Jane Austen - A Political Writer of her Time?
Jane Austen (1775-1817) was and still is a famous and beloved writer of her time. Writing about the upper middle class and the landed gentry she has been considered as a conservative female writer for a long time. The discussion of Austen as a political or even feminist writer has developed only recently. Although she rarely alludes to the important historical events of her time, some critics claim that she was not at all non-political. Events like the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars marked her time and certainly influenced her writing. The main subject of her novels was always the rural gentry since that was the world that was best known to her. Although her topics seem trivial Austen manages to convey a lot of opinions, critique and allusions to things that were of importance during her time. The essay aims at presenting some of the hidden ideas that can be found in Jane Austen novels. To be able to understand her novels the way her contemporaries might have understood them, it will be first of all necessary to explain the historical and social context in which Jane Austen’s novels were written. Later on the essay will focus on the representation of women in Jane Austen’s novels and try to reveal some of her critical views on the prevailing assumptions about women during her time.
1. The Historical background to Jane Austen’s novels
When Jane Austen wrote her major novels England was in a period of social upheaval provoked by the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1817). The achievement of religious freedom in France after the Revolution led to powerful social, political and religious tensions in Great Britain. They reached its heyday when Jane Austen reached adulthood. Thus Austen wrote under the impression of the French Revolution and the resulting British reformist’s movements including the feminist movement that called for equal rights for women, the abolitionist movement that supported the abolition of the slave trade and other political reform societies, mostly generated by ordinary working people that declined patronage and called for parliamentary reform, political influence and social equality. The rising tensions among the British society generated the fear among conservatives and the nobility that the French Revolution might spread to Great Britain and deprive the ruling class of their power. One of the most famous anti-revolutionary writers was Edmund Burke. In 1791 he published his pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, a response to the revolutionary movement, in which he rejected any kind of political reform modelled on the French Revolution. In 1791/92 Thomas Paine replied to Burke’s attack on the French Revolution with his pamphlet The Rights of Men where he called for social security of the poor, the abolition of The House of Lords, equal political rights for all men and the abolition of the slavery. The book was immediately banned by the British government and Thomas Paine escaped to France a short time after in 1792 and never returned to England again. Nevertheless, Paine’s book reached lots of readers and thus fuelled the political debates. The British government as well as the aristocracy and the landed gentry were deeply alarmed by the spread of revolutionary ideas and in order to stern revolutionary potential the government enforced that radical political leaders could be arrested without trial, the distribution of political pamphlets was forbidden, reformist societies eliminated and many reformists were driven into exile. Although the British ruling class managed to suppress a revolution as it had occurred in France they could not circumvent some political reforms that should change the political climate in England forever, like e.g. the universal suffrage with was achieved in 1829.
2. The Social Context of Jane Austen’s novels and the Question of Female Education
During Jane Austen’s time the British society was not only divided into different social classes but there was a clear cut between women’s and men’s spheres. While men committed themselves to the public sphere including politics and business, women’s place was at home. Their duties usually merely comprised the upbringing of the children since most middle class families employed servants, who carried out most of the household tasks. If the task of educating the children was taken over by a governess, the only duty left for women was to be pleasing and entertaining for her husband. Thus, women were not only kept far away from the public sphere but they were condemned to a life of idleness and insignificance.
The reason for that was that at the beginning of the nineteenth century large bodies of the society hold the view that women were inferior to men by nature. This notion of female inferiority was not only widespread among the society but also a prevailing theme of the works of numerous well-known writers such as Hannah Moore, Mary Hays, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth and Rousseau, who wrote about the conduct and education of women. A lot of critics claim that Jane Austen was totally familiar with those writings and that proof for that can be found in the representation of her heroines.
According to the widespread notion of female inferiority it was believed that women’s education should not aim at cultivating their minds but at training them for their duties in the domestic sphere. As a consequence young women were educated in playing the piano, singing, drawing and needle-work. Alongside they were merely expected to be pleasing and entertaining instead of using their minds and interfering into the men’s domain.
In fact during Jane Austen’s time women of the upper middle classes had little possibilities to become active members of the society or to provide for their own living. Most professions were closed to them and those that were open to women such as the work of a governess offered neither good working conditions nor enough money and were not highly respected among the upper middle classes. Also higher education was not open to women since it was only the men who were allowed to attend a university and learn a higher profession. Therefore, the only possibility for most young women to establish status was by marrying well. If a woman did not marry she was dependent on her relatives for financial support and usually condemned to live with them.