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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft hovering (benevolently) over Jane Austen’s fiction

As I posted not long ago, my JASNA AGM presentation in early October of this year in Southern California was about a theme which I see in the shadows of all of Jane Austen’s writings, over a quarter century, from her juvenilia through her very last novel fragment, letter, and poem written in 1817:

“I perceive an inspirational maternal presence hovering over these expressions of the power of the strong mind over the weak, and the accompanying duty to be useful in exercise of that power. That ghost is the female author of genius who preceded Austen in publication, in protofeminism, and in death --Mary Wollstonecraft, who throughout Austen’s career, I will argue, seemed to call to her successor to remember her advocacy for the power of the strong female mind. I believe Wollstonecraft electrified the teenaged Jane Austen in late 1791 with her revolutionary Vindication. Then I believe Mary’s death in childbirth in late 1797, and the ensuing misogynist attack on Mary’s legacy, further radicalized the 22 year old Jane.
At the 2010 JASNA AGM, I argued that the late Mrs. Tilney was the symbol of Mary Wollstonecraft and all the other victims of that uniquely female childbed epidemic. I also believe Wollstonecraft’s tragic death inspired Austen to pick up the pen dropped by her fallen idol, and to further the cause of strengthening female minds, and to strive for gender justice, in innovative fiction writing that even Wollstonecraft never dreamt of.” 

In my AGM talk, I presented a range of evidence that Wollstonecraft was a huge, continuing inspiration for all of Austen’s writing, much more central and pervasive than ever before recognized. Here is what I said regarding one strand of such evidence:

“Wollstonecraft also played a special role throughout Austen’s writing career, as a source of scene ideas----snapshots in the Vindication illustrating deplorable situations, such as the snobbish young woman who disrespects an older lady down on her luck (long recognized as being dramatized by Austen in the Box Hill scene in Emma) and the greedy couple cheating vulnerable female family members out of inheritance (of course Fanny and John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility). If you read the Wollstonecraft synopsis alongside its Austen dramatization, in each case I assure you there would be no doubt in your mind that Austen had Wollstonecraft on the brain as she wrote her novels.”

Today I’m back on that same point, because I just learned of still more echoes of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication in Austen’s writings. In an article hot off the virtual presses, “Human-Animal "Mother-Love" in Novels by Olive Schreiner” by Valerie L. Stevens in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 61/2 (2018), I just read this:

“…In Mansfield Park (1814), Jane Austen satirizes the novel's lazy and indifferent mother: "To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days … thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience." While Austen renders her critique in a playful tone, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Power Cobbe present the bad mother as no laughing matter. Wollstonecraft's AVOTROW (1792) chastises "she who takes her dogs to bed, and nurses them with a parade of sensibility, [but] when sick, will suffer her babes to grow up crooked in a nursery," highlighting the proximity of the pet as the mother's bedfellow, as well as the moral and physical deficiency (crookedness) resulting for the child with such poor upbringing. This behavior is represented as offensive, especially as it blurs the lines between human and animal: "I have been desired to observe the pretty tricks of a lap-dog, that my perverse fate forced me to travel with. Is it surprising that such a tasteless being should rather caress this dog than her children?”

That brief quotation sent me back to The Vindication to find the full excerpt which Austen had, as Stevens indicated, dramatized in Mansfield Park in her indolent ‘lady of fashion’ cum ‘lap-dog’, Lady Bertram:

“The lady who sheds tears for the bird starved in a snare, and execrates the devils in the shape of men, who goad to madness the poor ox or whip the patient ass, tottering under a burden above its strength, will nevertheless keep her coachman and horses whole hours waiting for her, when the sharp frost bites, or the rain beats against the well-closed windows which do not admit a breath of air to tell how roughly the wind blows without. And she who takes her dogs to bed, and nurses them with a parade of sensibility, when sick, will suffer her babes to grow up crooked in a nursery.
This illustration of my argument is drawn from a matter of fact. The woman whom I allude to was handsome, reckoned very handsome, by those who did not miss the mind when the face is plump and fair; but her understanding had not been led from female duties by literature, nor her innocence debauched by knowledge. No, she was quite feminine, according to the masculine acceptation of the word; and, so far from loving these spoiled brutes that filled the place which her children ought to have occupied, she only lisped out a pretty mixture of French and English nonsense to please the men who flocked round her. The wife, mother, and human creature, were all swallowed up by the factitious character which an improper education and the selfish vanity of beauty had produced.
I do not like to make a distinction without a difference, and I own that I have been as much disgusted by the fine lady who took her lap-dog to her bosom instead of her child; as by the ferocity of a man, who beating his horse, declared that he knew as well when he did wrong as a Christian. This brood of folly shows how mistaken they are who, if they allow women to leave their harems, do not cultivate their understandings in order to plant virtues in their hearts. For had they sense, they might acquire that domestic taste which would lead them to love with reasonable subordination their whole family, from their husband to the housedog; nor would they ever insult humanity in the person of the most menial servant by paying more attention to the comfort of a brute than to that of a fellow-creature.”

So, that clearly added yet another Austenian dramatization of a Wollstonecraft story idea to my list. But I also noticed, in the first paragraph of that quoted excerpt from the Vindication, the presence of two other female characters who Austen borrowed from Wollstonecraft:

“The lady…will nevertheless keep her coachman and horses whole hours waiting for her, when the sharp frost bites, or the rain beats against the well-closed windows which do not admit a breath of air to tell how roughly the wind blows without.”

Of course, in Pride & Prejudice that is the unfeeling “abominably rude” Anne de Bourgh whom we see through Elizabeth Bennet’s jaundiced, jealous eyes:

“La! my dear,” said Maria, quite shocked at the mistake, “it is not Lady Catherine. The old lady is Mrs. Jenkinson, who lives with them; the other is Miss de Bourgh. Only look at her. She is quite a little creature. Who would have thought that she could be so thin and small?”
“She is abominably rude to keep Charlotte out of doors in all this wind. Why does she not come in?”
“Oh, Charlotte says she hardly ever does. It is the greatest of favours when Miss de Bourgh comes in.”


“The woman whom I allude to was handsome, reckoned very handsome, by those who did not miss the mind when the face is PLUMP and FAIR; but her understanding had not been led from female duties by literature, nor her innocence debauched by knowledge. No, she was quite feminine, according to the masculine acceptation of the word…”

And that, in Emma, is Harriet Smith, viewed through Emma’s imaginist, uncritical, decidedly non-Wollstonecraftian rose-colored spectacles:

““She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, PLUMP, and FAIR, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging—not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk—and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces, should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connexions. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of her.”

And, as I browsed the rest of that chapter in the Vindication, I realized that one more Austen novel had taken up hidden residence in its shadows. Recall that in the above quotation from my AGM talk, I asserted that Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel which most pointedly and pervasively celebrated and furthered the artistic, political, spiritual legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft. In that light, I now have a challenge for you. Can you spot, in the following passage, which appears in the Vindication right before the Anne de Bourgh/Lady Bertram/Harriet Smith excerpt, the single sentence which Jane Austen turned into not one but two of the most memorable and thematically significant lines in Northanger Abbey?:

Humanity to animals should be particularly inculcated as a part of national education, for it is not at present one of our national virtues. Tenderness for their humble dumb domestics, amongst the lower class, is oftener to be found in a savage than a civilized state. For civilization prevents that intercourse which creates affection in the rude hut, or mud hovel, and leads uncultivated minds who are only depraved by the refinements which prevail in the society, where they are trodden under foot by the rich, to domineer over them to revenge the insults that they are obliged to bear from their superiors.
This habitual cruelty is first caught at school, where it is one of the rare sports of the boys to torment the miserable brutes that fall in their way. The transition, as they grow up, from barbarity to brutes to domestic tyranny over wives, children, and servants, is very easy….”

Did you see it? It’s the last quoted sentence:  “The TRANSITION, as they grow up, from barbarity to brutes to DOMESTIC TYRANNY over wives, children, and servants, is very EASY.”

I’ll bet many of you now see or hear the two deliberate and significant echoes of that last, short sentence in Northanger Abbey, which I’ll now unpack one by one.

Here’s the first such echoing passage in Northanger Abbey:

“Delighted with [Catherine’s] progress [in understanding principles of the picturesque], 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.”

At first it may seem to you that this echoing of Wollstonecraft’s “easy transition” by Austen, even if intentional, is superficial and trivial. What is there in common, after all, between (1) Wollstonecraft’s straightforward description of the dreadful progression from the cruelty of boys toward animals to the tyranny of powerful men over the other members of their households, on the one hand, and (2) Austen’s witty description of the progression in Henry’s lecture on the picturesque, from specific landscape features up to the larger societal forces which impacted the English rural landscape, on the other?

Only everything! When we recognize the contrast between Wollstonecraft’s and Austen’s approaches – logical argument vs. no apparent argument at all --- we can see how they actually couldn’t be more congruent and interrelated. I.e., Austen and Wollstonecraft take very different rhetorical paths in order to make the same essential moral point. Wollstonecraft writes without irony about how, in a patriarchal, sexist society, the child is father to the man, with the common denominator being cruelty to those less powerful. Boys torture the nonhuman animals within their power, but men tyrannize their entire family who are within their vastly greater power. No ambiguity or unclarity there.

Whereas, in Austen, the condescending Henry, waxing eloquent, thinks he’s just opening Catherine’s eyes and mind to visual aesthetics. However, the knowing reader recognizes that in Henry’s transition from visual details of the English landscape to discussing enclosure and the role of the crown and the government in shaping that landscape, he has unwittingly leapt to a true Gothic horror -- the wholesale destruction and sealing off of the great natural commons from ordinary, powerless people by “great men” like General Tilney, who care more about the view from their mansion than for the lives of their poor neighbors and the countryside they live in, which he has taken over.

Little wonder, then, that when Henry finally transitions to politics, it is all too easy for him to cop out and go silent. At that point in the novel, Henry is still unable or unwilling to admit to Catherine that English politics, totally controlled by those same powerful men who in Wollstonecraft’s analysis oppress their families, are totally also corrupt and complicit in these society-wide evils as well. It’s just the next all-too “easy transition” from (1) animal to (2) wife, children and servants, to (3) the entire natural world and the society of powerless people who make up 99% of the population. Henry is silent about that oppression in exactly the same way as, later on at the Abbey, he cluelessly lets slip, when he castigates Catherine and drives her to humiliated tears, for her daring to suspect bad intent in the ruling national power structure which allowed husband-father-masters to tyrannize their families without compunction, restriction, or adverse consequences.

And note also that in writing this scene at Beechen Cliff in which Henry Tilney pretentiously lectures Catherine about aesthetics, while preferring to remain silent about the horrors of what was lost in the process, Jane Austen surely had in the back of her mind what she had written a quarter century earlier, at  age fifteen, in her satirical History of England; when --- not coincidentally ---soon after the publication of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, Austen tossed this savage satirical parting grenade at the quintessential male bully, Henry VIII: “…nothing can be said in his VINDICATION, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape.”

That “vindication” is, I assert, a loaded tip of the hat to Wollstonecraft, which the mature Austen revisited in greater detail in the scene at Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey.

And that brings me to the second of my fresh Northanger Abbey discoveries, which is actually the bookend to that first one – a veiled allusion to that sentence of Wollstonecraft in the following passage which literally ends her book!:

“To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.”

In referring to “parental tyranny”, Austen is, I now see, winking broadly at Wollstonecraft’s reference to “domestic tyranny” in that same sentence, and is wittily leaving it to “whomsoever it may concern” (meaning, every single woman reading the novel!) to figure out whether Austen is inciting them to rise up against the kind of everyday “parental tyranny” symbolized in every possible way by General Tilney.

Austen’s point is that the General does not represent one aberrant “bad apple” among English patriarchs; chillingly, he represents the norm, because it’s not just about an evil man, it’s about a culture that fosters wrongdoing in ordinary men. In Northanger Abbey, as in all her other novels, Austen has done her very best to further Wollstonecraft’s vision of a world with women and men having equal powers and rights,  by teaching women what was worth knowing to assist that paradise to arrive sooner. That worthwhile knowledge is that the system was rigged against women, and the only rational option was for her female readers to teach themselves, using her novels as tools toward enlightenment and spurs toward action, to vindicate their own rights, since no one else was going to do that for them; except for any male allies --- good but clueless men like Henry, who were capable of learning that in some crucial ways Catherine was far wiser than he --- who might join the struggle for equal rights for women.

And as we look at very recent events in which women around the world today are beginning to be listened to about horrid aspects of sexual oppression which, if anything, must’ve even been far worse when Wollstonecraft and Austen lived, perhaps these are real steps in a very difficult but very long overdue, transition to speaking (rather than being silenced) about all oppression of women, whether domestic or societal, which surely both Wollstonecraft and Austen would be cheering for as the vindication of their protofeminist efforts! And there’s more need than ever for good men to listen, learn, and then dive into the struggle against “domestic” and all other tyranny over women.

So now I defy the sagacity of those who continue to deny Austen’s strong, subversive feminism to read Northanger Abbey in light of all of the above, without sensing the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft benevolently hovering over the road to the Abbey, spreading enlightenment and perfume all the way.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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