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Governesses, Gold Diggers, and Great Ladies: The Roles of Women in Jane Austen’s Novels

I was thrilled to be asked to take part in a roundtable discussion with Patrice Hannon and Tracy Kiely, two fellow writers of Jane Austen-inspired works as part of the Austenesque Extravaganza going on now. We had an e-mail conversation about the roles of women in Jane Austen’s novels, which you can read below. Part I of our conversation is here.

Patrice Hannon: Emma is certainly punished for her (selective) snobbishness regarding her friendly neighbors, the Coles, when she fears she’ll be left in “solitary grandeur” on the night of their party. It’s worth noting that one of Austen’s best friends was Anne Sharp, governess to her brother’s children. Anne Elliot’s noble cousins are “nothing” to Anne because they possess “no superiority of manner, accomplishment,or understanding.” How much more there is to admire not only in Mrs. Weston but Jane Fairfax, who narrowly escapes ending up as a governess herself. Both are rewarded–and rescued–with good marriages. To say nothing of Elizabeth Bennet!

Anna Elliott:
That’s an interesting point you raise with the issue of characters being ‘rescued’ by good marriages. Austen gives Jane Fairfax and others happy endings–but she also gives us a glimpse of the darker side of women’s place in society, it seems to me, by showing what can happen to a single woman if there is no such good marriage option available. The poverty of the Miss Bates’ . . . and then there’s Charlotte Lucas, who might well have turned into a Miss Bates figure in old age if not for her marriage to the pompous and pretty much dreadful Mr. Collins. Elizabeth Bennet condemns her for marrying Mr. Collins. But did Jane Austen herself condemn Charlotte’s choice? I’m not so sure.

Tracy Kiely: I would actually disagree that Jane awarded Jane Fairfax with a good marriage. Frank Churchill is not a nice man, in my opinion. He not only toyed with Emma’s affections all while secretly engaged to Jane, but he openly flirted with Emma in front of Jane. One could make the argument that Jane is showing what happens when a woman is so well-mannered that she loses her sense of self. I don’t think any of Jane’s heroines would have tolerated such behavior from their future husbands. With Jane Fairfax, I think Jane Austen is advising women to stand up for themselves and demand to be treated with respect. All Jane Fairfax won with her demure manners and polite ways was a husband who didn’t take his commitment very seriously.

Patrice Hannon: Of course, Frank is no Mr. Knightley just as Jane is not the heroine, but she does stand up for herself in the end, and there’s every indication—as Mr. Knightley says—that once they’re married his character will improve under her influence. That character is flawed, to be sure, but he’s rich, handsome, witty, charming, and in love with her—as she is with him. Given the alternative, I think Jane Fairfax has done well, though not as well as Emma.
As you suggest, Anna, although Elizabeth Bennet can’t feel the same way about Charlotte Lucas once she agrees to marry Mr. Collins, I think Austen was more sympathetic (though in life she couldn’t make the same compromise herself, that is, to marry without love). She saw how terrible Charlotte’s choice was—to marry an unappealing man and have her own comfortable establishment, staying as far away from her husband as reasonably possible, or to remain single forever (being plain and on the shelf) and suffer the fate of an utterly dependent woman, to be a spinster, an unwelcome weight on her family forever. There’s a conversation in the wonderful fragment The Watsons that shows this very debate between Emma Watson and her sister. I love when Emma Watson says she would rather be a teacher at a school than marry a man she didn’t love, and her sister’s retort is basically that Emma has never been at school or she wouldn’t say such a thing so glibly. Austen’s heroines hold very high-minded romantic views on the subject, but I do think Jane herself was more understanding of a young woman like Charlotte’s predicament.

Anna Elliott:

Patrice, that’s the view of Frank Churchill that I’ve always had, too.
Though Tracy definitely puts an interesting slant on it, I’m going to
have to give that some thought. Would Frank Churchill have turned into a
Wickham or a Willoughby, given other circumstances? It’s very interesting
to theorize about the way Jane Austen’s life and her own romantic history
fueled the stories and characters she created. Speaking of, do either of
you have theories about the mystery man whom Cassandra claimed was about
to be engage to Jane, but died? Did he even really exist?

Tracy Kiely: I agree that Charlotte is depicted as a woman between a rock and a hard place. She doesn’t want to be dependent on her family,
but then deep down she doesn’t want to be married to Mr. Collins either. (And who would?) For the longest time, I thought that she was making the best of a bad
situation, but then, upon my sixth or seventh reading, it struck me of the impact of Charlotte’s bad mouthing of Lydia and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s parenting skills to Mr. Collins. He runs with the story to Lady Catherine – as he does with everything – and then Lady Catherine spreads the story further. It’s even implied by Mr. Collins that the three of them discussed the matter.

“And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age. Howsoever that may be, you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family?”

That bugged me, I must admit, as it seemed disloyal to Elizabeth. I wondered if Charlotte was a good friend stuck with a bad decision or a bit more mercenary than previously realized. Did anyone else think this?

Patrice Hannon: I think perhaps Charlotte’s being—by her own admission–“not romantic” adds to that impression of her being repulsively calculating in her “prudent” behavior. Now that Mr. Collins is her husband, it’s not terribly surprising that while discussing the scandal she expresses to him an opinion about the Bennets’ parenting that is in line not only with Elizabeth’s own but also the narrator’s. She’s not really criticizing Elizabeth and she certainly never expected to have her words repeated in this way–and no doubt enhanced by the speaker. It does make me queasy to think of her having “pillow talk” with Mr. Collins! But I think still Austen can sympathize with Charlotte’s position even while showing her less appealing qualities. There are very few characters in all of Austen who are wholly admirable—“spotless as an angel,” like the ones in Catherine Morland’s beloved novels.

That is one hilarious passage, though.

As for your question, Anna, the hard facts are so few in the report of Jane’s Devon lover that it’s difficult to say what actually transpired but the notion that she met this man at a seaside resort certainly adds to the romantic haze surrounding the story. Whenever Austen writes about the seaside you can just feel her pleasure and passionate admiration. It’s little wonder Lyme is one of the settings in her most romantic novel!

Speaking of Persuasion, to me one of the most interesting female characters in all of Austen is Mrs. Croft. I love how she’s described as looking as intelligent and keen as any of the naval officers. Her life is extraordinarily different from that of other women in the novels. She’s seen a great deal of the world. There’s such a refreshing sense of freedom and independence in her speech and activities, while at the same time she’s thoroughly attached to her husband, an equal partner. No wonder Anne, so tired of vanity without pride, cold formality, preoccupation with position, plain stupidity and her own dependence is bewitched by such a picture of how differently a woman might live.

Anna and Tracy, thank you for a most stimulating discussion!

This entry was posted Thursday, September 27th, 2012 at 2:53 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Governesses, Gold Diggers, and Great Ladies: The Roles of Women in Jane Austen’s Novels”

  1. Monica Says:
    September 27th, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I had never given much thought to Charlotte discussing Lydia & the Bennets with Mr Collins. I agree that she probably didn’t say anything that Lizzy herself wouldn’t have said, but I’m sure Collins was happy to expound on the details to whomever would listen, regardless of the fact that he is related to them and thus “connected to such a family”. I do feel bad for Charlotte; she had a tough choice to make. As far as Lizzy’s opinion about it, there’s a big difference, especially back then, between being single at 20 and at 27.

  2. Valerie R. Says:
    September 27th, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Really enjoyed this!

  3. suzan Says:
    September 29th, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    so true about Charlotte. I still just feel tho’ she should have figured it would get back to her friend’s family given the entailment. Not smart. I never have liked Frank Churchill. I feel bad for Jane Fairfax. He just didn’t ever strike me as loyal or trustworthy and even if he is do you really want to worry about that flirtatious behavior anytime you’re not around.

  4. JuneA** Says:
    October 2nd, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    I’m sorry, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for Charlotte. To sweeten the deal with Mr. Collins, she will wind up with Longbourn!

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