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Analyzing the Feminine Identity in Jane Austen’s Society

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By Lopa Banerjee

In the twentieth century, there has been a vast body of feminist scholarship regarding the representation of women in Romantic art and literature. Deborah Kaplan’s book Jane Austen among Women, providing a stimulating reading on Jane Austen’s life and work, has been regarded as one of the gems of such feminist scholarship that offers a fresh, interdisciplinary approach to both Austen’s life and her literary work. In the book, Kaplan presents an argument about the position of women and also about the one-on-one relationships among women in the society that Jane Austen, the novelist, belonged to. Constructing a vivid picture of the ‘women’s culture’ that Austen herself was surrounded by, Kaplan directs us towards a central question: “What made it possible for Jane Austen to write?” Seeking an answer to this question, she  illustrates the contemporary female friendships that represented the socio-cultural context of Austen’s novels. There is a quirky humor and irony in her observation that men, including the male biographers, were of little to no relevance in this process of creative camaraderie, and that these female friendships had actually threatened “to override the convention of hierarchical and heterosexual union” (12), which was heavily guarded by men.

The uniqueness of Kaplan’s work underlies a genuinely new perspective on Austen as Kaplan points towards the existence of the dual cultures in Austen’s times, the dominant culture of patriarchy and the women’s culture that existed alongside or actually within patriarchy. At the beginning of the book, Kaplan seems to ask herself: “With all the discouragement that British and American women writers encountered, what enabled their literary careers?” (2).

Here she tries to address the fundamental question regarding the existence and the image of the Romantic women writers, who were starting to explore their public voices in spite of the powerful social pressures on women to remain silent. Austen belongs to the particular time-frame in Romantic England when a woman writer’s personal life  was conceived of as an inexplicably solitary one, existing outside society. However, Kaplan, in her quest to analyze Austen’s work in relation to her family and community, dispels the myth of the writer-genius writing in secret corners of her home. At the same time, she is equally keen to dispel the myth surrounding Austen’s “hapless, frustrated spinsterhood” as she states that Austen’s literary career had actually flourished as a result of her self-chosen spinsterhood.

Kaplan’s argument regarding Austen’s personal choices in life  paves the way for her discussion of the microcosm of women’s culture, which enabled women writers including Austen to speak in their independent voices, while remaining within the constraints of the dominant patriarchal culture. At the same time, she discusses Austen’s novels that depicted the lives of women in all their “quaint apparels and social amusements,” which actually reflected the social realities of her times. In doing this, she emphasizes Austen’s perception of women, who were unique in both reinforcing the prevailing social expectations of woman and in resisting the dominant masculine culture that had surrounded them for long. The women in Austen’s novels, Kaplan argues, demonstrate their own ambivalence of representing both the patriarchal culture of domesticity for women as well as embracing the distinct women’s culture that enabled the independent voice of woman.

In the first few pages of her book, Kaplan takes the readers to the world of ‘genteel domesticity’ of Jane Austen’s England, where she introduces us to some of the popular ideologies of familial relationships and gender identities of Jane Austen’s sophisticated gentry. Here she illustrates the concept of genteel domesticity that emphasizes women’s domestic roles; a culture which was central not only to Austen’s novels, but which was practiced in Austen’s social group. “According to this ideology, men and women married for love and esteem. They experienced passion within their conjugal relationships, and, when that faded, they sustained an affectionate friendship. They spent much of their time in one another’s company and lived in the company of their children to whom they were lovingly attentive. And the setting for these relationships was always the home, over which women reigned” (17-18).

Marriage, within this social framework, was regarded as the only means to secure social and economic status, a theme that was central to most of Austen’s novels. In order to exemplify the image of the “compliant woman” in Austen’s times, in the second chapter of the book, Kaplan introduces Anne Lushington, a woman married to the aristocracy. Lushington, a woman who had been deeply inspired by the domestic ideologies of those times, had committed herself to a lifetime of marital responsibilities. However, afflicted by a serious ailment, in a letter written to her father, she grieves her inability to carry on with the burden of domestic responsibilities. Within the narrative of the letter, she actually describes the familial role of a woman for whom compliance to the domestic duties of women set up by the heterosexual society was actually a key to her feminine existence. In the same chapter, Kaplan discusses the private writings of some of Jane Austen’s friends, kith and kin, whose responses to this ideology of domesticity, she states, have largely been characterized by compliance. Kaplan describes the letters of Fanny Knight, Austen’s niece, written to her fiancé, the widower Edward Knatchbull, as a parallel to the domestic ideologies embraced by Anne Lushington, while also speaking about other women  in Austen’s social circles, who strongly vouched for the ‘ideal of domestic femininity.”

However, within this cherished sphere of  “genteel domesticity,” Kaplan introduces us to the world of unattached women, either belonging to or visiting traditional families, and she attributes these visits to social mixing as well as financial support for the women. Some of these women, Kaplan states, “had never married, although they had probably expected or hoped to do so” (21).

Kaplan goes on to present the demographics of unattached, elite women belonging to the aristocracy; women for whom marriage had not been a compulsion due to the patrilineal  customs of the 17th and 18th Century, that ensured that these women were adequately supported by their families financially. The choice of assuming spinsterhood among these women, according to Kaplan, was a reality of the patrilineal customs, due to which these women did not conceive of the idea of marriage as something “universally attainable.” While referring to these women and the companionship they shared with each other through letters, Kaplan analyses the life and works of Austen and the gentry women of her social circle, who found sustenance in a kinship which eventually helped each other adapt to their cherished feminine roles as well as to seek refuge from them. This one-on-one relationship among Austen and her female friends, she argues, was in reality an outlet and support system which let the women voice their self-assertion, yet at the same time, enabled them to embrace the subordinate roles that the heterosexual society of those times required them to fulfill. “Only to women did she reveal the power she felt as an author…only with women friends did she bask in the compliments she received, knowing that they would share her pleasure” (106).

Not only does Kaplan talk about the intimate relation between Austen and her female friends illustrated through letters,  she also goes on to analyze her juvenilia as well as “middle” work (including Pride and Prejudice) in respect of the larger social context in order to exemplify the nature of these unique bonds shared between women. The emotional and affectionate female alliances in Austen’s works are discussed by Kaplan as she refers to the more assertive, unconventional portraits of women in her “middle” fictions, including Lady Susan and The Watsons. Again, in her novel, Pride and Prejudice, when Austen focuses on the “affectionate female friendships” that were interpreted as parallels to her own female friends, relatives and neighbors,  the woman’s culture resurfaces as a means of resisting male authority. On one hand, Austen accepts the domestic ideologies of women with which she has been raised; on the other hand, she keeps asserting her individuality and the ethical rights of women to seek ways to attain personal gratification while remaining within the constraints of patriarchy. Kaplan argues that Austen, the writer, neither applauds nor rejects the patriarchal culture, but rather articulates the role of the prevailing women’s culture of Austen’s times within it. Thus, her analysis includes the ambivalences and contradictions between personal desires and established social norms that largely characterize Austen’s life and work.

Again, the subculture of female-female bonds has been illustrated by Kaplan as a corollary to the woman artist’s conscious choice of spinsterhood. She assumes that the choice of spinsterhood as well as of the female friendships in Austen’s literary life worked as emotional, intellectual resources that provided her the emotional intimacy of a marriage or of a heterosexual relationship: “By assuming the guise of spinsterhood, Austen may also have been able to reserve more private time to spend with her most intimate female friends” (122). Here Kaplan intends to draw our attention towards the unconventional, even subversive values and expressions that Austen as a woman writer privately shared with other women within her social circle. Later, in the same chapter, she comments on the emotional aspect of the interpersonal relationship between Austen and her female friends: “she derived the support she needed as an adult writer from the woman’s culture…her woman’s culture provided her with the emotional intimacy that only wedlock was thought to offer” (130).

Kaplan’s assumption made about Austen’s choice of keeping female friends and choosing to remain single, however, has been later criticized by scholars including John Halperin as vague and biased. Halperin, in his review of Jane Austen among Women clearly states that Kaplan actually avoids truths about Austen’s young life when she craved the idea of marriage, of having a financially secure emotional life of her own. He questions the basic assumption of Kaplan regarding Austen’s choice of spinsterhood: “Because biographers had generally assumed that there would be little to say about an aging unmarried woman’s life, many have been unwilling to take a close look at it” (110). In his critical review, Halperin refutes this charge by illustrating examples of alliances that Austen was involved with. For example, he mentions that “She was devastated by the early defection of Tom Lefroy, with whom she was in love “a passage in Austen’s life Kaplan chooses to ignore” and that of a young clergyman (about whom little is known) she met while on holiday in Devon in 1801″ (Halperin 96).

In his review, Halperin also points towards Kaplan’s biased views regarding Austen’s choice of spinsterhood and her affinity towards the women’s culture. Rather, he  states that contrary to Kaplan’s idea that these female friendships offered her intense emotional satisfaction, Austen actually detested most of the women  in her social circles. His research suggests that Austen actually craved for a husband and a home, an establishment and income of her own, while she wanted to escape from the company of these females. Halperin’s criticism of the depiction of Austen’s life, then, makes us question Kaplan’s basic assumption that Austen became a successful woman writer because she chose to stay single and  considered her “female alliances more important than heterosexual relationships”( Kaplan 157). Halperin argues that a closer look at any of Austen’s biographies would reveal that Austen’s single status was not something chosen by her, but rather destined for her. At the same time, he looks into the contradictions between Austen’s personal and literary life that portrays both her subversive nature and her ambivalence towards the dominant patriarchal culture that had surrounded her. For example, Halperin analyzes Austen’s novels  including Pride and Prejudice, where Austen as a writer deliberately focuses on heterosexual endings by joining Elizabeth and Darcy in a happy marriage, while as a person she privately denies these conventional plots due to her subdued  “feminist agenda”. While in her novels, she embraces the ideology of domesticity by contriving conventional heterosexual acts, in her personal life, she is  a spinster torn between her desire for a home, her desire for economic establishment, and her female social circle.

Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel, on the other hand, points out that while Austen entered the uncharted territory of English novels in the 18th  century dominated entirely by men, the fact that she was a woman prompted people to look at and assess her artistic enterprise in different ways than the male writers of her times: “The fact that Austen is a female novelist has made assessments of her artistic enterprise qualitatively different from those of her male counterparts. Because of it, she has been admitted into the canon on terms which cast doubt on her qualifications for entry and which ensured that her continuous presence there would be regarded as an act of gallantry” (14).

In the same chapter of her book, Johnson refers to a letter which Austen addresses to her ‘talentless’ nephew, describing her own literary works as “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” [Letters, 16 December 1816]. Analyzing the  “self-deprecating letter” of Austen, Johnson argues that such a notion fostered by Austen can be explained as a natural outcome of how women artists had been viewed by the patriarchal hierarchy where works by females had to appear within  “carefully restricted boundaries.” Johnson’s analysis of Austen’s works seeks to uncover the political, cultural, and literary history of her times, while she considers Austen’s own gender identity as a “crucially significant factor” that determined the major works of her fiction. However, even while working in a literary world dominated by men and their histories, Johnson points towards Austen’s depiction of a powerful heroine in Emma, who controls her home, her choice of a life partner, her community, representing the female artist that Austen herself aspired to be. Looking into Johnson’s analysis of Austen’s novels, as we get to explore beneath the apparently subordinate roles of women within the family system, we also understand how Austen examines the conventions of patriarchy as she subtly validates the rights of female authority within the social context of her novels.

Today, while a huge body of feminist critics focuses on the feminist elements and also on the role of the woman artist in Austen’s works of fiction, the questions that both Kaplan and Johnson address in their books  on Austen’s identity as a female artist have been crucial in terms of defining the ‘feminine’ sensibilities of her novels. In The Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert pointed out that most of the women represented in a typical Austen novel, with all their attributes of dutifulness, submissiveness, and self-control, ultimately worked to accommodate themselves “to men and the spaces they provide.” In the book, while examining the representation of women by women writers in the 19th Century, they have argued that the dichotomy between the pure, dedicated “domestic angels” and the rebellious, unkempt “madwomen” was a result of the women writers’ struggle that emerged from the patriarchal culture of categorizing female characters. Analyzing the categorizations and the dichotomy that characterized the act of categorizing, Gubar and Gilbert claim that woman writers should strive for a definition of the woman characters beyond this dichotomy; however, their options remain constricted by the patriarchal point of view.

On the other hand, critics like Alistair M. Duckworth, in The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels, try to analyze how Austen portrays her heroines who “support and maintain an inherited structure of values and behavior,” heroines who emerge from isolation and despair to be reintegrated into the mainstream society. These heroines, Duckworth finds out, are basically the products of  Austen’s vision that portrays the tension between claims of the society and the claims of the woman as an individual. For Duckworth, the concepts of ‘estate’ and of its proper ‘improvement’ stand for Austen’s values and her artistic responses to the contemporary social forces that she encountered as a woman writer. Although on the surface, Duckworth intends to speak of the role of the landed gentry in Austen’s fictional work, in essence, he speaks of the woman writer’s struggle to find the proper balance between a woman’s individuality and her societal values and responsibilities.

Seen in this light, we can say that Kaplan’s analysis of Austen’s life and works brings to the core the essential questions regarding Austen’s feminine identity that wavers between conforming to patriarchal ideologies and resisting those ideologies. Looking into these feminist discourses centering on the life and works of Austen, including Kaplan’s, we actually discover new, unique pathways that help us rediscover the themes and styles of Austen’s fiction characterized by these essential feminine questions.

Photo-credit: Here

Works Cited

Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1971.
Gubar, Susan, and Sandra Gilbert. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. 1979. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1984
Halperin, John. “Jane Austen among Women. by Deborah Kaplan. Review. Nineteenth Century Literature” 48.1 (1993): 96.
Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P,  1988. Print.
Kaplan, Deborah. Jane Austen among Women. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

Lopa Banerjee has recently completed her Masters with a thesis in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has written a book-length memoir and also a poetry collection. She is a regular contributing author to ‘Café Dissensus Everyday’, B’, ‘Morsels and Juices’ and ‘Learning and Creativity’. Her poetry and creative nonfiction work have also appeared at print and online anthologies including ‘About Place Journal’, ‘Northeast Review’, ‘Indian Review’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Fine Lines journal’, ‘River Poets’ Journal’ and ‘13th Floor Magazine’. She has also participated in the Kriti Festival of Literature and Arts in Chicago as a panelist and reader.

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