Monday, May 16, 2011

Research Paper on Jane Austen

Research Paper on Jane Austen

In Jane Austen's novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma she describes how a women's fate is largely dependent on social status. Austen had a keen sense of observation and was able to describe, throughout all three of these works, the lives of upper class women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She was able to show in these stories how intricately entwined a woman's life was with the social circle and society's views on a women's proper place.

In the late Eighteenth century a women's choices were dependent upon her social status. A women of middle to upper class had very limited choices as far as employment and marriage. Austen was able to accurately detail all of the important aspects of a woman's life in English society at the time, because she lived it. Austen was born into an upper middle class family, the daughter of a country clergyman and as such knew the life she described so vividly in her novels. Austen had a limited school education, but was later educated at home by reading on her own and being read to in the leisurely evening hours by her father. This was also true of many women in Austen's time. Education was limited to women of the time and even when they were educated, it was only so that they would become accomplished, meaning that they had learned the arts of music, literature and modern foreign languages, and there become more valuable as a wife. The irony was that while many women spent a great deal of time practicing these arts while they were single, most often they gave them up after they were married. This was illustrated in Emma where the new Mrs. Elton talks about how she hoped that she would not lose her musical skills as had many of the women she knew who had married.


The women of the upper class were also not only restricted by educational means, but also by the societal view on what a woman was capable of doing. The women of the upper class were not able to work, as that was seen as not suitable for a women of such social standing, and in the cases where they did have to find employment it was only as a governess, which was usually a live in teacher for wealthy children, or as a lady companion. These jobs were often not pleasurable and the women that did have to take them were not treated as equals. The society would not allow women to become a career professional, such as a doctor or lawyer, so they were not even allowed to attend schools where they could be trained as such. Because of this, the only opportunity a woman had to increase her wealth or social standing was by marrying well. This made marriage much more than just a love relationship, but more of a business partnership as well. Although arranged marriages were not the norm by the eighteenth century except in cases of large fortunes that need to be merged or the likes, the family still had to make the final decision as to the suitability of the husband.

Money played in integral role in all of the novels, because the main purpose of an upper class young woman's life in the eighteenth century was to find an eligible husband. Austen's novels describe how important money was for these women. Money is at the forefront of all of the issues in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, especially so in Sense and Sensibility because at the beginning of the book, the reader witnesses the passing of the elder Mr. Dashwood and his inability to leave more than a small inheritance to his second wife and three daughters. This poses two problems for the young female Dashwoods. First, they would be required to live on the good grace of a male relative. At the time, it was not socially acceptable for a young woman to live alone, so she would have to live with her family until she married. Since all three of the girls were unmarried, they would be staying with their mother, who, because of the nature of the inheritance laws in England at the time, would not have been able to retain the property or the home. This would leave them to seek shelter with a relative. The passing of their father also left them with very little money to live on each year, so the lifestyle with which they had become accustomed to would not continue unless they were able to marry well. The second problem was that the three Miss Dashwood's would have had little or no dowry with which to entice a suitable husband. This is also an integral part of the beginning of the story of Sense and Sensibility. The reader learns that part of the reason the father is unable to leave his second family much of an inheritance is because much of the money he had was from the dowry received from his first wife. Being as such, the money which would have already gone to a male relative, was much more so, because the young Mr. Dashwood is the first wife's son. The dowry situation causes even more problems for the young Miss Dashwood's because they now have to depend on other means to entice a husband. It is much easier to understand Elinor's firm beliefs in self-control and proper social decorum given these circumstances. She understood that it is now by means of her ability to refrain from emotional outburst and selfishness that she may still be able to marry someone of adequate means to support her.

Women in society were taught to keep their opinions under wraps in order to be seen as amiable to others in society. In the late eighteenth century there were many books written and published on manners and social grace and the women of society took these ideals very seriously. They knew that is was seen by others as a flaw to be too emotional or too opinionated. The keeping of personal opinions was tolerated by most, while the women were young and single, but once a women wanted to marry she understood that society expected her to keep those same opinions to herself. Emma is an example of this. She is young and often frivolous and is indulged by her father because she cares for him, so she is able to speak her mind and have some amount of free will. Emma also manages to put herself in other peoples business and interfere, but it is seen as somewhat entertaining because she has yet the responsibilities of a family and children. But once a woman was to marry, she would no longer have the frivolity of single youth and would have been expected to by society to carry herself with grace, decorum, and self-control.

In Sense and Sensibility, we also see examples of how self-control is an issue in society. Marianne does not believe in tempering her emotions, and because of that does not try to keep her feeling for Willoughby a secret. The two believe that the people who keep everything hidden are the ones who are full of folly. Marianne is the opposite of her composed, controlled sister Elinor. Elinor is the one in the family who is rational and thoughtful. She knows what is expected of her by the social restrictritions placed upon her and willingly follows these rules. It is usually to her favor that she acts in such a manner. She is able to remain levelheaded and steer the family in the proper direction after her father passed away, and because of her amiable disposition she is befriended by many. It is because of her quiet reserved nature that Edward was initially interested in her and this proves to be one of the main similarities between them. They both want to do what is seen in society as being "right".

Love is also another key concept in these three novels, but also love with strings attached, as in love in concordance with security. There is a modern saying "it is just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man", and in upper class Eighteenth century England, even more so. It was in the best interests of everyone in the family for a daughter to marry a wealthy man. In Pride and Prejudice even more so, because of the impending inheritance of the Bennet estate by the rightful heir, the cousin, Rev. Collins. In the novel, Mrs. Bennet spends all of her time planning and concocting ways for her daughters to meet available suitors. And although at first her actions seem frivolous and selfish, it is easier to understand that her desperation in finding suitable husbands for all of her five daughters in not unconfounded. Given the limited resources, as far as eligible bachelors in the immediate vicinity, it becomes quite clear that Mrs. Bennet is a woman with a very real purpose. She is often brash and an embarrassment to her family, but in reality it was a necessary evil. Given these circumstances it is also clear why Mrs. Bennet is so upset by the refusal of the marriage proposal by Rev. Collins to Elizabeth. First, Mrs. Bennet thought that she had made matches for two of the five daughters by having Elizabeth betrothed to Rev. Collins and Jane nearly so to Mr. Bingley. And second, with Elizabeth's marriage to Rev. Collins, the estate would remain in the family and Mrs. Bennet would be able to remain in her home.

There is also a matchmaker or two in each of the three novels. In Pride and Prejudice is of course the scheming Mrs. Bennet, in Emma is Emma herself, and in Sense and Sensibility the most prominent matchmaker is the entertaining Mrs. Jennings. Mrs. Bennet's reasons for matchmaking are quite clear. It is a necessity that her daughters marry, because there is no male heir in the family to retain the property. Although Mrs. Bennet is indeed quite ignorant of many things, she realizes that it is her responsibility to make sure that her daughters will be well cared for after the death of their beloved father. Also, of course Mrs. Bennet has her own selfish motives involved in the matchmaking, because it is also her future that is dependent on the marriage success of her daughters, but it is clear that Mrs. Bennet does care about her children and only wishes the best for them. In Emma, Emma's matchmaking seems to come out of want instead of necessity. Emma is a young woman who should be worried about her own marriage and future, but she is more interested in making suitable matches for her friends, most notably the illegitimate Harriet. She takes Harriet on as a project and tries to introduce her into society and have her marry a clergyman, which only comes to disastrous results. Emma is really the only character in each of the three novels that goes against the societal views of marriage to someone of equal social standing. She is set on marry Harriet to a man of social class even though Harriet's decent is unknown. Emma convinces herself and tries to convince others that Harriet could have indeed come from some upper classed people even though she has no proof to back up her theory. All of the other matchmakers try to keep within the normal social realm of marrying within the same social class, even though they are always trying to find the richest bachelor, they do not push themselves into a class above, which they belong.

Most often, the matchmakers of the time were already married women who took it upon themselves to see that a proper suitor was found for unmarried friends or relatives. This was the socially accepted standard for introduction into society. In Pride and Prejudice we see Mrs. Jennings playing the role of matchmaker to Elinor and Marianne when she takes the two of them along with her to London for a visit. While there, the two girls accompany her to dances and social gatherings with other people of society in order to be introduced to eligible bachelors. This was the life of an unmarried society young lady, going to balls and dances, meeting at other peoples houses for games and cards, and strolling through town in search of a mate.

Even though the women in Jane Austen's upper class social circle did not have to spend their time doing the daily chores of everyday life such as cooking and cleaning, they did not have the freedom to chose a different path for their life. It was either a life of marriage and children, where the woman was expected to act and think in a certain fashion, or the woman could remain unmarried as in Jane Austen's case, but then she would be at the mercy of her male relatives in relation to living quarters and monetary income. The choices for these women were so limited that it seems it may have been more appealing to have been poor just so that the constrains of society placed upon a woman were not as confining. The reader does not get a clear picture of what life was like for the servants or working women of the time, because Jane Austen does not focus on those characters at all in her novels. She remains in the realm of the upper class, and it is of their life only that we get insight into. It is also worth noting that Austen does not speak of the class above the landed gentry, that being the nobles. It would have been improper for the classes to have being mingling and so because of that, she does not mention them since the characters in the novels would have really had no contact with people of that social stature.

What is most remarkable is that though Jane Austen had such a limited area of travel and exposure, she was able to capture the entire spectrum of human emotion. Just by observing those around her, she was able to tap into the desires, aspirations, and fears of almost every human being. She not only wrote about the ordinary details of upper class English daily life, but about the complexities of the human experience. Her characters have deep emotions that although not always show to us, by virtue of the English demeanor and reserve, it its brought to the reader's attention by the interplay between characters. An example of this would be in Sense and Sensibility between the tow eldest sisters Elinor and Marianne. Marianne is unabashed in the revelry of emotion, but most of what we can learn from her is not by what she says, but by what she refrains from saying, which for the most part is very little. In comparison, Elinor believes in sense over sensibility and refrains from outward outburst of emotion, but we still come to understand the wants and needs of Elinor by knowing that she too feels the way that Marianne feels, but refrains from saying so or acting on her emotions. It is by her refraining from public displays of emotions that she is able to keep her dignity in regards to Edward when she finds out that he is engaged to Lucy Steele and then of Edward's decision to stay true to his word and marry Lucy even though he is to be disinherited. Luckily for Edward, Lucy decided to not hold him to his promise made in youth and he was eventually free to choose another mate, which he found in Elinor.

Jane Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma capture the daily lives of these upper class English people with such rich depth that the reader does not even seem to notice the absence of any other issues outside the daily lives of the country gentry. It is worth noting that during the time Jane wrote at least the first novel, Sense and Sensibility, England was still in the midst of recovering from the revolutionary war with America, and then later Europe was beginning to feel the power of France's Napoleon. But, Austen's characters do not even hint at what is happening outside of the immediate details of their lives. It is enough for her to document the daily trials and tribulations of these characters, to give the reader insight into what was going on underneath the character fade. We, the reader get such an intimate portrait of what the people, most especially the women of the time, were going through by the way that Austen recounts the actions of the characters in her novels.

Austen's novels are timeless and classic although set in a very specific and narrow time period. She is able to capture each daily detail with such spirit and delicacy that the daily life of the upper class English people is enough. She was quoted as saying "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work upon" and in my opinion, she was exactly right. (Austen, back cover.)
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