Monday, January 16, 2012

Lost daughter: Jane Austen, part two (Kirkham and Ascarelli)

In the last post we looked at the Wikipedia article on Styles and themes of Jane Austen, more specifically the section on gender. Was Austen a feminist? Had she read Mary Wollstonecraft, and what did she think of her? The article is well referenced, and that section draws heavily on two sources, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction, a 1983 monograph by Margaret Kirkham, and a 2004 essay by Miriam Ascarelli, A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft

Kirkham's book was re-issued in 1996, when she wrote a lengthy preface in which she brings the intervening years of criticism into focus. (Thirteen years between first and second editions: I notice that more than another thirteen have passed.) From that preface:
This book was first published in 1983 when feminist criticism was becoming respectable, but it evolved from much earlier. During the 1960s research on the history of the theatre in Bristol and Bath led me to think about life in Bath at the turn of the nineteenth-century, when Austen lived there. Reading the newspapers, in search of items about plays and players, I picked up other information....I began to get a clearer picture of the milieu in which Austen lived from the age of twenty-five to thirty and to wonder why more had not been written about it.... the early 1970s, with feminism in the air, oddities in the Austen biography began to connect with more general questions about how women's Lives were written (especially by brothers and nephews) in the nineteenth-century. Then came Lloyd W. Brown's 1973 article, making direct comparison of Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen. Previously I might have thought it unlikely that Austen had read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, since I had imagined her reading as confined to what was there in her father's or brothers' libraries, or what might have been on the shelves of a country circulating library, but by 1973 it was clear that in Bath, Austen would have had no difficulty in choosing her own reading, from extra-familial shelves....
There was no direct evidence that Austen had read Wollstonecraft, in Bath or at any other time, but it now seemed much more likely. In any case, the similarities between parts of the Vindication, and ideas and attitudes apparent in the Austen novels had come to seem too striking to ignore.
Kirkham's book (first or second edition? not sure) was reviewed by Margaret Doody. I haven't seen the review, but it was thoroughly picked apart by one Arnie Perlstein, an unlikely Janeite, as he is the first to admit. I'll have more on him and his view of Austen as a radical feminist in another post.

The Wikipedia article also draws on a more recent essay. Ascarelli summarises the arguments around Jane Austen's possible feminism -- "or to use the proper scholarly term, proto-feminism" -- contending that yes, she was a "formidable feminist critic". She concludes, "Why, then, does Austen fail to give Wollstonecraft any credit for contributing to her thinking?" answering her own question,"I think it was simply too dangerous." She refers to Claire Tomalin as an Austen biographer, but of course she began the biography-writing phase of her career with Mary Wollstonecraft -- the first one, I believe, since the start of second-wave feminism. So Tomalin, now all over the media with her bicentennial Dickens book, may be in a uniquely rich position to comment on the influence of the polemicist on the novelist:
How could a young Jane Austen not take notice [of the furore around the posthumous Memoirs]? Austen biographer Claire Tomalin offers some convincing biographical evidence that Austen is likely to have known of Mary Wollstonecraft and her work. She notes that Sir William East, the father of one of George Austen’s former pupils, was a benefactor of Wollstonecraft. Furthermore, Sir William was a neighbor and friend to Austen’s uncle, James Leigh-Perrot. After Wollstonecraft attempted suicide in 1796, Sir William was credited with being particularly kind to her during her recovery. While this does not specifically link Austen and Wollstonecraft, it makes it plausible that the Austen family knew of Wollstonecraft and her ideas (Tomalin 158).

Jane Austen probably made a mental note to stay away from partisan politics and to keep her thoughts about Wollstonecraft to herself. Thanks to her skills as a writer, her balancing act worked. She managed to infuse her books with a Wollstonecraft-like feminist critique that is less politically charged but just as potent.
Coming up next, Lyndall Gordon and more examples of reading Jane.


  1. I agree with this completely. It is unfortunate that Mr. Godwin's posthumous biography of Mary (his wife) did such a good job of completely trashing her reputation (supposedly well-intentioned but really...). It made it impossible for an author (especially a respectable female) to reference her overtly without being sensational. Jane Austen manages it so subtly yet so thoroughly, especially in her characters.

  2. I know: what was he thinking? It must go down in literary history as the most thorough, albeit unintentional, hatchet job ever perpetrated by one loving spouse on another. There were plenty of women, in the pre-suffragette C19, who were in dialogue with Mary, but who dared not commit her name to paper.

  3. While it sounds very likely that Jane knew of Mary and her views, and very possibly was influenced by them, Jane had a unique ability to think things out on her own. She was able to analyze day to day matters and make astute comments about them (and in a very pretty way!). It is possible that Jane had the same mindset as Mary but expressed it in her way- through her novels. Your posts are something to think about. It could have been the influence of Mary on a brilliant mind, or it could have been that Jane smiled with knowing approval when she heard of Mary's thoughts.

  4. Hello, Debra! Yes, it's true that Jane thought things through on her own, but nothing comes from nothing: her views were influenced by what was around her. Family, friends, lessons, learning, reading, news, all feed into a developing world view. Wait for episodes three, four, and five!