Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lost daughter: Jane Austen, part six (Russo and Broemel)

And now to a more formal analysis of the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft on Jane Austen, continuing on from our first look at the connection. By serendipity, this month sees Women in Revolutionary Debate: Female Novelists from Burney to Austen by Stephanie Russo of Macquarie University. (That is in Sydney, Australia, where there's a suburb named after Mary's nephew.) It has just been published by Hes & de Graaf, who describe it thus:
In the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries novels were believed to have the power to change behaviour, and affect the political landscape of society on a large scale. The English response to the French Revolution can be traced through a reading of the novels of the period. The French Revolution in itself was indelibly associated with the domestic arena, and, thus, by extension, with women. Again and again in novels of the period, and particularly in women’s novels, the stability, or otherwise, of the family reflects the stability of government and of the nation. It was through the medium of the novel that women could enter the debate on revolution, using their novels as means through which to explore many of the dominant social and political issues of the day.
The novel was a medium uniquely suited to an exploration of revolutionary ideologies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The emerging form of the novel offered a unique opportunity for women to present new, challenging perspectives on the revolutionary crisis of the 1790s. The works of Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Robinson, Maria Edgeworth, Mrs Bullock and Jane Austen, all occupy an important place in this debate, and indeed, in the history of the novel. They demonstrate that women were at the forefront of development of the form of the novel itself.
 The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers says the monograph is
a very good read, and a highly important work for everyone who is interested in the history of ideas, culture and society, and, in particular, in the history of women who did not only embroider cushions while waiting in the parlour for Mister Darcy, but who took their opportunities to change their situation and to influence their society by means of literature.
So, a side by side comparison of the novels of Mary and Jane! Alas, the book-buying budget is not up to 60 euros. In fact, it is probably about 60 euros short of the sum needed. Still, there are libraries, are there not?

From the professional to the amateur (and how we love the enthusiasts): via the useful suggestion of a fellow blogger, I've begun to read the huge resources at, a Jane Austen website set up in 1998, "Revised: September 1, 2001" and apparently not touched since then. It runs to long, detailed pages full of quotes from the Austen canon, biographies, history, other novelists' work - but not other bloggers. No comments or feedback and definitely no social buttons. This is (relatively) early web stuff, thinking things through for oneself and using a static website as a way to keep all those thoughts in one coherent, self-governed place. Self-publishing in the old sense. The "editor", who in fact seems to have written reams and reams, goes by the name of Sophia Sentiment, but also admits to Linda Broemel. She claims James Austen's words as self-description: 'eccentric by principle' and 'irregular by system', but this is an excess of modesty. She has given us Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Other Contemporaries of Jane Austen and Women Writers and Other Influences In Jane Austen's Time
In this second page, we turn to the literature of Jane Austen's time. The emphasis is on those things that Jane Austen might have read - on possible Jane-Austen influences. We will discover that Jane Austen's time seems to have been a golden age for women writers. We also attempt to understand how the male voices of our Lady's time thought about women. - What were their attitudes?
Then The Gathering Storm: Godwin, Malthus and revolutions and a few dozen other long essays (Mary Shelley and Marxism ,Wollstonecraft on Dr Fordyce's sermons, Women and inheritance, Henry Fielding on love, Anti-Catholic riots in London 1780). There are tables of contents to whet the appetite.

My own Austen musings led me to discover her secret nod, in which she names a contentious protagonist after two of the most formative individuals in Mary Wollstonecraft's life. Since becoming aware of the theories of Arnie Perlstein and the others we've looked at earlier, I have re-read parts of Northanger Abbey. For those of you who haven't memorised the Janeite canon, that's the one that mocks or spoofs the gothic genre, and it contains the famous defence of novel-reading, by a man of marriageable age. (He also has certain telling things to say about the nature of men and women, character and reason.)  I note with interest that Isabella Thorpe, the young schemer who ensnares first Catherine Morland's brother and then Eleanor Tilney's, is said to live at Putney, a village long swallowed by the growth of Victorian London, as was Newington Green. Putney Bridge was the site of Mary's second suicide attempt. Why else would JA name-check it? But not only these facts set out the influence that the polemicist had on the novelist: even the prose style echoes it. When the heart-sore Henry James* writes to his sister to reveal the deception of her erstwhile friend, he says, "if ever man had reason to believe himself loved, I was that man." Cf. "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book." OK, that's not Mary herself, but her husband, or I should say, widower. Quibble. It seems clear to me that Jane Austen was responding to Mary Wollstonecraft's life and work.

But really, that may be enough Austen for now: six servings in a row. Just one more thing: the wonderful Chawton House has a wealth of resources about female writers, and Valerie Patten has written a fine potted biography of Mary Wollstonecraft there, which you may prefer to mine.

Tomorrow, a new series, weekly, infinite, no rush: statues. Finally!

[*Slip of the pen. I wrote "heart-sore Henry", when of course it should have been "jilted James". I do know the difference, really, but was led by astray by alliteration. Thanks, commenters, for keeping me on my toes.]

Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra. (1773-1845) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Hi Roberta! I LOVE your pickup on Jane Austen choosing Putney as Isabella Thorpe's hometown, as a "bread crumb" pointing to Mary Wollstonecraft. Did you know that she not only attempted suicide there after her relationship with Imlay affair ended, but that was also where she arranged for her two sisters to be parlor boarders at Mrs. Bregantz's school a few years before then, where Mary would visit them? this points us to Isabella Thorpe as another representation of Mary WSC in Northanger Abbey (in addition to the "ghost" of Mrs. Tilney, given that Mary WSC died in the aftermath of childbirth). And it fits very well, as that makes Captain Tilney (sounds a little like Imlay) a representation of the rakish, unfaithful "Captain" Gilbert Imlay (who never attained the rank of Captain, but called himself one anyway!).

    And there are other important aspects of this allusion to Wollstonecraft and Imlay which fit very nicely with my sense of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey.

    This sort of "name tagging" (I also call them "bread crumbs", as in Hansel & Gretel) is so characteristic of Jane Austen.

    There's only one minor mistake in your above post--it's not Henry Tilney who writes to Catherine about being jilted by Isabella, it's Catherine's brother, James Morland.

    But who cares about an insignificant error when you provide such a wonderful wormhole into the inner "recesses" of Northanger Abbey!

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  2. Thanks Arnie, for pulling me up so politely. It was a slip of the pen. Yes, I had half-remembered about the parlour boarders. Putney is a pleasant place. As for Captains Tilney and Imlay, hmm! HMMM indeed!

  3. Yeah, my gut tells me this is a live one---we really never hear what happens to Isabella after Captain Tilney dumps her, and then Catherine and James turn her a cold shoulder as well. She is so histrionic and volatile, it really does fit that she might just go off the deep end.

    So your mistake really was trivial--what matters is the "Putney" bread crumb, which I was utterly unaware of. It is so good, it reminds me of what Jane Austen wrote to her literary niece Anna when Aunt Jane was giving Anna constructive criticism, but also praise, for the 21 year old Anna's (alas, never completed) novel, Which is the Heroine?. Jane really liked a place name that Anna chose:

    "Your Aunt C. quite understands the exquisiteness of that name—Newton Priors is really a Nonpareil. Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it."

    That is not only hilarious on first reading, it also has its own concealed subtextual meaning!

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  4. When I was 21 and planning my first independent trip to Britain, I bought huge maps of the country and wall-papered my subterranean cell with them. One thing that struck me was the profusion of wonderful two- or three-part place names, especially in southern (Saxon) England. Some have entered the culture as comedy (e.g. Budleigh Salterton), but so many seemed to me to be ideal names for fictional characters: Norton Fitzwarren, Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Drayton St Leonard. Don't they just spring from a Bronte's pen? Those are all hamlets or villages that I wouldn't expect most English people to have heard of, but there are bigger places, substantial towns, with names that grow less bizarre only through repetition and familiarity: Saffron Walden (a heroine if ever I heard one), Leighton Buzzard (brooding), and even Milton Keynes, a "New Town" (planned city) created in the mid-twentieth century and not, despite appearances, named after the poet and the economist.

    Tell us more about the Newton Priors clue!

  5. Roberta, not at my home computer now, but will dig up some more about Newton Priors sometime soon and return when you least expect it! :)

  6. Excellent series, Roberta! There are so many layers to Jane Austen. Thank you very much!

  7. Thank you, Lauren -- it was your post, and Arnie's, that spurred me to this series. Let's see what develops from it.