Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen's Novels

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen's Novels

Article excerpt

Although Austen's novels have always been open to widely divergent interpretations, the two basic stances taken by critics are to view her as a conservative holding the values of the landed gentry in the late eighteenth century or as a subversive who undercuts the very premises upon which English society rests.(1) Most feminist studies have represented Austen as a conscious or unconscious subversive voicing a woman's frustration at the rigid and sexist social order which enforces women's subservience and dependence, though many feminist critics, as Julia Prewitt Brown notes, are distinctly uncomfortable with what they see as Austen's "cowardly accommodations" with the patriarchal order.(2) What these rival camps share, however, is a tendency to make the patriarchal order itself Austen's essential subject matter. Austen, placed as she is historically, is perhaps most often seen as a pivotal figure, looking both backward and forward; but whether critics emphasize her eighteenth-century roots or stress her affinities with Romanticism, almost always the big question is her valuation of the established patriarchal order. I do not mean to suggest that this is not a question worth asking. I merely wish to suggest that other avenues, perhaps equally worth pursuing, are obscured by our failure to step outside a masculine framework of values.

Alistair Duckworth, who has long and eloquently articulated the conservative case for Austen, offers as a safe generalization this distinction between the novelists who precede Austen and those who follow:

whereas the eighteenth century novelist...can accept society whole, as a given structure within whose terms the individual must act, the nineteenth century novelist tends to question the ethical constitution of society and to set against it a morality generated by the interaction of two people or a small group...From Fielding's comprehensive affirmation of society, the English novel, we may say, moves...to Dickens' circumscribed ethic in which a small enclave is purified through love amid a world of wickedness.(3)

Duckworth goes on to assert that "Jane Austen's affiliation is with Fielding rather than Dickens." However useful this schema might be, it unreasonably assumes that an emphasis upon the personal rather than upon the larger social order necessarily translates into a modern disillusionment with society. I align myself with feminist critics who find in Austen an emphasis upon the personal which springs rather from a distinctly feminine perspective; this study assumes, with Susan Morgan, that "Austen's 'social' concerns are with human relations, not society."(4) My interest here, however, is in the nature of Austen's feminism and in a possible explanation for the polarization of Austen studies within the feminist camp as well as across the whole body of criticism dealing with the novels. I approach these questions through a consideration of the use she makes of male characters.

Jane Austen has long been credited with being a keen observer of human nature and a creator of vital and convincing characters of both sexes. Critics, however, have down through the years regularly found fault with one group of characters in particular in her novels, the young men who appear as likely suitors for the heroines--the "heroes" and "villains." In many ways the ongoing complaint that certain of these male figures are inadequately characterized or crudely utilized merely manifested a masculine resistance to Austen's marginalization of male experience, but even recent feminist criticism exhibits a tendency to overemphasize the role of the "important" male characters, often in a misguided attempt to assert Austen's historical relevance and the profundity of her art.

Critics contemporary with Austen, of course, charged her with triviality of subject, and even her most earnest admirers have adopted a defensive stance. The attendant anxiety of her apologists has greatly affected the lines of developing argument to be found in the body of criticism dealing with the novels. …

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