Women's Agency in Jane Austen

A few weeks ago, fresh out of the spring semester, I picked up Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.  To me, Austen's writing has become something of literary comfort food–something I want to read when I need something familiar that I know I will enjoy.  For some reason, I gravitate toward her in the summer.  Her writing always takes me a little longer to read and I like to have a more time to take it slow.  Anyway, I finished Mansfield Park recently, and I was totally surprised by how much I loved it.  For some reason, I had lower expectations for it, just because it doesn't seem to be the most popular of her novels.  Persuasion is still my favorite, but Mansfield Park is a close second.

Today, I want to write about a fascinating thing I noticed with this book in particular, but which applies to all of Austen's work.  I'm sure the argument has been made that Austen is not a feminist writer, that because she portrays a series of women who fall in love and get married seemingly inevitably, that she is not pro-women, or doesn't believe that women have a choice, or agency, in the genteel Victorian society that was so governed by a patriarchal system where women were incomplete unless married.  Of course, this was a feature of the society at the time, and because of various rules, women could not usually inherit from their fathers and were forced to marry well in order to be supported financially.  All of that to say, Austen is sometimes thought of negatively because her novels did nothing subversive–the girl always ends up married and secure with her husband.  However, there are also plenty of arguments that suggest Austen was doing something different and perhaps more subtle in her books that was pointedly counter-cultural for her time.

I've always had the inkling as well that Austen was not just a romance writer – one only has to read Persuasion to see that she has much to say about her society and she is a sharp critic and satirist of the world she occupied.  I never noticed this more than in Mansfield Park.  She is much more overt in that novel than she is in her other books about the choice women had, even in her structured society and even within marriage plots that seem so formulaic and constraining.  Today I want to write about women's agency as portrayed in Jane Austen's body of work–the ability of women to make choices that matter, both to them and the people around them.  A line from another classic novel came to mind when I was reading Mansfield Park and helps describe what I mean when I say agency.  The quote is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and is spoken by the main character, Jane: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will."  What I've come to realize about Austen's stories and her heroines is that they exert their will even in a society strictly ordered by structures like obligatory marriage and the like.  A key feature that is present in all of Austen's novels I've read so far is some character, normally the mother, who advocates marriage at any price, even if the gentleman is not, in fact, a gentleman.  So often, the heroine's heroic moments are those when she makes the choice to turn the prospective suitor down for her own reasons.

Such is the case in Mansfield Park.  The protagonist, Fanny Price, plays the role of the stereotypical poor cousin who is shipped off to grow up with wealthy relatives.  Within her adopted family, she has a single ally, her cousin Edmund, who she loves and admires, and often supplies with advice.  He is mostly a good guy.  Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Fanny draws the attention of a Mr. Crawford, whose courtship is thought to be the highest honor because of his status and wealth.  When Fanny refuses him, and continues to avoid his advances everyone around her is shocked and dismayed that she would pass up such a fortunate opportunity when there is seemingly so little chance she will get such an offer again.  For her part, Fanny refuses Mr. Crawford because she doubts his character and morals – she simply has reason to believe he is not a wholly good man.  Over and over, her motives are questioned by the men and women in her life, but she stands her ground.  She cannot voice her convictions about his morals to her uncle, in particular, because Crawford's wrongdoings also involve her uncle's own daughters, and so he doubts her every reason for refusing such a suitor.  At one point, he tells Fanny, when he first hears of her decision, that:
"I had thought you peculiarly free from willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offense.  But you have now shown me that you can be willful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you–without even asking their advice.  You have shown yourself very, very different from any thing that I had imagined" (Austen 327).
He goes on to say, a little later that, "And [you] are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honorably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again" (327).  Fanny will continually be asked by numerous men, whether she really knows her own mind, for she cannot possibly be rational in refusing such a fine match.  Ultimately, every conviction Fanny had about Mr. Crawford will be confirmed by his future actions and her refusal will be acquitted, but not before Austen makes her point.  Women in her novels have choice, they have a degree of agency that may appear subtle because of the world they inhabit, but is no less powerful or consequential.  In the end, it is Fanny, Fanny who knows her own mind and her convictions, not her uncle nor her aunt, who is correct about the character of the man who pursues her.

In the same way, the protagonists of Austen's other novels make important choices, too.  So much of the plots of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park hinge not on whether the guy will ask the woman to marry him, but on her own choice(s).  In Pride and Prejudice, it is not Mr. Darcy's attempts at winning Lizzie Bennett's hand that form the crux of the novel, but Lizzie's own struggle to come to terms with her deeply-held convictions about Darcy's character.  In Persuasion, it is not Wentworth's proposal that turns the plot–though it is the most perfect, most glorious proposal in the history of proposals–but Anne Elliot's transformation into a woman who knows her own mind and who makes important choices for herself and by herself.  Emma is a more complicated case, as the plot hinges on the decisions she makes for other people, and it takes a good portion of the novel for her to realize she must eventually decide about her own marriage, but it is still the consequences of her ability to choose that drive the plot.

I love what Austen does in her novels.  I love the subtlety with which she makes her point about women's ability to choose–their agency in directing their own lives.  Fanny Price is a warm, fully-developed character who is both independent and deeply connected to those around her.  She is determined, strong-willed, and unafraid of opposition.  I came to the end of the novel with a deep respect for her.

I don't write all of this to say that I don't like the romantic nature of Austen's novels, because I love it a lot.  I simply think that beyond that, Austen writes compelling stories about women's agency within a society that seems to hinder it.  Jane Austen is the best; that is all.

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