It has always intrigued me that feminists have claimed Jane Austen for their own. Even a brief study of Jane Austen’s books and her background would reveal a woman devout in her Christian faith and in unwavering acceptance of the society she was born into. Of course, that did not stop her satirising people in that society or of highlighting the social faults she perceived. Indeed, there has hardly been a more brutal satirist of human foibles and weaknesses in all of English literature. She especially targeted people who were pompous, hypocritical, obsequious, nasty and selfish – all in the context of her late 18th and early 19th century English society.
I think it is the pompous, hypocritical and obsequious cleric Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice who is the main pretext for the feminist claim. Here Jane Austen reveals what men are really like. Here she reveals the inimical structure of patriarchy and the suffering it subjects women to. Bravo Jane Austen!
But this is to miss Austen’s point – which point is that Mr Collins fails to live up to the standards his position (and society) requires of him. Jane Austen was kind and sympathetic to clerics who took their responsibilities seriously. Think of the witty charming Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey and the upright sensitive Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park.
Austen was scathing about the Mr Collins type. But what other male character was she as hard on? The question would have a lot of readers of Jane Austen’s novel thinking. Most of her men were responsible and manly. Some were ideal types. I think Henry Tilney was the ideal type of her youth, the witty flirtatious young man she sometimes had the good fortune to dance with at Basingstoke balls and made her heart flutter. Then there’s George Knightley in Emma who is surely the ideal type of her middle age. She said herself that George Knightley was her ideal man.
On the other hand, her male rascals have redeeming qualities – or at least qualities that still make them appealing. Think of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park and Frank Churchill in Emma. The depiction of these flawed males is hardly the work of a ferocious feminist railing at the injustice of patriarchy.
If on examination Austen pulled her punches in dealing with men, the same cannot be said of her treatment of women. Indeed, she is utterly merciless in depicting the almost natural nastiness of the female. Think of Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park and her sickening treatment of Fanny. I cannot think of a nastier character in English literature.
Austen’s female characters cop all the weaknesses of human nature. There are the scheming cold-hearted Mrs Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, the foolish blather-mouth Miss Bates and the vulgar, pompous Mrs Elton in Emma, the scheming, immoral Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, the amoral Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Even the attractive Emma is vitally flawed. That is to leave aside the foolishness, triviality, superficiality and ignorance of many of the minor female characters. I can only think of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and Anne Eliott in Persuasion that approach the ideal of Henry Tilney and George Knightley.
The point that I want to make is that Jane Austen’s presuppositions were Christian and conservative. Her satire was delivered in that framework. She was the Edmund Burke of literature. She was as far from the (Marxist) ideology of 21st century feminism as you could wish. An illustration of my claim is an article on the CRISIS website by Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian who was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. Dr Mitchell examines romance and marriage in Sense and Sensibility. He opens the article with:
As the novel shows, the corruption of sense in the form of prudent self-interest leads to marriages based solely on money, and the corruption of sensibility in the form of license leads to elopement, seduction, and children out of wedlock. Both attitudes destroy the ideal of marriage that forms the basis of civilization in Austen’s novels. Read on here.