Jane Austen and Fashion

A discussion on Facebook regarding cover illustrations caught my attention. The subject was clothing style depicted in cover art that was not compatible with the timeframe of the novel on which the art was displayed. Most of those who commented found such incompatibility to be disturbing. As a reader, I enjoy fashion details in historical novels. Such details bring the characters to life in my mind’s eye. Fashion, food, furniture, and other matters set the scene so that a reader can place the story in the time. A common point mentioned regarding Jane Austen’s novels addresses the fact that she does not describe her characters’ persons or their clothing in any detail, which is sometimes cause for lament and sometimes cause for curiosity. Why this lack of detail?

Jane Austen did not write historical novels. She wrote of her time for readers in her time. Some details would not have needed a great deal of stress or attention as her contemporaries would have known what she was talking about. However, one still wonders why so little attention was paid to appearances. We know Jane Austen was interested in clothes; her surviving letters to Cassandra frequently discuss clothing in detail. One example of this is the letter from Sloane Street written April 18th-20th, 1811. In this letter, Jane Austen discussed her shopping expedition, in which she purchased muslins for herself and Cassandra, bugle trimming and other items, including a new bonnet, and confessed a desire for a new straw hat.

We also know that Jane Austen had ideas about her characters’ appearances. In another letter from Sloane Street, this time dated May 24th, 1813, she told Cassandra of her and brother Henry’s visit to the Exhibition in Sloane Street, where she saw a portrait of Mrs. Bingley in which “Mrs. Bingley is exactly herself…dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments….” (1) She lamented not finding Mrs. Darcy’s portrait, and speculated that Mrs. Darcy would wear yellow.

Jane Austen’s earliest novels that were published during her lifetime were written before she was age 30: Elinor and Marianne (which became Sense and Sensibility) was written approximately 1795, when Austen was 20. First Impressions (which became Pride and Prejudice) was written in 1796, and Susan (which became Northanger Abbey) was written in 1798. Some examples of fashion during this time period are:
Wales, James, c.1747-1795; Susannah Wales (1779-1868), Lady Malet
Portrait of Susannah Wales by her father James Wales, c 1747-1795

Man’s Fashion Plate c 1795

It is important to remember that none of these books were published until much later. In 1801, the family left Stephenton and moved to Bath upon her father’s retirement. After his death in 1805, Jane Austen, her mother and sister moved periodically until finally, in early 1809, her brother Edward made a cottage in Chawton available for the Austen women. Although Jane Austen had revised Elinor and Marianne heavily in 1798, and had sold the copyright for Susan in 1803 (the publisher did not actually produce the novel, and Austen finally bought the copyright back in 1810), none of her books had yet been published. The years between 1801 and 1809 had not been nearly as productive as her earlier years, although she had done some revisions on Susan and started The Watkins (which was never finished). Once settled in Chawton, Jane Austen resumed her work. Revisions on Elinor and Marianne, First Impressions and Susan continued.

Elinor and Marianne became Sense and Sensibility and was published in 1811. First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice, which was published in 1813. Here are some examples of fashion during this period:
Fashion Plate Half-Dress November 1, 1810

Five Positions of Dancing 1811

Fashion Plate Morning Dress April 1, 1813

As we can plainly see, fashions changed significantly in the period of time between the first drafts and publication dates of Austen’s first two published novels. It is not known if the first drafts of the novels had contained any fashion descriptions. If they did, all such descriptions would have had to be found and revised or removed (not an easy task in the days before computers). If left unchanged, the details would not have added charming historical colour; they would merely have been dated, outmoded, and would have been a distraction to her readers. Jane Austen was also well aware that there was no guarantee of prompt publication once a work was completed. By removing such descriptions (if they had been included in the original drafts) or not writing them in the first place, Jane Austen allowed her readers to visualize her characters for themselves. Certainly, her later novels, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, continued this pattern of leaving such details to the imaginations of her readers. I believe Jane Austen deliberately chose not to include such details in her novels. I also believe that this technique contributes to the longevity and freshness of her novels that readers continue to enjoy today.

And that portrait of Mrs. Bingley? There were multiple possibilities, but a favourite contender was a portrait of Mrs. Harriet Quentin by Francois Huet-Villiers, painted before his death in 1813. See an engraving of that portrait produced by William Blake in 1820 here:



JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS, Deirdre Le Faye, ed. Fourth Edition. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2011.

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Austen and Marriage

Das Ehesakrament by Pietro Longhi c. 1755 via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to movies and television, Jane Austen’s novels, especially PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and PERSUASION, are synonymous with happy-ever-after. Many love her works as romantic courtship novels. Ironically, Jane Austen has also been embraced as a feminist author, thanks to her subtle criticisms of male-dominated education and economics, and her personal unmarried state. In recent years, speculation on her personal love life and reasons for her failure to marry has generated a variety of novels and movies as well. The fact remains that marriage is a central point of her novels. There is a conflict common in all of her novels, again especially visible in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: marriage as a romantic state versus marriage as a means of financial support. This conflict was present throughout Austen’s life, and was the dichotomy for gentlewomen of her time. On one hand, Romantic thought required a marriage based only on mutual love, a one-time event. On the other hand, reality saw many women propelled into marriage solely for financial support. The same reality forced many widows into remarriage, regardless of their desires. A shortage of eligible males and women’s vulnerability to changes of status exacerbated the situation.

Jane Austen knew that marriage did not provide a guarantee of financial security. Money was lost, as in brother Henry’s bankruptcy. (Mrs. Smith in PERSUASION epitomized a woman’s vulnerability when a family fortune was decimated.) Inheritance laws distributed assets, resulting in distress, as illustrated by Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with the entailment that would result in Mr. Collins’ inheriting Longbourn when Mr. Bennet dies. There was no assurance that family members would aid an unattached female. Romantic fervor did not always last. A rise of divorce, particularly well-publicized in Austen’s time as it was still an expensive rarity, showcased a woman’s vulnerability in marriage. High society divorces occurred, such as that of Lord and Lady Worsley, in Jane Austen’s lifetime, and she was aware of them. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Colonel Brandon disclosed the sad fate of his first love to Eleanor: an heiress forced into an unloving marriage with his elder brother, mistreated, seduced, ultimately divorced and left with inadequate means of support despite her personal fortune (which remained in her husband’s hands), leading to her complete ruin.

I believe that Jane wanted to be married. However, her definition of marriage seems to have been very specific: a union of shared tastes and interests, mutual affection and mutual respect. Neither financial security nor romantic love (or infatuation) individually was enough. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE contained multiple examples of marriages that were unhappy because the partners were unequally matched in terms of education, interests, respect, infatuation that cooled or other circumstances. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship was the classic portrait of unequal marriage: her pretty face and flirting caught the eye of an educated young gentleman. His disillusionment, loss of respect and withdrawal from his wife had an extremely damaging effect on their children. (The differences between Jane and Lizzie (early products of the marriage), and Mary, Kitty and Lydia (later products of the search for a son and heir) showed the deleterious effect on the family as a whole of Mr. Bennet’s disenchantment with his wife ).

The marriage of Charlotte and Mr. Collins highlighted another unequal match: her need to find a place with a modicum of security so she would not be a charge on her brother or father led her to coolly pursue marriage to a singularly unsatisfactory man. Her superiority of taste and thought versus his foolishness did not lead to disillusionment for Charlotte but resulted in a constant effort to find satisfaction in her own abilities to counter the loneliness and frequent humiliation she experienced in her life with Mr. Collins. Lydia and Wickham was the ultimate mismatched couple, with no hope of any real comfort. Their marriage was the outcome of an elopement propelled by her giddy infatuation with the military and his taste for debauchery, and only occurred because Mr. Darcy had the means to compel Wickham to marry Lydia. They had no real affection for each other, no home or significant money of their own and no welcome from family or friends. Lydia had no significant hope of security (she had no internal or financial resources of her own, and Wickham’s unsteadiness and lack of a stable profession other than the military left them living on the edge of disaster).

Other novels in Ms. Austen’s body of work contain examples of unequal marriages as well: Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in MANSFIELD PARK, and Charles and Mary Musgrove in PERSUASION are only a couple of examples. In PERSUASION, Lady Russell was in no hurry (or was possibly unwilling) to change her widowed state which allowed her full control of her life and her funds. Certainly, she showed no interest in pursuing Sir Walter Elliot. In her Juvenilia, “Catharine or the Bower” in Volume the Third contains the story of a young lady who, against her personal inclinations, went to India to find a husband and was “Splendidly, yet unhappily married.”* (This story is based on her own family experience, as her aunt Philadelphia, her father’s sister, went to India and was married there.)

Jane Austen withdrew into premature spinsterhood, reluctantly yet almost with relief. Was it due to the loss of an early love, or a strong-willed desire to control her own destiny? Were there other factors? Jane advised her niece not to marry without affection. Her novels show the pitfalls of unequal, unloving or imprudent marriages, and the merits of marriages that combine affection, shared tastes and other benefits. Her heroines achieved the ideal state of being married happily and advantageously. However, her novels seem to contain more illustrations of the less satisfactory relationships than the happy ones. While the characters and circumstances involved in these less-than-happy marriages added greatly to the entertainment factor of the stories, one can’t help but see a warning of the dangers of marriage entered into lightly or for the wrong reasons.

With her family’s support and encouragement, Ms. Austen enjoyed writing and earning her own money. She was proud of her work and very interested in the financial reward of it. She saw women’s need for improved education and the ability to provide for their own support. Her sharp wit and keen observations were, and are still, admired. We should also consider her emotions as a girl and young woman, and how those emotions affected her writing. Did she truly feel a “splendidly engaged indifference”*. to marriage, or was she making the best of her unmarried state? When Mr. Bigg-Wither proposed in December 1802, he offered Ms. Austen a comfortable life in a family she knew and liked; his sisters were close friends. However, she did not particularly like or admire him personally. She accepted, and then withdrew her acceptance the next day. Her acceptance shows she was aware of the advantages that marriage to Mr. Bigg-Wither offered; her withdrawal shows that she valued respect and esteem more.

Jane Austen evolved from a girl dreaming of marriage into a determined spinster unwilling to settle for second best, as shown in family records, her letters and her novels. In PERSUASION, Anne Elliot defined good company as “the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation….”*** In my opinion, the character of Anne Elliot and this quote in particular reveal Jane Austen’s personal views and desires regarding relationships in general and marriage in particular most clearly. Jane was a woman of her time, a realist, who understood her family’s situation. She was also a woman of feeling, in a loving family. Choice as well as circumstances led to her decision to stay a spinster. Her wit and observations gave her writings humor, while her emotional growth allowed her to combine the sparkle of youthful hope, the caution of experience in adulthood and the wisdom of maturity in her stories.


*Chapman, R.W., ed. MINOR WORKS The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Vol. 6. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 194.
**Walker, Eric C. MARRIAGE, WRITING AND ROMANTICISM Wordsworth and Austen After War. 2009: Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA, p. 226.
*** Chapman, R. W., ed. NORTHANGER ABBEY AND PERSUASION The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Vol. 5. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 150 of PERSUASION.

Jane Austen’s Cavalier: Is Colonel Brandon Her Most Romantic Hero?

      Fitzwilliam Darcy seems to be the universal favorite romantic hero of Jane Austen’s novels.  However, is this really accurate?  Other male characters have their devotees and are worthy of our respect, if not our admiration. However, I submit that for sheer, unadulterated romance and derring-do, Colonel Brandon is the man for my money.  The heart of a veritable knight of chivalry beat in his chest, willing to undertake any task solely to serve his lady, exhibiting the at least four of the five virtues of a true knight: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety.

     Merriam-Webster On-Line’s definition of “romantic” includes: having an inclination for romance: responsive to the appeal of what is idealized, heroic, or adventurous.  The Oxford English Dictionary On-line includes “an idealized view of reality” in its definition.  The Oxford English Dictionary On-line also provides a definition of a cavalier as “a courtly gentleman, especially one acting as a lady’s escort.”In “Introduction to Romanticism” on-line, the Romantic Movement in English literature began in the later part of the eighteenth century (when Austen began writing ELINOR AND MARIANNE), and was characterized by an appreciation for nature, an emphasis on emotion and feeling, and an appeal to the imagination.  A fondness for medievalism and the Gothic occurred during this period.   SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, which evolved from ELINOR AND MARIANNE, is full of allusions to the classic romantic themes, and is a reaction to them, showing the need for a balance of common sense with the romantic sensibility. Marianne exhibits the extreme of romantic emotionalism, and embodies the “sensibility” of the title, with her passions for poetry, music, walking and nature, combined with her willingness to give way to her emotions with the slightest encouragement.  Her concentrated focus on the romantic to the exclusion of everything else is illustrated by the situation where Edward’s failure to respond to the view at Barton makes her wonder if Edward can possibly be romantic enough, even for Elinor (Austen, S & S, I, xvi, p. 88.), and her headlong plunge into despair upon receiving Willoughby’s letter in London (Austen, S & S, II, vii, 183-185) among many, many others.

     Sir Walter Scott was a popular romantic author, contemporary to Jane Austen and one whose works she is known to have enjoyed. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Scott is one of Marianne’s favorite authors.  Scott’s poem, MARMION: A TALE OF FLODDEN FIELD, was published in 1808, and was very popular in England at approximately the time Jane Austen was rewriting ELINOR AND MARIANNE,  which was renamed SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and published in 1811. We know Austen read MARMION, as well as other works by Scott (Dow and Halsey).  In addition to Scott, Austen was also fond of the poet Cowper (Dow & Halsey), another of Marianne’s favorites.  Edward’s inadequate reading of the poet Cowper caused Marianne to question whether Edward could possibly be worthy of Elinor (Austen, S & S, I, iii, 17). 

     In Canto V of MARMION, we find Lady Heron’s Song, which is the story young Lochinvar and the fair Ellen.  MARMION is set in sixteenth-century Scotland and England, and is full of knights in armor, their ladies and wild, natural scenery; the story-within-the-story revolves around a young knight, Lochinvar, who rescues his love from a forced marriage via an elopement.  Lochinvar had asked her father for Ellen’s hand in marriage, but had been denied.  He arrived too late to prevent the marriage; he carried her off from the wedding festivities on horseback and they were never seen again. To my mind, this is exactly the kind of romantic, unconventional behavior that would most appeal to Marianne.  An example of Marianne’s delight in the unconventional is the circumstance where Willoughby took Marianne in his curricle to view Allenham.   She spent an entire morning with him, going over the house and garden, knowing that it was not his and having no acquaintance with Mrs. Smith (the owner).  This behavior gave rise to comment and jokes on the part of Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings.  In fact, Elinor was shocked, and tried unsuccessfully to get Marianne to see the impropriety of her behavior in this matter  (S & S, I, xiii, 67-68).  While admittedly a much milder impropriety than an elopement, this shows Marianne’s willingness to flout convention.   (“…she was everything but prudent. S & S, I, 1, 6) Austen’s ironic humor allowed Marianne’s passion for poetry and romance and her unwillingness to control her emotions to focus on Willoughby, who appeared a romantic hero but was not; Marianne didn’t notice that Colonel Brandon, who in fact had attempted to elope with Eliza, mourned his lost love and cherished his memory of her in the true romantic style of the poetry Marianne admired, and yet conducted himself as a gentleman of sense and propriety.

     Col. Brandon was a man of honor and impeccable reputation, widely respected and esteemed.  As a young man, he became a soldier to spare the older Eliza’s feelings after she was married to his brother against her will (S & S II, ix, 206), and he served King and country in the East Indies.   He was regarded with respect by all who knew him, in spite of Mrs. Jennings’ whispers about his relationship to the young Eliza.

     He exhibited true courtesy-he treated all kindly, and with respect.  (“…on every occasion mindful of the feelings of others….”  S&S I, xii, 62) He worshipped Marianne from afar, and did not intrude his feelings upon her when he saw that she was in love with Willoughby.   He constantly showed concern for the comfort of others.  His “delicate, unobtrusive inquiries” (S&S, II, x, 216) to Elinor about Marianne showed his concern and his efforts to avoid giving distress.

     Col. Brandon was a classic upholder of chastity: he fought a duel with Willoughby over Eliza’s honor, and took care of her and her child (he placed them in the country) (S&S II, ix, 211).

     Brandon exuded friendship and generosity.  The colonel  took care of Eliza’s mother ( of whom Marianne reminded him), allowing her to die in comfort and with care, showing true kindness to a “fallen woman” to whom he owed no obligation.  He took in her daughter Eliza in for her sake.  He told Willoughby’s story to Elinor, to give Marianne closure regarding Willoughby’s desertion.  He gave Edward a living after Edward’s disinheritance, before he (the colonel) won Marianne’s hand (done out of kindness  and respect for Edward’s honoring his obligation, not familial obligation) (S&S III, iii, 287-288).  The other significant men in the Dashwood girls’ lives (brother John, Willoughby and Edward Ferrars) were distinguished by selfishness; Colonel Brandon was distinguished by his selfless desire to secure the comfort of others in general, and Marianne’s happiness in particular.  Colonel Brandon was the only true hero in the story.  Willoughby started his relationship with Marianne cold-bloodedly for his own entertainment, not caring about her feelings (Austen S & S III.vii.319-320; III.xi.351).  Edward knew he was not available when he started to care for Elinor but continued to build a relationship with her for his own emotional need without even considering that her feelings might become engaged (Austen S & S III.xiii.368).  Both of these men were initially motivated by selfishness, and Willoughby ended his relationship with Marianne because of selfishness.  Colonel Brandon was the only male in the story capable of falling deeply in love, while having the generosity of spirit to put his own feelings to one side, to do what was needful for the happiness of the beloved.  In his treatment of young Eliza, and his lack of care for Marianne, Willoughby shows himself a predator, a parallel to the “laggard in love and dastard in war” who wed fair Ellen (Scott 125).

     Col. Brandon performed knightly deeds:  When his love was lost to him, he went into the Army.   For a very young, broken-hearted man (they were nearly the same age-she was about 17 when lost to him S&S, II, ix, 205), this profession would give him the opportunity to take part in epic battles, possibly to die performing daring deeds, and certainly preparing him to come back a strong, heroic warrior.  He was successful in his military career, rising in rank.   As mentioned, he wanted and planned to elope with his love, the older Eliza (S & S, II, ix, 206). He cared for Eliza, and rescued  her daughter after she was seduced and  abandoned by Willoughby.  Brandon fought a duel  with Willoughby to punish him for his treatment of young Eliza.  He provided  help when Marianne is ill-“…he offered himself as the messenger….-bringing her mother to her promptly”.

     Col.  Brandon fell in love with Marianne on sight.  He recognized and respected her love for Willoughby, and did nothing to distress her.  In my opinion, Colonel Brandon was capable of recognizing the fact that Marianne would always have a soft spot in her heart for Willoughby, and the toughness of mind to accept and deal with it if her romantic sensibilities dredged it up under the pressures of day to day life.  Much has been made of the fact that Colonel Brandon was too old for Marianne.   Hazel Jones in Jane Austen and Marriage refers more than once to Marianne settling for “strong esteem and lively friendship” when she married Colonel Brandon (Austen S & S III.xiv.378; Jones 120; 146).  However, that is to overlook the follow up: “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby” (Austen S & S III.xiv.379).  Richard Jenkyns describes Colonel Brandon as “the most Byronic figure in Jane Austen’s entire canon…” (188). He would seem to be exactly the man who would bring Marianne around to giving her whole heart.   I submit that Colonel Brandon, with his combination of age, good sense acquired from experience, and his deeply romantic soul, who exhibited the true knightly virtues, was the only man who could possibly have made Marianne happy.  Jane Austen’s love of irony hid her hero behind thirty-five years, a merely pleasant face and a flannel vest; she did not allow any recitation of dashing swordplay or injuries in his military career or in the duel he fought; he was definitely not a young Lochinvar.  However, Colonel Brandon was the man whom young Lochinvar might have become with maturity.  Poetic justice was served when this knight won his fair lady.


Ashford, Viola.  “Jane Austen’s Heroes: Colonel Brandon,”  12/27/2003. Website: Suite 101.com,  http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/jane_austen/105401/2#ixzz0o7j7YrJS

Austen, Jane.  SENSE AND SENSIBILITYThe Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen,.  Vol. 1.  R. W. Chapman, ed.  Third edition.  1933, reprinted 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. 

                            NORTHANGER ABBEY AND PERSUASION.   The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen,  Vol. 5.  R. W. Chapman, ed.  Third edition.  1933, revised 1965 and 1969, reprinted 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.

Copeland, Edward and McMaster, Juliet, Ed.  THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO JANE AUSTEN.  1997: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Gow, Gillian and Halsey, Katie.  “JANE AUSTEN’S READING: THE CHAWTON YEARS.”  PERSUASION ON-LINE.  Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring 2010).   http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol30no2/dow-halsey.html

“Introduction to Romanticism.”  (No author shown.)  Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.   http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html 

Jenkyns, Richard. A FINE BRUSH ON IVORY An Appreciation of Jane Austen.  2004: Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Johnson, Claudia L.  JANE AUSTEN  Women, Politics and The Novel.  1988: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen & Marriage.  2009: Continuum UK, London, U.K.

Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/romantic 

Mooman, Pamela.  “HEROES IN JANE AUSTEN’S NOVELS  These Patient, Loyal Men Are Worth Waiting For.”   9/27/2009.                                               Website: Suite101.com.                                                                             http://victorian-fiction.suite101.com/article.cfm/heroes_in_jane_austens_novels

Oxford English Dictionary On-Line.  http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_us1285701?rskey=tl1oth&result=1#m_en_us1285701 and  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/cavalier?view=uk

 Scott, Sir Walter.  MARMION: A Tale of Flodden Field.  H. E. Coblentz, editor.  First published 1808.  Edition used: 1893, 1911: American Book Company, New York, NY.

Schwartz, Dr. Deborah B.  “Backgrounds to Romance: ‘Courtly Love.’”  California Polytechic State  University.  ©Deborah B. Schwartz, 1998-2002.  http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl513/courtly/courtly.htm 

Simpson, David.  “Chivalry and Courtly Love,” 1998.  DePaul University. http://condor.depaul.edu/~dsimpson/tlove/courtlylove.html

Image: Portrait of a Man in Armour with Red Scarf by Anthony Van Dyck 1625-27. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft: Did Jane Read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN?

     Mary Wollstonecraft was born 4/27/1759. Because of an abusive father and her family being in poor financial straits, she worked as a companion and a governess (her experiences as a governess were highly influential on future writings).  She also started a school with a friend, and worked as a reader and translator, and was a published author, providing financial support for her family. She reported on the French Revolution. Mary was obviously affected by the ideas of the era-rights of man, questions regarding the morality of slavery etc. A pamphlet “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” published in 1787 argued against many of the accepted theories and practices of raising and educating girls, and is the forerunner of her book A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN, published in 1792. In this book, she protested the false life (“the doll’s life”*) approved for the women of her age. She felt that, as human beings, women were rational, should have the same rights as men, and should be allowed to take up the work for which each was best qualified, whether solely domestic or not. She considered neglected education to be the source of misery, with women rendered weak and wretched, resulting in a puppet like situation with women being pretty to look at, vain and helpless, with no other object than to gratify the whims and passions of men. She did not want to change the order of things and acknowledged men’s characters, superior physical strength, etc. Her viewpoint was that there was no reason to conclude that men’s virtues were superior to women’s virtues, and that both would benefit by better education and improved characters. (She made the interesting point that, if men were really concerned about the morals and virtues of their wives, daughters and sisters, they should improve their own morals and strengthen their own characters first-a virtuous, loving husband being far less likely to have an unfaithful, immoral wife!)
     Mary Wollstonecraft lived a highly unconventional life-she lived with Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American army officer in France, with whom she had a child. They were not married though she presented herself as his wife, and she would not give him up until she had no choice (they were not living together, he was unfaithful and indifferent). After two suicide attempts, she went back to her literary life, and formed a relationship with William Godwin, whom she married when she became pregnant again (with her daughter Mary Godwin who became a writer-FRANKENSTEIN, born 8/30/1797). She died 9/10/1797 from complications resulting from childbirth. Mr. Godwin’s subsequent biography of his wife, which included a frank discussion of her unconventional ideas and relationship issues, was published in 1798 and succeeded in ruining her reputation.
     Mary’s experiences as a governess in the household of an Irish noblewoman led to her view of the current “false system of education”* which was designed to make women “alluring mistresses”* rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers. She said that the minds of women were enfeebled by false refinement, resulting in women being treated as subordinate beings. She also condemned the education of rich ladies as tending to “render them vain and helpless, and the unfolding mind is not strengthened by the practice of those duties which dignify the human character.”* The focus of women’s education was for them to become “pleasing” instead of functional partners. “When the husband ceases to be a lover, and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives way to jealousy or vanity.”
     Did Jane Austen read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN ? I contacted Jane Austen’s House and Museum, Bath Central Library, Jane Austen Centre, and Chawton House Library.  No catalog of Rev. George Austen’s library is known to exist. (Jane Austen’s House and Museum does have a copy of the inventory of the contents of the Steventon Rectory but no catalog of his books.) The Bath Central Library indicated that VINDICATION was on the catalog for Marshalls Circulating Library on Milsom Street dated 1808; it is the only one they have in Jane’s time frame. Since VINDICATION was published in 1792 and was a well-known work, this argues that the book was probably available via a circulating library when Jane Austen lived in Bath, or visited in London or other cities.
     Jane is known to have had a copy of HERMSPRONG, or man as he is not by Robert Bage (philosophically, Mr Bage embraced the idea of the superiority of the “natural man”, considered women the equal of man and supported women’s rights, and was known to have had a high regard for Mary Wollstonecraft; these ideals are demonstrated by the story in HERMSPRONG)/ Jane’s copy is in the Huntington Library (her signature in all 4 volumes). This would argue a mind open to the ideas expressed in VINDICATION. There is also a theory that Jane would not necessarily referred to Mary Wollstonecraft’s work or influence, due to Mary’s unconventional morals and lifestyle (see Claire Tomalin and Miriam Ascarelli).
     It is clear that Jane Austen was exposed to and affected by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. As previously quoted, “…to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers”- Mrs. Bennet and Lydia Wickham in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE are clear illustrations of this. When we re-read the passage “When the husband ceases to be a lover…” , we see that the marriages of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and Charles and Mary Musgrove in PERSUASION, and Jane’s comments on them, are superb illustrations of the unequal marriage. The marriage of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in PERSUASION, especially where Mrs. Croft refers to women as “rational beings”, and the discussion of their unorthodox style of driving (he holding the reins, while she puts out a hand to correct his steering) as a metaphor for their marriage, is a clear illustration of what a marriage should be, according to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft. The characters of Lady Catherine DeBurgh, Elizabeth Eliot and Miss Bingley, reflecting their vanity, and minds not strengthened by performance of duties and activities, are also very illustrative of Ms. Wollstonecraft’s ideas. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the discussion between John Dashwood and his wife resulting in him doing little for his sisters parallels an example in VINDICATION. Also worthy of note is the relationship of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and her husband: she is empty headed, and he is surly because he can’t give her back, according to Mrs. Jennings (another example of an intelligent man caught in an unequal marriage.)
     That Mary Wollstonecraft’s work was known to Jane Austen is not a point of serious debate that I can find. However, I find it striking that there are so many illustrations in Jane Austen’s novels that support points raised by Ms. Wollstonecraft, indeed are almost direct references to A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. I think it is very clear that Jane was profoundly influenced by Ms. Wollstonecraft’s work, and, using her light touch and subtle humor, highlighted the issues Ms. Wollstonecraft raised. While she could not very well have acknowledged this influence at the time she published, Ms. Wollstonecraft’s reputation being what it was, I think Jane Austen clearly carried Ms. Wollstonecraft’s ideas regarding the education of women, and a higher concept of marriage, forward.

Books:                                                                                                                                                        Austen, Jane.  PERSUASION, from The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen NORTHANGER ABBEY AND PERSUASION.3rd edition.  Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1988.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.                                     Bage, Robert. HERMSPRONG, or man as he is not. Originally published 1795. Edition used: The Folio Society, London 1960.
Ivins, Holly. THE JANE AUSTEN POCKET BIBLE. Richmond, Surrey, England: Crimson Publishing, 2010.
Ray, Joan Klingel, PhD. JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2006.
Tomalin, Claire. JANE AUSTEN: A Life. Edition used: Vintage Books Edition, May 1999, New York NY.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. Originally published 1792. Edition used: Introduction by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, London: Walter Scott 1891.

On-line Articles:
“Jane Austen”-Brandeis University; http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/austenbio.html
“More Views of Jane Austen”. Smith, George Barnett.http://www.mollands.net/etexts/other/gbsmith.html
“Mary Wollstonecraft”. Biography Resource Center. http://galenet.galegroup.com
“A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Ascarelli, Miriam. Persuasions On-Line V 25 No 1 (JASNA)
“Feminism In Jane Austen”. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice–Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women, Etc. Republic of Pemberly. http:www.pemberly.com/Jane info/pptopic2.html
“’Hermsprong or man as he is not’ Robert Bage”. Perkins, Pam. University of Manitoba. The Literacy Encyclopedia. http://www.litencyc.com

JASNA 2004 AGM-Huntington Library information