I received some interesting private responses to my message last week raising the question of whether there are still scholars out there who claim JA was hostile or indifferent to, or even ambivalent about, Wollstonecraft's vindication of the rights of woman. One misconception of my own which I have now recognized, after doing some further reading and reflection, is that I was confusing the conservative/liberal dichotomy with the feminist/anti-feminist dichotomy, when they are not necessarily the same. And I think that same confusion has plagued some of the published scholarly discussion of these questions as well.
By this I mean that I realize now that JA could be both a feminist, in the sense of being a staunch, even radical vindicator of the rights of women, and yet also, in some ways, also be a conservative, in the sense of being very wary of social reforms and "improvements" ( a term that Alistair Duckworth put on the map of JA criticism many years ago, in brilliantly illustrating that JA intended this word as a metaphor for more than the literal sense of improvements of great estates).
In a nutshell, just because JA hated the way women were treated in her world, it doesn't mean that she was thereby automatically an advocate for the kind of societal "reform" represented by Henry and Mary Crawford. Mary thought of herself as an emancipated woman, and JA's skepticism about the value of that "emancipation" is evident in MP, even as I think she also, in her authorial honesty, also reveals a bit of ambivalence about Mary, which is why, I think, a fair percentage of readers of MP (not including myself) wish that Mary had been the heroine and not Fanny. E.g., it is not merely Mary who teasingly makes sexual puns, but Jane Austen herself.
I think JA was intensely pragmatic, and was very much afraid of throwing out the baby (the entire social structure) with the bath water (the pervasive injustices perpetrated against powerless women). I also think she mistrusted the "revolutionaries", having seen what murderous madness became routine in France after the Revolution (and had she witnessed the Russian Revolution, she'd have surely been saying, "Yes, here we go with more male revolutionaries, who are, incredibly, making things even worse than the horrifically awful they were before").
And she saw firsthand the havoc that "improvers" had wreaked on the social fabric of the English countryside, in pursuit of a sublime landscape.....and a lot of money! And a reader of her novels makes a VERY big mistake in failing to realize that the glare from the dazzling of Lizzy's eyes by Pemberley, and of Emma's by Donwell Abbey, has distracted our heroines from noticing the one-legged beggar her carriage passed on the road on the way there. This is no accident, or unconscious authorial slip, JA very intentionally wanted her readers to realize this.
In short, I see no inconsistency in JA being a strong critic of the status quo, and at the same time being very very suspicious of, and cynical about, and therefore conservative about, abuses perpetrated in the name of "improvement" of that status quo, along the lines of "We Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who:
"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
I think her long range goal was, by the subtle effects of her fiction on her readers, to change the hearts and minds of enough women, so as to finally empower them to cut the patriarchal "boss" down to size, a process which is still in progress in our society and the outcome of which is not clear.
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