Jane Austen's Civilized Women: Morality, Gender and the Civilizing Process

Jane Austen's Civilized Women: Morality, Gender and the Civilizing Process

Jane Austen's Civilized Women: Morality, Gender and the Civilizing Process

Jane Austen's Civilized Women: Morality, Gender and the Civilizing Process

Synopsis

Jane Austen's six complete novels and her juvenilia are examined in the context of civil society and gender. Steiner's study uses a variety of contexts to appraise Austen's work: Scottish Enlightenment theories of societal development, early-Romantic discourses on gender roles, modern sociological theories on the civilizing process.

Excerpt

the civilization which has taken place hitherto in the world has been very partial … the
civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to
inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and
virtues exact respect.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

The question at the outset of this book concerns the picture that emerges when reading Jane Austen’s fiction from the perspective of a civilization in process. Albeit invested in the ways in which men and women, children and adults, navigate civil society, this is not another study about Austen the archetypal author of good manners. While moral development is at the heart of this book, it has been my care to avoid what one scholar has recently lamented ‘books that perpetuate the view of Austen as a moral tutor, a sort of Miss Manners for the ages’ do, namely, purport an understanding of ‘manners as monolithic – as near-universal and timeless behavioural ideas or, worse still, a set of rules to be followed’. This is not to say that such books offer no valuable insights, but that the present study seeks to delve into the implications of Austen’s awareness of what Norbert Elias has christened ‘the civilizing process’ that underlies individuation and social manners. Throughout the book, I make the claim that these implications are far-reaching: they extend from conceptualizations of the relationship between individual and society to diachronic accounts of sociability and rationality; articulations of agency and autonomy; the formation and validity of moral judgement; and what is crucial to this book, to the ways these issues are inflected when gender enters the equation. As these implications are not simply about a distant time, but point up the preoccupations of Western civilization, Austen’s fiction has an intense appeal for us. In order to illuminate this appeal and its ramifications, this book draws on distinctly different yet related contexts: on the eighteenth-century philosophical background, particularly Scottish Enlightenment theories of societal development and early-Romantic discourses on gender roles; on Elias’s theory of civilization; and on postmodern feminist positions on moral development and interpersonal relations. My central contention is that . . .

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