Jane Austen: Independent Woman

Jane Austen (1775-1817) English novelist remembered for her six great novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Engraving.

In my dissertation (here) I wrote: “And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.”

The last time I ‘studied’ Jane Austen (1775-1817) was in high school, and although I have read all her books and seen all the movies, most recently the Lady Susan story misleadingly titled Love & Friendship, I would not pretend to be able to add to the considerable scholarship which surrounds her. However, the recent post on Northanger Abbey (here) by devoted Austenite Sue at Whispering Gums, and the comments ensuing, has prompted me to discuss those ways in which Austen is (and isn’t) a precursor for the Independent Woman paradigm.

Firstly, Jane was herself independent. After a failed engagement, and likewise for her older sister Cassandra, she and Cassandra were apparently happy to remove themselves from the marriage market and to live in a household consisting of just themselves, their mother and while he was alive, their father. Unlike Miles Franklin, however, or many other early Australian women writers, this is not a solution which Austen advocates for others.

Austen heroines start out ‘independent’ but strangely seem to get less and less so as their author gets older. Austen began writing ‘seriously’ in her early teens, circulating stories within a small circle of family and friends. Her first complete work, Lady Susan is an epistolary novella written around 1794. The eponymous Lady Susan is “the most accomplished coquette in England”, shuffling lovers and potential husbands to maximise the benefits to herself. Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871. One can imagine it was written to amuse and scandalize her family, and to hone her skills, rather than for public consumption.

Pride and Prejudice, which as First Impressions was the first of her novels to be offered to a publisher, in 1796, abounds with ‘independent women’. This and Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), written about the same time, reflect directly on the author’s life – particularly Jane’s relationship with the presumably more serious Cassandra, and the financial insecurity of the women in the event of the death of Mr Austen.

Elizabeth, in P&P, steers herself by the moral compass, and calmness, of her older sister, Jane. Marianne, in S&S, may be a little rasher but she too is ‘brought to harbour’, so to speak, by Elinor’s steadiness. Then, in P&P we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not likeable! but certainly independent, and Lydia, though she is not so much independent as wilful, but all provide examples of how and how not to act. Interestingly, the men – except for Uncle Gardiner – are all weak. Mr Bennet provides no direction for his wife and daughters, Mr Collins is ridiculous, Bingley is easily led, Darcy is too proud, Wickham is a cad.

In S&S, in Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, Austen introduces men who are both upright and willing to provide direction to the weaker sex; and I think these men, the earnest young clergyman and the upright, withdrawn, slightly older man of property, appear, one or the other or both, in all her subsequent novels.

From this point on, in Austen’s writing, it is difficult to make a case for the ‘independent woman’. The next-written novel, Susan, not published till many years later as Northanger Abbey, is famously a spoof on ‘Gothic’ melodrama. In it, for the first time, the heroine, Catherine, is shown as needing and accepting direction from a man, Henry Tilney, a young clergyman, though mainly it must be said, on the hazards of depending too much on the tropes of gothic fiction.

Austen’s subsequent novels were Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In Mansfield Park the one ‘independent’ woman, Mrs Norris is shown throughout in a bad light, acting only  in the interests, as she sees it, of Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny, the heroine, young and insecure, is entirely dependent on the advice and support of her cousin Edmund Bertram (a clergyman in training).

Emma is certainly independent, but gets set down a number of times by Mr Knightley, for her thoughtlessness, and Austen’s sympathies seem to be with Mr Knightley rather than Emma. When Emma insults Miss Bates (implies she talks too much) at the picnic on Box Hill, Mr Knightley waits till they are on their own then tells Emma:

Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.

Catherine, Fanny and Emma all accept direction about their behaviour from men whom they subsequently choose to marry. Independence within marriage, let alone without it, would seem to be a way off.

Persuasion is not so good for my case, as Anne, the heroine, is older (than her fellows in the earlier novels) and less inclined to immature behaviour, harking back maybe to Elizabeth Bennet, though she (Anne) is not so, what is a good word?, forward maybe.

This is a brief summary of my case, and if nothing else, points up the need for closer reading, which I should one day undertake.


see also:
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009 (my review)
Whispering Gums’ JA posts here

On Tuesday when my next post is due, I will be in the air, and for the next month, until Anzac day, will be travelling. I will stick to two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday, if I can but no promises. Check out my facebook account from time to time (see the ‘f’ in the sidebar) for photos.

13 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Independent Woman

  1. Fascinating write up Bill, which I’d have to chew over a lot to wne a long response, so I’ll just make two comments, one factual, one opinion!

    I don’t think P&P was the first to be offered to a publisher? The first sold to a publisher was Northanger Abbey, the first published was Sense and sensibility.

    Now, the opinion! I disagree re poor too-frequently maligned Fanny. On the surface you could read it the way you say, but I argue that she’s independent because she stands up to people even though she is in a pretty powerless position. She refused to take part in the play, even though Edmund urges her, because she believed it to be wrong, and she refuses Henry’s proposal despite urgings and threats (which he carried out) from her uncle. To me, she showed independence of spirit and the ability to pick and choose her advice.

    Finally, is this the OS trip? If so, have a great time. Will you return with the travel bug?


    • I’m in Kalgoorlie, standing beside my truck, but I’m sure Harland wrote that the first offered was Impressions (p&p) in the 1790s, then Susan (NA) was sold but not published, then S&S, P&P, MP, Emma came out in more or less consecutive years in the 1810s.
      Happy to think more about Fanny. I like all the heroines but was trying to position them in terms of my paradigm without doing the necessary re-reading!


      • Ah yes, I’ve researched this some more as I’d forgotten that bit. The story goes that in the memoir written about her by her nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, in the 1870s, quoted a letter from her father offering a novel by her to a publisher in 1797. The novel wasn’t named. She’d worked on both Elinor and Marianne and First impressions in 1795 and 1796, but I believe people think the novel offered might have been P&P. I went back to my main source of her publishing history, Kathryn Sutherland (written about 2010). She’s one of the big Austen experts. But then you’re right, Northanger Abbey was sold in 1803, never published and bought back in 1816. S&S was published in 1811, P&P in 1812, Mansfield Park in 1814, Emma in 1815/1816, and then Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1817 after her death that year. (Emma was published in December 1815 but the imprint on the first edition says 1816).

        While I disagree re Fanny and could discuss some of your other comments around the edges, I reckon made a good stab at looking at her characters in terms of your paradigm!


      • Thanks Sue, for your comments and for taking the trouble to clarify the publication dates. Ex-Mrs Legend asked over dinner tonight (I had black bean and sweet potato pie, and a very nice Italian pinot grigio, thankyou) how JA was able to write Lady Susan as a teenager in a rural village – the Austens must have had very sophisticated dinner table conversations!


    • Yes OS – I’ll be in Paris on Tues. I don’t have the bug, would much rather take my ute out into the bush, but my daughter is travelling with 3 kids (and has already lost one in London) and asked me and her mother to join her for a few weeks ).


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