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 Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871.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.


Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman


Jane’s Fame (2009) is a well-written and fascinating account of the rise of the ‘Divine’ Jane from obscurity to world domination in two centuries. That’s three ‘Janes’ so just in the unlikely event you haven’t caught on, I’m writing about English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Where she fits in an Australian literary blog I’m not sure. She was already immensely popular by the end of the nineteenth century but no Australians that I know of cite her as an influence. Boldrewood of course cites Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, many others cite Byron and Dickens, but maybe at least Ada Cambridge and Tasma owe something to JA’s spare, ironic, ‘domestic’ writing.

Anyway, at some stage I’ll also write about Waverley (Scott), Ruth (Gaskell) and The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) not because they’re relevant, though they might be, but just because I like them. I also have to write about America’s ‘Noble Frontiersman’ as a precursor to the Lone Hand of the Australian Legend which might involve reviewing ES Ellis, James Fennimore Cooper and even Zane Grey. Interestingly, it seems Cooper’s first novel was a spoof of Persuasion . Apparently, he wasn’t very proud of it!

It is easy to conflate Austen with her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet, and her parents with Mr and Mrs Bennet, but in fact they were nothing like (although it is probable that Jane, like Elizabeth, was her father’s favourite). The Austens were a literary family, her mother was an ‘unstoppable versifier’, and “two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins and a neighbour were all published authors, and others in her circle strove to be.” In fact, the writer of the family was meant to be Jane’s oldest brother, James, a poet who as it turned out, remained unpublished. Jane’s father was the rector at Steventon, Hampshire until 1801 when he retired in favour of James. The parents moved to Bath, taking with them Jane and her older sister and confidante Cassandra.

Jane began writing at a young age, as we know now from her published juvenilia. Leaving aside Lady Susan which Austen doesn’t seem to have meant to be published, her first novel First Impressions was offered to a publisher by her father, and rejected, in 1796. By 1800 she had early drafts for Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility)First Impressions (renamed Pride and Prejudice after the name was taken by another writer) and Susan (later, Northanger Abbey).  Susan was in fact sold to a publisher in 1803 but he didn’t go ahead and it took her many years to recover the rights. Eventually there was a period of 20 years with completed novels in all their iterations circulating amongst family and Jane revising. Harman sees this interregnum as vital to Austen’s later success: “The longer Austen remained unpublished, the more experimental she became, and the more licence she assumed with bold brilliant moves.” The spare style, with its naturalistic descriptions of family life, which she adopted, invented really, anticipated Modernism, at the end of the C19th, by almost 100 years.“Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era – and did much of it before she got a single word in print.”

In 1805* Rev Austen died and after four difficult years Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane moved to Chawton, Hampshire on the estate of Jane’s brother Edward Knight. In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. “Austen attempted to bring the book right up to date by adding a reference to the twopenny post – introduced in 1809 – and Marmion, the bestselling poem published anonymously by newcomer Walter Scott in 1808.” The book was well received, the first edition sold 750 copies, and generated some speculation as to who might be the author. In fact, the only time Austen was ever to see her name in print was as a subscriber to Fanny Burney’s Camilla in 1795, and although her authorship was something of an open secret she wasn’t publicly acknowledged as an author until her brother Henry’s tribute after her death. Next to come out was Pride and Prejudice, at the beginning of 1813, for which she sold the copyright for just 110 pounds. The following year brought  Mansfield Park and also Walter Scott’s Waverley, also anonymously, although he at least had the pleasure of publicly acknowledging his own authorship in 1827. Emma was commenced in 1814 and published in 1815, by which time Austen had begun Persuasion and also, having finally recovered Susan, had begun revising it as Northanger Abbey. Sanditon, which was to remain unfinished, had also been begun.

Right from the beginning Jane Austen’s novels were perceived as something above the normal course of romantic and adventure novels then current. Harman writes:

Three months after the publication of Emma, an unsigned article by Walter Scott, about 4,000 words long, appeared in the Quarterly, acknowledging publicly that ‘the author of Pride & Prejudice etc etc’ was a force to be reckoned with. Scott’s thoughtful, deeply appreciative overview … recognised her kind of novel as something new in the past fifteen or twenty years, replacing the improbable excitements of sensational literature with ‘the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’.

In 1817, Jane became seriously ill. She left Chawton and took lodgings nearer her doctor but by July she was dead, aged just 41, doubly unfortunately as many of her siblings lived into their 70s. Her papers were distributed between siblings, nephews and nieces, beginning a Jane Austen industry which descendants of the family manage seemingly right up to this day. The very unlike Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, shorter than their three volume predecessors, were published together posthumously as a single, four volume edition later the same year. The included Biographical Notice names Austen for the first time and stresses her rectitude, “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen”, an invention of her family somewhat at odds with Jane’s pleasure in collecting, and soliciting from her correspondents, notices of her work and other mentions in the press.

For a while it seems as though Austen may have faded out of sight, but in the 1830s publisher Richard Bentley purchased the rights for all 6 Jane Austen novels from the family for the bargain basement price of 250 pounds and began publishing them in his ‘low-cost, compact’ Standard Novels series. At a time when she was receiving little critical notice, although Scott like many others was reading her over and over again, the ongoing availability of the Standard Novels served to keep Austen before the public. Then, in 1869, Jame’s son, James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen which “remains the main source of biographical information, incorporating family reminiscences, extracts from letters and anecdotes about Austen’s life as a writer.”

For some time Austen’s novels remained a secret appreciated only by more discerning readers but Harman goes on to document the exponential growth of both scholarly writings about Austen and of fan clubs of her readers following James Edward’s memoir. Let me end with these words from Katherine Mansfield:

the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone –reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of the author.


Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009

I can’t list every post Sue at Whispering Gums has done on Jane Austen, there are too many. No, there could never be ‘too many’ so let’s just say there are lots. The list of all her JA posts is here, and from them I would recommend in particular her close reading of Emma, volumes 1,2 and 3.

Lisa at ANZLL reviews (the unfinished) Sanditon here.

*I initially and incorrectly wrote 1809 – see WG’s comment below