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Feminist Reading of Austen's Persuasion
"I Will Not Allow Books to Prove Anything":
Women Reading and Women Writing in Austen's Persuasion
Feminist criticism is equally concerned with female authorship and with female readership and in the case of Jane Austen, both issues must be addressed. Frantz in 2009 noted that on one level Austen's influence on female readership has been immense: she claims that "readers and authors of contemporary romance claim Jane Austen as the fountainhead of all romance novels," a genre which constituted the "largest share of the consumer market in 2008" but which is assumed to have an exclusively female readership. Yet feminist criticism of the early novel overall has begun to focus specifically on the rationale offered for novel-reading in the eighteenth century, when the printer's apprentice Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela in imitation of what Jenny Davidson describes as "conduct manuals," or books of etiquette for female readers. As Davidson notes in her discussion of Austen, this genre presents female readers with "an elaborate code which governs the behavior of young women" (157). But the problem with a book is that one needs to learn how to read it. The question of female literacy is intimately linked with questions of female education, female readership, and whether such readers can trust a male authority. This seems to be the thrust of Anne Elliot's complaint to Captain Harville late in Austen's Persuasion. Harville cites "songs and proverbs" -- in other words, the aspects of literature which are amusing and instructive -- to justify a prejudicial assertion about women:
"I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men."
"Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything." (Ch. 23)
But readers of Austen's last novel may very well recall in Anne's assertion the way in which Austen began her career: with works like Northanger Abbey and Love and Freindship [sic] which deliberately began as an ironic critique of sensational fiction, in showing the way that many female readers are not as cautious toward permitting books to effect some kind of behavioral change upon them. To a certain degree, Austen's novels critique the world that offers "education…in so much higher a degree" to men, by teaching women, in some sense, how to read.
In their monumental work of feminist analysis of the early novel, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss Anne Elliot's complaint here, judging that she "decorously understates the case" (7). But Gilbert and Gubar think that Anne's "remark implies that women have not only been excluded from authorship but in addition they have been subject to (and subjects of) male authority" (9). Indeed, feminist readings of Austen have traditionally begun with the way in which Austen characterizes her own work, in a family letter which was first quoted in the "Memoir of Miss Austen" written by her brother Henry:
With regard to her genius, we must adventure a few remarks. She herself compares her productions to a little bit of ivory, two inches wide, worked upon with a brush so fine, that little effect is produced after much labour. It is so: her portraits are perfect likenesses, admirably finished, many of them gems, but it is all miniature painting; and, satisfied with being inimitable in one line, she never essayed canvass and oils; never tried her hand at a majestic daub. Her "two inches of ivory" just describes her preparations for a tale of three volumes. (151)
Here Austen is praised for a limitation in scope that seems equivalent to confinement, the basic trope used by nineteenth century female writers to express the state of stifled creativity which they attributed to women tout court, and which gives Gilbert and Gubar the title of their study (by way of Jane Eyre). The calculated refusal of any great artistic claims on Austen's behalf was partly a reflection of female standards of modesty, but also because books themselves were largely associated with patriarchal male authority. Gilbert and Gubar note that the construction of Persuasion foregrounds this notion:
It is significant that Persuasion begins with her father's book, the Baronetage, which is described as "the book of books" because it symbolizes male authority, patriarchal history in general, and her father's family history in particular…..And in fact, Anne will reject the economic and social standards represented by the Baronetage, deciding, by the end of her process of personal development…she will insist on her ability to seek and find "at least the comfort of telling the whole story her own way"…Living in a world of her father's mirror, Anne confronts the several selves she might have become and discovers that they all reveal the same story of the female fall from authority and autonomy. (175-6)
By this standard, the renewed relationship between Anne and Captain Wentworth can be seen as Austen's invocation of the idea of "re-writing" a previously inscribed text. The earlier broken engagement of Anne and Wentworth has become a sort of male-authored text, which now must be revised by the reader who had read and been influenced by it. Indeed, Sarah Raff notes that Austen's initial readers (female or otherwise) would have recognized in Persuasion distinct allusions to George Crabbe's poem "Procrastination" -- "the poet whom Austen joked of marrying" in her letters, as Raff notes, and a work "to which Anne Elliot alludes during her grand vindication of women's constancy" to Harville, quoted above -- which tells the story of a broken engagement like Anne's to Captain Wentworth, but in which the female protagonist ages into a rich spinster while the rejected suitor ends in rags (Raff 174). In other words, Austen knew all too well how a male writer would end this story, like all of the other "fifty quotations…songs and proverbs….all written by men" which Captain Harville invokes. Raff gives a rather queasy summary of the Crabbe poem, which invokes the image of the elderly unmarried women draped in jewelry as a ghoulish emblem of women's essential emotional shallowness. To that degree, the happy ending in Persuasion is intended as subversive, not only of readerly expectation but of the patriarchal order suggested in early writers.
Austen, however, knows that a real feminist analysis requires treating women not as an inferior or deferential "other" but as an equal. She therefore is careful to depict Anne Elliot as putting literary advice into actual practice with Captain Benwick: "she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances." (Chapter 11). To a certain degree this may be a reaction to Benwick's references to the more scandalous and indulgent poetry of Byron, which corresponds to his admission to Anne that he has "little faith in the efficacy of any books on grief like his" (but nonetheless "promised to procure and read them"). Yet Austen ironizes the conclusion and, crucially, she makes Anne aware of the irony herself:
When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination. (Chapter 11)
Note that the irony of all "moralists and preachers" -- in this context a company that consists mostly of canonical male writers, and Anne herself (as much their reader as their fellow "preacher" here) is forced to reflect that the position of anyone offering advice upon conduct is obliged to be, in some way, hypocritical. This seems to fit nicely with Jenny Davidson's analysis that Austen "justifies hypocrisy as a legitimate manifestation of female dependence" -- it is the subordinate position of women, especially when considered among writers whose work might prove to be influential on the behavior of female readers, which creates the irony here. Anne's dependence upon her father's authority -- which has nothing but the allure of aristocratic antiquity to justify it, and therefore may be seen as a kind of analogue to the patriarchal literary tradition as well -- is required to…[continue]
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