Essays and Criticism
Jane Austen: A Political Writer Based on the Fate of her Heroines?
Austen, lauded as one of England's most important writers of the nineteenth century, is known for her astute social and psychological observations of the world in which she lived: middle-to-upper-class nineteenth-century England. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, centers closely on the domestic lives of a close circle of well-to-do friends and relatives. The narrative action and dialogue in the novel, however, is completely separated from political and historical events of the era; the action appears to occur in a hermetically sealed bubble. The countryside of Barton, where the Dashwood sisters live, and the London of Mrs. Jennings and other landed gentry seems to be far removed from the poverty of slums, class disenfranchisement, and any talk of political or social reform that characterized the political climate of the England in which they lived. Thus, Austen has not been widely viewed—both to her credit and to her criticism—as a political writer.
It is evident, however, after examining the political landscape in which Austen was writing, that the intent of the novel seems to be politically motivated, even though she does not explicitly mention politics. Sense and Sensibility has traditionally been viewed as a largely formulaic, didactic novel—a popular format in Austen's time, in which two philosophies are pitted against each other. In Sense and Sensibility, as the title suggests, Austen pits romantic notions (sensibility) against rationale (sense) by comparing the socially proper Elinor Dashwood with her romantically-inclined sister Marianne. Through this comparison, and the subsequent condemnation of Marianne's romantic philosophy, Austen takes on the biggest political controversies of her day, namely, the ideologies of revolutionary France and the growing cry for the equality of women.
Although it is not apparent from the polite conversation at the Middleton's social gatherings, the action in Sense and Sensibility takes place in an England that is increasingly unstable. The country is fighting a war with France where the individualistic philosophy of the revolutionary Jacobins rules the day. (The Jacobins were the revolutionaries who overthrew France's monarchy to replace it with a republic; they executed many of the aristocracy, including the king and queen, by the guillotine.) This revolutionary sentiment was perceived as a threat to the status quo and economic hierarchy within the upper classes in England. Additionally, social and economic changes in the form of agrarian reforms and industrial capitalism were also gradually transforming English society; they posed a specific threat to the landed gentry, whose comfortable lifestyles were becoming less and less secure. Critic Mary Poovey writes, "By the first decades of the nineteenth century, birth into a particular class no longer exclusively determined one's future social or economic status, the vertical relationships of patronage no longer guaranteed either privileges or obedience, and the traditional authority of the gentry, and of the values associated with their lifestyle, was a subject under general debate." In light of such changes, the beliefs of moralists and the gentry, who their opinions represented, were coming under increasing scrutiny. Although Austen did not outwardly confront these issues, many other writers of her era did.
Another revolution that was seeing its beginnings in England was the fight for equality of women. In the early nineteenth century, the period in which Sense and Sensibility takes place, women had no rights: they could own no property, they could not enter into professions, and they had to depend entirely upon men for their economic welfare. Mary Wollstonecraft, a "radical" who fought for egalitarianism, wrote her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, only a few years before Austen began her early drafts of Sense and Sensibility. Wollstonecraft's work called for the equal education of women and condemned the "delicacy" that women were taught to conform to for the sake of becoming proper wives and mothers. This notion of "delicacy," though not specifically mentioned by...
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