Like a lot of us, I do a great deal of reading during these winter months. Since I write fiction, I read mostly fiction. I love to see what other writers are coming up with, and to learn as much as I can from them.
But now and then, I come across a really great non-fiction book. I do read a lot of non-fiction for research, but seldom for pleasure. But recently I read “Romantic Outlaws: Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley,” by Charlotte Gordon. It was a really great read. This book tells, with great detail, the story of these two extraordinary women, one is considered the mother of modern feminism; her text “The Vindication of the Rights of Women” was the first real feminist treatise. The other wrote, at 18 years old, wrote one of the most groundbreaking stories in the history of fiction (at least in my opinion, anyway,) that being “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” Gordon explores the connections between mother and daughter, and how despite the fact that Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Shelley, their lives took parallel paths. Both mother and daughter believed women had the right to make their own choices about everything in their lives in a time when women’s lives were extremely narrow. Both had their own careers. Both had relationships with men outside of marriage, and those relationships produced children. Both paid a heavy price for these freedoms. They were forced to live most of their lives outside of England because they were considered persona non grata by what was considered then to be “good” society.
Many have speculated whether Jane Austen read “The Vindication of the Rights of Women.” No one has even been able to definitely prove if she did or not. Austen would have been only 17 years old when it was published in 1792. But being from a family that valued reading and scholarship, I can’t imagine she didn’t at least hear about it.
Would she have approved? It’s hard to say. In Marilyn Butler’s book “Jane Austen and the War of Ideas,” Butler stated that Austen was a conversative propagandist because all of her heroines got married, which meant she was “implicitly endorsing the established social order.”
But Miriam Ascarelli, in her article “A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft,” insists that, as Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Austen was “a formidable feminist critic.”
Ascarelli attempts to prove this thesis by looking at both “Vindication” and Austen’s novels. But I thought it would interesting to examine, instead of Austen’s novels, to take a look at some of her letters and compare them with some of Wollstonecraft’s words, and to see if this holds up Ascarelli’s theory.
One thing both Wollstonecraft and Austen both wrote about was love and marriage, and that women should make their own choices in that area. When Austen’s niece Fanny Knight was considering suitors in 1814, Jane told her she should listen to her heart, and marry only “with affection.” and if that affection was marred, she should give the suitor up. “Anything is to be preferred than marrying without affection,” she wrote Fanny, “and if deficiencies and manner strike you more than his good qualities, give him up at once.”
Austen supported women making their own choices about love and marriage during a time when women did not have to luxury of marrying for love. For most women of her time, marriage was more a business transaction and a matter of survival. People thought little about marrying for love. In spite of this, Austen advises her niece to follow her heart and make her own choices about love.
Mary Wollstonecraft believed the same. She stated, “I do not wish (women) to have power over men, but over themselves.” Wollstonecraft supported women making their own choices in all aspects of their lives, including love. “It is far better to be disappointed in love, then never to love.” Wollstonecraft, as Austen, believed love should be a choice, even if the circumstances are not perfect and things don’t turn out in the relationship, the choice is still the woman’s.
Wollstonecraft said “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.” Austen agreed that women should have command over their own minds, and should make their own decisions. She felt that women could govern themselves. and they should appreciate their own gifts. She said to Fanny: “Your own mind should govern important points of your life.”
Austen may have not agreed with Wollstonecraft fully, but she seemed to agree with some aspects of her ideas Her attitudes may not have been as politically charged, but they were just as potent, and ultimately, more significant, since Jane Austen’s stories, and her words, have influenced generations.