INTRODUCTION: A year ago I began work in earnest on the talk I eventually presented at the last JASNA AGM in October 2017. My topic was Jane Austen’s persistent literary focus throughout her writing career on the idea of “the power of the strong mind (like hers) over the weak”. In observance of the bicentennial of JA’s death, I zeroed in on three of her lesser known writings from 1817, her last year of life: the Sanditon fragment; her letter to Anne Sharp, former Godmersham governess and, say I, lesbian beloved of JA; and Austen’s defiant claim of immortality, her deathbed “When Winchester Races”. Those late writings repeatedly made explicit the “strong mind” theme which I claim was implicit from JA’s juvenilia onward.
Since I gave that talk (and also an expanded version thereof, to my Portland JASNA friends), I’ve continued to collect more evidence in that same vein. It all tells me that maybe the greatest single influence on Austen’s thinking, morality, and writing was not (as I’ve long argued) Shakespeare, or even Richardson or the Bible, but, by a slight margin over the Bard, the great proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (hereafter WSC for short), JA’s near contemporary and inspirational role model.
WSC died a horrific early death in 1797 in the immediate aftermath of giving birth to a daughter, also a Mary (Shelley), who would herself gain fame two decades later for writing a tale of a horrid birth perhaps inspired by her own, i.e., that of Frankenstein’s tragic monster. I believe that WSC’s death ignited JA’s writing career, by giving her a defining mission – to not merely carry on the protofeminist ideals of her fallen idol, but to surpass WSC by embodying radical feminist ideas in fictional stories that would (as two centuries of evidence prove) take the reading world by storm, even more powerfully than even WSC’s nonfiction brilliance could. To paraphrase Edmund Bertram, behind his loud praise for Shakespeare, I hear Austen whispering: “WSC one gets acquainted with by reading her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, and also about her life. She ought to be a part of an Englishman's constitution, but she’s not (yet). I will spread her thoughts and beauties abroad, so that one touches them everywhere; I must make every English person intimate with WSC by instinct….” .
PART ONE: I now present a discovery I recently came upon, which not only adds to my varied collection of veiled Wollstonecraft allusions in Austen’s writings; it also provides crucial context that illuminates Austen’s Hamletian preoccupation with the literary “ghost” of Mary Wollstonecraft.
In a famous passage in Chapter 12 of Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth patronizes Bingley, unwittingly revealing her own narcissistic cockiness. Bingley, I suggest, mocks her (just as Mr. Bennet will similarly mock Mr. Collins, the self-styled expert at complimenting, two chapters later) by calling her a “studier of character”. As you read this passage, please focus on the Wollstonecraftian question under debate: is a village as good a “classroom” for the development of a strong mind -- particularly for the study of character -- as a big city?:
“Whatever I do is done in a hurry,” replied [Bingley]; “and therefore if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here.”
“That is exactly what I should have supposed of you,” said Elizabeth.
“You begin to comprehend me, do you?” cried he, turning towards her.
“Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly.”
“I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful.”
“That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours.”
“Lizzy,” cried her mother, “remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home.”
“I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”
“Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”
“The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”
“But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”
“Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”
Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away. Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a complete victory over him, continued her triumph.
“I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?”
“When I am in the country,” he replied, “I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either.”
“Aye—that is because you have the right disposition. But that gentleman,” looking at Darcy, “seemed to think the country was nothing at all.”
“Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken,” said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother. “You quite mistook Mr. Darcy. He only meant that there was not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in the town, which you must acknowledge to be true.”
“Certainly, my dear, nobody said there were; but as to not meeting with many people in this neighbourhood, I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four-and-twenty families.”
The battle lines have been clearly drawn between Darcy and Mrs. Bennet in the debate --- but is that last diplomatic comment by Eliza a hint to the alert reader that Darcy has planted a seed of doubt in Eliza’s mind, as to whether he might be correct? I.e., has Eliza’s confined village existence at Longbourn near Meryton really provided her with as a good education in human nature as her mother seems to claim?
Hold that question in mind as we now skip forward a dozen chapters to the following speech (which verges on pontification) by Eliza in Chapter 24. Eliza first gently chastises Jane for her Pollyannish willingness to ascribe good motives to all people; but then, in a burst of post-adolescent angst (which the truly worldly-wise Jane Austen no doubt smiled indulgently at as she wrote it), Eliza almost seems to echo Hamlet’s despairing “What a piece of work is man” speech:
“Nay,” said Elizabeth, “this is not fair. You wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill of anybody. I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it. Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal good-will. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. THE MORE I SEE OF THE WORLD, THE MORE AM I DISSATISFIED with it; and every day confirms my belief of the INCONSISTENCY of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately, one I will not mention; the other is Charlotte's marriage. It is unaccountable! In every view it is unaccountable!”
May I suggest that it is crucial that one of the two instances which elicits Eliza’s bewildered anger is Charlotte’s “unaccountable” marriage to Mr. Collins? Why? Because, in a post a few years back, I gave reasons for believing that “unaccountable” was, in part, code for “lesbian” –i.e., that Eliza unwittingly is expressing anger, because she is jealous of Charlotte, who is being “inconsistent” by marrying a man; and what’s worse, then moving far away, instead of remaining at home and continuing her intimate relationship of several years with Elizabeth. And some of you may be aware that WSC’s intensely close relationship with Fanny Blood has led a number of scholars to view WSC as bisexual.
That leads me to my “punch line” --- a penultimate quotation from P&P, three chapters further on, in Chapter 27, when Eliza, still clearly upset about Charlotte and other things, vents her spleen to her wise confidant, her aunt Gardiner, just before Eliza is to leave for Hunsford to see (who else?) Charlotte!:
“Oh! if that is all, I have a very poor opinion of young men who live in Derbyshire; and their intimate friends who live in Hertfordshire are not much better. I am sick of them all. Thank Heaven! I am going to-morrow where I shall find a man who has not one agreeable quality, who has neither manner nor sense to recommend him. Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing, after all.”
“Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment.”
Elizabeth just can’t get Charlotte’s marriage to Collins off her mind; whereupon, Mrs. Gardiner presents her generous antidote to Eliza’s romantic ennui – during the intermission at the theatre (were they by any chance watching Hamlet?), she proposes an exciting road trip to a place her niece Eliza has never been before!:
“…Before they were separated by the conclusion of the play, she had the unexpected happiness of an invitation to accompany her uncle and aunt in a tour of pleasure which they proposed taking in the summer.
“We have not determined how far it shall carry us,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “but, perhaps, to the Lakes.”
No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “Oh, my dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”
Her aunt’s scheme is an immediate success, as it immediately perks Elizabeth up, eliciting Gilpinesque rhapsodies, which slyly echo Eliza’s earlier sly joke on Gilpin’s three or four picturesque cows in the Netherfield shrubbery. But Eliza is curiously vague as to the identity of “the generality of travellers” who, per her evidently wide reading of travel literature, fail “to give one accurate idea of anything” they see during their trip. Might one of those travellers by any chance be….Mary Wollstonecraft?
PART TWO: In answering my last question, above, consider now the following two passages about travel by writers whose works Jane Austen clearly knew very well -indeed, I’ve already hinted at both of them in my Subject Line!:
First, here is the passage which I now assert JA deliberately alluded to in Elizabeth’s above-quoted speech beginning “The more I see of the world…”, in WSC’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Letter 2 (1796):
“THE MORE I SEE OF THE WORLD, THE MORE I AM CONVINCED that civilization is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a VARIETY which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations. Without the aid of the imagination all the pleasures of the sense must sink into grossness, unless continual NOVELTY serve as a substitute for the imagination, which, being impossible, it was to this weariness, I suppose, that Solomon alluded when he declared that there was nothing new under the sun!—nothing for the common sensations excited by the senses. Yet who will deny that the imagination and understanding have made many, very many discoveries since those days, which only seem harbingers of others still more noble and beneficial? I never met with much imagination amongst people who had not acquired a habit of reflection; and in that state of society in which the judgment and taste are not called forth, and formed by the cultivation of the arts and sciences, little of that delicacy of feeling and thinking is to be found characterised by the word sentiment. The want of scientific pursuits perhaps accounts for the hospitality, as well as for the cordial reception which strangers receive from the inhabitants of small towns. Hospitality has, I think, been too much praised by travellers as a proof of goodness of heart, when, in my opinion, indiscriminate hospitality is rather a criterion by which you may form a tolerable estimate of the indolence or vacancy of a head; or, in other words, a fondness for social pleasures in which the mind not having its proportion of exercise, the bottle must be pushed about.”
In a future post I’ll provide a full interpretation of how and why I believe the above passage was echoed by JA in P&P. For now, however, at a minimum, please note that WSC not only provides the model for the exact, epigrammatical verbiage of the beginning of Eliza’s speech; JA’s wink at WSC is carefully situated in the context of ennui about the world as it is and not as we wish it would be, as well in a discussion of village vs. city as “classroom” for education in human nature. And WSC’s analysis is prompted by travel to a new place, just as in the above quoted dialog in Chapter 27 of P&P!
PART THREE: I believe the above discovery is worthy of consideration by those who love Jane Austen and/or Mary Wollstonecraft. Being obsessive, I felt there might be more behind it, so I searched for any other contemporary literary usages of the phrase “The more I see of the world”. Imagine my delight when I found the following additional bit of angst about the human condition in, of all places, another travel account by another famous contemporary author! I refer to Goethe’s Italian Journey, which was drawn from his diary about his travels from 1786-8, but (as far as I can tell) was not published until 1816 (i.e., 20 years after Wollstonecraft’s travel account, and 3 years after P&P was published):
"THE MORE I SEE OF THE WORLD, the less hope I have that humanity as a whole will ever become wise and happy. Among the millions of worlds which exist, there may, perhaps, be one which can boast of such a state of affairs, but given the constitution of our world, I see as little hope for us [in our world] as for the Sicilian in his.”
So, we have not one, not two, but three of the most influential authors of that era each using that same distinctive turn of phrase (the above English translation is from the later 19th century) in an angsting passage inspired or relating to travel far from home.
What does this mean? Candidly, I’m uncertain, mainly because if’s accurate that Goethe wrote his version a decade before WSC’s was published, but it remained private in his then unpublished diary, then how would WSC have read what he wrote (which was in German to boot)? Did Wollstonecraft and Goethe meet during her Continental travels –by which time they were both prominent public intellectuals known throughout Europe? I’m unaware of any evidence pointing to such a meeting, or to any correspondence between them.
And yet, there’s just far too much resonance between these two passages to be coincidental. That’s especially so, when we recall that Richard Godwin, WSC’s famous widower, a few short years after his wife’s death, described her as a “female Werter”, while describing her passionate letters to Imlay, from that same collection of letters which included her version of “The more I see of the world”. By “female Werter”, Godwin was of course referring to Goethe’s most famous literary production, The Sorrows of Werther (a super-famous work which JA alluded to in at least two of her juvenilia, Love and Freindship and Lesley Castle).
All I know for sure at this early point in my delvings into this new information is that it makes Elizabeth Bennet’s world-weary comments about human inconsistency, and her trip to Pemberley during which she undergoes an extraordinary “Wertherian” transformation, much more interesting, when we read them through a Goethean, Wollstonecraftian pair of lenses.
And….I will note in passing that Charlotte Lucas in P&P, like Charlotte Lutterall (sounds a lot like “butter all”) in Lesley Castle, are two Austen characters based in no small part on the fictional Werther’s beloved (Char)Lotte—as I think about JA reading Godwin’s take on Wollstonecraft as a ‘female Werter’, I wonder about the Goethean, Wollstonecrafian overlay of the mysterious Charlotte Lucas.
CONCLUSION: One last point about Austen and WSC, relating to novel-reading. At my 2017 AGM talk, I said this on that point:
“Wollstonecraft decried novel reading as an activity which would never develop strong female minds:
“Novels, music, poetry and gallantry, all tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed during the time they are acquiring accomplishments, the only improvement they are excited, by their station in society, to acquire. This overstretched sensibility naturally relaxes the other powers of the mind, and prevents intellect from attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain, to render a rational creature USEFUL to others, and content with its own station; for the exercise of the understanding, as life advances, is the only method pointed out by nature to calm the passions.”
Curiously, Wollstonecraft wrote the above a few years after an attempt at novelizing of her own called Mary, a Fiction, which she abandoned as a failure. But it appears she reconsidered in 1797, the year she died, when she began working hard on Maria, The Wrongs of Woman—a novel fragment which her husband Godwin published after her death, along with his Memoir. As Susan Lanser observed in 1999:
“Wollstonecraft appeared to experience a “complicated anxiety around the intersections of feminism and sexuality, [which] might explain why [she], once romantically attached to Fanny Blood, figured ‘romantic friendship" in Mary, a Fiction, as "resembl[ing] a passion," yet in The Vindication gratuitously warns women against staying up together at night even to talk, because of the "nasty customs" that girls may have learned "from ignorant servants."
So Wollstonecraft was huge on the idea of useful knowledge in The Vindication, but deeply ambivalent about the role of novels in conveying “useful knowledge” to women. Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t very good at creating characters who lived and breathed, like Austen’s.”
END QUOTE FROM MY AGM TALK
In this post today, I’ve provided dramatic new validation for my above-quoted assertions 6 months ago. And that brings me to my final quotation from P&P, which, I suggest, is Jane Austen, speaking through the mouth of Elizabeth Bennet, about the superiority of her most famous “darling child”, P&P, over any attempt by WSC, however eloquent, to “teach” women readers how to strengthen their minds:
“We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”
I’d say that literary history has proven that JA has indeed taught what is worth knowing, by concealing her pearls of difficult wisdom within a light, bright, and sparkling “shell” which readers will wish to open again and again and again throughout their lives, and therefore the sharp elves keep learning from it.
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