Among the many themes running throughout Jane Austen’s works, her concern for women remains the most discussed these days. Each of her novels is built around a strong female character that makes us reconsider how we view the better half of the human race. There is, however, something lacking from Austen’s work that continues to puzzle modern feminists: the complete lack of a consciously feminist agenda for reform. Consider the following statement from Hooker:
A seed was being planted; women’s communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women.
Hooker’s implied assumption is that early feminism was the seed, but not the flower. It possesses a kernel of truth, but is not able to see it to fruition. Here, I believe, we have a classic case of judging works not on their individual merit, but by an exclusively modern standard of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’. Was Austen concerned about the fare of women? Absolutely! Did Austen intend to remedy this through political and electoral reform? Absolutely not. And this is not because her vision was limited to her own generation. Instead, it is because she understands the general course of human nature and history to teach us that men and women are equal, but different, and that this is a very good thing!
Neither in her life, nor in her writings, was Jane Austen a rebel. Her chief concern was virtue, not rebellion, and against the liberal attempt to erase the distinctions between man and woman, Jane always distinguished between the particular virtues appropriate to men and women, as well as their particular vices and follies. (Wiker 228)
Thus, as even the least perceptive Austen fan could tell you, the strength of Austen’s female characters lies in their moral authority, their quiet strength, and their steadfast devotion – in a word, their character. They were strong women because they were strong people who combined bedrock principles with a prudent, common sense approach to the problems of everyday life, even those problems that were unique to women.
Several specifics could be discussed (two of which we’ll look at next week), but in the end it comes down to this: Austen was not trying to free women from traditional institutions, she was trying to free those institutions (and the men and women within them) from the dross of decay, by pointing them back to their heads and their hearts. As Wiker also points out, though, we unfortunately failed to learn the lesson she did her best to teach:
Sadly, both original species presented by Austen are largely extinct. Women like Elinor [or Elizabeth] have been driven out of the culture by force or ridicule, and the Mariannes [and Kittys] have given way to something even more alarming. The Romantics might have been destructive of themselves and others (as they are in Austen’s novels), but Romanticism has been replaced by something far worse, nihilism – what is really the fulfillment of Romanticism and liberalism. (Wiker 231)
So while the world wanted more Donne and Shakespeare, what they got was Freud and Nietzsche; and this remains the Achilles’ heel of many feminists today. By reducing gender to a mere custom and relationships to a power-play, they have fallen prey to the same fallacy as every abusive chauvinist in history: that sex is a weapon to be yielded, rather than a gift to be nurtured. Austen, however, reminds us of the beauty and splendor of the gift, and calls us back to its enjoyment and true perfection in marital bliss (in the case of her characters) or chaste single-hood (in light of her own example).