Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Life of Jane Austen

Portrait of Jane Austen, from the
memoir by J. E. Austen-Leigh

Just to cover all of our bases before truly digging into this scholarly discussion, I think it might be helpful to begin by talking about who Jane Austen was. Unfortunately, the amount of information known for certain about the life of Jane Austen doesn’t amount to a lot. Jane Austen lived a quiet life. She was born in December of 1775, and due to an unknown illness which scholars have spent years speculating about with no discernible proof, she died in March of 1817 (
Hindley). She grew up in a scholarly family, and when her father—a parson or member of the clergy in the small village of Steventon—learned of Jane’s talent for writing, he encouraged her to pursue the talent. Throughout her life, Jane Austen was not only a writer of stories, but she was also an avid writer of letters. It is the surviving letters sent between Jane and her sister Cassandra that have provided much of the information that scholars know of Jane Austen and her life today. 

    Though she began many of her well known stories earlier in her life, Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was not published until 1811 (Hindley). After the success of the novel, Jane Austen went on to write, revise, and publish the rest of her well-known novels over the following years that preceded her death. Though Jane Austen lived during the Georgian Period in England, the timeline of the publication of her famous novels falls within the early years of the Regency period. Therefore, in order to thoroughly explore this relationship between female authorship and readership in Jane Austen’s career, it will be most beneficial to analyze these roles with the context of the Regency period of England in mind. 

What is the Regency Era?

    As I said in the last post, the Regency Era will play an important role in this scholarly discussion of female authors and readers during Jane Austen’s life. Therefore, it will be helpful to have a little bit of context of what exactly the Regency Era was, when it occurred, and what it meant to live during this time. 

    By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the societal, cultural, and political climates of Britain had undergone several changes from the climates of the earlier 18th century. As Anne K. Mellor phrases it, “The Terror in France, Napoleon's campaigns, and the paranoid British political response, coupled with the illness of the reigning monarch George III,” made hoping for a more liberated and free society in England difficult for many people (Mellor 43). This was the societal foundation upon which the Regency Period began.

    Though the official beginning of the Regency Era is typically placed in the year 1811—the year King George III officially went insane and his son, George, Prince of Wales, became the Regent of England—the Regency Era is generally referred to as the early decades of the 19th century up to 1837 when Queen Victoria’s reign began (Aschkenes). Despite some of the hardships England faced leading up to and during the Regency Era, the Regency of George, Prince of Wales brought to England a rather prosperous time in the world of arts and science. This was at least partly due to the fact that George was a supporter of the arts and sciences, but as Deborah Aschkenes a member of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University also points out,  “By 1800, almost everyone in the middle classes and above could read, and literacy rates for the rest of the population rose steadily thereafter,” (Aschkenes). Along with this increase in literacy rates came an increase in the popularity of the novel. This rise in popularity occurred just in time for Jane Austen to begin writing, and later publishing, her novels, but we will come back to that in a later post. 

    One final aspect of note in the Regency Era that will also come back into the discussion in a later post is the traditional societal gender roles. I will go more in depth on this with the future discussions of female readers and writers during this time, but in general, England in the early 19th century was a very patriarchal society. For the most part, women in the Regency Era had very few rights. In an article titled “‘Woman’s Place’ in Jane Austen’s England,” the late Barbara Swords, a former professor of English at Elmhurst University described women as, “oppressed victims of a patriarchal society, subordinate first to their fathers and, then, to their husbands,” (Swords). Though this description may not be completely on par with some of the characters in Jane Austen’s novel, it is important for us as scholars to know and understand the traditional expectations and rights of women at the time in order for us to truly analyze and interpret Jane Austen’s message in her writing.

Freedom to Read ... or Not?

What did it mean to be a female reader during the Regency Era?

    The late 18th century was a time of patriarchal views which led to many regulations surrounding the issues of female education and reading. Around the time of the 1790’s, several texts were produced that analyzed female reading practices of the time. According to Erica Oliver, a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University, “Many of these texts depicted women whose reading caused either quixotism or milder misperceptions of the world,” and they lead to more control of what was considered to be “potentially dangerous literary information … so that women could mimic feminine accomplishment without being changed by their reading,” (Oliver). The desired outcome of this control was an ‘accomplished’ woman who was also soft, domestic, and feminine. Miss Bingley described the desired accomplishments of a woman in Pride and Prejudice, saying, “a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages … and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions,” (Austen 253). Based on various conversations throughout Pride and Prejudice, there seemed to be an assumption that a lady who is not skilled in each area listed above was to be seen as unaccomplished and poorly educated. As seen in a later encounter between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine seemed to be astonished by the fact that Elizabeth and her sisters were not educated in each of the above skills. 

    In many ways, there seems to have been a fine line between a poorly educated young lady, a well educated young lady, and one who was too educated. Kathryn Hughes, Professor of of Life Writing and Convenor of the Masters of Arts at the University of East Anglia provided the term ‘blue-stocking,’ an 18th century label for the too educated women saying, “Blue-stockings were considered unfeminine and off-putting in the way that they attempted to usurp men’s ‘natural’ intellectual superiority,” (Hughes). In today’s society, a statement like this would most likely cause outrage; however, around the time of the Regency Era, this was the natural way of thinking for many people, particularly the male population in control of the patriarchal society. 

    Despite this rather bleak outlook on the position of the female reader during the Regency Era, not all was lost. Briefly returning to the words of Deborah Aschkenes, the 19th century and the Regency Era saw an, “expansion of literacy and print culture in England,” (Aschkenes). This expansion, among other things, provided more accessible and affordable reading material for all readers, including women. This general increase in literacy situated female readers in an interesting position which Erica Oliver describes saying, “‘the reading woman’ was forced into a liminal space, at once a signal of progress and symbol of corruption,” (Oliver). Female readers were trapped in a period of transition in which, by reading more and expanding their intellectual horizons, they symbolized the corruption of the rigid system in which they had lived for so long, yet the slowly increasing freedom to read also signaled progress in the advancement of female independence as well as the decline of the male-centric ideology which their society had adhered to for so long. Therefore, though entrenched in a patriarchal society that feared the educated woman, female readers inhabited a position of progress and defiance of the system, leading to some very interesting debates and reactions that arose in women's writing in response to their position.

The Discontent of Lady Writers

 What did it mean to be a female author during the Regency Era?

    Throughout the late 18th century and into the Regency Era, female authors dealt with many of the same drawbacks as those who read. In an article titled, “Romantic Female Writers and the Critics,” author H.E. Haworth wrote, “Ladies who did have well-furnished minds were expected to use them for the improvement of themselves and their families, and not society at large,” (Haworth 726). Even with the knowledge and skill to write, it seemed to be generally expected that women would use their education and accomplishments to improve their domestic life, not their public one. Haworth also asserted, “It was widely felt that too many young ladies and even married women published out of vanity, to show off their accomplishments to their friends,” (Haworth 727). Despite this view, the profession of writing for women did experience a rather steady increase in the eighteenth century. As Barbara Swords explains, “Some women wrote scholarly works and translations, but overwhelmingly, women writers wrote novels,” (Swords). Even with the idea that women published out of vanity circulating around society, some women were still able to turn writing into a career. As Swords continues to explain, “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,” (Swords). This creates an interesting position for women, as many didn't publish solely for profit or vanity, though some people would’ve probably preferred to believe that. 

    For many women, writing was a way for them to voice their opinions, complaints, and ideas to any one who would listen. Anne Mellor addressed this issue of the purpose of women’s writing in the Regency Era saying, “Their writing engaged in a practice that we would now recognize as ‘consciousness-raising,’ an effort to persuade individual readers to question the social construction of gender in local and person,” (Mellor 44). For many female authors, their works were a platform for them to call attention to the unfairly gendered society in which they lived. 

    However, such social commentary wasn’t always as easy as it may sound. Erica Oliver pointed out the potential dilemma saying, Women writers were torn between the need to publish and sell within a misogynistic culture and the desire to create authentic female literature,” (Oliver). Regrettably, the chances of publishing and selling anything that seemed too overtly feministic in such a male-dominated culture were very slim. However, female authors didn’t have to be overt to convey their message in their writing. 

    Possibly the most common method of conveying their dissent towards the misogynistic society was a literary form known as quixotism. Oliver, explaining the concept wrote, “Quixotism, depicting a hero or heroine who, through romantic reading, strays from reason and reality, is at its very foundation a paradigm concerned with education … The quixotic form is thus the ideal platform from which to explore the complex debate regarding female education,” (Oliver). Many female authors who wrote or published some form of social commentary in or around the Regency Era employed the quixotic form to convey their ideals. As we will see in a later post, the use of the quixotic form doesn’t only enable a debate regarding female education but rather the female intellectual position in general. Therefore, in a patriarchal society where men often controlled the publishing world, the quixotic form provided the perfect platform for female writers to express their societal dissent in a way that didn’t jeopardize the tenuous balance between writing authentically and writing to publish and sell.

A Message in Writing

    Alright Austen Lovers, brace yourselves because this may be my longest post yet. At long last, we finally make our return to Jane Austen to discuss the ways in which she exhibits and challenges the Regency expectations for women as readers and authors. As expressed in the first post detailing Jane Austen’s background, Austen was situated in the fortunate position of having a scholarly family who supported her talent for writing. At home, Austen seems to have had ample access to reading material. As Meredith Hindley, a senior writer for the National Endowment for the Humanities magazine wrote, “George Austen kept a sizable library—one bookcase reportedly covered sixty-four square feet of wall—which his children were encouraged to explore,” (Hindley). Along with encouraging his children to explore the library, George Austen is also said to have been a major supporter of Jane’s. According to Hindley, “When young Jane showed a spark of talent for writing, her father encouraged his budding author, buying her journals and writing paper,” (Hindley). This exposure to literature and support provided by her family helped to create and fan the spark that eventually became the great novels we know today. 

    Aside from creating and fanning that spark within Jane, this childhood also gave her a platform on which she could voice her opinions. Like many female authors of the time, Jane Austen’s novels are so much more than entertainment. They are a social commentary that has sparked discussions among scholars and readers alike. As Erica Oliver asserts, “Female authors like Austen appropriated the novel as a means to voice their discontent within a politically rigid system,” (Oliver). Deeper than this, and more important to our discussion, Austen’s novels provide a commentary specifically on female readership and authorship and the role women as readers and writers play in this system. 

    To do this, Austen employs the quixotic form we've discussed previously in her novels. Jodi Wyett, an English Professor at Xavier University, wrote about the role of quixotism in Jane Austen’s works saying, “For Austen, quixotism models how engaged fiction reading initiates socialization and subsequently functions both to enable and emancipate the increasingly overdetermined and intertwined categories of women’s reading and women’s writing,” (Wyett 262). To see the quixotic model at work, we need look no further than her novel Northanger Abbey. For a quick refresher to those of you who are unfamiliar, the main heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, is a rather bookish girl who, throughout the novel, explores several pieces of literature that Jane Austen’s readers were probably familiar with or had at least heard of. For Morland, as a rather naive girl, much of what she expects or hopes to experience in life is based around the fictional stories she is so immersed in. For instance, upon her move from bath to the Abbey, Catherine became very excited to explore the passages, rooms, and hidden crevices of the Abbey in hopes of encountering one of the traditional legends she had discovered in the Gothic Literature she read, and upon her arrival at the Abbey, she describes it saying, “Is not it a fine old place, just like what one reads about?” (Kinsley 114). However, as much of what happens in a fictional story isn’t real, Catherine doesn’t encounter any horrors or legends while staying in the Abbey. Throughout the novel, Catherine does seem to almost confuse the fictional worlds of her books with the reality in which she lives. Despite all this, by the end of the novel, Jane Austen has essentially rebelled against the idea of the quixotic form she had employed. As Jodi Wyett wrote, “By the end of Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s interpretive instincts have been honed and her engaged reading put to good use,” (Wyett 269). In completing Catherine’s character arc in this way, Jane Austen effectively rejects the element of the quixotic form that presents literature as a device that leads a person to a deluded view of the world, and instead, she promotes literature as something to be engaged with and used.

    The other important aspect of Jane Austen’s writing is the connection she makes between readership and authorship. As part of her discussion, Wyett points out, “Austen “identif[ies] the influential role in constructing literary history played by professional women readers— that is women readers who are themselves publishing writers—who name or deny the texts they read.”42” (Wyett 269) In a sense, Jane Austen’s writing functions not only as social commentary, but also as a call to action.  In discussing Northanger Abbey, Erica Oliver wrote, “Austen constructs a model of reading that combines education, experience, and contemplation to empower women to form a self that functions outside the dominant discourse,” (Oliver). Austen’s writing almost directly calls out women, both authors and readers, as the people with the potential to change history. Female readers who also write have the chance to use the education and experience of their reading to build on literary history in a way that will allow women to eventually overcome the, as Oliver puts it, “deficient nature of domestic education,” (Oliver). Through her writing like Northanger Abbey, Austen provides a model of how educated women can function outside of the dominant discourse, and she places the responsibility on both female readers and female writers to use this model to continue the argument.

Friday, April 30, 2021

To Conclude

    Alright Austen Lovers, after bearing with me through the intricacies of this discussion, we have finally reached its conclusion. By placing Jane Austen in the context of the Regency Era, we have thoroughly explored the societal expectations and regulations placed on women. We've examined the ways in which the increase in literacy placed women in a place of transition between corruption and progress. We've encountered the role of female authors who used the quixotic form, among other things, to exploit the patriarchal society that controlled the world of publications and express their own contemporary criticisms of society. Finally, and probably most importantly, we've thoroughly investigated Jane Austen's connection to each of these areas. We've explored her own experiences as a reader and writer, and we've explored the ways in which she uses her writing to form a call to action and a model to follow in order to empower other female readers and writers to continue the argument and the battle to overcome the domesticated nature of female education. And so, having navigated this complex discussion of which there is probably so much more to one day discuss and flush out, I wish to leave you with a parting quote to ponder from Northanger Abbey in which Jane Austen conveys her idea of what a novel is, "Oh! it is only a novel ... only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language," (Kinsley 24).