Many feminist writers have adopted Jane Austen as their own. I cannot but agree with their thinking. However, I fear they, at times, do tend to become rather presentist in their assessments of Austen’s motives in the Canon. If you read some of the more strident commentaries, you would believe that the daughter of the Steventon Vicar would be atop the barricades waving her inscribed copy of Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Jane Austen was a woman of the 18th Century, achieving her majority before the Year Zero. Because of that, though, she was also a child of the Enlightenment…steeped in the thought of Locke, Hume, Kant, and, yes, Wollstonecraft. I would imagine that the French practitioners of Reason would be less fashionable in Britain, especially after 1789.
Lest any reader think that I believe that Austen was not a firm advocate of an improved lot for the women of her time, allow me to clearly state that I am of the opinion that Jane Austen was an incredibly pragmatic reporter and interpreter of the upper middle and upper classes in the Regency years. Her characters reflect personality types…and stereotypes…that resonated with her readers then and now.
Consider Jane Bennet who was the archetype of the “perfect” Regency woman. Jane was fairly accomplished in those areas deemed worthy for women. She was incredibly beautiful and sweet natured. She had everything except money. At this, Regency audiences would solemnly nod at her plight. Jane has spent the last two centuries as a singularly sympathetic character. Now contrast her with Caroline Bingley who had nothing but money (oh, yes, and accomplishments).
However, I cite Austen’s ability to turn her characters into “poster children” for broader segments of the population to allow me to turn to another consideration: how Jane Austen portrayed sexual predation and harassment.
The JASNA-Puget Sound 2018 Scholarship contest is the genesis and root for this exploration—and I am looking to start a strong discussion around this topic: one that is as important for our understanding of male/female relationships in the Regency as today. Essentially, we are challenging our entrants to consider another aspect of the timeless nature of Austen…the power inherent in the social hierarchy that dominated the Regency World.
The topic (for both the High School and College essays) is:
Identify one or more incidents that could be termed sexual harassment or sexual predation in a Jane Austen novel and explain why the term applies. Discuss how the characters of the novel deal with the damage caused by the incident(s). Was justice done? How are their methods similar to or different from how our society today deals with such problems?
I am of the belief that Austen used men like Wickham and Willoughby to highlight the power of the male of species to abuse the inferior position of women. These are actually simple and (God Help Me) straight-forward!
Much of this is rooted in my consideration of Michel Foucault’s explorations of power—and that makes this so current in our #METOO world! As Foucault wrote:
Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.
We can appreciate Foucault’s analysis as we look at the ODC matrix.
We watch the vicissitudes that Lizzy goes through with Darcy and, in the process, understand that she, while not abused by him, is none-the-less entirely in his power. He may not prey upon her with intent. He may not compromise her. However, Darcy does act as a predator in a manner when, in the early parts of P&P, he uses all of his male privilege…exacerbated by his wealth…to seek to marry (thankfully not, as we would so delicately put it, trifle with her) her.
Let me be frank…and many JAFF authors have certainly portrayed this in their work…Darcy lusts after Elizabeth. And Austen’s tone is so pitch-perfect. The twenty-year-old attracts him with her mind, to be sure…but her pheromones, honestly, drive him to the Hunsford proposal. He believes he can purchase space in her bed and that she, as he has been schooled by his social milieu to believe, will accept him as he is one of the wealthiest men in Britain (and thus the world).
But, Lizzy says No! And Darcy is no Wickham. No Rape follows. Darcy does not act on his lust. He stumbles off to London and Pemberley to lick his wounds and grow from an 18th Century caricature into a 21st Century man as written by a 19th Century woman.
This is where Austen drives a stake in the heart of the pretentions of Regency society. Elizabeth does have a choice—not a pleasant one for she is essentially condemning herself to a life dependent upon the tolerance of her relatives. Note…Lizzy says NO when Jane and Bingley are still estranged. The tutor to her nieces’ position is non-existent at this point in the book.
The Regency and that wonderful thing called propriety held that women were delicate flowers to be cherished and whose virtue and innocence were things of beauty. Of course, men insisted upon purity at a time when venereal diseases were rampant and paternity tests were 150 years in the future. But, ignoring the self-serving nature of propriety, consider how little virtue and innocence actually meant in the marriage mart. Jane, Lizzy, Fanny Price, and Elinor were doomed even though they were everything—except wealthy—that society demanded they be. Austen stuck a pin in that awful conceit with every stroke of her pen.
Yet, Austen does not leave her readers hanging. Just as she shows the perfidy of the traditional belief structure of the inate superiority of men, she offers redemption after a painful passage through darkness (yes, for such it is, and Darcy agonizes much as a cancer patient suffers undergoing chemo to eradicate the disease). But, she is an equal-opportunity moralist (not of the Fordyce stripe), for Lizzy and the other heroines in the Canon ache in their own way until they adjust their own traditional belief/behavior structures.
However, and I doubt if Austen was writing in a gendered manner, the bulk of the reorientation was left for the men of her stories. Not until they grew beyond the power constructs of their society were they able to enter into mature and loving relationships that we would recognize today. And, to begin to move toward a world where men and women would engage on a level and consensual playing field.
I would enjoy reading comments from visitors about the JASNA-PS Essay topic. While you will not win one, your considerations would be revealing. BTW: if you have a student (a Washington Resident) who will be attending a college or university, this is open to High School, College and Graduate students. There may be some other limitations. I will try to post full eligibility requirements in my own website when I get them.
I have finished writing “The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn.” The book is in beta right now. Target release is February 1st. Please enjoy this excerpt from the conclusion of the story of Kitty Bennet in the Bennet Wardrobe Universe.
This excerpt is © 2018 by Donald P. Jacobson. All rights reserved. No reproduction—either mechanical or electronic—is permitted. Published in the United States of America.
Madras House, The Twelfth Night Masque, January 3, 1812
At precisely 10 o’clock, the doors to the ballroom had been thrown open by two of the House’s footmen; not twins, but as close as they could be without being Castor to the other’s Pollux. Each wore a modern interpretation of the medieval long-beaked physician’s domino. The Countess, ever eschewing traditions that did not suit her vision, had abandoned any pretense of a receiving line. Maids collected white-gowned ladies’ capes as they entered. Additional footmen relieved black-suited gentlemen of their greatcoats as they climbed the nine steps from street level and appeared in the dimly lit foyer.
Past the initial entry, a row of motionless masked maids wearing snow-white uniforms demurely stood, hands clasped in front of their waists. They faced an equal number of footmen, their faces also covered, each broad figure clad in the pitch-colored Madras House livery that seemed to suck away any distinguishing illumination remaining in the high-ceilinged hall. The two lines formed an open-topped passageway that naturally funneled the guests toward the original pair of retainers who stood stock-still each with one hand pointing to the signs demanding quiet.
Strict instructions had been included to all guests not known to the Countess—which meant every one but those arriving from Oakham House or resident in Madras’ precincts. Their only role was to be stage dressing for Kitty’s grand tableau; although, as they were each one members of the lesser ton, they, like sparrows in the absence of eagles, immediately assumed that they were the sole reason for the French lady’s condescension to offer an entertainment. They would never believe that they were to be mere props for her much greater design. If they had chosen to consult the entire invitation sent to their townhomes and rooms, they would have noted a very particular line which adjured all guests to appear at Madras House no later than five minutes past the hour. Early arrivers would be accommodated in one of the public parlors. However, those coming past time would find the doors to the House barred to them.
Of course, George Wickham was not faced with this problem as his journey to the ballroom was accomplished with a walk down one hallway on the family floor and then a descent down the grand staircase. He slipped behind the barrier of servants and dipped into the library where he immediately poured himself a tall brandy.
Taking a deep draught, he paused and assessed his surroundings. Madras House’s library was as well stocked as any he had ever seen, including those at Darcy and Matlock Houses. While it could not hold a candle to Pemberley’s great book room, the scope and quality of the literature gathered here bespoke of a careful and knowledgeable hand.
The longer he stood there, the more he smelled something acrid burning around the edges of his nostrils. Looking into the fire reflected upside down in the pool of liquor shimmering in his crystal goblet, he grinned as the pieces came together. Another had sought refuge here thus making this a not solitary situation.
He called out, “Might I interest you in a brandy, my Lady? Or, if t’is the case as I assume it is, may I offer you a refill?”
Kitty’s rich alto chuckle filled the room before she replied, “My late husband often told me that stolen cigarettes were the death of many a sleepy sentry.”
A soft swish of silk approached Wickham from behind and a gloved hand reached around his left side to proffer an empty snifter. As he took it from her, he turned to behold a sparkling vision in the purest white. Simple lines embraced the Countess from shoulders to ankles, enhancing her still-slender figure, toned, as Wickham had learned, by her predilection for brisk walking. A modest train softly skimmed along the floorboards, stopping a half beat after her feet. Crisp white ribbons flew from her back and over her shoulders to loop beneath her firm bosom. Those globes rose in their womanly glory, proud, above her stays, where they were hidden behind gently ruched organzino that diffused visions of her tawny skin and preserved some degree of modesty.
A grand half-mask covered her features above her distinctive cheekbones and was held to her head by a band of white silk woven to mimic a spider’s web. The headdress itself was graced with white egret needle feathers, la feutrée à aiguille, leaving the impression that a small cloud had settled upon her whitened-blonde hair. Her eyebrows were picked out of the white ceramic masque using diamond chips that caught the fire’s light that shifted them from clear to variegated titian. A king’s—or queen’s—ransom dripped from her earlobes, throat, and wrists…all white diamonds of the first water set in silver to maintain continuity of theme and tone.
As Wickham handed back her drink, he made a leg and said, “My Lady, you have struck me dumb which, for me, means that I will only further allow that I would be honored to escort you into the ballroom and then claim your hand for the first set.”
The Countess chuckled and quickly responded, “I would hope you would never lose the power of your pretty way of speechifying, my dear Wickham. There are others—my cousin, a vicar of all things—who would profit mightily from an opportune case of laryngitis. You, however, must never lose your tongue.
“I fear I may only grant half of your wish. You may carry me into the ballroom. I am already engaged for the first set with a rather unusual lord. I must remind you, in spite of what I just said, that you will have to forgo any further conversation with me, yourself, or any other guest. My men, in spite of the esteem with which they hold you, will swiftly eject any noisome miscreant from my garden this evening.”
So saying, the Countess placed her half-finished eaux de vie on the mantle and held out her arm to the Lieutenant. He finished his glass, swiftly replaced his bauta, and accepted the limb that had never wavered in the twenty or so seconds it had taken him to render himself present and correct.
Her excitement became palpable as they slowly strode from the library if her heaving chest was any indication. Her scent—roses over cut grass—bewitched him as did the warmth of her ring-encrusted right hand that exploded through the sleeve of his jacket and the bunched material of the puffy shirt. He felt a familiar stirring in his loins—different from the lust he had so often felt when he was pursuing a bar maid…or even little Miss Darcy—a more spiritual rising he last known but three weeks ago when his Lydia had bid him an enthusiastic farewell.
He had experienced it with only one other woman outside of his wife and, now, Lady Robard! That single exception was Miss Elizabeth Bennet, now Darcy’s wife for nearly a month, and, thus, his old schoolfellow’s woman.
My gawd…is this lady on my arm somehow related to the Bennets? Perhaps t’is for the best that she is spoken for in the first set. This doublet hides nothing below my waist! I may need a cold bath. For the time being, let me remember that she is a woman old enough to be my mother.
As the hostess, the Countess assumed precedence and cut into the line slowly shuffling toward the footmen guarding the boundaries of the Countess’ realm as did the Argonath: the Pillars of the Kings in Gondor.[i]
Before being led into the ballroom, though, she breathed into Wickham’s ear, “Regulate yourself, sir, I am a woman with two grown children and a squadron of grandchildren. Besides, my dear young man, I am not, nor ever have been, for you.
“Another adventure awaits you this evening. You must keep your wits about you lest you betray your heart.”
Bundled warmly in her cape with her feet gently toasting on hot bricks, Lydia patiently endured the quarter hour drive from Oakham House to the Countess’ home. Across from her sat Miss Jenkinson, whose simple white gown trimmed with lavender lace reminded all of her status as a hired companion as well as honoring the memory of deceased loved ones. Her simple domino of grey silk completed the ensemble of a woman fully expecting to grace a sofa situated in an alcove throughout the ball.
Lydia watched the night-dimmed scenery slide by through a window rapidly frosting as the passengers’ breaths crystalized on the chilled plate. The perpetual ground fog had already penetrated from the Thames. The mists roiled around the lower reaches of those houses abandoned this night in reply to the Marquess of Salisbury’s command to attend his ball in Northamptonshire; their blackened windows poxy blemishes on the whited sepulchres[ii] behind whose doors the Ten Thousand in their Season carried on ignoring the changes raining down upon them.
Knowing the power of the Cecils, she wondered how many socially acceptable guests remained in Town to populate Kitty’s ball. Her question was answered in short order when the procession of uninhabited real estate across her black netted vision (for her bauta had screens in each eyehole) joltingly became stationary as her coach ground to a halt. Miss J rapped on the roof to inquire the source of the delay.
“Seems like, Miss, that we are about ten carriages back in a great line trying to arrive before the deadline,” came back the reply from the box.
Jenkinson pursed her lips before hitting upon an easy solution that she quickly called out to the driver. In a nonce, he had whipped their conveyance out of line and down the mews behind the great townhouse. Then he leaped down from his perch and sprinted up to the rear door that opened to his pounding knock. A quick conference resulted in a two-minute wait until a giant shape darkened the doorway before clambering down the rear stairs and crossing the greasy cobbles to the chaise.
Henry Wilson gently opened the carriage door and gravely nodded to the two ladies and their maid.
“Ladies, Miss Sloane. You dare not set foot on this pavement. You will destroy your slippers and gowns. If you are willing to accept my assistance, I will carry each of you to the kitchen door. Mrs. Hudson is already spreading a runner from there to the servant’s stairwell, you can enter the main floor from there and none will be the wiser,” Wilson stated.
Reflecting on her emotions from yesterday afternoon, Jenkinson was not comfortable in being cradled in Wilson’s mighty grasp. As such, she allowed both Lydia and Sloane to be whisked away before she dipped her own head under the doorframe and settled into Henry’s arms.
Instantly she was aware of his powerful maleness. His biceps corded against her back and thighs where they rested against him. Leaning her head against his chest, she was overwhelmed by the deep bass beat of his heart, slowly throbbing as if he were strolling in the park rather than bearing a full-grown woman. His breath stirred the fringe of hair that peeped out from beneath her tri-corn. His scent, leather and beeswax, pervaded her senses leaving an indelible mark.
In short order, though, the journey was over and the cable-like muscles and the pulsing heartbeat and the delightful aroma were consigned to her memory box.
All three women quickly curtsied to their savior who bowed in his turn. Neither of the other two noticed that he remained bent at the waist a hair longer when he made his homage to Miss J.
The moment was broken completely when the group exited the backstairs into the hallway adjacent to the ballroom. Wilson collected the ladies’ wraps and then, lightly burdened, he guided them to a private receiving room where he addressed them one last time.
“Mrs. Wickham: my Lady commands that you will wait here until I return to present you at the ball.
“Miss Jenkinson: if you would kindly accompany Sloane and me right now, the Countess has determined that your gown, while fashionably demure as befitting your belief that you are dressed in accordance with your station, will not do for a lady who is the de facto mistress of Oakham House.
“She has, thus, set aside a changing area where Sloane will assist you as you quickly replace your frock with something Madame has decided to be more appropriate for your introduction at the Madras House Twelfth Night Ball. She will not be gainsaid, so, please do not attempt to do so.
“I urge you to simply give yourself over to her whims. I assure you that you will discover that her instincts are impeccable.”
Suddenly, Lydia found herself alone in the smallish chamber. Through the walls, she could hear the orchestra beginning to tune their instruments. Her impatience increased as her old self tried to escape from the constraints of the knowledge that her sister was the Dowager Countess and expected a particular level of propriety from her. She dared not act the fool as she did at the Netherfield Ball.
Rather, she waited for Wilson, realizing that even if the crowd did not know the Countess was her sister, she did.
[i] See J.R.R. Tokein’s Fellowship of the Ring. The Argonath consisted of two enormous rock pillars, carved in the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion facing to the north. Placed upon huge pedestals, each of the two figures held an axe in its right hand and its left hand rose in a gesture of defiance to the enemies of Gondor. The two statues stood upon either side of the River Anduin. http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Argonath accessed 12/16/17.
[ii] A reference to Matthew 23:27 in the sense that the ton declared they had virtue because of their wealth.