Seeing and “Fit to be seen”: Emma
Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet
A crucial feature of female Bildungsromane, one that has helped create their broad appeal while opening them up to continual interpretive debates, is their ability to fuse an interest in female power and autonomy with a conservative reintegration into society. Nowhere is an understanding of this feature more important, although rarely seen, than in criticism of Jane Austen's novels, especially her two clearest Bildungsromane, Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Much critical energy has been devoted over the past twenty years to the question of whether Jane Austen should be considered a political reactionary, as Marilyn Butler argues in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1976), or a proto-feminist, which Margaret Kirkham claims in Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction (1986), when she finds Austen's viewpoint “strikingly similar” to that of Mary Wollstonecraft (xi). As an attempt to surmount this critical dichotomy, several recent scholars have focused on Austen's artistry, her unquestioned skill as a writer, to bridge the seemingly insuperable ideological gap. Thus, Mary Poovey focuses on Austen's “artistic style” and claims that her “aesthetic choices … can be seen as 'solutions' to some of the problems that neither Wollstonecraft nor [Mary] Shelley could solve” (1984, 172).
The model for the female Bildungsroman that I have proposed provides a framework for understanding both the conservative and radical aspects of Austen's novels and the way they work together, without retreating to the issue of aesthetics. My formulation, like those of several other recent critics including Gilbert and Gubar (1984), Claudia Johnson (1988), and Susan Fraiman (1993), emphasizes the coexistence of feminist and conservative