The question of Jane Austen's feminist credentials has long been a puzzling one for critics.(1) The six novels - those "little bits of Ivory" on which she worked "with so fine a Brush" - hardly seem the canvas for revolutionary expression. However, we may be wrong in trying to find in Jane Austen the kind of explicit message that we associate with more modern feminist writers. Instead, I contend that Austen responded to prevailing ideas concerning sexual stereotyping in a highly controlled and consistent fashion and that the emergence of what can be called a feminist perspective in her novels actually paralleled her growing mastery of the conventions of novel-writing.
A comparison of two Austen novels in particular demonstrates this thesis. Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are the products of Austen's "early" period. Northanger Abbey was her first mature novel; Pride and Prejudice is generally viewed as the last of her early works and the precursor to her later phase.(2) Both are novels of education, but they differ in their representation of what constitutes the proper ends of the educational process for men and women. They can, in fact, be seen as mirror images of each other in their presentation of contrasting responses to the philosophy of education (as it relates to sexual role) first proposed by Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid-eighteenth century. The different applications of the Rousseauist model in these two novels traces a formal and a conceptual evolution for jane Austen - a movement from novice to mature author, and from social apologist to independent and indeed feminist thinker.
Rousseau's influence on Austen must first be said to have been stylistic. The sentimental style popularized by Rousseau was the prevailing model for writers throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Although Samuel Richardson may have introduced sentimentalism in the form of his characters' refined sensitivity to virtue, Rousseau was the first to link the concept to stylistic and thematic conventions involving highly descriptive and effusive language, a preoccupation with natural landscape, and a nostalgic attitude toward past experience. Margharita Laski reports that Austen's brother Henry edited a newspaper at Oxford in 1789-90 to which he contributed essays "in the sentimental school of Rousseau" (30). The gothic and romance novelists of the period (Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe in particular), all of whom Austen read and admired, were also followers of this school. But if Austen did an apprenticeship in the sentimental style, it is with a difference. Love and Freindship, Lesley Castle, Lady Susan, and most of the of juvenilia are parodies of sentimentalism and, as such, reflect Austen's early dependence on the sentimental style while anticipating her ultimate rejection of it. By the time she wrote Northanger Abbey she had developed a distinctive style which was markedly unsentimental without being directly parodic of that style (though traces of her early satirical approach to sentimentalism still linger in the novel's theme and in the rendering of Isabella Thorpe's dialogue).
But if Austen outgrew her dependence on the sentimental style by the time she wrote Northanger Abbey, she still relied, at this stage in her career, on Rousseau's model for male-female role characteristics to facilitate her plot structure and character development. This model had its origin in Rousseau's two most novelistic works: Julie, or The New Eloise and (especially) Emile, or on Education. Both books were translated into English almost as soon as they were written (in 1761 and 1762, respectively) and enjoyed an extraordinary popularity, especially among women, in both France and England during the time Austen began writing her novels.(3) Insofar as jane Austen adopted the Rousseauist model for male-female role-playing in Northanger Abbey, she was still profoundly imitative of Rousseau, and the novel continues to represent an apprenticeship. …