illustrated portrait of English novelist Jane Austen

Jane Austen

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Can someone please elaborate on the representation of women in the works of Jane Austen?

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One seemingly consistent theme in Austen's novels is the level of integrity portrayed in female characters. The young protagonist/heroines (such as Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice or Anne in Persuasion) whose love interests are at stake are often portrayed as having high levels of personal integrity, but with at least one character flaw that interferes with their achieving happiness (at least at first).

In Lizzie's case, her pride and quick wit are both seen as assets and qualities that make her attractive, but she is also quick to judge and writes off Mr. Darcy via a poor first impression before she has enough information. It is via the stories of Darcy's compassionate nature told by one of his servants that Lizzie learns to look beyond her initial impressions and trust her attraction to him. Ironically Darcy's first impressions of Lizzie were also wrong-headed, but turned more quickly to love in his case.

In Persuasion, Anne is solid, capable, reliable and kind-hearted. But her lack of social maturity and tendency to be soft-spoken cause her to attract less attention than her more outgoing sisters. Her initial marriage proposal from the Captain was rejected because she was too socially immature to pursue the opportunity. But several years later when he re-enters her life she becomes more daring and assertive, and despite showing interest in other woman, he finally decides that he and Anne are meant to be together. 

In both cases, the quality of integrity is emphasized and both suitors appreciate this quality in their prospective lovers/wives. Austen also portrays characters who create conflict arising their lack of personal integrity; as when Mrs. Clay engages in a flirtation with Charles Hayter, a cousin who also pursues Anne, or when Lydia flirts with Mr. Wickham after he shows interest in Lizzie. These characters' situations usually end badly for them, with various degrees of comeuppance resulting from their dishonest or selfish behavior.

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In brief, Jane Austen represents two aspects of women. She represents the dependent aspect and the self-sufficient aspect.

  • dependent: relying on someone or something else for aid, support, etc. (Random House Dictionary)
  • self-sufficient: needing no outside help in satisfying needs; able to provide for oneself emotionally and intellectually; able to supply one's own needs without external help. (Oxford, Collins, Random House Dictionaries)

Though seemingly contradictory representations, dependency has to do with legal, political, and financial status while self-sufficiency has to do with personal, moral, ethical and psychological competencies. The self-sufficiency of "personal resources" enters into the narrative of Emma and Pride and Prejudice quite significantly. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Miss Bingley unwittingly vie for dominance in attributes of self-sufficiency. In Emma, both Emma and Mrs. Elton speak of their personal resources. Granted, Mrs. Elton is a parody character who is meant to look ridiculous, yet she echoes the same concepts and sentiments Emma quite reliably and seriously describes for Harriet.

Emma: "[M]ine is an active mind, ... with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty .... Woman's usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now."

Mrs. Elton: "Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world [of culture] was not necessary to me. ... To those who had no resources it was a different thing; but my resources made me quite independent."

Dependency enters significantly into the narrative of Mansfield Park, most notably in the characters of Fanny and Mrs. Norris. While Mrs. Norris is certainly not dependent in the dramatic way and to the extent that Fanny is dependent, her continual presence at Mansfield manor and her receipt of daily subsidy in meals and other comforts points out the contrast between the level of comfort her small private financial resources allow her and the great comfort her dependence upon her sister permit her.

Fanny's dependence is all too clearly demonstrated throughout--with the indelicate help of Mrs. Norris's commentary and guidance--for there to be any doubt about the limitations attendant upon a woman with no income, no social status, no influential family or friends, and (in those limiting circumstances) no significant education. Despite Mrs. Norris's indelicacy of mind and sentiment, Fanny was educated, protected, fed and clothed with some degree of delicacy, enough to fit her for either employment or marriage in a middle class social sphere (remember the Bertram's are upper class because of the baronetcy).

Mansfield Park
Mrs. Norris: "Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody. A niece of ours, Sir Thomas, I may say, or at least of yours, would not grow up in this neighbourhood without many advantages."

Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, in one way or another, represent a woman's dependence upon marriage in order to have the desirable attainments of independence from parents, a home of one's own and a family. Charlotte and Elinor quite notably demonstrate this dependency, as conniving Lucy demonstrates it as well. These narratives significantly contrast with Emma in that, as the context of the first quote above shows, Emma deems her situation in life absolutely perfect in her present single state: she has a home of her own, she is independent of her parents, she has all the affection of love and family that she is aware of needing, she is mistress of all that is important to her.

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