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Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 3, Gender and the study of Austen

July 22, 2015

Jane Austen and gender studies are made for each other, not only because the content of her novels inspire feminist critique (albeit sometimes conflicting, because, well, all her heroines get married, don’t they?), but also because reactions to her tend to be polarised along gender lines. (Remember my reporting in a recent post on VS Naipaul’s assessment?). It is this latter issue that Barbara Seeber addressed in her second paper of the conference, “The pleasures (and challenges) of teaching Emma“.

Seeber commenced her talk by stating that “the politics of gender underpin divided opinions of Jane Austen”. She looked at some of the reasons why students (readers, more widely too, I’d say) say they don’t like Emma – Emma herself is unlikable, the book lacks a plot, and it’s mostly a romance – and teased them out one by one, particularly in terms of their gender implications. I’m not going to summarise the paper, but will just share a few salient points that contribute to issues I’ve been thinking and writing about here.

Unlike VS Naipaul, Sir Walter Scott praised Jane Austen’s writing. Nonetheless, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott distinguished between “cornfields and cottages and meadows” which he saw as typical of “the sentimental and romantic cast” and works dealing with “the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape”. Although Scott himself praises Austen’s “precision” and comic ability, this distinction that he makes does, Seeber argued, reflect a common feminine versus masculine divide.

So, how does the gender divide play out for readers of Emma?

Unlikeable Emma

Well, Seeber herself recognised that as a young woman she did not like Emma because she is bossy and controlling, but did not feel the same about Mr Knightley. She realised she had internalized the prevailing attitudes regarding femininity, the double standard that allows men to be authoritative and commanding but disallows the same in women.

(I must say that Emma’s bossiness wasn’t an issue for me when I first read the novel – perhaps because, as the oldest child, I had a bossy tendency myself!  It was her snobbery that made her less likeable to me, but I have come to a more complex understanding of that.)

Nothing happens, or what happens isn’t important

There’s a gender point too – of course – behind the idea that nothing happens. Seeber quoted Virginia Woolf from A room of one’s own:

Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

Related to this issue of “feelings”, Seeber said that the popular film/tv adaptations can work for and against appreciation of the novel in the classroom. The films, she said, tend to focus on feelings, and can result in students resisting to expand their thinking beyond feelings. Also, in terms of gender, the issue is further complicated by the fact that male students can be self-conscious about liking Austen because of these films.

Too romantic

My dearest, most beloved Emma, tell me at once (Illus. CE Brock, 1909, via

My dearest, most beloved Emma, tell me at once (Illus. CE Brock, 1909, via

The focus on feelings in the movies, has been described by some as the “Harlequinisation of Austen novels”. It can result in the shaming of boy Austen readers. Anxiety about normative masculinity, Seeber said, can be present in the classroom. On the other hand, male students can be surprised to find that Austen is actually interesting, and female students surprised to find the male students enjoying her! (Oh dear!)

But then Seeber’s argument became really interesting for me in terms of recent discussions on this blog regarding gendered reading and writing. Seeber argued that denouncing the films as Hollywood romanticism, that dismissing them as popular culture, is related to the devaluing of women, in that works enjoyed by women are often dismissed as trivial. This is ironic, she argued, because Austen satirizes those who claim themselves above the popular novels (eg Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey). Austen, she said, does not distinguish readers by what they read.

The obvious, and frequent, counter made to the argument that nothing happens in the novels, that they are merely domestic or romantic, is to point to references or allusions to wider issues like the Napoleonic Wars, the slave trade, and the governess trade in Austen’s novels. BUT, Seeber argued, to justify Austen in this way is to undermine the real story of, say, Emma, which is about the achievement of self-awareness and living in the every day, about being human or acting humanely, as Norton describes it, or, as I might describe it, about being civil.

In other words, to try to justify the value of Austen by pointing to her references to the bigger picture is to undermine the importance of the so-called feminine (or more domestic) values.

I liked this argument.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2015 18:52

    “In other words, to try to justify the value of Austen by pointing to her references to the bigger picture is to undermine the importance of the so-called feminine (or more domestic) values.

    I liked this argument.”

    I like this argument too. The richness of an Austen novel lies in her profound understanding of what it is to be human. The references to world events and issues are completely peripheral to her subtle examination of character and the tiny domestic worlds in which women play out their lives. I am one of those weird people who is much more interested in scenes in shops than in ones on battlefields.

  2. July 22, 2015 21:20

    I’m sure all JA’s novels are about “being civil”! And one of the reasons they are interesting is that she gives her heroines flaws in order to demonstrate why they are wrong. In your ‘recent discussions’ we saw that women writers are being praised, but for dealing with ‘male’ topics, and now we are discussing criticism of Austen for only dealing with girly topics – ie. interpersonal relations. Can we get boys to read Austen? Or indeed to see beyond the rom-com nature of the JA films. Only when society allows boys to have feelings.

    • July 22, 2015 23:45

      Well said Bill. Boys do have feelings but are so often uncomfortable about them, particularly about sharing them with other boys eh? I was fascinated by Seeber’s comment on not only boys being surprised by enjoying Austen but on girls being surprised they did.

  3. July 23, 2015 01:30

    Ooh, that is a good argument and a good post too! You must have had a great time at the conference!

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