Austen’s juvenilia is a fruitful entry point into the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century field of “conservative” female-authored fiction centred on the development and education of adult or near-adult women. Austen is, in her treatment of female education, a highly revisionist conservative, but also, in terms of adventurousness, range of ideas, and ambitions, much more conservative than public-minded conservative writers of the 1790s, such as Clara Reeve, or some of Austen’s own contemporaries, such as Mary Brunton. It is also possible to argue that Austen’s deep scepticism about the pressures of education as ideology operating on women makes her, by a double turn, not a conservative writer. The instability and unviability of radical and conservative as categories in opposition to each other in the context of Romantic-era British women’s writing is now recognized. However, it has not been recognized that this unviability has significant consequences for our understanding of Romantic-era, female-authored fiction about female education. Tensions and instabilities mark out the female novelistic field in this period. This field is far more of an unhomogenized, patchwork arena than has been supposed, and it does not lead to the clear-cut definition of a hegemonic, bourgeois domestic female subjectivity. The narrative is far more complex, and it is misleading to reduce to a linear model the curves, fluctuations, contradictions, and possibilities for female development found in Austen’s early treatments of female education, as well as in fiction by other contemporary or near-contemporary, bold, disturbing, adventurous, “conservative” delineators of female development such as Reeve or Brunton.
Corps de l’article
Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film version of Mansfield Park novelizes and recreates the protagonist. Rozema’s heroine is one half Fanny Price and one half the wicked young Jane Austen, author of the juvenilia. Instead of Edmund mentoring and monitoring his cousin, it is Fanny who reads out her work to him, inducting him into a world of devastating parody, dazzling nastiness, and a dead-pan stringing together of inflated topoi from contemporary fiction. In this article, I shall use Austen’s early writing as a way of entering into the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century field of “conservative” female-authored fiction centred on the development and education of adult or near-adult women.
Austen scholars are still trying to come to terms with the two different figures posited by Marilyn Butler (Butler 1975) and Claudia Johnson (1988): Butler’s Austen has strong affinities with 1790s anti-Jacobin, conservative formations, while Johnson’s is a more liberal, post-revolutionary Austen. This paper will argue that both of these statements are true, but that these two elements in Austen are not mutually exclusive. Austen is, as far as treatments of female education go, a highly revisionist conservative, but also, in terms of adventurousness, range of ideas, and ambitions, much more conservative than public-minded conservative writers of the 1790s, such as Clara Reeve, or some of her own contemporaries, such as Mary Brunton. After an examination of Austen’s revisionist conservatism, it is also, however, eminently viable to make the case that her deep scepticism about the pressures of education as ideology operating on women makes her, by a curious double turn, not a conservative writer.
The instability and indeed unviability of radical and conservative as categories in opposition to each other in the context of Romantic-era British women’s writing is now recognized (Myers ). What has not been recognized is that this unviability has significant consequences for our understanding of Romantic-era, female-authored fiction about female education and that tensions and instabilities mark out the female novelistic field in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This field is far more of an unhomogenized, patchwork arena than has been supposed, and it does not lead, as influential work has suggested (Armstrong), to the clear-cut definition of a hegemonic, bourgeois domestic female subjectivity. The narrative is by far more complex than that, and the heroines of such fictions are far more resistant to straitjacketing as proper, inward-looking, incipiently bourgeois courtship novel heroines than much of contemporary criticism would allow.
Austen’s “Catharine, or the Bower” was begun in 1792, the year in which Clara Reeve’s Plans of Education was published. Austen’s heroine Catharine, or Kitty Percival, has lost her parents and lives with a dragon of an aunt. It is arguable, and Claudia Johnson has argued, that Mrs Percival is very much a stereotype of the public-minded conservative woman writer of the 1790s (Johnson 53-54). Like a Reeve, a Hannah More, or a Jane West, all influential conservative female novelists of the 1790s, Mrs Percival is deeply interested in politics and education, both of which she discusses vocally with visitors. For her, female education is crucial to the destiny and happiness of the nation:
“But I plainly see that every thing is going to sixes and sevens and all order will soon be at an end throughout the Kingdom.”
“Not however, Ma’am, the sooner, I hope, from any conduct of mine,” said Catharine in a tone of great humility, “for upon my honour I have done nothing this evening that can contribute to overthrow the establishment of the kingdom.”
“You are mistaken, Child,” replied she; “the Welfare of every Nation depends upon the virtue of it’s [sic] individuals, and any one who offends in so gross a manner against decorum and propriety is certainly hastening it’s ruin. You have been giving a bad example to the World.”Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 222
Austen, couching her judgement in humour, is critical of the overblown, sententious, authoritarian voice of Mrs Pervival, an anxious, watchful educator who speaks like a conduct-book:
And this is the reward for all the cares I have taken in your Education; for all my troubles and Anxieties; and Heaven knows how many they have been! All I wished for, was to breed you up virtuously; I never wanted you to play the harpsichord, or draw better than anyone else; but I had hoped to see you respectable and good; to see you able and willing to give an example of Modesty and Virtue to the Young people here abouts. I bought you Blair’s Sermons, and Coelebs in Search of a Wife, I gave you the key to my own Library, and borrowed a great many books of my own Neighbours for you, all to this purpose.Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 222
It is noteworthy that Mrs Percival will watch over her niece with what Austen calls “scrutinizing severity” (“Catharine” and Other Writings 186), but will also think it necessary to give Kitty the key to her library. The female pupil should, through reading, quasi-autonomously internalize norms that she will use in turn to regulate her self. Equally, there will be no relenting in the watchfulness of the guardian-figure. This is very like the strategy adopted by the model parents, the Stanleys, in Hannah More’s thinly novelized conduct book Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808), who allow their daughters the same paradoxical carefully supervised autonomy. In the original manuscript version of “Catharine,” Austen used Archbishop Thomas Secker’s Lectures on the Catechism of the Church of England (1769) in place of Coelebs, the change being proof of how significant and distasteful she found More’s bestselling work. Coelebs is a veritable compendium of competing models of female education, each of which is ruthlessly stripped of its pretensions except one: its exemplum Lucilla Stanley reads Latin in private, but also models herself on Milton’s Eve, and she is the wife whom the “Coelebs” or bachelor of the title chooses.
Catharine does not model herself on Milton’s Eve. She is an avid reader of Charlotte Smith’s novels and has a surprisingly critical voice, which she uses, for example, to denounce Queen Elizabeth—as Austen had done in her “History of England.” Negotiating and resisting the different models of female education provided by her aunt and by their fashionable visitors, the Stanleys, Catharine must jealously defend her own space, literal and symbolic, for privacy and growth: namely, the bower of the title, which she had built herself with the help of two friends, the now-absent Misses Wynne. There is little that is sentimental or sensibility-ridden about Catherine, however, despite this touching female friendship: balls occupy as much of her attention as her bower. She is already “out,” having made her “entrance into the world”, both the terms within quotation marks being stock topoi in eighteenth-century rules of female conduct.
The “entrance into the world”, indeed, is a major crux of anxiety in eighteenth-century writings on female education. The tirade of Mrs Percival’s that I quoted is provoked by Catharine’s turning up to a ball unchaperoned with a young man who has not yet been introduced to her aunt. To get a full-blown send-up of maternal anxieties about the entrance into the world, we need to go to Austen’s “Letter the First: From a Mother to Her Freind [sic]” in “A Collection of Letters” (also written c.1792).
My dear Girls, the moment is now arrived when I am to reap the rewards of all my Anxieties and Labours towards you during your Education. You are this evening to enter a World in which you will meet with many wonderfull Things; [...] They both assured me [...] that they were prepared to find a World full of things to amaze and shock them: but that they trusted their behaviour would never give me reason to repent the watchful Care with which I had presided over their Infancy and formed their Minds.Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 146
As Austen shows consummately, there is a bathetic disjunction between such ostentatious advice on the one hand and the mundane social activities that the young girls are inducted into on the other:
This very evening is fixed for their first entrée into Life, as we are to drink tea with Mrs Cope and her Daughter. [...] Tomorrow Mr Stanly’s family will drink tea with us, and perhaps the Miss Phillips’s will meet them. On Tuesday we shall pay Morning-Visits—On Wednesday we are to dine at Westbrook. On Thursday we have company at home. On Friday we are to be at a private concert [...] and on Saturday we expect Miss Dawson to call in the Morning,—which will complete my Daughters’ Introduction into Life. How they will bear so much dissipation I cannot imagine.Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 145-146
The events described are a row of apparently innocuous, potentially enjoyable social visits, centred around the domestic rituals of tea and dining, but when the vigilant, monitorial, anxious mother presents them, they are transformed into exaggerated topoi conjuring up solemnity and fear, from the “entrée into life” to “dissipation.” Indeed, when we think of how simultaneously unfair and absurd it is to tell someone that it is only when they begin these social rituals that they “enter life” (as if they had been living among the dead before this stage!), we begin to realize how acutely Austen laid her finger on a nub of oppressive monitorial ideology brought to bear on developing young women in her time.
Indeed, we may be so converted by Austen’s debunking of vocal, sententious, educative women that when we look at the (non-Gothic) fictional oeuvre of the distinguished writer and woman of letters Clara Reeve (1729-1807), we might readily condemn or laugh at her didacticism and serious, public-minded tone, seeing these as over-blown and over-earnest. Austen’s contempt for earlier, overtly didactic conservative female fictions of education has been passed down and rendered canonical until recently. Such fiction has been doubly damned for not participating in 1790s radical, pro-French Revolution formations, such as the one Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays inhabited, and for being out of sync with later classic female bildungsromans, penned by Austen or Charlotte Brontë.
Yet the complexities and tensions in such works as Reeve’s Plans of Education (1792) and its predecessor The School for Widows (1791) make compelling reading. Just as striking is their range and boldness of ideas. The juxtaposition of Reeve’s 1790s novels The School for Widows and Plans of Education with a work such as Austen’s “Catharine,” also composed in the 1790s, will show how vastly different narratives of female development could be in that revolutionary decade.
Stylistically, Reeve’s works combine didacticism, epistolary and educational writing, political polemic and passages of personal description. They are at once treatises on education and politics and novels that break out of the courtship novel structure with older, widowed heroines. An earnest, monitorial tone co-exists in them with idealized pictures of female friendship and cross-class female alliances. Passages describing marital unhappiness and incarceration in ways that anticipate Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798) are followed by serious, polemical, public-minded passages about schools and houses of industry.
Reeve’s 1790s fictions are two of the earliest and most articulate contributions by a woman writer to the post-French Revolution war of ideas. Plans of Education uses the ideal of the aristocratic female educator, Madame de Maintenon, to counter Thomas Paine’s indictment of Louis XIV in Rights of Man (1791-92). Plans also offers racist, anti-abolitionist polemic, unsettling liberal feminist preconceptions about congruences between emerging feminism and anti-slavery politics (Bagchi, Pliable Pupils 64-88).
Plans of Education is also fascinating for the way it brings together a plan for a female community with a discussion and advocacy of women’s paid work. It describes a female utopia in the line of Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694), Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762), and Mary Hamilton’s Munster Village (1778). Its view of a female community that would train poor gentlewomen in paid trades is both deeply backward-looking, drawing on the seventeenth-century female community of St-Cyr, founded by Maintenon, and very modern, part of the contemporary awareness of a paucity in paid trades for women (Bagchi, Pliable Pupils 64-88). There are numerous discussions of the issue of paid trades and women in the 1790s, in pamphlets by radical writers such as Mary Hays, in her Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of the Women (1798), and Mary Anne Radcliffe, in her Female Advocate; or, An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (1799).
Nor is this an issue that dies away with the 1790s. Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), Mary Brunton’s Self-Control (1810-11), and Brunton’s Discipline (1814) all ask, “What channel had the customs of society left open to the industry of woman?” (Brunton, Discipline 211) and come up with pessimistic answers describing the dignified trials of working women. Burney’s “Miss Ellis” works as lady’s companion or “toad-eater,” as well as a milliner or “shop woman.” Brunton’s Laura has a brief career as painter. Ellen sells toys and acts as governess, the latter landing her in a madhouse—surely the nadir in British literary accounts of that difficult occupation.
Austen, on the other hand, is notoriously unsympathetic to the “unrealistic” idea of women earning their bread through paid trades, and what she sees as the melodramatic excesses of fictions describing the plight of virtuous, beautiful women. In Emma, Jane Fairfax is vocal about the joys of governessing:
“When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, [...] offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect. [...]
I was not thinking of the slave-trade, [...] governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”Austen, Emma 270-271
Jane Fairfax thus identifies the governess-trade with the slave-trade, a measure of the loathing and revulsion she feels towards the work she is forced to do. Such a view is at one level similar, but at a deeper level very dissimilar, to Reeve’s attitude in The School for Widows: Reeve too in her novel graphically describes the indignities that her heroine Mrs Strictland undergoes as a governess. On the other hand, for Reeve, the female educator is an exalted figure, and once Mrs Strictland sets up her own school, she finds fulfilment in teaching. In contrast, earning a living by teaching is the ultimate in desperate measures for Austen. In another early work, “The Watsons” (written in 1805), Emma and Elizabeth Watson, discussing the relentlessly calculating pursuit of marriage by another sister, try to decide which is worse, poverty or having to teach. Emma says:
“To be so bent on marriage—to pursue a Man merely for the sake of situation—is a sort of thing that shocks me; I cannot understand it. Poverty is a great Evil, but to a woman of Education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest.—I would rather be a Teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.”
Elizabeth’s answer is:
“I would rather do any thing than be Teacher at a school.”—said her sister. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead; you never have.”Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 278
Again, let us notice the strength of revulsion expressed by Elizabeth: she “would rather do anything” (emphasis mine) than teach. Even if it is true that Emma Watson is presented as by far more intelligent and correct in judgement than her sister Elizabeth, the fact remains that Elizabeth is not contradicted. Wish-fulfilling marriages must therefore be the plotted destiny of Austen heroines, without detours on the bedevilled path of paid trades.
Detours and digressions, indeed, were not elements that Austen was fond of in her plot-lines. Her mature novels establish a highly economic narrative plot, taking the heroines from courtship to marriage with a minimum of diversions. Her dislike of wandering accounts of female development comes through not only in her juvenilia, but also in her parodic “Plan of a Novel” (1816), where “Heroine and Father [are] never above a fortnight together in one place” and “no sooner settled in one Country of Europe than they are necessitated to quit it and retire to another,” and where “the scene will be forever shifting from one Set of People to another” (Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 231). The “exaggerations” of such plot-lines have their counterpart for Austen in the “exaggerations” of character: this is why, in the novel she plans parodically, the heroine is “to be a faultless Character herself—, perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit—very highly accomplished, understanding modern Languages and (generally speaking) everything that the most accomplished young Women learn” (Austen, Catharine and Other Writings 230) This parodic heroine will be “often reduced to support herself and her Father by her Talents, and work for her Bread” (Austen, “Catharine” and Other Writings 232) as, for example, Brunton’s Laura supports her father and herself briefly by selling her paintings. (For a perceptive discussion about the different attitudes of Austen and Brunton towards paid work and authorship, see Gonda 196, 202.)
Much of Austen’s “Plan of a Novel” is, indeed, a parody of Self-Control, about which she wrote in a letter in 1813: “ [...] my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it” (Austen, Letters 344). Austen’s evaluation is particularly unfair given that one of the delights of Brunton’s work is her ability to combine her adventurous plot-line with a tone of brisk, shrewd, humorous common sense. The same applies to Brunton’s heroine Laura, whose mingled sense of virtue and humility, reminiscent of Clarissa, is subjected to an omnipresent tone of irony, a tendency which becomes even more marked in Discipline, whose heroine is wayward, wilful, and fallible.
And there is no doubt that Laura and Ellen are intellectually as well as behaviourally adventurous. Laura enjoys studying mathematics and chemistry and attempts such ambitious subjects as “The Choice of Hercules” in her painting, while Ellen, after the bankruptcy and death of her parents, studies theology in depth. Brunton’s description of Ellen traversing the shabby gentility of Edinburgh as a single, unaccompanied, young working woman still makes compelling reading. In the light of all this, Austen’s criterion of “Nature and Probability” for fictions of female education emerges as being as ideological as the overt polemics, didacticism, and foregrounded stylistic excesses of such novelists as Reeve and Brunton.
But this is, again, only one side of the story. The main impetus for Austen’s parodic “Plan of a Novel” was provided by the correspondence between Austen and James Stanier Clarke, chaplain to the Prince Regent, who had been presumptuous enough to suggest subjects for future Austen novels. She should write, he says, about an absurdly sentimentalized clergyman (why are we not surprised?) “who should be something like Beattie’s Minstrel [...] fond of, and entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own” (Austen, Letters 296). In Austen’s “Plan,” this wonderful clergyman figures as the father of the heroine, “the most excellent Man that can be imagined [...] without the smallest drawback or peculiarity to prevent his being the most delightful companion to his Daughter from one year’s end to the other” (Catharine and Other Writings 231). As elsewhere Austen’s works, we feel her distrust of close parent-child bonds with a strong educative edge.
And yet again, we see a double movement at work. On the one hand, Austen engages in parody and criticism of other fictions of female education produced by contemporaries, which are bold and adventurous in their conception of female development and education, in sharp distinction to Austen’s economy of circumscribed female development. On the other hand, Austen debunks and criticizes the excesses and pressures of educational ideology operating on young women, an ideology that sees them as idealized pupils and companions to monitorial or guardian figures.
It is also as if Austen the woman writer will not play dutiful pupil to the man of learning, Stanier Clarke: it was to him, after all, that she wrote, declining to write his planned novel, with devastatingly ironic modesty: “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress” (Letters 306). Another “ignorant & unlearned Female” had, early on in Austen’s writing career, vocally expressed her views on education. She is not a model pupil—as a child she is a romp, enjoys “boys’” games such as cricket, does not like dolls, and shows no predilection for nurturing “feminine” pursuits such as “nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush” (Northanger Abbey 2). Catherine Morland is often inattentive or stupid at lessons, gives up learning music, is not good at drawing, nor at writing, accounts, or French. By the time she is fifteen, she is not a pretty girl and still does not like learning lessons. She prefers books which are “all story and no reflection,” is an avid novel-reader, and reads sonnets and snippets of sententious poetry only out of a sense of duty. Her resistance to formal education is one of the key clues which signal that she is, as her creator says, “unpropitious for heroism” (1). Catherine does not mince her words about the delights of early education:
“[...] if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that to torment and to instruct might sometimes be used as synonimous [sic] words.”85
Instead of the virtuous, intelligent mother eager to induct her children into literacy—a common figure in so much of eighteenth-century fiction, such as Stephanie de Genlis’s celebrated work Adele et Theodore (1782) (which is a major intertextual presence in Emma)—we see a tired, harried mother chivvying her small children into learning their lessons, the children in turn reluctant to learn and frequently stupid. Catherine’s ability to make such original remarks, which go against the grain of contemporary precepts on education, female or male, is integral to her general sturdiness and independence in the novel, as well as to the sceptical look Austen takes in Northanger Abbey at stereotypical notions about the education of heroines. Catherine, we must remember, is talking, in the passage I have quoted, to her mentor-hero, Henry Tilney. She is equally original in a later context, in the fascinating conversation that takes place during her walk with the Tilneys round Beechen Cliff when she describes history as dull fiction: “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention” (84). Eleanor appreciates Catherine’s intelligence enough to engage intellectually with her remark—she confesses to enjoying a “well drawn up speech,” probably with greater pleasure “if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great” (85).
The conversation between Eleanor and Catherine has a striking, bold, arresting quality all too evident to modern readers, and I do not think it accidental that Henry should not, or should choose not, to participate in it. There is a clear gendering of domains of learning here. Henry is an enlightened man who does not despise or deride fiction—quite the contrary—but it is Eleanor and Catherine who have a strong sense of the value of fiction in relation to the established “masculine” discipline of history, not accepted as truth, but seen as construction or invention. Austen herself, like Eleanor, Mrs Percival, and Catharine Percival, was fond of history, but she also wickedly fictionalized it in her unpublished parody “History of England.”
It is not accidental, either, that the conversation between Catherine and Eleanor should take place in a work which offers a manifesto of the novel, seen as exemplified by women writers’ work, while simultaneously purging it of what is seen as its excesses, exemplified by the Radcliffean Gothic:
“Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.—“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, 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 in the best chosen language.22
Austen, despite all her humorous contempt for “exaggerated” fictions about developing young women, thus nonetheless reserves her laurels for celebrated contemporary woman novelists, notably Frances Burney, whose last novel The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties contains numerous elements that Austen decried in “Plan of a Novel,” from polemical passages to adventurously wandering plots to working women as heroines. In 1814, Brunton published Discipline, with its wandering, accomplished heroine and her travails as working woman. Also in 1814, Austen published Mansfield Park, which seems exemplary of her model of the novel, with its circumscribed setting, its anatomy of the unpaid family drudge as heroine, and its combination of minute descriptions of domestic settings with female inwardness. But Patricia Rozema’s perceptive screen adaptation of Fanny Price as Wicked Young Jane Austen is, as this article should bear out, absolutely right in depicting, in the interstices of Fanny’s economy of character, the debunking voice of Austen as revealed in her 1790s juvenilia and letters.
If we juxtapose Burney’s Juliet or “Miss Ellis” with Brunton’s Ellen and Austen’s Fanny (or Austen’s Catharine with Reeve’s Mrs. Strictland), we recognize the differences between them, and begin to realize how very heterogeneous Romantic-era “conservative” female-authored novels about developing young women are. Defamiliarizing Austen’s complex, intelligent, highly persuasive naturalization of a certain kind of novelistic economy is a major step in this recognition of heterogeneity and in our reconsideration of Romantic-era women’s fiction. The other, often very different sorts of fiction centring around the growth and development of young gentlewomen that other women wrote in Austen’s own time, as well as the mutual disagreements and conflicts in their work, point to how very heterogeneous the “conservative” female novelistic field is between c. 1792 and c. 1815.
Such influential work as Nancy Armstrong’s (1987) has seen domestic fiction by women such as Austen as ideologically constituting a hegemonic bourgeois female subject, a prototype of the Victorian angel in the house whose life is plotted in the novel (which Armstrong sees as virtually identical to conduct-books for women) teleologically to marriage. This is an untenable proposition, particularly for a period of literary history when for the first time, to a degree unprecedented in intensity, women writers are writing large numbers of works exploring their own acculturation and education, its pressures and tensions, and coming up with such different answers.
More recent work (Lynch 1998) has argued that the period between about 1775 and 1820 sees a new privileging of characterization in depth, and of a lyric or inward turn in novel-writing, which is simultaneous with a privileging of the novel as cultural category, what Clifford Siskin calls “novelism”. In an increasingly commodified market culture, Lynch argues, we get a proliferation of novels by women which have to sell, and which, paradoxically, sell in the mass market by creating “rounded,” private female heroines with rich, inward-looking, lyricized lives (Mansfield Park is an excellent support for Lynch’s argument).
Lynch’s account, though, is marred by reductionism, rather than an attempt to capture the intricate, even convoluted structure of complexity present in women’s fiction of the period. Lynch reinforces, rather than questions, Austen’s naturalization of a certain kind of women’s fiction, which, I have argued, is in danger of becoming hegemonic and obliterating the powerful fictional experiments with female education and development that other Romantic-era novelists engaged in. So, for example, Lynch will see in the works of women writers of the period the tendencies towards depth and lyricism she argues for, but equally strong countervailing tendencies, such as exteriorization or the foregrounding of stylistic non-realism, are ignored, as are contemporaries or recent predecessors of Austen like Reeve, Burney, and Brunton who, with their more ambulatory plot-pattern, overt didacticism and religiosity, and their strong affinities with mid to late eighteenth century fiction, do not fit this story. Even after so much sensitive feminist reading of Romantic-era British women’s fiction, we are in danger of being left with an inaccurately reductive narrative of the development of Romantic-era women’s fiction which sees it moving in a linear and teleological way to the emergence of a well-regulated, inward looking, bourgeois domestic femininity.
My critique of Lynch for ironing out complexities in the Romantic-era female novelistic field is integrally connected to my statement that the radical conservative 1790s “war of ideas” Austen posited by Marilyn Butler and the liberal, post-revolutionary Austen posited by Claudia Johnson are both valid, but not mutually exclusive. Austen is a revisionist conservative in her treatment of female education and development. Her major juvenilia, which she penned in the revolutionary decade of the 1790s as a precocious young woman, grapples with earlier and contemporary fictions about young heroines’ education. She rejects the ambition, range, and didacticism of such fiction. She eschews intellectually ambitious heroines, heroines who are working women, overt novelistic discussion of major public socio-political issues, and plot-lines which are adventurous or wandering. She criticizes and makes fun of the intellectual, politically-minded, sententious, vocal, and educative woman who represents a kind of writer which she herself chooses not to become. She debunks the oppression, stupidity, and exaggerations of a monitorial, scrutinizing, and severe model of female education.
Instead, she creates her own self-circumscribed, intelligent novelistic economy in which sturdy young heroines accept their destiny of marriage but also dare to call instruction a torment, see history as dull masculine invention, and inhabit a form of writing which is seen as the highest form of knowledge and best practised by women.
If Austen in her published, “mature” novels chooses to write impeccably linear courtship novels (though I have in this article implicitly contested notions of the “adolescent” versus the “mature” Austen-as-author), eschewing the adventurousness and ambitiousness of Reeve, Brunton, or Burney, this does not mean that she is unaware of the limitations in her chosen novelistic path: far from it. To her favourite niece Fanny Knight, who was about to get married, she wrote in 1817:
I cannot express to you what I have felt in reading your history of yourself, how full of Pity & Concern & Admiration & Amusement I have been. You are the Paragon of all that is Silly and Sensible, common-place & eccentric, Sad & Lively, Provoking and Interesting.—Who can keep pace with the fluctuations of your Fancy, the Capprizios [sic] of your Taste, the Contradictions of your Feelings?—You can hardly think what a pleasure it is to me, to have such thorough pictures of your Heart.—Oh! what a loss it will be, when you are married. You are too agreeable in your single state... I shall hate you when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.Letters 328-329
It is only before Austen’s young heroines get married that their fluctuations, eccentricities, and delicious play of mind can have freedom of expression: “thorough pictures” of female hearts cannot be drawn after they dwindle into married women. This letter thus offers a very different perspective on how desirable or attractive Austen found the consequences of her own plot endings. It is perhaps not accidental that she chose in her own life not to “settle[...] down into conjugal [...] affection [...]” when we consider how anodyne she seems to have found the prospect!
It would be a great pity if we were to reduce to a line the curves, fluctuations, contradictions, and possibilities for female development found in Austen’s early treatments of female education, as well as in fiction by other contemporary or near-contemporary, bold, disturbing, adventurous, “conservative” delineators of female development such as Reeve or Brunton.
- Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
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- Austen, Jane. “Catharine” and Other Writings. Ed. Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
- ———. Emma. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
- ———. Jane Austen’s Letters. Comp. and ed. Deirdre le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
- ———. Mansfield Park. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. London: Penguin, 1996.
- ———. Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Ed. John Davie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
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- ———. Self-Control. London: Pandora, 1986.
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- Reeve, Clara. Plans of Education. London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1792.
- ———. The School for Widows. Dublin: Wogan, 1791.
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