Jane Austen: Conservative or progressive?

I must admit that, fan as I am of Jane Austen (of her wit and clear-eyed observation of humanity), I have sometimes been conflicted about whether she is, as this post title asks, conservative or progressive.

She was innovative in terms of the history of the novel – her sure use of the third person omniscient narrator and her psychological and social realism were progressive for her time. But, what about her plots and their resolution? The fact that her heroines tend to marry well? Or, well enough, anyhow. I have often felt ashamed about my sorrow that sensible Elinor in Sense and sensibility did not “catch” as wealthy a husband as her emotional sister Marianne did. It’s not the money so much, but the fairness of it! Elinor deserved … but, she got what she deserved didn’t she? The man she loved!

But, I digress. The point is – and this is what seems to put some readers off – that Austen’s heroines always do marry, and they always marry within their class or slightly higher. They don’t throw it all to the wind to follow some passion; they are usually materially “sensible” even though they also determine to follow their heart. And so, there’s the conundrum. Austen’s heroines are independent of mind enough to hold out for a marriage of affection, but they don’t cast their net outside their kind. They seem to affirm the status quo.

However, as I also wrote in a recent post, I and many others see Austen as a protofeminist: while her plots and their resolution can be seen, superficially, to be conservative, there is something else going on. And this was presented from a fascinating perspective the other night by academic Glenda Hudson who spoke at the public library. Her topic was “Sibling love in Jane Austen, revisited” and was an updating of an article she published in 1989. She explored the role of sibling love and incest in Jane Austen – not that “actual” incest ever occurred in her books, but some of the highly sanctioned relationships, such as Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park, and Emma and Mr Knightley in Emma, have incestuous overtones (that are consciously articulated in the books).

Hudson claims that Austen promotes the value of fraternal (sibling) love in her novels – and defines this love as being based on shared moral and intellectual values and ideas. She argues convincingly that in many of Austen’s novels this idea is extended to encompass conjugal love, and that marriage in Jane Austen is presented as a meeting of like minds, as an egalitarian partnership between two people who, through the course of the novel, have come to love and respect each other. In fact, she argues that, through these marriages, Austen redefines gender roles in marriage.

Here is a description of Fanny with her brother, in Mansfield Park:

Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend [brother William] who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes  … An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply … (Mansfield Park, Ch. 24)

Here is Edmund, realising at the end that Fanny just might be the one for him. It is interesting in to look at in light of the above, since Edmund and Fanny were, from the time Fanny was 10 years old, “children of the same family”:

… it began to strike him [Edmund] whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love. (Mansfield Park, Ch. 48)

Hudson’s conclusion is that Austen is both conservative and radical – that she confirms the validity of the traditional family in what was a changing world, but that her vision of that family incorporates something new. I found this argument pretty convincing – but then, of course, it doesn’t take much to convince me that Austen was ahead of her times in thought and writing.

25 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Conservative or progressive?

  1. Gummie–my opinion:
    I always see Austen’s heroines dallying with the idea of going in a completely different direction from the one they ultimately chose. Elizabeth Bennet is initially very attracted to Wickham. Fanny Price is undeniably drawn to Crawford (thanks to his slow seduction techniques) and then there’s Emma and Frank Churchill….

    Of course there’s the other side of the coin–the women who throw caution to the winds:silly Lydia and vain Maria Bertram.

    Do the heroines settle? Well yes, but wisely so when we see the alternative. Love and companionship vs the giddy heights of passion and sex.

    I think you can still argue that Austen is a protofeminist author, however, as her heroines are free-thinking, strong-willed women who refuse to bow down to a variety of pressures from family and society.

    • Oh, I love your response Guy. I certainly agree with seeing her still as a protofeminist. I guess I have been wondering how far we can push in that direction. My little JA group was just talking (yet again) the other day about Fanny’s being drawn to Henry. I do like your analogy re Elizabeth, Fanny and Emma – and I suppose there’s Anne E and her cousin Mr E in Persuasion too isn’t there? Austen is endlessly fascinating to chew over…

  2. I just watched the film “Becoming Jane” and was intrigued when, near the end, when both Jane and Cassandra have had their hopes dashed, and Jane tells Cassandra she will write and describes the plot she’s working on (P&P), Cassandra asks if it ends happily. Jane answers that the two sisters go through lots of difficulties but eventually both marry for love and marry rich men. It’s as if she were saying, “That’s the way it has to be in fiction, but we know it doesn’t always work out.” I’ve never read a biog of JA so have no idea how accurate this film is, but I do know that JA would never have written “this story” in her fiction. The public who read fiction were conservation socially–undoubtedly.

    • Thanks, Susan. Most Austen scholars and fans would not, I think, see this is as the best biography of Jane Austen. Spence (who wrote the book) draws some conclusions that have raised hackles! For a good readable biography, you’d probably best read Claire Tomalin’s. I thought the film Becoming Jane was fun but it was way off the reality of her life, at least as far as I and most in my group see it. Some in fact despised the film for that reason – I just separated it from her life and enjoyed it as a story!!

  3. I think Austen was progressive but she manages to be so in such a way that if you aren’t paying attention you could miss it or interpret it differently. She shows the plight of women always needing to be concerned about money and the whole entailment of estates etc. And I agree with Hudson that the heroines do serve to redefine gender roles within marriage.

  4. Was Anne in “Persuasion” the first to point out the inevitable bias against women caused by all the books having been written by men? Doesn’t that make JA quite progressive for the time in her own pragmatic way?

  5. Stefanie: You are absolutely right … I just really liked the way this academic made the resolutions even more progressive than I had thought and this will add grist to the mill re talking to those who don’t “get” JA!

    Sue: Well, I don’t know if she was the first but it’s certainly a great point … in fact I was only quoting it the other day, somewhere around the traps!

  6. As for how far we can push on the protofeminist angle, well I think you have to consider the times. From our 21st C viewpoint, it may sometimes appear that Austen seems tame. After all, her heroines always seem to end up doing the right thing–even though sometimes Austen’s readers retain a lingering feeling of dis-satisfaction over the results. But then if you stop and think about Elizabeth Bennet, for example, she was really quite something. She refused to marry Mr Collins, even though this would have ensured her family’s future, and she tells Lady Catherine de Bourgh where to stuff it. Quite bold actions for those days. And then there’s Fanny holding tough against marriage to Crawford. These are tenacious women who defy the roles expected of them. Again it may seem mild to us, but then if you consider the risks they took when they defied their relatives, well it’s all quite bold and shows great self-determination and force of character.

    As Stephanie points out, it’s easy to underestimate Austen.

    • I am so glad, Guy, that you agree re Fanny. Some see her as wimpy but I reckon, given her position in particular, she shows immense strength in rejecting Henry. And, while these days we would see her stand against the play as prudish, back then she was really strong there too wasn’t she, standing up to all the rest for her values. (There are even people in my JA group who do not like/approve of Fanny at all – something the rest of us just can’t comprehend!!). As you and Stefanie clearly agree, Austen is, really, rather subversive – if only more people would see it!

  7. I promise to be nice and objective

    I don’t want to offend any Austen lovers with what I say. And it’s not so much Austen or the books that I take umbrage with: it’s the way in which they are currently used and understood by contemporary middle class Gen-X women to promote competitiveness, elitism and status anxiety.

    My biggest criticism about Austen does not concern personal unhappiness when one can’t find someone to measure up to Mr Darcy, but rather, I despise the effect of Austen upon women’s status anxiety. When coupled with the rampant consumerism in contemporary society this is not a good thing.

    How does this manifest? It’s encoded into what Gen-X women wear, what they name their children and where they send them to be schooled. Hyphenated surnames, Country Road, blonde bob haircuts, keeping up with Mrs Rhys-Jones, needing a Toyota Landcruiser rather than a Commodore … the kind of elitist snobbery which says ‘I’m-better-than-you-because-I wear/do/read x’.

    I am well qualified to write about this: I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Bowral, NSW, a hub for such social afflictions. If you’re not convinced, Ron Wild wrote an ethnography of class, status and power in Bowral called Bradstow.

    Thus, I am arguing that the cultural narratives represented in Austen play neatly into the hands of all the insecurities of contemporary women’s lives. This isn’t Austen’s fault. Her novels should be read as commentaries on a certain time, in a certain place. However, when one digs into the deeper contemporary meanings attached to these works, they are interpreted in our culture a very, very different way to what was initially intended.

    And that is why I don’t like Austen.

    • Oh, you’re not playing fair Ms Desert Book Chic!! Blaming (or disliking) Austen for those who (mis)read her! Anyhow, do you really think Austen creates status anxiety? Surely that comes from more contemporary places?

      Her novels should be read as commentaries on a certain place and time – as you say – but for me the reason they last is their universality in relation to human nature (not society). I can read her now and see an emotional Marianne or a manipulative Mrs Norris or a show-off John Thorpe. She’s like Shakespeare (I believe) in how well she does this.

      Dare I say, we gave our kids a hyphenated surname – BUT for a very specific reason. It went like this: when I married, I retained my name. (It seems to me this is dying out and it troubles me rather – but, I suppose, I shouldn’t judge). Then we decided to have children. How to name them? Do what most of my friends who retained their names did and give their children the father’s name? Make up a name? Name daughter after mother, son after father, or vice versa? (But what if we only had one gender? Who misses out? Is that the point anyhow?) Or, go for the hyphenation? I had huge misgivings about this one for the very reasons you give – but did some thinking and reading and in the end we decided to go this way. It’s imperfect but it’s the best we thought we could do. I have always hoped that the fact that we sent them throughout their school career to government schools – and resolutely so – puts paid to any suggestion that their names carry any elitist meaning!!

      BTW You haven’t offended me. There’s nothing I like more than a good discussion about Austen. I’m really glad you came out to play – thanks a bunch.

      • Hey, no probs! I love the little conversations we have about this! Book lovers are passionate and I adore anything lived and loved with passion!

        I know it’s not fair for me to frame Austen this way.

        We can’t blame Austen for the way in which something like Pride and Predjudice has become a cultural ‘text’ (in the post-modern sense of the word) with so many other meanings (elitism, an expression of status anxiety, etc). These things just happen organically. It’s like how McDonalds symbolises a number of things which the creators of the chain surely didn’t have in mind!

        BTW: Your reasons for giving your children hyphenated names are very different to the girls and women I went to school with or associated with in Bowral. It’s very clear that you thought this through, and have a rational reason that defies fashion or the expression of your children as consumer objects (gotta buy that $400 Osh Kosh bib for your baby who’s called Waldron otherwise the mums at the health club creche won’t talk to you).

        Anyway, I don’t want to deflect from the conversation here amongst all the qualified Austen-o-philes, however, I couldn’t resist putting in my 50 cents worth. Perhaps I’ll start researching the contemporary cultural sub-texts of Austen…! Might turn up something interesting.

        Another friend has just convinced me to read <Anna Karenina. You never know, someone might convince me to read Austen (not P&P) and I might enjoy it at age 43.

  8. Well — if I were trying to argue for a protofeminist Austen I think I’d put the idea of marriage aside for a moment and look at the bodies of her books, rather than the ends of them. She is a moral writer. Her characters are moving towards balance: not too much pride, not too much prejudice, but a judicious amount of each. The marriages are outward signs of inward success. The reader can see that a change has occurred — the proof is in the confetti. But it’s not the wedding she dwells on, it’s the transformation.

    So I agree with your Glenda Hudson: “marriage in Jane Austen is presented as a meeting of like minds,” and I like the idea of extending that back to the sibling relationships as well: two proving-grounds instead of one: family and courtship, not just courtship. If you take out the trappings then the question becomes, not, will Lizzie and Darcy have a wedding and live forever in a whacking great mansion, but, will they unite in a harmony of mutual intelligence and balanced willpower? Both are flawed, out-of-balance, the man and the woman, and both have a lesson to learn. Not only the man, not only the women, but both, mutually, equally. (This is echoed throughout the novel: the silly sister has her selfish suitor, the ninny wife has a self-absorbed husband.) And this theme of balance runs through her: you see it in Northanger Abbey where the heroine learns to temper her credulity, and you see it in Emma, where she learns to calm her impetuous bossiness (which harms people) long enough to discover that she is in love — etc. Little forces push and pull at the characters, and they learn to negotiate them. And the author holds men and women to the same high standard of moral education, which — here, here — I think — is where Austen is holding hands with a feminist like Germaine Greer, who demands that women be noble. Not nice-saintly-obliging, as the Victorian pedestal would have them, but noble, courageous, and accomplished. (See Greer’s The Obstacle Race, for example.) In that passage near the end of Persuasion, Austen is not only pointing out that “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story …the pen has been in their hands” (which is a historical-social feminist awareness, the position of women as a result of history, not innate sexual qualities), she’s also acting as a leveller: she argues that neither men nor women can say their sex is superior; she argues that neither men nor women are in a position to accurately judge the other.

    “We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin, probably, with a little bias towards our own sex; and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle.”

    She not only told her readers that women could be as accomplished as men, if only they had “”the pen in their hands”, more importantly, she proved it.

    • I agree with everything you say DKS … particularly re the importance of the body of her books, and the process of transformation that takes place in them. I was just pleased by the way Hudson placed the marriage resolutions so firmly and in a clear way within that transformation.

      I am thrilled to see so many commenters here agreeing with/recognising her feminism. I like your contrast with the Victorian view too. One of the members of my group has always felt (as I think Austen’s own sister Cassandra did) that Fanny should have married Henry, but others of us have disagreed. Hudson made the interesting point the other night that Austen was not Victorian, in which, perhaps, redemption of a character like this was more the go, where resolutions were often more sentimental. Austen was far more rational …

      • Agreed, she’s very much not a Victorian writer, in temperament as well as chronologically. Closer to Pope or Johnson. Impatient in the face of humbug.

  9. If readers don’t like Fanny, then they probably won’t like Clarissa–another literary heroine who’s too often written off as a ninny when she’s no such thing.

    Mansfield Park is my favourite Austen, btw.

  10. DKS: Yes, she owes a lot to 18th century in style (wit and reason over sentiment) while looking forward too.

    Guy: Well, good for you. Not many choose that one as their favourite. I find it hard to choose, but if asked I usually say Persuasion… but it’s probably, as I’ve said before, the one I’ve read most recently, and I am currently rereading Mansfield Park! You are probably right about Fanny and Clarissa – though I haven’t read Clarissa since school (or university) so my memory is a very general one.

  11. Amanda, I love how you engaged with this. I really hoped you would respond, and now I understand a lot better where you are coming from. Read AK, and then we’ll talk again! LOL. Maybe Persuasion with its very overt ridicule of snobbery and elitism is the one for you. In the meantime, I am off to a different desert place tomorrow – Newman WA – though I will be based mostly in the town unfortunately.

  12. I should clarify that while Mansfield Park is my favourite Austen novel, the spot for my favourite Austen heroine is reserved for Elizabeth Bennet. She’s in a word…superb.

  13. Hi Whisper, a wonderful post with equally insightful comments, to boot. How was Austen perceived in her day? Was she considered a novelist with “feminist” or “progressive” leanings? Best, Kevin

  14. Guy: I can understand that … even Austen loved Elizabeth Bennet and thought she was a great creation. She hated the idea that someone may not like her! Not that one can imagine anyone not liking her!

    Kevin: That’s a good question. I’ve done a little reading of contemporary comments over the years but as I recollect she really wasn’t reviewed in that sort of light. Most of what I’ve seen has been more in terms of liking the characters, the writing and novel form, the humour etc rather than anything else. I think it took quite a few decades – perhaps late 19th century/early twentieth – for critics/reviewers to start looking beneath the surface. BUT I need to check all that again.

  15. A fascinating article, and such a vigorous response! You have done well with this one. Sibling love – what about Tom and Maggie in Mill on the Floss, who share a tender embrace, reconciling all their differences before drowning together. Now that’s a strange way of ending a romantic book!

  16. Good one Tom … of course that is Victorian which was quite a different ball-game. It’s a long time since I read that one but clearly sibling love continued into that era. Bleak House, as I recollect, has some interesting sibling rels too doesn’t it. There’s more to think about clearly but Austen was particularly rational in her exploration.

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