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Sunday, September 1, 2013

The “Easy Transition” from the Overt Feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft to the Covert Radical Feminism of Jane Austen



In my last post, I took note of Jane Austen’s (very thinly veiled) allusion to one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s most powerful feminist statements, about how the laws of England are toxic to married women:  

"The laws respecting woman, which I mean to discuss in a future part,  make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere CIPHER."  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Chapter 9, at page 307.

I then noted that Jane Austen had clearly used the word “cipher” in Northanger Abbey (both overtly and in the veiled wordplay identified by Anielka and supplemented by myself) in part as an allusion to that very statement by Wollstonecraft, which must have made a powerful impact on the teenaged Jane Austen when she read them (as I believe she did) when they were published in 1792.

I believe they made such a powerful impact on Jane Austen, in fact, that she included a very prominent and very ironic reference to those toxic marital laws of England in Henry Tilney’s rant about Englishmen as Christians who could never commit atrocities. Northanger Abbey was a novel, after all, that she revised for the last time in 1816, and therefore it represented the views of JA at the end of her life, just as much as it did when she was barely into her twenties and writing Susan, the first version of NA nearly twenty years earlier.  

But now I see some even more brilliant wordplay hiding in plain sight in JA’s subversive homage to Wollstonecraft’s above passage about English marital laws---allusive wordplay which points to that passage very specifically!

Can you spot it?  It’s really a quintessential Austenian veiled wordplay allusion:

Wollstonecraft’s irony is withering as she describes the subtle casuistry, the Catch-22 that undergirds the horrid effects of English marital law on English wives. She points out the diabolical chain of logic involved—first they pass a law absurdly giving the husband power over every legal aspect of marriage, including everything to do with the wife. By then the horse is already outside the barn, and therefore it is an “easy transition” from this absurd, grotesque premise to the “natural” conclusion, which is that a married women is not merely legally powerless, she almost ceases to exist as  independent moral, psychological, emotional being—she is  “reduced to a mere cipher”, or as we might say today, she becomes a zombie (and that reminds me, what a great opportunity was missed by the author of Pride &Prejudice & Zombies—he could have tapped into Jane Austen’s actual feminist subtext, instead of merely exploiting the current popularity of P&P by linking it in the most simple-minded, montonic way to the modern fantasy horror genre craze).  

But back to Wollstonecraft’s quote---where have Janeites heard that sort of ironic chain of perverse logic involving an “easy transition” before in the novels of Jane Austen?  I bet some of you do hear the echo, but for those who don’t here it is, in two places, both in the very same paragraph of Northanger Abbey:

“[Henry] talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by AN EASY TRANSITION from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was AN EASY STEP to silence. The general pause which succeeded his short disquisition on the state of the nation was put an end to by Catherine….”

So how remarkable it is that this passage so closely resembles Henry Tilney’s “We are Christians” rant, which itself could be perfectly described as a “short disquisition on the state of the nation”? It’s clear that Jane Austen means for the close reader to connect them.  In each of them, we have an edict by Henry about “weighty” topics, in which he assumes the self-appointed mantle of Great Teacher, as he moves from one subtopic to the next, overawing (or so he believes) Catherine with his great erudition.

And how fitting---how perfect!---, that both of these passages in NA which subvert of patriarchal authority  are also both veiled allusions to Wollstonecraft’s inspiring condemnation of  English marriage laws. In one passage, JA makes prominent ironic reference to English laws which supposedly protect women, in the other passage, she makes wordplay reference to Wollstonecraft, by using the identical phrase, “an easy transition “ to describe pure casuistry by a man claiming exclusive authority about The Truth.

This dual veiled allusion to Wollstonecraft in Northanger Abbey validates and reaffirms my claim that Mrs. Tilney is the symbol of married English women who got the shaft (in all nuances of that word) from English laws, customs, religion and philosophy. I had not previously fully understood how important, in a very specific thematic way, Wollstonecraft was to that symbolism. Wollstonecraft may not have written about death in childbirth/serial pregnancy as a kind of mass epidemic afflicting English wives, but the clear implications of what she did write were fully noted by Jane Austen, and that is why JA included this double allusion to Wollstonecraft, as an homage to the intellectual mentor who inspired JA to her own original insights.

Has an allusion to Wollstonecraft’s famous “mere cipher” passage this been argued before? No, but I did find a remarkable passage in an outside-the-box 2006 article by Terry Robinson, where he does everything  but mention Mary Wollstonecraft as being integral to a subversive reading of Northanger Abbey: 

“In the end, Catherine appears a convert. The narrator notifies the reader that “The visions of romance were over,” and that after Henry chastises her, Catherine “hate[s] herself more than she c[an] express”
(Austen 173). Later, though, the narrator adds an ironic and revealing twist: It was not three months ago since, wild with joyful expectation, [Catherine] had there run backwards and forwards some ten times a-day, with an heart light, gay, and independent; looking forward to pleasures untasted and unalloyed, and free from the apprehension of evil as from the knowledge of it. Three months ago had seen her all this; and now, how altered a being did she return! (207)
The critical tendency to read this passage (which undoubtedly suggests a move from innocence to experience) as evidence of Catherine’s maturation (her successful entrance into and participation in society as aided by Henry Tilney) fails to capture a more complicated possibility: that despite Henry’s countless impositions, Catherine has not become his protégée, A MERE CIPHER of his aesthetic. Rather, Catherine gains “knowledge” and “apprehension of evil” as a direct result of her associative and interpretive powers.” “  END QUOTE

As must be obvious, I could not agree more with Robinson’s capturing of the “more complicated possibility” that Catherine is the true wise one in the novel, not Henry. But I also find it clear that Robinson---even though he does not cite, or even mention, Wollstonecraft by name anywhere in his article---has clearly got Vindication in mind when he (apparently unconsciously) quotes from it, and totally aptly, in opining that Catherine  has not become  “a mere cipher” of Henry’s aesthetic.

I conclude with the acknowledgment that while Jane Austen probably would have preferred to have the above explanations of her covert radical feminism be given by women, I believe it would have been a genuinely easy step for her to approve of its being expressed even by men, so long as it was done in recognition of her worthy (and, sadly, still relevant) feminist purposes.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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