Jane Austen and the Figure of the Woman

The romantic world created by Jane Austen in her novels as well as her very own life as portrayed realistically in the film Becoming Jane offers us insights into the lives of women in early 19th Century Victorian England. The female protagonists and their family’s concern with marriage in all of Austen’s novels mirrors the abject condition of economic dependence suffered by women during this era. As the line in the movie goes, love is desirable but money absolutely indispensible. Women are dominated by a patriarchal order that sees women as a sex object to be fought over by men or as a domestic creature relegated to the household.

Socio-economic changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the ascendance of capitalist social relations, however, helped bring about changes in the conditions of women. In Becoming Jane, we see how Jane Austen began to practice writing for literary production, something rarely heard of women in Austen’s time. Women began “to expect more from life than the privilege of breeding children and running the household.”[1]

The economic requirements of national industrialization meant that women and even children became more and more incorporated to the national labor force. The profit motive of the emergent industrialists and capitalist merchants meant giving more roles for women in England’s economic life. Jane Austen’s prominence in the literary world is also reflective of this gradual change in women’s standing. As other women did labor that only men did previously, so did Jane Austen write novels.

Women… played an important role in charities, churches, local politics, and the arts, especially music. With great difficulty, some forced themselves upon the universities (they were allowed to attend lectures and take examinations, but not degrees), and from the late 1870s women’s colleges were founded at Oxford, Cambridge, and London. The professions remained barred to women, but a few succeeded in practising as doctors. The upper levels of nursing and running hotels seemed, however, the nearest most women could get to a professional career.[2]

Jane Austen is considered one of the more entertaining of novelists of all ages. Her novels, from Sense and Sensibility to Pride and Prejudice and Emma have all become bestsellers both during her lifetime as well as in her death. Despite this, it is interesting to note that her first novel Sense and Sensibility was published without Austen’s name on it. The manuscript submitted to the publishing house only mentioned the words “A Lady” to describe the author. Like George Eliot, who had to use the name of a male to publish her works, Austen also had, at first, had to hide the fact that a woman can write as good as a man. According to Somerset Maugham,

Austen was ‘careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any person beyond her family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.[3]

It was only her novels’ increasing fame that led to society’s opening up to her talent as writer. But still, this was not yet the so-called liberation of women that we know of today. Even as Austen was slowly recognized as a writer and a woman at the same time, the subjects of her writing was still constrained by the strong patriarchal system of her time. Even as Austen lived during the time of Napoleon and the French Revolution, her position in society as a woman prevented her from dealing with these historical events in any of her works. In Austen’s days, only men talk about history and politics as “few women even read the newspapers.”[4]

[Austen’s] observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humor that gave point to her observation and a prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same sort of story in all her books, and there is no great variety in her characters. They are very much the same persons, seen from somewhat different point of view. She had common sense in a high degree, and no one knew better than she her limitations. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society, and that is what she was content to deal with.[5]

What appeared in Austen’s fiction was therefore not really a clear reflection of the social condition in the realist mode but more of a refraction that infused the literary reproduction of social reality with Austen’s personal and the people’s unconscious desires. For Soledad Reyes, the creation of an ideal world in romance “subverted the reality it could not reflect. For example, woman was given a more privileged position in love and marriage; in real life she was an object to be sold for a price.”[6] It is thus no surprise that all of Jane Austen’s novels simply end in happy marriages. For Reyes, through the use of the convention of the happy ending

the text was able to resolve what appeared to be problematic in life. The freedom that was restored as the narrative ended was a condition that was non-existent in real life, where the usurper still occupied the throne, the king was dying, the villain roamed freely, and the lovers were still pining for each other.[7]

Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly expressed than in the contrast between Austen’s life as realistically portrayed in the film Becoming Jane and the plots that permeated Austen’s literary productions. In contrast to Austen’s remaining a spinster until her death in real life, all of her women protagonists live happily ever after in the vein of the European medieval romances.

Compared to women in Jane Austen’s milieu, women in the contemporary era are relatively freer. Women today have more options where women in Austen’s time are relegated to domestic life and the breeding of children. This is especially true in the advanced capitalist centers of North America, Europe, and Japan where movements and struggles for the advancement of women’s democratic rights and gender equality have made some headway. But even there, women still suffer from the commodification of women where the body of woman is seen only as a sex object that is used to market capitalist enterprises.

The situation of women in Third World countries such as the Philippines is worse. Here, women suffer from the triple oppressions of class, nationality, and gender. If majority of women in the Global North only contends with issues of being second class citizens by virtue of gender or being marginalized because of class, women in the Third World also has to contend with the stark reality of being in the periphery of a world order centered in the industrialized monopoly capitalist countries.

The rape of the country’s natural and human resources by foreign corporations is the reason for the exploitative conditions suffered by the Filipina. Majority of the 10 million Filipinos who work outside of the country are Filipinas. There they are subjected to all forms of abuse as domestic helpers, poorly paid factory workers, or prostituted victims. Back at home, more than 59 million Filipinos live on less than $2 a day.[8] Thus, women are likewise forced to be employed provided mostly by foreign-based multinational corporations who invest in the country. And these jobs are not desirable as they seem, as Rolando Tolentino points out:

In the sexual division of labor, heavy industries (such as mining, petroleum refining, and machinery and equipment manufacturing) generally use male labor while light industries (such as food processing and the manufacture of textiles, garments, footwear, tobacco and pharmaceuticals) are mostly female labor. Women’s body parts are idealized, “synergizing” nimble fingers, 20/20 eyesight, and hardy bodies in performance of multinational work. In short, women are preferred for all the stereotypical reasons: lower labor costs, traditional feminine skills, manual dexterity, more productivity, greater tolerance of and better performance in repetitive and monotonous tasks, reliability, patience, low expectations and lack of employment alternatives, a willingness to put up with dead-end jobs, and higher voluntary quitting rates.[9]

Notes

1. Christopher Harvie and H.G.C. Matthew, Nineteenth Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 99.

2. Somerset Maugham, Ten Novelists and Their Novels (London: Vintage Classics, 1994), 99-100.

3. Ibid, 63-64.

4. Ibid, 68.

5. Ibid, 67.

6. Soledad Reyes, “The Romance Mode in Philippine Literature,” in The Romance Mode in Philippine Literature and Other Essays (Quezon City: De La Salle University Press, 1991), 28.

7. Ibid, 31.

8. E. San Juan, Jr., “Overseas Filipino Workers: The Making of an Asia-Pacific Diaspora,” The Global South Vol. 3:2 (2009): 99-129.

9. Rolando Tolentino, “Filipinas I Transnational Space,” in National/Transnational: Subject Formation, Media, and Cultural Politics In and On the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001)

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4 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the Figure of the Woman

  1. Hello
    Fascinating post.
    I’ve always been interested in the feminist side of Jane Austen’s novels. At first sight (and in films), it seems all sugar romance but there are “revolutionary” paragraphs scattered here and there. (Particularly in Emma)

    This discreet call for more freedom can be heard in Jane Eyre or The Tenant of Whitefell Hall too.

    I’m French woman and I’m perfectly aware this country is one of the best places to be a woman, ever. Even better than other European countries as everything is done to allow women to work and have children.

    PS : thanks for including my blog in your blogrolll.

    • Hi, you are welcome. I found the columns with the French text on one side and the English translation on the other pleasing to the eyes and thought it nice to take a peek once in a while. The only Jane Austen I’ve read is Pride and Prejudice. It would be good to free this country of mine from neocolonial exploitation by the ruling classes of your part of the world so that we’ll have more time to read and discuss the merits/demerits of different classic literary texts. :)

      • Since it’s not in my power to get you more free time to read, here are two excerpts from Emma that can be useful :

        “Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid, and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public ! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreable old maid ! the proper sport of boys and girls ; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite as much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live per force in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross.”

        And

        “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry (…) Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want : I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husbands’ house as I am of Hartfield and never never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important, so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s”

        I can only hope Filipinos improve Filipinas’ everyday life by sharing domestic tasks. :-) This is in their power too…

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