Scenes from Provincial Life: Historicizing Jane Austen's Novels

By Lincoln, Margarette | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

Scenes from Provincial Life: Historicizing Jane Austen's Novels


Lincoln, Margarette, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


LITERARY CRITICS HAVE POINTED to the subversive effect of Jane Austen's writing. They argue that Austen, living in a period of repression following the French Revolution, was forced to present social criticism indirectly in her work (Johnson xxii-xxiv). Certainly there is a tension in her novels between characters' natural impulses and the social conventions that constrain them--particularly in the case of her female characters. Yet rather than subverting the values of a patriarchal society, using "apparently conventional material in order to question rather than to confirm" (Johnson 21), it may be that Austen is doing something in her novels that registers primarily with human psychology rather than social criticism.

This interpretation can be pursued by looking at the reception of conduct books for women. Some critics have assumed that most women of the time mutinied against the dictates of the male authors who penned such works, even if they did not condemn conduct books as stridently as the radical Mary Wollstonecraft, and that Austen herself was mostly critical of them. Both Catherine Morland and the narrator of Northanger Abbey defend novel-reading, regardless of the disapproval expressed in conduct books (Halsey 42). In Pride and Prejudice, the pedantic Mary reproduces the precepts of conduct books to no good effect. When Mr. Collins reads aloud Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women for the benefit of the Bennet girls, an impatient Lydia briskly interrupts him. This last episode has been interpreted as an instance of "critical distance from the dominant ideology," a relationship that allows Austen to "evaluate and occasionally invert some of its pronouncements" (Vorachek 136). In short, Austen's novels are in dialogue with conduct books of the time (Ford).

Few letters written by women of the upper "middling sort" survive, however, to enable us to judge how improving books for women were generally received. The unpublished letters of Elizabeth and Ann Henley present a rare opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary women of this rank, the rank assigned Jane Austen by J. A. Downie. Although the Henley letters cannot represent the opinions of an entire class, they do allow us to compare Austen's depiction of women's lives with women's own writing about their domestic situation.

Elizabeth (Betsey) Henley (1778-1832) was the youngest daughter of a prosperous, self-made London coal merchant and ship owner, Michael Henley. In 1805, he bought a large house with land in Friar Gate, Derby, living there in semi-retirement with Ann, his second wife, until his death in 1813 (Currie 2). His son, Joseph (1766-1832), continued working in the family business at their London premises in Wapping but purchased an estate in Oxford. Betsey never married and lived with her stepmother for over a decade after her father's death. Betsey had some physical impediment, which Ann referred to as "her severe misfortune," that affected her ability to communicate. Her frustration at this difficulty contributed to outbursts of bad temper. Most likely she was deaf. This presumption is supported by notes among her papers where it seems that Joseph is writing out his side of a conversation (about ordering a new carriage and the purchase of the latest plumbed-in, heated bath). Yet Betsey could write perfectly well, although she may not always have conveyed what she intended. Education for the deaf was in its infancy, and it is unlikely that Betsey would have been so literate had she been deaf from birth. She may well have suffered some childhood illness that affected her hearing only part way through her education.

Ann (1744-1833) was a sensible and religious woman of independent means, who married Michael in 1792. She got on well with her stepchildren, but, when she joined the family, Betsey would already have been traumatized by her mother's death, and there was always tension between them. The move to Derby would have separated Betsey from friends, limited her social opportunities, and reduced the number of attractions she could enjoy. …

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