I suppose there are still some mainstream Austen scholars who don’t believe Mary Wollstonecraft was a significant influence on Jane Austen’s fiction, but they are fewer in number, and their influence wanes year by year. The bad old days 3 or 4 decades ago--when conservative scholars like Marilyn Butler and Deirdre Le Faye ruled the roost, and dictated opinion about Jane Austen’s supposedly hostile response to Wollstonecraft, the highest profile of the “dangerous”, “Jacobin” “unsex’d females” who dared to challenge male domination of English society in the aftermath of the French Revolution---are long gone.
Instead, we have the likes of Jocelyn Harris convincingly showing the dozen ways in which JA alluded in Emma to Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary A Vindication of the Rights of Women (AVOTROW), and Susan Allen Ford, who, in the 2010 Persuasions Online persuasively demonstrated an allusion to AVOTROW’s extensive coverage of the topic of female education and knowledge, in the witty exchanges between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, which track Wollstonecraft’s critique of Dr. Gregory’s conduct book, sexist “wisdom”: ‘Dr. Gregory…gives his daughters similar advice, irony carefully excluded: “Be even cautious of displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of the company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.’ Gregory defines the exception to his rule—“A man of real genius and candour is far superior to this meanness”—but adds a note of practical caution: “such a one will seldom fall in your way; and if by accident he should, do not be anxious to shew the full extent of your knowledge”. “ END QUOTE FROM FORD ARTICLE
In that same vein, I had been unaware until just the other day that my recent take on Austen’s late juvenilia villainess/heroine Lady Susan as a superpowerful female Nemesis, sicced on the arrogant, complacent patriarchy by Jane Austen, the goddess of gender equity…. http://tinyurl.com/h72mqm3 …..actually also has Wollstonecraftian roots! As I’ll discuss in greater detail in a future post, I strongly recommend you read two excellent articles, which articulate a number of significant ways in which the young Jane Austen drew upon Wollstonecraft’s protofeminist ideas in constructing Lady Susan, her avenging female “Austen-stein monster”:
[A quick, easy read] “Jane Austen Vindicates the Rights of Women” by Sarah Skwire June 2016
[This article is longer, requires careful reading] Persuasions Online #27 (2006) by Betsy Tontiplaphol
“Justice in Epistolary Matters: Revised Rights and Deconstructed Duties in Austen's Lady Susan”
Which is all prelude to my topic today: a stunning Wollstonecraft allusion in Pride & Prejudice. I’ve previously argued that the wonky Bennet sister Mary is based in no small part upon her namesake Mary Wollstonecraft. In 2009, I first identified Mary Bennet as the ‘Good Satan of Longbourn’, whispering "The men shan't come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?" in sister Eliza’s ear, trying (in vain) to warn her next elder sister to resist the irresistible Satanic temptation of Darcy-cum-Pemberley. But today, as my Subject Line hints, I’ll lay out for you even more Wollstonecraft – this time on female education---in P&P, hidden in plain sight in one of the most famous passages in the novel—exactly where it ought to be, as you will shortly see.
At the center of Wollstonecraft’s protofeminist ideology was her assertion that the path to autonomy and equality for women would have to be paved by a program of serious, society-wide female education, coordinated with encouragement of women not to conceal, but to give public demonstration of, their intellectual capacities as improved by that serious education.
In AVOTROW Chapter 5, Wollstonecraft gets down to the nitty gritty, as she first (in Section 5.1) takes on, and demolishes, the great sacred cow of female education, Rousseau:
"Whatever is, is right," [Rousseau] then proceeds triumphantly to infer. Granted; yet, perhaps, no aphorism ever contained a more paradoxical assertion. It is a solemn truth with respect to God. He, reverentially I speak, sees the whole at once, and saw its just proportions in the womb of time; but man, who can only inspect disjointed parts, finds many things wrong; and it is a part of the system, and therefore right, that he should endeavour to alter what appears to him to be so, even while he bows to the wisdom of his Creator, and respects the darkness he labours to disperse.
The inference that follows is just, supposing the principle to be sound: "The superiority of ADDRESS, peculiar to the female sex, is a very equitable indemnification for their inferiority in point of strength: without this, woman would not be the companion of man; but his slave: it is by her superiour ART and ingenuity that she preserves her equality, and governs him while she affects to obey. Woman has every thing against her, as well our faults as her own timidity and weakness: she has nothing in her favour, but her subtilty and her beauty. Is it not very reasonable, therefore, she should cultivate both?" GREATNESS OF MIND can never dwell with CUNNING or ADDRESS; for I shall not boggle about words, when their direct signification is insincerity and falsehood; but content myself with observing, that if any class of mankind be so created that it must necessarily be educated by rules, not strictly deducible from truth, virtue is an affair of convention. How could Rousseau dare to assert, after giving this advice, that in the grand end of existence, the object of both sexes should be the same, when he well knew, that the mind formed by its pursuits, is expanded by great views swallowing up little ones, or that it becomes itself little?
Note in particular this line: “Greatness of mind can never dwell with cunning or address” – does it ring any bells for you Janeites? (hint hint)
Now go on to Section 5.3, where it’s the turn of the genial conduct-book god Dr. Gregory (whom Susan Allen Ford discussed, above) to be taken down a peg or three by Wollstonecraft:
“Such paternal solicitude pervades Dr. Gregory's Legacy to his daughters, that I enter on the task of criticism with affectionate respect; but as this little volume has many attractions to recommend it to the notice of the most respectable part of my sex, I cannot silently pass over arguments that so speciously support opinions which, I think, have had the most baneful effect on the morals and manners of the female world….
…The remarks relative to behaviour, though many of them very sensible, I entirely disapprove of, because it appears to me to be beginning, as it were at the wrong end. A cultivated understanding, and an affectionate heart, will never want starched rules of decorum, something more substantial than seemliness will be the result; and, without understanding, the behaviour here recommended, would be rank affectation. Decorum, indeed, is the one thing needful! decorum is to supplant nature, and banish all simplicity and variety of character out of the female world. Yet what good end can all this superficial counsel produce? It is, however, much easier to point out this or that mode of behaviour, than to set the reason to work; but, when the mind has been stored with useful KNOWLEDGE, and strengthened by being employed, the regulation of the behaviour may safely be left to its guidance.
Why, for instance, should the following caution be given, when ART of every kind must contaminate the mind; and why entangle the grand motives of action, which reason and religion equally combine to enforce, with pitiful worldly shifts and slight of hand tricks to gain the applause of gaping tasteless fools? "Be even cautious in displaying your good sense.” It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of the company— But if you happen to have any learning keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding." If men of real merit, as he afterwards observes, are superior to this MEANNESS, where is the necessity that the behaviour of the whole sex should be modulated to please fools, or men, who having little claim to respect as individuals, choose to keep close in their phalanx. Men, indeed, who insist on their common superiority, having only this sexual superiority, are certainly very excusable.
...Surely it would have been wiser to have advised women to IMPROVE themselves till they rose above the fumes of vanity; and then to let the public opinion come round—for where are rules of accommodation to stop? The narrow path of truth and virtue inclines neither to the right nor left, it is a straight-forward business, and they who are earnestly pursuing their road, may bound over many decorous prejudices, without leaving modesty behind. Make the heart clean, and give the head employment, and I will venture to predict that there will be nothing offensive in the behaviour.
The AIR OF FASHION, which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antiques; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character. This varnish of fashion, which seldom sticks very close to sense, may dazzle the weak; but leave nature to itself, and it will seldom disgust the wise. Besides, when a woman has sufficient sense not to pretend to any thing which she does not understand in some degree, there is no need of determining to hide her talents under a bushel. Let things take their natural course, and all will be well.
It is this system of DISSIMULATION, throughout the volume, that I DESPISE. Women are always to seem to be this and that—yet virtue might apostrophize them, in the words of Hamlet—Seems! I KNOW not seems!—Have that within that passeth show!—“
Did you also hear a little ‘ping’ of Austenian remembrance when you read “It is this system of dissimulation…that I despise”?
In short….if you’ve read these passages in AVOTROW with reasonable care, and have paid particular attention to the ALL CAPS words and phrases, the Janeites among you must have already guessed which passage I am going to present to you now from P&P, which I claim was JA’s deliberate echoing of those very same passages in AVOTROW. It’s the scene in Chapter 8 in which the subject of (shocking!) true female accomplishment comes up – and once again, note that the ALL CAPS words and phrases are the very same ones we saw in the AVOTROW passages quoted above:
"Oh! certainly," cried [Darcy’s] faithful assistant [Miss Bingley], "no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough KNOWLEDGE of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her AIR and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her ADDRESS and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."
"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the IMPROVEMENT of her mind by extensive reading."
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."
"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"
"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united."
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley both cried out against the injustice of her implied doubt, and were both protesting that they knew many women who answered this description, when Mr. Hurst called them to order, with bitter complaints of their inattention to what was going forward. As all conversation was thereby at an end, Elizabeth soon afterwards left the room.
"Elizabeth Bennet," said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, "is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very MEAN ART."
"Undoubtedly," replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly ADDRESSED, "there is a MEANNESS in all the ARTS which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to CUNNING is DESPICABLE."
Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject….”
And while we’re at it, also have a peek at these two other lines in P&P, which, I suggest, constitute additional tips of the literary hat by JA to those same passages in Chapter 5 of AVOTROW:
Chapter 3: “[Bingley’s] sisters were fine women, with an AIR OF decided FASHION.”
Ch. 48: [Mr. Bennet] "Lizzy, I bear you no ill-will for being justified in your advice to me last May, which, considering the event, shows some GREATNESS OF MIND."
So, what to make of all of this? My preliminary take is as follows. Over a year ago, I suggested here…
…that the book of which Darcy was reading Volume 1 in the Netherfield salon was surely a novel, and probably Burney’s Cecilia. I’d like to now amend my earlier guess, and instead suggest that the book was none other than Wollstonecraft’s Vindication! I.e., Darcy at that moment is trying to get Elizabeth’s attention, and show her what a great guy he really is, by winking repeatedly at Wollstonecraft, whom he guesses (I believe correctly) is a writer whom Elizabeth has read and admired.
And the spectacular climax to that scene occurs when the witty Darcy (ergo also, obviously, the witty Jane Austen) comes up a devastating bon mot right after Eliza leaves the room (but when he knew Eliza would be listening at the keyhole!). Caroline Bingley (the quintessence of the elegant female Rousseau, Gregory, et al. held up as an ideal) attempts to diss Elizabeth’s “paltry device, a very mean art”, and Darcy’s memorable riposte has, we all now can see, an unmistakable Wollstonecraftian subtext!:
"Undoubtedly there is a MEANNESS in all the ARTS which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to CUNNING is DESPICABLE."
No wonder “Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject”! And you will also be interested to know ---as Darcy clearly knew-- that the word “cunning” is used an extraordinary total of TWENTY NINE times by Wollstonecraft in AVOTROW, in almost all cases to refer to the actions of “ladies” like Miss Bingley! I believe his true audience was Elizabeth eavesdropping at the door, who must have been delighted to hear herself so cleverly defended!
I conclude with two other passages in P&P which are undoubtedly JA’s final winks in the novel at Wollstonecraft in general, and at Darcy’s “cunning” stratagems in the Netherfield salon in particular:
Chapter 39: She then spoke of the letter, repeating the whole of its contents as far as they concerned George Wickham. What a stroke was this for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual. Nor was DARCY’S VINDICATION, though grateful to her feelings, capable of consoling her for such discovery. Most earnestly did she labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear the one without involving the other.
Chapter 43: Elizabeth here felt herself called on to say something in VINDICATION of his behaviour to Wickham; and therefore gave them to understand, in as guarded a manner as she could, that by what she had heard from his relations in Kent, his actions were capable of a very different construction; and that his character was by no means so faulty, nor Wickham's so amiable, as they had been considered in Hertfordshire. In confirmation of this, she related the particulars of all the pecuniary transactions in which they had been connected, without actually naming her authority, but stating it to be such as might be relied on.
In both instances, we grasp the sad, almost tragic, irony that Elizabeth has come to revere Darcy’s letter to her as a kind of Vindication of the Right Behaviour of Mr. Darcy! It is almost tragic, because, in the shadow story of P&P, we can see the clear progression of Elizabeth in precisely the opposite direction to the one advocated so passionately by Wollstonecraft. I.e., Elizabeth, in the first half of P&P, nails Darcy for the narcissistic, cruel jerk he is—but then, as illustrated by these two passages in the second half of the novel, as a result of reading Darcy’s self-serving, mendacious “Vindication” (which stands in relation to Wollstonecraft’s classic as a Satanic text compares to the Bible!), Elizabeth surrenders her spirit, her intellect, even her conscience (vis a vis Jane), all in a craven, desperate capitulation to Darcy’s systematic, cunning, and entirely successful campaign of persuasion.
Eliza, you shoulda listened to “Mary”.
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P.S. The next Austen novel I am going to comb for traces of Wollstonecraft influence will be Sense & Sensibility, given that four of the other five usages of the word “vindication” in the entire Austen novelistic canon, besides the two in P&P, appear in the novel which JA completed between writing Lady Susan and completing Pride & Prejudice, all of which suggests JA’s sustained and constant interest in Wollstonecraft’s ideas throughout JA’s writing career:
“When the particulars of this conversation were repeated by Miss Dashwood to her sister, as they very soon were, the effect on her was not entirely such as the former had hoped to see. Not that Marianne appeared to distrust the truth of any part of it, for she listened to it all with the most steady and submissive attention, made neither objection nor remark, attempted no VINDICATION of Willoughby, and seemed to shew by her tears that she felt it to be impossible.
…Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs; and all the comfort that could be given by assurances of her own composure of mind, and a very earnest VINDICATION of Edward from every charge but of imprudence, was readily offered.
…Willoughby, "poor Willoughby," as she now allowed herself to call him, was constantly in her thoughts; she would not but have heard his VINDICATION for the world, and now blamed, now acquitted herself for having judged him so harshly before.
…Mrs. Dashwood did not hear unmoved the VINDICATION of her former favourite. She rejoiced in his being cleared from some part of his imputed guilt;--she was sorry for him;--she wished him happy. “