Although she is now often recruited by feminist critics to make points about women’s limited life choices, preeminent social satirist Jane Austen wrote to oppose the popular proto-feminist ideas of her time, and her warnings about Romantic self-indulgence remain relevant to our own.
British novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817), reputed to have given the novel its modern form, is sometimes mischaracterized as a writer of quietly rebellious women’s fiction. Beneath the conventional romance formula, Austen is thought to have been angrily aware of female dependency and of her society’s many restrictions on women’s freedom and self-determination.
While it is true that Austen’s happy endings quite often seem fragile and tenuously achieved, and while many of her heroines indeed face loneliness and limitation, Austen was emphatically not a proto-feminist promoting female grievance or rebellion.
In particular, Austen deeply distrusted her era’s emphasis on intense feeling as the ground of morality, an emphasis which placed a sympathetic focus on women as more capable than men of experiencing and expressing emotion. While Austen readily acknowledged that feeling was central to family life and social benevolence, she was acutely aware that unregulated feeling was not only dangerous for individuals, destructive of their happiness, but destructive also of social functioning.
In this essay, I will look briefly at two of Austen’s novels to analyze their implicit commentary on the need to control feeling and to distinguish committed love from emotional indulgence. Alas, the analysis will necessarily involve some simplification of Austen’s subtle and endlessly complex works.
Cultural historians agree in recognizing the second half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth as an era that emphasized what was then called “sensibility”—the capacity for strong feeling.
Sensibility as understood in its time was a much-debated concept, but was generally recognized as a favorable sign of authenticity and sincerity, a rejection of unnecessary social rules, an assertion of the genuine self.
Sensibility was also closely related to the nascent feminist movement in that it encouraged and justified women’s assertions and complaints of their sufferings under patriarchy and their demand to be heard. Feminist historian J. Barker-Benfield, in his book The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain, stressed the relationship between the emancipation of women and the new valuing of intense feeling, noting that a “central feature of eighteenth-century Britain” was “the aggrandizement of feeling and its investment with moral value” (p. xix). Women, considered naturally more sensitive than men, were also thought to possess a more innate morality. In her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft both warned against women’s association with sensibility—which she believed was demeaning for women—and employed emotionally charged language and scenarios to heighten the impact of her arguments.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the 21st century feminist deployment of “virtue in distress” (the distress almost always that of a woman, and caused by the allegedly threatening or harmful actions of a man) can be traced to the eighteenth century, which placed previously unprecedented emphasis on women’s feelings of vulnerability, especially sexual vulnerability, and their demand for empathy.
In her earliest novel Sense and Sensibility, written in the mid-1790s but not published until 1811, Jane Austen tackled the problem of sensibility head on, linking it not with sincerity or justified rebellion but with a dangerous irresponsibility and selfishness. The quality was embodied in one of her two main characters, Marianne Dashwood, a moody, impulsive young Romantic, not yet seventeen years old, who has been encouraged by her mother and by the sentimental literature of her day to over-value feeling. She has come to “abhor all concealment” (p. 88), and frequently criticizes her slightly older sister Elinor (who symbolizes the “sense” of the novel’s title) for restraining her emotions, believing that Elinor must not feel very much simply because she does not show feeling in the manner Marianne approves.
On one occasion, responding to a question from her sister, Marianne excuses a thoughtless action by saying that if it had been wrong, it would have felt wrong. “If there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure” (Sense and Sensibility, p. 102). Here is a credo of the late 18th century Romantic movement: moment by moment feeling as a moral compass, over-ruling other considerations such as politeness or social propriety.
The central subject of Sense and Sensibility is disappointed love.
Marianne falls in love with John Willoughby and has her heart broken when he abandons her without explanation. She makes no attempt to control her grief, believing herself fully justified in indulging the sleepless nights, storms of tears, inability to eat, and refusal to see friends or participate in society to which she subjects herself and all those around her.
She heedlessly encourages her own collapse, finally making herself dangerously ill and never once taking any responsibility for her disastrous involvement with Willoughby.
It is important to note here that the novel is quite clear that young Marianne has not had a sexual relationship with Willoughby, her impulsiveness being emotional only. But the sexual concern is always present in the novel as a danger for romantic young women; and not coincidentally it emerges in the course of the narrative that Willoughby has actually seduced and abandoned another young woman (and been disinherited as a result, which necessitates his abandonment of Marianne and his engagement to a wealthy heiress). In the world of the novel, if Marianne had allowed herself to have been seduced—as distinct from being raped—she would have been both deeply pitiable and blameworthy.
There are complex parallels between Marianne and our era’s #MeToo accusers and fainting feminists—those grown women, many in their mid- to late-twenties who, while energetically declaring their rights as sexually liberated women to be unconstrained by social convention, to shout their abortions or embrace their inner slut yet complain tearfully about an ill-judged joke or unwanted romantic overture—or even an after-the-fact fully consensual, but regretted, affair. Austen would have been amazed by our era’s laxity and self-contradictoriness about sexual relations; in her time, respectable men and women, but especially women for obvious reasons, obeyed strict codes of sexual propriety in speech, dress, and conduct, precisely to avoid the sexual chaos and confusion that are now the norm; Austen would immediately have recognized the danger of basing sexual morality around a woman’s oft-uncertain and changeable feelings.
In Austen’s time, an appropriately modest and chaste young woman would have had every right to complain to her father, brothers, or community members about a man’s crude sexual remark or illicit touch. But a woman who repeatedly flouted codes of sexual behavior could not have expected the same protection and compassion. Austen likely would have found it extraordinary how in our day women who scorn rules about female sexual morality are yet willing and able to invoke them against men, often entirely without compassion or a sense of proportion.
In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne’s illness shakes her out of her self-infatuation and makes her resolve to act in future with greater maturity and consideration for others. In our era, unfortunately, there is nothing to prevent the constant escalation of women’s self-indulgence.
The novel’s main character, Mary’s sister Anne Elliot, 27 years old, has been living with the unhappy consequences of a mistake made when she was just 19, when she allowed herself to be persuaded to break her engagement with Frederick Wentworth, a young naval officer, whom she deeply loved. Nearly eight years after Frederick was sent away by her, he is back in the neighborhood, now a wealthy naval captain freshly returned from the Napoleonic war. He is ready to fall in love with any appreciative young woman he likes, and determined to show Anne that she no longer has a hold on him. For Anne, seeing him at social gatherings is agony.
Much of the novel focuses on Anne’s determination to control the riot of her feelings; the novel also closely examines the management of feeling in other characters. Visiting Bath with her family, for example, Anne meets up with an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, who is now widowed, impoverished, and ill, but who has, as the novel describes it from Anne’s point of view, “that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself” (Persuasion, p. 174). In other words, she has found ways to occupy her mind so that she is not overwhelmed by grief. Comparing her friend to the selfish, self-pitying members of her own family, Anne finds this quality “the choicest gift of Heaven” (Persuasion, p. 175).
The phrasing suggests that the gift is a natural at least as much as a cultivated one, but Austen makes the point through other characters that corrupt or decadent ideologies can in themselves decrease our resilience and courage, while the cultivation of stoicism involving the traditional virtues can make us stronger.
This idea is illustrated on a visit that Anne takes to the seaside town of Lyme with her sister Mary’s family and Captain Wentworth, where Anne finds herself counselling a young naval man, a friend of Wentworth’s named Captain Benwick, whose fiancée died while he was at sea, and who now believes there is no possibility of his ever being happy again. He mentions his attachment to Romantic poetry, naming Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byron in particular was a symbol in Austen’s day for Romantic excess, for indulgence in melancholy rebellion and anti-social self-disgust as modes of authentic selfhood.
The Byronic hero, a figure making a first appearance in 1812 in Byron’s long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was notoriously attractive for his sexy, brooding, self-destructive intensity, rather like a modern rock star flaming out in beautiful “hopeless agony” (Persuasion, p. 130) at the unbearableness of things. It’s clear from what Benwick says to Anne that he—not unlike Marianne in Sense and Sensibility—has used Byron’s poetry to stoke and affirm his suffering. Anne suggests that he read literature that would help him conquer rather than worsen his depression, mentioning works “calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance” (Persuasion, p. 139).
In case the conversation makes Anne seem an unpleasantly rigid moralizer, Austen has her reflect on the irony of her advice:
“When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme, to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination” (p. 130).
Austen’s narrator sympathizes with Anne for her inability to entirely conquer her seemingly useless love for Frederick, and honors her for her lonely struggle to do the difficult, right thing.
For Austen, the fundamental obligation of each individual was to act in accordance with truth, self-respect, and consideration for others.
I mentioned earlier that modern critics have frequently found proto-feminist statements in Austen, but one of the final scenes in Persuasion, a magnificent narrative climax, reveals the author’s commitment to recognizing the good in men and the moral obligation of each sex to the other.
In this scene, Anne and another of Wentworth’s naval friends, Captain Harville, discuss the question of faithfulness in men and women while Frederick sits nearby writing. Captain Harville’s sister Fanny had been the woman Captain Benwick had been engaged to before she died. Now, just about a year later, Benwick has fallen in love with another woman, and Harville, who is having Benwick’s picture reset for his new betrothed, is caught between happiness for his friend and belief that his sister deserved to be mourned longer. Harville and Anne begin a serious though friendly dispute over whether one sex has a monopoly on faithfulness, with Harville first affirming that his sister would not have forgotten Benwick as quickly as he has forgotten her, and Anne answering him “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved” (Persuasion, p. 241). Here Austen emphasizes feeling not as moment-by-moment self-indulgence but as an enduring bedrock of faithful behavior.
In response to Harville’s inquiring look, Anne elaborates with an explanation that has often been quoted as Austen’s most explicit feminist complaint:
“Yes, we certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions” (Persuasion, p. 241).
Here, it seems, is the requisite allegation by the woman writer of female confinement and anti-male resentment. And the novel carries it even further in a meta-fictional exchange when Harville objects in response that all literature is against Anne’s position, “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy” to which Anne answers in a textual moment of authorial wink-winking that she will allow “[…] No reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story […] The pen has been in their hands” (Persuasion, p. 243).
This is the Austen that feminist critics prefer, wielding her mighty woman’s pen against male cultural dominance. But the scene is not over yet. Harville continues the conversation, defending male faithfulness, and opening his own heart to do so. He describes the life of a naval man, seeing his wife and children back to shore as he prepares to depart on a long voyage of military service from which he may not return.
“‘If I could but make you comprehend,” he relates, clearly thinking of his own feelings, “what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!’ And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth’s absence perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, ‘They cannot be here till such a day,’ but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do, for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!” pressing his own with emotion (Persuasion, p. 243).
And Anne answers him, still maintaining her position about female fidelity but paying tribute to the truth of what he has said: “I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures. I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as –if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” (Persuasion, p. 243-244).
This statement, while not clinching the argument either way, serves as Anne’s indirect declaration of her own continued love for Frederick, which Frederick, sitting nearby writing instructions for Captain Benwick’s picture, conveniently overhears, and from which he takes courage to write a letter renewing his proposal to Anne. Austen thus brings the novel near its close by affirming male goodness, recognizing the particular burdens of each sex, and reiterating the requirement of each to live with justice and understanding toward the other.
Like most conservative moralists, Austen believed that suffering was an irresolvable human constant that emotional self-indulgence could not assuage; for her, living well meant finding a framework of meaning and consolation for pain. The notion that one sex had a monopoly on right feeling was for her the height of self-flattering folly. As Anne said, “I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman”—a clear rebuke of proto-feminist ideology by Austen, who recognized the temptation in the women of her day to believe themselves uniquely put upon and morally superior. Austen would well have understood how easily we arrived at our present moment of feminine self-indulgence.