Silhouette of Jane Austen
There is a report this day, 6 June 2001, on the “Orange” prize for women’s fiction in which a male and female jury chose a notional winner; it is reliably stated that the jury of women were impressed by the “feeling” of the book, Kate Grenville ’s The Idea of Perfection, while the men were enthusiastic about its “artistry.” The commonplaces of the English imagination, as they are applied to women writers, still survive.
It has generally been agreed, for example, that femality and fiction are related more naturally than femality and poetry; the novel, after all, is supposed to reside in the domain of lived experience, and to be guided by the promptings of observation or sentiment rather than the precepts of reason or theory. It has even been suggested that “the English novel seems to have been in some sense a female invention”1 with such paradigms as Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe. Fiction has been deemed a feminine occupation, too, “because it is commercial rather than aesthetic, practical rather than priestly.” 2 In the eighteenth century there was indeed “a common notion, or fear, that the novel had become a feminine genre,”3 not in the male tradition of theatrically conceived picaresque but in the sphere of moral or sentimental fiction. The epistolary novel was also considered to be a female form, despite or perhaps because of the example of Samuel Richardson (who was clandestinely described as “old-maidish” precisely because of the nature of his fiction). Letters and diaries had always been modes of writing considered to be appropriate for women, because they were not of their nature available in a public forum; now all that had changed. By the last decades of the eighteenth century the novel itself “was virtually taken over by women” to the extent that it came “to be identified as a woman’s form” with over half the inordinate production of fiction in that century emerging from female writers. 4 In the nineteenth century, too, the female prerogative was clear. Marian Evans, in her days before the baptism of George Eliot, wrote in the Westminster Review that “fiction is a department of literature in which women can, after their kind, fully equal men . . . women can produce novels not only fine, but among the very finest—novels, too, that have a precious specialty.”
Equally significant, too, were the number of female readers. In Arcadia, written in the 1580s and regarded as one of the first English novels, Philip Sidney addressed the “fair ladies” who would read his romance; it might even be suggested that ever since the time of the courtly lais the association between fiction and a female audience was established. It has been surmised that three-quarters of the reading public in the eighteenth century were female; it was considered to the discredit of the novel, in particular, that it was read by scullery maids as well as by high-born ladies. The prolixity and heterogeneity of the form thus seemed to create an audience similarly disposed. In that century, too, “fiction was often thought to be the most powerful (although also the most condemned) element in girls’ education.”5 But the question, why Marian Evans and the Brontë sisters originally wrote under assumed male names, is not difficult to determine. They knew their strength, and wished to be judged on equal terms with male writers. They did not wish to be patronised or dismissed.
Yet the question of “precious specialty,” in Marian Evans’s phrase, remains perplexing. Did the female novel exhibit the inflections of a special kind of experience or an inimitable form of expression? Was it a matter of a new and ingenious subjectivity, for example, or a peculiar access of spontaneity? There have been many attempts to decipher “female patterns” within fiction, especially in recent years; the authors of The Madwoman in the Attic, a study of female literature, have suggested “a distinctively female literary tradition” which accommodates “images of enclosure and escape” as well as “obsessive descriptions of diseases.”6 They discuss George Eliot ’s “self-conscious relatedness to other women writers, her critique of male literary conventions,” and cite her “interest in clairvoyance and telepathy, her imagery of confinement, her schizophrenic sense of fragmentation.”7 In that sense, of course, she is close to the female authors of Gothic fiction whom in no other area does she resemble; her preoccupation with “clairvoyance and telepathy” not only links her with Charlotte and Emily Brontë but also with that broad school of women writers who eschew “realism” as part of a male-ordered or mail-ordered universe.
For some female writers, however, there was no such alternative. In the seventeenth century Aphra Behn demanded “the Privilidge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me . . . to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in,” but complains that in practice “such Masculine Strokes in me, must not be allow’d.” The “masculine” powers which she invokes here are those of imagination and invention which, in the latter decades of the seventeenth century, were not deemed suitable for a woman. Behn remains important as the first professional female writer in England, however, “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it,” and as such she became synonymous in the English imagination with cupidity and immorality. She wrote everything—plays, poems, novels—and displayed a vivacious energy. “Whilst that which Admiration does Inspire/ In other Souls,” she wrote in one verse, “kindles in Mine a Fire” where “Fire” is the single most important and significant quality of her art. Thus was she branded a shame to all her sex, since her emphasis upon sexual gender in the act of self-assertion was also implicitly a reference to sexuality itself. This is the sub-text in all her compositions. Her witty juxtaposition of “masculine” and “feminine” parts in defence of her art led Virginia Woolf to define her “androgynous” mind as subtly subversive. In the public sphere she sympathised with the oppressed and exiled Stuarts, perhaps in native sympathy for all kinds of oppression, but her “Fire” is derived from passionate experience.
There were of course women writers in the seventeenth century other than Aphra Behn—Mary Wroth and Rachel Speght among them—and it has been claimed that by the end of that century “women were participating in the major historical and literary shift that was to place prose at the heart of modern written culture.”8 Women were no longer intruders, but inhabitants, in the house of English literature. That is why, in the eighteenth century, there were at least traces of a recognisable tradition; women writers began to cite one another as authorities rather than as object lessons in extravagance or licentiousness. There was a great outpouring of literature which reached its apogee in Austen, Eliot and the Brontës. It has been surmised that in the 1790s there emerged “the first concerted expression of feminist thought in modern European culture” 9 as well as a number of books written specifically by women in the sphere of conduct, children and education. Printers and booksellers also responded to changes in female taste.
The example of Fanny Burney, one of the most popular novelists of the eighteenth century, is of some significance. She was considered by Samuel Johnson to be “a writer of romances,” but from the beginning she was aware of the necessity for escape—escape, in particular, from “that inertness which casts the females upon themselves.” We may remark here upon a note of frustration, or anger, which seems to impel female creativity. As a child she had been denied the possibilities of education, while her brother was despatched to Charterhouse, and she describes herself in a biography of her father as “merely and literally self-educated.” She continues in an ironic fashion; “her sole emulation for improvement, and sole spur for exertion” was her father, “who, nevertheless, had not, at the time, a moment to spare for giving her any personal lessons; or even for directing her pursuits.” She found herself to be a charmed progenitor of language, however, and reported in her journal: “Making Words, now & then, in familiar writing, is unavoidable, & saves the trouble of thinking, which, as Mr. Addison observes, we Females are not much addicted to.” The vexation is once again evident. Her biographer has commented upon the fact that her “freedom with language reflects her self-image as an ‘outsider’ in literature and her defiance of conventional limitations in a manner that could be seen as rebellious, even revolutionary.” 10 Fanny Burney was known to Virginia Woolf as “the Mother of English fiction,” and Macaulay suggested that her novels “vindicated the right of her sex to an equal share in a fair and noble province of letters.” But she remained unassuming, even though her spirit and her career were devoted to the acknowledgement that “experience has a complex texture and that truth about it is elusive.”11 In a sense she left the theory, or at least its explication, to her successors.
One philologist has described her “relaxed enjoyment of language for its own sake, and an unabashed pleasure in its flexibility,” 12 which in turn lends a further significance to the remark of a literary historian that “for women the creation remained part of the creator” 13 rather than a detached product to be viewed ironically or dispassionately. This is as much to say that the “natural” language of female writers is much closer both to the expression of the physical body and to the inflections of subjectivity. So when, for example, “the Victorians thought of the woman writer they immediately thought of the female body.”14 The experience of the body, and the experience of anger, are curiously entwined. One female critical theorist has described the process by which “feminine texts are very close to the voice, very close to the flesh of language . . . straight away at the threshold of feeling . . . I see it as an outpouring.”15 In her essay upon women’s literature in English, “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf suggested that “the book has somehow to be adapted to the body” and that “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. . . . Think of things in themselves.” If this is the peaceful “stream of consciousness,” as adumbrated by Woolf, then it must be related to Julian of Norwich’s perception that her book of visions was “still in process.”16 The process is that of the interior life which cannot be ordered by rational perception, and of a female subjectivity which cannot become subject to male disciplines. It is what Fanny Burney meant, in self-deprecating fashion, by her “scribbleration.”
In her second novel, Mary: and The Wrongs of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft depicted “feeling as the necessary instrument of female liberation,” with the addendum that if “feminine sensibility was an oppressive social construct, true feeling was a positive womanly quality and the hope for the future”;17 the male expectation of what is feminine and unfeminine must be wholly overturned. While the heroine Maria is languishing in prison it becomes plain that sorrow “must blunt or sharpen the faculties to the two opposite extremes; producing stupidity, the moping melancholy of indolence; or the restless activity of a disturbed imagination.” It is the imagination of Aphra Behn and Emily Brontë kicking, as it were, against the pricks.
By the middle of the eighteenth century the female component of the English imagination was understood and celebrated. In 1748 The Female Right to Literature and, four years later, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain who have been celebrated for their Writings appeared; in 1755 an anthology of poems written by women was issued under the title of Poems by EminentLadies. The fact that all of these volumes were composed and compiled by men does not alter the historical significance of the change in literary perception. Eliza Haywood launched the Female Spectator as a direct challenge to the male periodical, while the cult of the “Blue-Stocking” opened up hitherto inaccessible areas of male learning. “In former times, the pen, like the sword, was considered as consigned by nature to the hands of men,” Samuel Johnson wrote in 1753, but “the revolution of years has now produced a generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance.”
Jane Austen herself was indebted to her eighteenth-century predecessor Fanny Burney. The last chapter of Burney’s Cecilia intimates that “if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries . . . to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.” Austen also celebrated the nature and role of the novel in opposition to Burney’s own somewhat self-deprecating attitude towards the form she had helped to fashion. “I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers,” she stated in the fifth chapter of Northanger Abbey, “of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding . . . Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.” She imagines the response of a female reader, “Oh! It is only a novel!,” to which she adds her own acerbic commentary, “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” Since in this context Austen cites Maria Edgeworth’s Belindaas well as Fanny Burney’s Cecilia and Camilla—in opposition to the work of Milton, Pope, Prior, Sterne and Addison—we are entitled to suggest that she was celebrating the merits of the female novel rather than those of male discourse.
The theme of female anger in the writing of Jane Austen has often been surveyed, partly in response to her remark that “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” A psychologist, reading the novels, once remarked, “You know—she hated people.” 18 It is another way of putting what W. H. Auden meant:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me; Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass
In her anatomies of provincial society, and in her close attention to the relationship between economics and sexual politics, her frustration and dissatisfaction are clarified by her high comedy. One of her abiding themes is the pressure of loneliness among a group of people who are forced to inhabit a system of social relations over which they have no control; the heroines of Mansfield Park and Persuasion must learn to subdue their feelings or manage a nice reticence in the face of snobbery and greed. The individual woman cannot speak out. Anne Elliot remarks to Captain Harville in Persuasion, on the role of women, that “we certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us . . . We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.” He then raises the question of “women’s inconstancy” and argues that “all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse.” But she answers in spirited terms which somehow transcend the context in which they are placed. “Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” With whatever velleities of regret and nuance, there is genuine indignation in these sentiments. It is aligned with the harshness and evident contempt with which Austen treats those of whom she disapproves, “which taste cannot tolerate— which ridicule will seize.”
It should be recalled that in her first novel, the epistolary Lady Susan, she creates a commanding and brilliant woman whose articulacy and powers of persuasion are far greater than any of the stupid or faintly sanctimonious men who surround her. Jane Austen’s first extant letter, written in 1796 when she was twenty-one years old, shows that in the words of one recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, she “is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story, living for herself the short period of power.” 19 All this excitement, and sense of power, would eventually be subdued. In her correspondence, particularly with her sister Cassandra, she evinces her resentment and frustration at those around her. “Caroline is not grown at all coarser than she was, nor Harriet at all more more delicate. . . . Ly Elizth for a woman of her age & situation has astonishingly little to say for herself, & . . . Miss Hatton has not much more.” A certain harshness, or hardness, of temperament is also manifest in remarks upon a Mrs. Hall giving birth to a dead child, “some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”
After her unwilling removal to Bath, from her childhood home in Steventon, her anger seems to increase. “Another stupid party last night,” she wrote, “. . . I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable.” It has been suggested in this context that Austen “was schooled to keep up appearances, even if she was screaming inside her head” and that “she had deep and often painful feelings.”20 But she was trained in female reticence, which was designed to cover the springs and manifestations of anger. There is a passage in Claire Tomalin’s biography where she speculates upon the nature of Jane Austen’s silence. That silence encompassed the world of politics and of public events, the matter of women’s rights, and the nature of religion. Her silence upon the rights of women, however, is modified by her insistence “on the moral and intellectual parity of the sexes”21 which no even half-attentive reader of her novels can fail to notice. There was her own silence as a writer, too, which endured for ten years. Other biographers have described her irritability, her coldness and frustration. She once referred to herself as a “wild Beast.”
It is important to insist upon her anger, in all of these examples, because it is one of the great resources of the English woman writer; the commonplaces about the female interest in sensibility, or in feeling, derive from this abiding experience of wrath. It is the single most significant source of inspiration and ambition. Of Charlotte Brontë and her creation Jane Eyre, for example, it has been suggested that “what horrified the Victorians was Jane’s anger” and her desire “to escape entirely from drawing rooms and patriarchal mansions.”22 “Why was I always suffering,” Jane speculates of her childhood, “always brow-beaten, always accused, forever condemned?” When she had read Goldsmith’s History of Rome, with its history of male tyrants, the young Jane Eyre “had drawn parallels in silence.” The female silence here, as in other examples, is filled with exasperation and despair. When Mrs. Gaskell asked Charlotte Brontë about women in the nineteenth century, she replied that there were “evils—deep rooted in the foundation of the social system, which no efforts of ours can touch: of which we cannot complain; of which it is advisable not too often to think.” Here is the true recognition of oppression almost too deep for words. When Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Brontë remarked that “I doubt not Mrs. Stowe had felt the iron of slavery enter into her heart, from childhood upwards.” The iron had entered Charlotte Brontë’s soul, also, and the apparently shy and self-deprecating author had been molded in the fire. Matthew Arnold, on reading Villette, surmised that the mind of its author was one “containing nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage” to which the answer can only be— and why not? She had every reason. At the beginning of Jane Eyre the narrator recalls how “my habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire.” Yet the fury still burned within her, occasionally striking fire in impulsive and vehement speech: “Forgive me! I cannot endure it—”
The romantic genius flourished essentially in Charlotte Brontë; her anger propelled her into a sphere of consciousness where exultation and fury meet. “My soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.” The call is always for liberty in Charlotte Brontë’s fiction—to take the iron out of the soul and fashion it into a sword. “I desired liberty,” Jane Eyre confides; “for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer.” Then she might enter the world with courage “to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” That is why the theme of confinement runs so deeply within female writing, whether it be in the measured narratives of Jane Austen or in the insalubrious caverns of Gothic fiction. Jane Austen had adverted to the false example of books written by men, and in turn Jane Eyre remarks that “I have observed in books written by men” that marital ardour lasts only a short space. Here, again, are the pride and assertion. It is a matter of gender, since as Jane Eyre declared “women feel just as men feel . . . they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer. . . . It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” So Emily Brontë’s Catherine, in Wuthering Heights, in her weary sickness, exclaims, “Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors . . . I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills. . . . Open the window again wide, fasten it open!”
We may look, then, to female anger as one means of access to a new sensibility; it represents the unremitting flow of feeling or what Virginia Woolf called “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender,” marked by its musicality and its fluency of association. This female music is the reason that, three hundred years before, Aemilia Lanyer had identified the origins of her poetry in Nature rather than that of “scholars who by Art do write.” It is the technique of the Duchess of Newcastle, who wrote “so fast as I stay not so long to write my letters plain,” which suggests a natural susurrus hastening her along. Thus the early twentieth-century novelist May Sinclair “wishes to remind us how ideas exist in a whole context of feeling and mundane activity by which they are shaped,” 23 so that the novel itself is the form perfectly complemented by the female consciousness of experience. It is what Austen meant by “the happiest delineation” of human nature in all its variability and variety. The “stream of consciousness” itself may be compared to a sentence from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: “That’s how women see things. Everything in a sort of continuous creative stream.” When Virginia Woolf considered the nature of the female sentence, she described it as one “of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes.” Is this not also a definition of the pregnant female form? All paths seem, indirectly, to lead to the same beginning.