Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about Jane Austen and the beliefs of her times. Click here for the first in the series.
Many critics do more than point out how important money matters are in Austen's novels; they draw conclusions about Austen's attitudes toward her society, based on the mentions of money in her novels. Professor Robert D. Hume, for example, is certain that Austen intended a critique of her patriarchal society. He is more indignant on behalf of the Bennet girls than Austen is herself. In "Money in Jane Austen" he spells out the very unfunny failures of Mr. Bennet, who hasn't saved money for his daughters, and concludes that we ought to despise him. Although Hume acknowledges that Austen does not condemn Mr. Bennet, he nevertheless thinks "Pride and Prejudice is a glum but telling satiric protest against the socio-economic position of early nineteenth-century women, elegantly camouflaged in a fantasy romance."
No, absolutely not. The vulnerable heroine was a centerpiece of 18th century novels, and very often (not always) the heroine's problem was a lack of money. As mentioned in previous posts, Constance, the titular heroine of Laetitia Matilda Hawkins' 1785 novel, is left with very little money when her father dies, thanks to his appropriation of his wife's money. She is at the mercy of a decadent nobleman who won't leave her alone. Was Hawkins condemning the patriarchy or was she setting up the conventional dramatic trope of the vulnerable heroine? Where are the essays explaining that Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins was condemning the patriarchy? In fact, she is regarded as being a "highly conservative" writer.
Many heroines have flawed fathers, like Elizabeth Bennet, Constance, and the heroine of Charlotte Smith's novel Ethelinde or the Recluse of the Lake. Ethelinde's dad is a compulsive gambler. Some heroines have despotic fathers like Adeline in Traits of Nature. Adeline's dad won't forgive her for the sins of her mother. If a heroine is fortunate enough to have a kind and loving father, he's usually dead.
Clara in Clara and Emmeline (1788) can't marry the Earl's son because she doesn't have high social status or great wealth. Her father marries her to someone she doesn't love who turns out to be a gambler and a wastrel. Her problems are all caused by men -- by the snobbery of the Earl (father of the man she loves), by the tyranny of her own father, and by the vices of her husband. But a contemporary reviewer of Clara and Emmeline, rather than exclaiming over the message of social protest, wrote that the "principal characters" were "hackneyed." Another reviewer said "the characters boast no originality." If vulnerable heroines and flawed fathers are hackneyed and unoriginal, then Clara and Emmeline would hardly strike readers as being protest literature. Surely to be protest literature you have to go against the grain of what's expected.
When so many authors are using these scenarios of women at the mercy of the patriarchy, it is misleading to hold Austen out as being unique in some way. If anything she is less dramatic, less pointed, than her contemporaries.
It's been argued that Mrs. Dashwood's plight in Sense & Sensibility is an indictment of the system of primogeniture. Mrs. Dashwood must leave her home after her husband dies, but so did many other fictional widows. Barbara Hofland’s The Merchant’s Widow (1826) is preoccupied with money from the first page to the last. The lack of money provides the conflict of the book. Poverty is the antagonist: no member of the widow’s family has to struggle with themselves to overcome bad character traits. The same is true for Hofland’s The Clergyman’s Widow (1814), a best-seller, in which the family is plunged into serious poverty because when the clergyman dies, his family not only loses his income but their home.
Did Barbara Hofland intend a scathing indictment of the Church of England in The Clergyman's Widow? Or did she intend a conventional moral tale for young people about how virtue and piety will triumph over adversity? Did Austen think primogeniture should be overthrown? Or was she contrasting the selfish behaviour of John and Fanny Dashwood with the generosity of Colonel Brandon?
Even when the main characters in a story are not members of the gentry, their money hardships are used to make a moral argument, not a social one.
In her short story, The Contrast (1807), Maria Edgeworth compares two large farm families: the loving, industrious Franklands and the quarrelsome, lazy Bettesworths. The Bettesworths receive an unexpected inheritance of “nearly twenty thousand pounds.” Mrs. Bettesworth shows off her new-found wealth by buying the latest fashions. She dies from a bad cold after she goes to church "equipped in one petticoat and a thin muslin gown." The adult children each receive two thousand pounds, and they all promptly squander their inheritances and come to bad ends.
Meanwhile, upright Farmer Frankland falls on hard times through no fault of his own and he goes to live in an alms-house while his adult children earn enough to build up a retirement fund for him. Edgeworth tells us precisely how much Fanny, Patty, James and Frank manage to obtain through the various jobs they get. A combination of pluck and luck restores the family to security, especially after Fanny and Patty marry well.
When Edgeworth describes the hardships faced by the Franklands did she intend to create sympathetic characters in a didactic moral tale, or was she critiquing her class-ridden society? Yes, you can do both, as Charles Dickens undoubtedly does. But I think Edgeworth's emphasis is on virtuous behaviour, not the faults of the society she lives in. When things go wrong, it's because people do not live up to their ordained social roles. The Bettesworth children are not loyal and loving like the Franklands and Mr. Bettesworth blames himself for their faulty upbringing. The Franklands suffer because a negligent landlord leaves his affairs in the hands of a corrupt land agent. Later, after meeting the beautiful and virtuous Fanny Franklin, the landlord awakens to his responsibilities.
In Geraldine, or Modes of Faith and Practice, (1820) the heroine suffers when her widowed father lavishes his estate on his young second wife. The father dies without a will and what's left of the estate goes to her baby step-brother. Her aunt Mrs. Mowbray points out: “All of Geraldine’s worldly wealth is now comprised in her mother’s jointure; a very poor affair indeed—not more than two hundred a-year,” which means she (the aunt) is no longer interested in having Geraldine marry her son. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mowbray's daughter is heartbroken by her husband's infidelity. There are no social consequences for him, but when she takes a lover she is banished from society. Is this novel protesting the patriarchy? No, it is a religious novel about Christian faith. The reform of souls, not the reform of society, are portrayed as the solution.
It would be difficult to find a novel of this era in which class-based or financially-based hardships, or both, do NOT befall the heroine; the question is, does the author always intend a larger social message? Or are we projecting our modern attitudes backwards into the novel?
As Rachel Dunphy acknowledges, Elizabeth Bennet "succeeds in forging her path to happiness and prosperity, but it is a personal victory only, one that reinforces the oppressive system that she accepts without question." Dunphy, like Professor Hume, assumes that Austen puts her true opinions about the patriarchy into the mouth of the narrow-minded and ignorant Mrs. Bennet; she is a "subversive character" because she complains about her daughters' limited financial future.
Mr. Bennet realizes and admits that he's been a negligent father, and he also realizes and admits that he will soon get over his shame and guilt. But he doesn't pay a price for his selfishness; he marries two daughters to rich men and he doesn't have to pay to patch up Lydia's scandal. And this, at a time when virtue was rewarded and vice punished in novels. So where is this "glum but telling satiric protest," exactly?
Austen also lets Professor Hume down in Emma, and he says as much: Jane Fairfax was going to become a governess, but she is "rescued by marriage to Frank Churchill, an event made possible by the entirely fortuitous death of [Mrs. Churchill], who dies of novelistic convenience at just the right moment." Austen "graciously rescues Miss Fairfax with yet another of her conventional dei ex machinis. We can rejoice for Jane, but any thinking reader has to see that this is a happy-making fudge."
In other words, Austen has used a conventional plot device for her conventional happy ending in her novel. Jane Fairfax should have taken that governess job and been miserable for the rest of her life. How much more rational Austen's novels would be if grim reality were the order of the day! Very rational, I daresay, but not so much like a novel written by a genius whose muse was a comic one.
To recap: based on the 18th-century novels I've read so far, I don't see any evidence that Austen was demonstrably more critical of her society than her peers, and in fact she is less critical than some. For example, there are some novels (such as Self-Control and The Wanderer and The Memoirs of Emma Courtney) in which the problem of female autonomy is made explicit. Those novels were outspoken and were recognized as such at the time.
If we are talking about Austen's literary merits, I think she is without question the best writer of her era, and one of the best writers of any era. But if you are going to uphold Austen as a social reformer, I think it's only fair to ask, compared to who?
If I come across an 18th century novel about a heroine who builds up her own chain of millinery stores, instead of getting a surprise inheritance from a rich uncle, or marrying a wealthy guy, I'll certainly share the info here.
Robert D. Hume, Money in Jane Austen, The Review of English Studies, Volume 64, Issue 264, April 2013, Pages 289–310