of fortune-seeking men, and daughters of fathers of limited fortunes
often had difficulty finding husbands at all. The laws of inheritance further limited
womens economic freedom for they often excluded settlement of property on
women. The entail of Mr. Bennets estate and the economic plight of the
Dashwoods are instances in the Austen novels of the operation of these laws of
A womans economic independence was further restricted because of the stigma
attached to a woman who earned money through working. For instance, Dr.
Johnson thought that portrait painting by women was indelicate. An unmarried
woman could become a governess, but this was a position beneath the social rank
and status of middle and upper class young women and was thus regarded as
humiliating. Jane Fairfax suffers over the possibility that she must become a
governess. Some unmarried women conducted girls schools, but most women
lacked sufficient education to fill this or other professions. By the late eighteenth
century even occupations which had been filled by lower middle class women were
disappearing fewer women took part in their husbands businesses or conducted
small businesses of their own, such as stationers, print and book shops,
dressmaking and millinery establishments. Even the profession of midwife was
being supplanted by that of the male obstetrician. Katherine Rogers, in her
book, Feminism in Eighteenth Century England, points out that women were not
only deprived of their fair share of inherited wealth and disabled from supporting
themselves because occupations and professions open to them were very limited,
but also in England there was no possible life in a convent for a woman who
wished to choose a religious life instead of marriage, as did many women in
continental countries.
However, writing as a profession for women developed steadily during the
eighteenth century. Some women wrote scholarly works and translations, but
overwhelmingly, women writers wrote novels. As the reading public enlarged and
novels increased in popularity, some women writers made independent livings, and
in some cases, earned substantial amounts of money. For Jane Austen, as the
daughter of clergyman, there would have been no possibility of her owning a small
business or being a midwife but it was possible for her to become a professional
writer of fiction and, respectably, from this work to earn money, albeit, a very
small amount.
For most women, marriage was the only real choice in order to have economic
security and a respectable, fulfilling life; her place as a woman was determined by
her status as a wife, legally and economically subservient to her husband. In Jane
Austens novels, as well, we find that marriage is the only real choice to insure a
womans place, her happiness, and her successful future.
What were the views of marriage in Jane Austens England? What were the
essential concerns involved in choosing a spouse? What was considered the proper
basis for marriage itself? And to what extent do the patterns of happy marriages in
the novels correspond to the actual practices and attitudes of this period?
Traditionally, marriage had been regarded as an alliance between families, as a
pairing on the basis of wealth or birth, or as an arrangement made by parents
without regard to the personal preferences of the young woman and the young man
especially without regard to the feelings of the young woman. However, in the
latter part of the eighteenth century certainly in Jane Austens England radical
changes in attitudes toward marriage were occurring. Marriage was coming to be
regarded as a lifetime, intimate, happy companionship based upon love, esteem,
and compatibility, and both woman and man were to have voice in choosing the
spouse. As positive as this new attitude seems, however, the woman was still
subordinate to her husband legally and economically, and now as Rogers
emphasizes, the woman was further bound to her husband by love as well.
The happy marriages with which Jane Austens novels conclude correspond,
indeed, to these new models of proper marriage: Catherine and Henry; Marianne
and Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward; Elizabeth and Darcy; Fanny and
Edmund; Emma and Mr. Knightley; and Anne and Captain Wentworth. In each
marriage, love, esteem, compatibility and mutuality, capability and respect and
equality are essentials to be discovered during courtship and strengthened
throughout life. Though some readers of the Austen novels have felt that these
happy marriages give the novels romantic and unsatisfying Cinderella endings and
thus weaken Austens realistic mode of story telling, rather, we now understand
that these marriages represent the views of her society its new and advanced ideas
about marriage.
The kind of education that girls and young women needed to carry out
successfully the role of wife was a controversial topic in Jane Austens
England. Much was written on all sides of the question; from conduct books
setting forth the accomplishments and graces the perfect young lady must possess
in order to capture a future husband to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, who
argued forcefully for improved education as one of the rights of woman.
Most writers held that girls of the middle and upper classes had intellectual
abilities that were not only different from but also greatly inferior to those of boys
and men. It was believed that women were incapable of serious study, that the
study of philosophy, science, mathematics, and classical languages would overtax
the limited female intellect. Also, for young women to become Learned Ladies of
any kind metaphysicians, historians, speculative philosophers would cause
them to lose in softness what they gain in force. Frequently, these writers
asserted that womens minds do not much generalize ideas.
If girls and women did not have educable intellects, what qualities were they to
develop to be perfect young ladies and thus good wives? Dr. Gregory, in
his Letters to His Daughters, wrote: One of the chief beauties in a female
character is a modest reserve, that retiring delicacy which avoids the public eye and
is disconcerted even at the gaze of admiration. He and Dr. Thomas Gisborne held
that women can thus soften mens hearts and improve their manners and diffuse
throughout the family circle the enlivening smile of cheerfulness.
However, other writers of this period of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth
century took different views of the proper education for girls and young
women. They asserted that men and women were equally endowed by Providence
with reason and moral nature and capacity. Thus, girls and women must be taught
to exercise their reason must be taught to think and must be educated to make
sound moral judgements.
How was a proper education to be achieved? Almost all thinkers on the
questions of womens nature and roles wished women to acquire some solid
education, and they were critical of the shallow education girls were commonly
offered. The usual pattern of education was that first the girl was taught at home by
her mother in Northanger Abbey, we see Catherine Morlands mother so engaged
then, the girl either attended a boarding school, as Jane and Cassandra Austen
did, or were taught at home by a governess, as was Emma Woodhouse. In either
case, a limited course of studies, conducted mainly by rote learning, was offered:
drawing, dancing, piano playing, penmanship, grammar, spelling, elementary
arithmetic, sometimes French. These studies were thought to be sufficient to
provide a girl with the accomplishments necessary to attract a suitable
husband. Even these shallow studies were frequently weakened by the spread of
theories of permissive education in the late eighteenth century. Some girls brought
up permissively by their nurses and governesses were not taught to control their
tempers and tongues let alone how to use their minds; the Bertram daughters
in Mansfield Park reveal the results of such poor education.
How was a girl at this time to acquire a more substantial education? Primarily
through continuous, serious reading. If a girl had a learned father or brother and
consequently, a good library in the home a wide range of significant books and
conversation about them were available to her. A few girls even learned Greek and
Latin at home from their fathers and brothers. By the late eighteenth century,
womens social life was broadening and was, also, thus, educational as women
participated in dinner parties, assemblies, and the like where it was possible to
converse with better educated men on an equal basis. But there were for girls no
public schools, like Winchester or Eton, or universities, like Oxford and
Cambridge, as there were for boys. Therefore, each girl and young woman had to
seek and carry out her own education. In Pride and Prejudice, when Lady
Catherine expresses horror that Elizabeth and her sisters did not have a governess
to educate them at home without a governess you must have been neglected
Elizabeth replies, Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us
as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read,
and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly
A proper education, although variously defined, was necessary for a young
woman in Jane Austens England so that she could assume her role in the
society. Opportunities for self-assertion for an independent life were severely
restricted, but within the home and within the social community, a woman exerted
considerable influence, not only in educating her small children and older
daughters and in improving the manners and sensitivity of her husband, but also in
refining and conserving the morality of the community. The writer Hannah More
said, To women moral excellence is the grand object of education; and of moral
excellence, domestic life is to a woman the appropriate sphere.
Which of these aspects of a womans place seems to be important in Jane
Austens novels? Matters of womans legal status, her political rights, and
opportunities for professional careers play little, if any, part in Austens
stories. But, issues about economic security confront most of her heroines
Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, the Dashwoods, and Fanny Price in
particular. Further, a good marriage, which offers not only this economic security
and social position, but also love, respect, compatibility, equality, and happiness, is
presented as the satisfying conclusion to each novel. The choice, the discovery, of
the good husband forms the main line of the action of each novel: how each heroine
and her future husband learn to love and esteem each other and thus choose each
other. Jane Austens views of a proper marriage would at first seem to be at odds
with the main stream of the thought of her contemporaries, but, as I have tried to
clarify, her views of marriage as a wedding of a woman and a man who are equally
rational and moral does correspond to the new attitudes toward marriage which
were occurring at this time.
What seems to be the most important of the late eighteenth century issues about
womans place for Jane Austens novels is education the development of the
mind and character of the young woman upon which the issues of marriage and
economic security depend. The novels show that Jane Austen disagreed with many
of her societys stereotypes about womens nature, characters, minds, and
roles. The image of the perfect young lady as passive is ridiculed in Mansfield
Park in the representation of Lady Bertram, who is so passive that she can rarely
rise from the sofa, let alone have an idea of her own. Even Jane Bennet, lovely as
she is, is shown to have erred by concealing her feelings in the name of
modesty. The image of the young woman as entertaining, even frivolous, in order
to capture a man, is satirized repeatedly in the novels in the representation of
Lydia Bennet, Mary Crawford, Isabella Thorpe, among many others. Austens
representation of her heroines shows that she believed that women possessed both
intelligence and moral capacity and that it was important to develop both of these
faculties through proper education. Most of her heroines are deficient in traditional
accomplishments (Elizabeth and Emma do not practice the piano and Anne plays
only moderately); in fact, the traditional accomplishments such as netting a purse
are ridiculed. But, in each story, the improvement of the mind and character of the
heroine is an essential part of the main line of the action.
How does this education, this improvement, come about in the Austen
novels? In the main, the heroine educates herself by observing, listening,
travelling from place to place, participating in the life of her society, and by
thinking about, reflecting upon these experiences and her own actions and
responses. The stories imply that self-awareness, rationality, and moral excellence
are the result of observation and experience plus thoughtful reflection. Significant
passages in each novel tell of the heroine withdrawing from other people and
activities to think about what has happened, what has been said, what she has seen,
how she has behaved, and to arrive at new and improved understanding of herself,
of others, and of the world around her. In the world of the novels the responsibility
for the heroines education is her own.
The novels all imply that this educated young woman not only can achieve a
happy marriage based on equality rather than subservience, on love rather than
submission, but she also can play a crucial role in insuring the moral health of her
society, for she can effect order and harmony to manage her household, to promote
the happiness of her husband, to provide moral leadership to her family, and to
strengthen the life of her community.
In Jane Austens novels, these issues of womans place economic security,
proper marriage, and sound education of girls and young women are represented
realistically sometimes with sympathy and approval, sometimes with wit, satire,
or harsh criticism, but never with didacticism, for Jane Austens intellect and
artistic genius effectively blended these topics both thematically and aesthetically
so that each novel tells the distinctive story of an individual young woman who
achieves rational self-awareness, who learns to make sound moral choices, and who
chooses a husband whom she loves and esteems and with whom she will live a
happy, intimate, compatible, and economically secure life which enriches their
society as well. All these values are among the noblest ideals of Jane Austens


Elizabeth Bennet
Elizabeth is a spontaneous, high-spirited, vivacious, witty, and warm young lady. She is also a
bright, complex, and intriguing individual who is realistic about life. Unlike her sister Jane, she is
not ready to believe that everyone is flawless. She knows the impropriety of her father and is
aware that it springs from the unhappiness of his life with his wife. She also perceives the
fickleness of her mothers temper and her crass social behavior. Even to the point of being saucy
and blunt at times, Elizabeth is not afraid to speak her mind.

Throughout the novel, Elizabeths encounters with Darcy are a battle of adult minds. Elizabeths
speeches, crackling with irony, filled with pep, and displaying vibrant humor, exert a magnetic pull
on Darcy. He recognizes that she is a woman endowed with sense and sensibility, radically different
from most young females that he knows. He is particularly impressed with her poise; she is not
intimidated by the upper class or overawed by the arrogant Darcy.

Elizabeths main flaw is an exaggerated prejudice. Her first negative impression of Darcy at the
Netherfield ball, Wickhams tall story about him, and Darcys influencing Bingley against Jane fuel
her prejudice. She spends most of the novel truly disliking her future husband. When Darcy
proposes to her the first time, she does not even give the offer serious thought before turning the
man down. Fortunately, Darcy is determined and does not give up on Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is an honest individual, both to others and to herself. Once she realizes the truth about
Darcy, she admits her incorrect prejudice against him and regrets her previous rejection of him. In
fact, she even admits to herself that she is in love with Darcy, but she is realistic enough to think
that she no longer stands a chance with him. When she learns that Darcy has saved Lydia from
disgrace, she swallows her remaining pride and states her appreciation to Darcy. His response is to
ask for her hand in marriage once again. This time, a much wiser Elizabeth eagerly accepts.

In the novel, Elizabeth Bennet proves that she is a woman both particular to her age and society
and yet different from it. Like her mother, Elizabeth is sometimes prone to outspoken speeches and
impulsive actions; yet, she never disregards the propriety which the age insisted upon for women.
Her keen intelligence, her good sense, and her unconventional charm make Elizabeth an
unforgettable character.

A womans no business wi being so clev-er, Mr Tulliver remarks o Maggie, inEliots

Mill on the Floss
, itll turn to trou- ble, I doubt.Unless we are to take up the argument
thatknowledge is power, being so clever is notthe undamental concern when it
comes to thereading woman. The woman reader is not dan-gerous because she is a
bookish theoric, but because, by reading, she is closing hersel o rom the
world. What is going on in her headas she reads is a mystery, and or the
patriarchypre erring to know the score with a woman, thisis a menace. Given the
models o society mostprevalent through history, the li e o a womanand her book
present a stark paradox. While shemust remain in the domestic space, the
privatesphere, her thoughts must simultaneously bemade public
Women s Role During the Period:
Women of the period had no real way to be on their ownor become independent.
etc. were not open towomen and few occupations were open tothem -- and those few
that were
such as beinga governess
were not highly respected
anddid not generally pay well or have very goodworking conditions. Therefore
most upperclass women could not get money except bymarrying for it or inheriting it
since the eldestson generally inherits the bulk of an estate
asthe "heir". Only a rather small number of women were what could be called
who though their own efforts earned anincome sufficient to make
themselves independent
or had a recognized career. As a societalrule
unmarried women also had to live with their families
or with family-approved protectors.Only in the relatively uncommon case of
an orphan heiress who has already inherited
can ayoung never-married female set herself up as the head of a household
I n t h e l a s t h a l f o f t h e 1 9 t h c e n t u r y , t h e f e m a l e dis orders of n ym
p h o m a n i a , m a s t u r b a t i o n , m o r a l insanity, hysteria and neurasthenia were
universally believed to be a serious threat to health and life,
andw e r e c o n s i d e r e d t o b e t h e r e s u l t o f r e a d i n g i n a p - propriate novels or
playing romantic music. This
wasa l s o t h e c a s e w i t h w h a t w a s c a l l e d m e n s t r u a l m a d n e s s
a n d i n s a n i t y , t h e h i s t o r y o f w h i c h i s reported elsewhere [2]
. T h e y w e r e d i s e a s e s w h i c h required radical cure. Menstrual madness was
dealtwith by laparotomy and bilateral normal
ovariotomyb u t C h a r c o t , w i t h h i s p u b l i c d e m o n s t r a t i o n s o f h y s t e r i
a i n w o m e n i n t h e 1 8 7 0 s , e m p h a s i z e d h i s belief that most mental
disease in women resultedf r o m a b n o r m a l i t i e s o r e x c i t a t i o n o f t h e
f e m a l e external genitalia