Women’s History and Jane Austen

March 10, 2009 at 6:40 pm (books) (, , , )

Although I study Jane Austen’s novels, I look for what they can tell about the time period; and compare them to the diaries and letters of the Goslings and Smiths in order to flesh out how their lives would have been led. When I read Jane Austen’s works, it is usually for pleasure and certainly never for dissecting them into quiz questions. There is simply a lot I do not recall about them – no bad thing, as it allows me to read them more than once, for the enjoyment of her language if nothing else.

So when on Sunday, March 1st, our JASNA chapter’s guest speaker Prof. Mary Ellen Bertolini (Middlebury College) mentioned the essays of Tony Tanner (who wrote these mainly in the 1960s-1980s) as being insightful commentaries on Austen, I trotted over to the university’s library and took it out. Right away the title of one essay sounded arresting: “The Anger in the Abbey” – about Northanger Abbey, of course. (Tanner treats this last published book first, in consequence of its being written c1803).

Austen provides a particular image of Catherine Morland when she has Catherine speak about her dislike for history. But only after Tanner’s stressing one piece of Catherine’s comment did my little grey cells begin to grasp that the comment may be taken at face value — or more than face value. Here is Tanner:

“I should like to draw attention to a conversation in chapter 14 during which Catherine expresses her distaste for ‘real solemn history’. Compared with the Tilneys’ liking for ‘history’ this might seem to indicate a certain shallowness or callowness of mind on Catherine’s part. Yet she does make one telling point which is usually overlooked. One reason why ‘history’, as then written, does not appeal to her is this: ‘the men are all good for nothing, and hardly any women at all–it is very tiresome [emphasis added].”

It is a comment we can associate with the Austen who wrote her comic History of England.

I know I enjoy reading the letters of the women of the two families I am studying — perhaps simply because, being a woman, they touch on the fundamentals of life that interest me: travel, family, friendships. Business matters or how many birds were bagged over a shooting weekend I can live without! But I never THOUGHT about Catherine Morland’s comment (and the hidden meaning behind it) before: Was Jane Austen, then, an early advocate for what we would now call Women’s Studies??? Perhaps so…

I must say, after pondering the TYPES of information we historians can find about those who lived a couple hundred years ago, it does rather boil down to: When they were born and to whom; who they married; their children; and when they died. So who can ever blame Austen for concentrating on the most ‘interesting’ part of any person’s life: her character’s family and whose family that someone marries into.

I had reason to look up letters of Emma Austen’s maternal grandmother: she writes of visiting a Mrs Carr and says “to our great surprise [we] were informed that she was at liberty to say every thing was now settled Between her Brother Henry Greg [sic& Miss Gosling  the Greggs are as you may suppose in high Spirits  the Goslings not much delighted  Old Mrs. Gosling sais she will not consent but I think Miss Gosling is determined… poor Mrs Gosling finds the Pill rather disagreeable to swallow“. Miss Gosling, by the way, is Mary Gosling’s Aunt Gregg – her father’s sister. Born c1770, she would have been about 24-years-old at this time (spring 1794), and the lone chick left in her mother’s nest. Mrs Smith adds something to which many woman might relate: “I fancy her home was not comfortable  the Mother is an odd woman“. Oh dear!

My point in bringing this up is that this little snag in the lives of the Goslings and Greggs is just what sucks one into their lives, it entices you to tease out more of their story (though whether more can be found, in any instance, never mind this one, is another story). What was Old Mrs Gosling like? If her daughter (Maria Gosling) was unhappy, what about her son William and his Eliza (for she evidently lived long periods with them)? And here is the very type of story we love Austen for! The push and pull of family, versus the new family a woman wants to make for herself. It is actually surprising how many couples, in just this extended family, encountered problems with familial opposition: Augusta Wilder seems not to have been the dessert of choice for Henry’s father — though Henry was besotted with her; Richard Seymour’s sister was actually talked out of marrying the man of her choice (he did not make enough money); and yet she finally married him. And another couple in Richard’s family, brought down upon themselves the rath of the potential father-in-law — before they too wed. Such tales are why Austen’s novels seem timeless — as well as perfect mirrors of her time.

And why I will never read them in order to remember how much Lady Catherine spent on her chimney piece, or what type of dog Henry Tilney keeps!

Permalink 2 Comments