Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft: Did Jane Read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN?

     Mary Wollstonecraft was born 4/27/1759. Because of an abusive father and her family being in poor financial straits, she worked as a companion and a governess (her experiences as a governess were highly influential on future writings).  She also started a school with a friend, and worked as a reader and translator, and was a published author, providing financial support for her family. She reported on the French Revolution. Mary was obviously affected by the ideas of the era-rights of man, questions regarding the morality of slavery etc. A pamphlet “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” published in 1787 argued against many of the accepted theories and practices of raising and educating girls, and is the forerunner of her book A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN, published in 1792. In this book, she protested the false life (“the doll’s life”*) approved for the women of her age. She felt that, as human beings, women were rational, should have the same rights as men, and should be allowed to take up the work for which each was best qualified, whether solely domestic or not. She considered neglected education to be the source of misery, with women rendered weak and wretched, resulting in a puppet like situation with women being pretty to look at, vain and helpless, with no other object than to gratify the whims and passions of men. She did not want to change the order of things and acknowledged men’s characters, superior physical strength, etc. Her viewpoint was that there was no reason to conclude that men’s virtues were superior to women’s virtues, and that both would benefit by better education and improved characters. (She made the interesting point that, if men were really concerned about the morals and virtues of their wives, daughters and sisters, they should improve their own morals and strengthen their own characters first-a virtuous, loving husband being far less likely to have an unfaithful, immoral wife!)
     Mary Wollstonecraft lived a highly unconventional life-she lived with Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American army officer in France, with whom she had a child. They were not married though she presented herself as his wife, and she would not give him up until she had no choice (they were not living together, he was unfaithful and indifferent). After two suicide attempts, she went back to her literary life, and formed a relationship with William Godwin, whom she married when she became pregnant again (with her daughter Mary Godwin who became a writer-FRANKENSTEIN, born 8/30/1797). She died 9/10/1797 from complications resulting from childbirth. Mr. Godwin’s subsequent biography of his wife, which included a frank discussion of her unconventional ideas and relationship issues, was published in 1798 and succeeded in ruining her reputation.
     Mary’s experiences as a governess in the household of an Irish noblewoman led to her view of the current “false system of education”* which was designed to make women “alluring mistresses”* rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers. She said that the minds of women were enfeebled by false refinement, resulting in women being treated as subordinate beings. She also condemned the education of rich ladies as tending to “render them vain and helpless, and the unfolding mind is not strengthened by the practice of those duties which dignify the human character.”* The focus of women’s education was for them to become “pleasing” instead of functional partners. “When the husband ceases to be a lover, and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives way to jealousy or vanity.”
     Did Jane Austen read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN ? I contacted Jane Austen’s House and Museum, Bath Central Library, Jane Austen Centre, and Chawton House Library.  No catalog of Rev. George Austen’s library is known to exist. (Jane Austen’s House and Museum does have a copy of the inventory of the contents of the Steventon Rectory but no catalog of his books.) The Bath Central Library indicated that VINDICATION was on the catalog for Marshalls Circulating Library on Milsom Street dated 1808; it is the only one they have in Jane’s time frame. Since VINDICATION was published in 1792 and was a well-known work, this argues that the book was probably available via a circulating library when Jane Austen lived in Bath, or visited in London or other cities.
     Jane is known to have had a copy of HERMSPRONG, or man as he is not by Robert Bage (philosophically, Mr Bage embraced the idea of the superiority of the “natural man”, considered women the equal of man and supported women’s rights, and was known to have had a high regard for Mary Wollstonecraft; these ideals are demonstrated by the story in HERMSPRONG)/ Jane’s copy is in the Huntington Library (her signature in all 4 volumes). This would argue a mind open to the ideas expressed in VINDICATION. There is also a theory that Jane would not necessarily referred to Mary Wollstonecraft’s work or influence, due to Mary’s unconventional morals and lifestyle (see Claire Tomalin and Miriam Ascarelli).
     It is clear that Jane Austen was exposed to and affected by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. As previously quoted, “…to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers”- Mrs. Bennet and Lydia Wickham in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE are clear illustrations of this. When we re-read the passage “When the husband ceases to be a lover…” , we see that the marriages of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and Charles and Mary Musgrove in PERSUASION, and Jane’s comments on them, are superb illustrations of the unequal marriage. The marriage of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in PERSUASION, especially where Mrs. Croft refers to women as “rational beings”, and the discussion of their unorthodox style of driving (he holding the reins, while she puts out a hand to correct his steering) as a metaphor for their marriage, is a clear illustration of what a marriage should be, according to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft. The characters of Lady Catherine DeBurgh, Elizabeth Eliot and Miss Bingley, reflecting their vanity, and minds not strengthened by performance of duties and activities, are also very illustrative of Ms. Wollstonecraft’s ideas. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the discussion between John Dashwood and his wife resulting in him doing little for his sisters parallels an example in VINDICATION. Also worthy of note is the relationship of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and her husband: she is empty headed, and he is surly because he can’t give her back, according to Mrs. Jennings (another example of an intelligent man caught in an unequal marriage.)
     That Mary Wollstonecraft’s work was known to Jane Austen is not a point of serious debate that I can find. However, I find it striking that there are so many illustrations in Jane Austen’s novels that support points raised by Ms. Wollstonecraft, indeed are almost direct references to A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. I think it is very clear that Jane was profoundly influenced by Ms. Wollstonecraft’s work, and, using her light touch and subtle humor, highlighted the issues Ms. Wollstonecraft raised. While she could not very well have acknowledged this influence at the time she published, Ms. Wollstonecraft’s reputation being what it was, I think Jane Austen clearly carried Ms. Wollstonecraft’s ideas regarding the education of women, and a higher concept of marriage, forward.

Books:                                                                                                                                                        Austen, Jane.  PERSUASION, from The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen NORTHANGER ABBEY AND PERSUASION.3rd edition.  Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1988.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.                                     Bage, Robert. HERMSPRONG, or man as he is not. Originally published 1795. Edition used: The Folio Society, London 1960.
Ivins, Holly. THE JANE AUSTEN POCKET BIBLE. Richmond, Surrey, England: Crimson Publishing, 2010.
Ray, Joan Klingel, PhD. JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2006.
Tomalin, Claire. JANE AUSTEN: A Life. Edition used: Vintage Books Edition, May 1999, New York NY.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. Originally published 1792. Edition used: Introduction by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, London: Walter Scott 1891.

On-line Articles:
“Jane Austen”-Brandeis University; http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/austenbio.html
“More Views of Jane Austen”. Smith, George Barnett.http://www.mollands.net/etexts/other/gbsmith.html
“Mary Wollstonecraft”. Biography Resource Center. http://galenet.galegroup.com
“A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Ascarelli, Miriam. Persuasions On-Line V 25 No 1 (JASNA)
“Feminism In Jane Austen”. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice–Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women, Etc. Republic of Pemberly. http:www.pemberly.com/Jane info/pptopic2.html
“’Hermsprong or man as he is not’ Robert Bage”. Perkins, Pam. University of Manitoba. The Literacy Encyclopedia. http://www.litencyc.com

JASNA 2004 AGM-Huntington Library information



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9 responses to “Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft: Did Jane Read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN?

  1. well-researched. Anything that enriches contemporary issues of the time is much appreciated.

  2. And you’ve stimulated me to write a series of five (as of last count) posts on this question, on A Vindication of the Rights of Mary. Lots to discuss!

  3. Pingback: This week’s culture round up « Flaming Culture

  4. Mrs C

    Thank you! I argued this point to my lecturer in 1997 and she dismissed it. I feel Vindicated myself.

  5. Today, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if
    it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube
    sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is entirely off
    topic but I had to share it with someone!

  6. Hey! Currently I am writing an essay on Austen and feminism, although I am on the opinion that she is not a feminist in the strictest sense. But. Have you read the Vindication through? I found this passage that might be of interest:

    ‘The best method, I believe, that can be adopted to correct a fondness for novels is to ridicule them: not indiscriminately, for then it would have little effect; but, if a judicious person, with some turn for humour, would read several to a young girl, and point out both by tones, and apt comparisons with pathetic incidents and heroic characters in history, how foolishly and ridiculously they caricatured human nature, just opinions might be substituted instead of romantic sentiments.’ (Vindication, Ch.13, http://www.bartleby.com/144/13.html )

    Which is, basically, a recipe for Northanger Abbey. How cool is that? It would be still nice to know for sure if she read Wollstonecraft.

    • Hi, Ze’! Thank you for your comment. I did read VINDICATION, and appreciate your reference. It just strengthens my opinion that Jane Austen did read it. Unfortunately, unless we find a catalog for her father’s library, a record of her borrowing it from a library or something similar, we will never know for sure…

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