Adventures in Reading

Austen v Wollstonecraft
September 8, 2007, 11:45 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday to further peruse some of my seesawing ideas regarding Austen’s take on women and their situation in Neoclassical society, I found myself somewhat chastised for expecting to use the term feminist or feminism in application to her as the terminology itself was not in use until quite a bit later. However, one of my favorite women of all time and a contemporary of Austen was Mary Wollstonecraft and I think anyone would be hard pressed not to call Wollstonecraft a feminist.

Then yesterday I stumbled across the article A Feminist Connection by Miriam Ascarelli who argues that Austen was at least aware of Wollstonecraft’s work. This portion of the article caught my interest:

I believe that, placed in her historical context, Austen comes across as a realist, someone who knows that life is tough, especially for women. But rather than focus on how society’s restrictions could cause someone to have a nervous breakdown, Austen focuses on the reasoning skills women need to survive, which, to me, is the ultimate feminist statement.

While I am not entirely comfortable using terms such as realist or idealist (I suppose we could just call it my thing), part of me still begs for a third option (if not more). That is, if writing about women breaking down under the oppression of society is the first option (perhaps Anna Karenina?) and women realistically striving to maintain a happy life is the second option (perhaps The Heavenly Twins?) — then why not a third option allowing a woman to escape and be successful from her social confines? Perhaps it is merely too fantastical for the period.

One aspect of the article that also caught my eye is Ascarelli states that both Wollstonecraft and Austen were “very aware of marriage as an economic institution” and this in particular intrigues me. Pride and Prejudice is rife with opinions on companionate or romantic marriages versus marriages based on good economic matches. Of course in fiction we are never to assume that what is occurring is always or necessarily the author’s own perspective of things. For example, Nietzsche is often directly quoted as saying “God is dead” but to be as correct as possible it was a character of Nietzsche’s that exclaimed this famous quote.

Does Austen’s radicalism or liberalism find its foundation in identifying marriage as an economic system but allowing her characters to strive for companionate marriages? I have not read enough of or about Austen to make any grand declarations but it does seem most of her characters marry established gentleman. Thus Jane and Bingley as well as Elizabeth and Darcy do seem to marry for love but the economy of the situation is preserved as well. The extremely rational Charlotte marries for security and without affection and Lydia marries entirely for a fleeting affection and no security at all.

I find this a very interesting stream of thought and one I am sure to return to after more readings.


Heh. Thanks for this great post. In human history, I’m learning about Mary Wollstonecraft. I love seeing her even a bit connected to Jane Austen.

Comment by felicity12

Wollstonecraft was sensational and I am definitely setting some time aside to reread Vindication and will hopefully develop some further ideas on a connection between the two women. The other day I heard someone comment how interesting it would be to overhear a conversation between the two (theoretically) and indeed that would be quite the momentous conversation.

Comment by bookchronicle

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