Jane Austen and the Enlightenment

emmaHow much was the fiction of Jane Austen influenced by Enlightenment ideals?

Until recently, most scholars believed not much, if at all.  Indeed it has often been said that living in the countryside, Austen remained isolated from the great events of her time.  But this presumes that Austen did not read widely (which she did) and that she was not affected by what she read (which she was).

Given that the Enlightenment is quite possibly the most important intellectual, social, and cultural transformation of the Western world since the Middle Ages (and it was happening during Austen’s lifetime), it is reasonable to assume it influenced pretty much everyone including Jane Austen and that what influenced Austen would in some measure, influence her fiction.

Underlying Enlightenment ideals was Locke’s assertion that the mind is a blank slate receiving and ordering worldly sensations for the benefit of the individual.  With this, the focus shifts forward: the individual is valorised and self- interest legitimized- no longer is he encouraged to blindly follow established teachings (i.e. church, government, aristocracy).  Instead he’s to be the creator of his own meaning and truth.  This is to be accomplished through rational assessment and critical reason in order to decide for himself what course of action to take to achieve happiness.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to Locke and these Enlightenment ideals with a view toward demonstrating that her fiction was in large part, influenced by them.

In Persuasion, eight years of happiness is the price Anne Elliott pays for yielding to a noblewoman’s advice to break off her engagement with Capt. Wentworth.   But despite the pain caused, Anne determines that she made the right decision. “I was right in submitting to her (Lady Russell)… I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up because I should have suffered in my conscience.”

This clarifies how uncompromisingly Anne supports coolheaded rationality.  She believes that however right her feelings might have been, it was not justifiable to follow them when she was unable to rationally defeat Lady Russell’s objections. It is key that Anne’s choice was not made Lady Russell, but by herself and that it was not blindly made.  In keeping with Enlightenment principles, Anne rationally assessed her options and only allowed herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell’s advice when convinced it would bring her more happiness in long term.

Austen portrays Anne Elliott as superior because she questions the social conventions and beliefs that others simply take for granted.  While her family considers it a social necessity to keep their noble lifestyle despite mounting debt, Anne suggests they do without servants, horses, and various vanities to save money.  Anne’s standards are not those expected of her social class – indeed they are more focused on personal accountability and duty than on social status and pedigrees.   Undoubtedly she has forged these standards for herself for given her family, they were not likely to be hereditary.

Pride and Prejudice is written from Elizabeth Bennett’s point of view – an excellent literary device for expressing Enlightenment individuality.  Elizabeth is nothing if not individualistic.  She demonstrates (1) a demand for self-expression (strong opinions that she is not afraid to voice –Lady Catherine is seriously taken aback when Elizabeth defends her younger sisters for being already ‘out’ in society) and (2) the free exercise of personal will (she walks to Netherfield Park alone to visit her ill sister even though this is criticized by Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s sisters).

It is tempting to put her behaviour down selfishness or silliness.  But however self-focused, Elizabeth never disregards social rules with the same abandon, as does her younger sister Lydia.  This too, is a demonstration of an important Enlightenment ideal.

In his essay What is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant distinguishes between the use of reason (1) in public affairs (expressing one’s opinion as a scholar), which must always be free, and (2) in private affairs (conducted in the interests of the community), which understandably often “requires a certain mechanism…an artificial unanimity.”  That Elizabeth makes the same distinction and cares as much about community as she does about herself is made clear during her visit to Pemberly when she comments on Mr Darcy’s importance to his community: “as a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!” It appeals to her that he uses his power well.

While Anne exercises reason to ensure her happiness and Elizabeth balances her self-interest with community demands, Emma Woodhouse, heroine of Emma, does neither.

Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich,” is disposed to believing she has more capacity for personal authority and self-expression than she has.  Indeed in her view, she has enough to share as she undertakes to “improve” her new friend Harriet and “form her opinions and her manners” with disastrous consequences.  Such disregard for another’s rights pursue her own happiness is not in keeping with Enlightenment ideals.  Neither is Emma’s lack of capacity for self-reflection.   It is not until Mr. Knightley upbraids her behaviour that she considers she may have been rude to her unfortunate neighbour, Mrs Bates.  Even then, Emma “tried to laugh it off.”  That Emma’s assumed position in the community is threatened by her meddling and rudeness, becomes obvious when she realises she must ‘submit to stand second to Mrs Elton…” at the ball.

While Emma might be interpreted to support that Austin’s fiction was not much influenced by Enlightenment ideals, it could also be interpreted as a savvy foreshadowing of modern criticism of such ideals.  By demonstrating the damage done when Emma’s rampant individualism is not properly balanced with legitimate needs of community, Austin may have been pointing to that which we understand today – unchecked individualism leads to an empty, solitary self and painful lack of meaningful involvement with others.  Indeed such understanding has led many to call for a shift backwards to where community is valorised at the expense of self-interest and individuality.

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Bibliography

 

Austen, Jane.  Emma.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003.

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003.

Israel, Jonathan I. Democratic Enlightenment (Introduction).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is the Enlightenment?” (1-7). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. ed by Issac Karmnick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Knox-Shaw, Peter.  Jane Austen and the Enlightenment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kramnick, Issac.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader (Introduction).  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

 

 

 

 

Feminism and Jane Austen

Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

becoming-janeThis has not been the traditional view.  Indeed it was not until the 1960’s that Austen’s name was associated with feminism in any widespread way.

Although there are as many faces of feminism as one cares to discover, if the works of Austen are to be fairly evaluated, it should be in terms of feminism as it was understood in her time.  To do otherwise (however tempting), would be anachronistic.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to the goals of ‘Enlightenment feminism’ which asserted that men and women should share the same moral code in regards to conduct, feelings, and responsibility.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine flawed.    In economic terms, Emma Woodhouse passes with flying colors; an heiress of £30,000 is not easily dismissed.  But the citizens of Highbury do not value money nearly as much as they do character and in this regard the imperious Miss Woodhouse must learn that she has ‘been used to despise (Highbury) rather too much’.   In other words, Emma’s moral code is lacking and requires remedial work.

But instead of undertaking to improve herself of her own violation, Emma is instructed by Mr Knightly who appears to believe himself the more morally capable of the two (‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.  Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them.’)

Not surprisingly, it is only when Emma becomes all that Mr Knightly would have her be, that he realizes he is in love with her for we all know the story of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with (and married) the statue he carved.  We have only to look at how Mr Knightly’s view of Harriet changes (the former ‘fair lady’ become ‘the foolish girl’ and ‘a greater simpleton’) when by refusing Robert Martin’s marriage proposal, she fails to conform to Knightly’s norm.  Luckily for Emma, she had learned her lessons well and so ‘what did she say’ when Knightly declares himself?  ‘Just what she ought, of course’ for ‘a lady always does.’

In Emma, although women may have been portrayed as capable of moral equality, they were also portrayed as incapable of forging a moral code of their own.

Likewise, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with ‘all her faults of ignorance and timidity’ must be carefully tutored to the standards of her cousin Edmund.

Although Miss Price is oft portrayed as a plucky feminist who finally has the courage to speak her own mind (by refusing to marry Henry Crawford as Sir Thomas Bertramwould have her do), we who have followed her long, steady progress with Edmund know she did not reach that pinnacle on her own.

The scene in the East room provides the perfect example.  One morning Fanny escapes to her ‘nest of comforts’ in order ‘to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel’.  When in the flesh Edmund arrives to obtain ‘her opinion’ on ‘an evil of such magnitude as must , if possible, be prevented’, he begins by voicing his own.  When finished with his soliloquy, he asks Fanny whether she sees ‘it in the same light’.  When she has the temerity to say ‘no’, he recommends that she ‘think it a little over’ for ‘perhaps you are not so much aware as I am, of the mischief that may’ arise.

When Edmund’s love interest, Mary Crawford, speaks her own mind by refusing to agree with him regarding her brother, Henry’s, adultrous behavior, Mary is out and Fanny is in.  ‘Loving, guiding, protecting her (Fanny), as he (Edmund) had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind so great a degree formed by his care’, it should be little surprise that by end of the story he’s fallen in love with her  and ‘acknowledged’ her mental superiority.

However, in Northanger Abby, Catherine Morland, arguably the most feminist of Austen’s heroines, receives a very different moral education – that of first-hand experience (as we might expect with a man).

As a child, Catherine is left largely to her own devices allowing her to early on rely on her own judgment.   Later she navigates Bath with little or no outside guidance and moves on to her next adventure afflicted only by her love of Gothic novels and vivid imagination.   Convinced that General Tilney has murdered his wife, like Pandora she finally commits the unpardonable sin and opens that ‘forbidden door’.

But even then when she receives a dressing down from her love interest,  Henry Tilney (‘consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained’ and ‘remember that we are English’ and ‘Christians’), she is asked by him to not to do or think as he would ,but instead to ‘consult your own understanding’ (which she does to her shame).

Once her ‘visions of romance were over’,  she ‘was completely awakened.’  Catherine goes on to win the heart of the man she loves and to ‘begin perfect happiness at’ the age of eighteen, which as Austen reminds us is ‘to do pretty well.’

If the only goal of Enlightenment feminism was that men and women should share the same moral code, then Austen can be said to have wholeheartedly supported this through her fictional characterizations.

However if we look to the basic premise underlying Enlightenment feminism – that women, not having been denied powers of reason, must have the moral status appropriate to ‘rational beings’, formed in the image of a rational God – we must reach a different conclusion.  At least two of the three of Austen’s heroines examined were apparently presumed by the men in their lives as capable not of forging their own moral code, but only of regurgitating that of their lovers.