This study focuses on two important early women novelists in order to detect and investigate feminist criticism in eighteenth century writing. Jane Austen and Frances Burney each are considered leading novelists of her day, and although Burney is situated far below Austen in literary popularity, both women should be viewed as reformers of the genre. Before I explain my reasons to focus this paper on female protagonists in Evelina and Sense and Sensibility, I want to state briefly what generally motivated me to work on eighteenth and early nineteenth-century literature.
During my semester abroad I had the pleasure to attend a seminar called: Sense and Sexuality: Women and Writing in the Eighteenth-Century. The course was laid out to explore the representation of women, and the construction of female sexuality and feeling, in a wide range of British eighteenth-century literature. Female feeling, sexual passion and the concept of sensibility were thereby the cornerstones of our work. However, I already felt during that period that I wanted to learn more about gender relations in eighteenth-century texts. The role of women in society was an aspect that I found particular intriguing. While novels like Fantomina by Eliza Haywood and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill by John Cleland tended to provide a lot of insights into female passion and sexuality, I missed the feminist approach that would have made the course even more interesting. When I returned from England, I thus decided that for my Bachelor thesis I wanted to do a feminist reading of eighteenth-century British literature.
I came up quite quickly with the idea to work on the construction of female characters in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Burney’s Evelina. While I was already familiar with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I was less acquainted with
Fanny Burney’s Evelina. Nevertheless, I started reading and soon was deeply impressed by Burney’s depiction of her young heroine. Certainly, I am aware of the fact that Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and therefore technically does not belong to eighteenth-century literature. However, Austen’s first novel is such an important work in the field of domestic writing that I am willing to ignore the date and read Sense and Sensibility as a very, very late piece of eighteenth-century writing. Moreover, we will find that Sense and Sensibility contains a wide range of features common among eighteenth-century writing. In arguing for a feminist reading of the novels, I also favoured Austen and Burney, because both writers are very good at creating multilayered characters that capture the ravages of time by being both critical and comic. And obviously, if your thesis is titled: Female Protagonists in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Frances Burney’s Evelina, you are advised to work with a complex and interesting set of characters in the first place.
Once I had figured out what novels and approach I was going to use for my thesis, I had to think of a logical structure. If you are to explore the conditions of women in eighteenth-century writing by reading distinctive literature, you cannot begin without a proper prequel. Before I start focusing on each novel in particular, I will therefore look into the world of conduct literature and its effect on eighteenth- century society. Conduct books were designed largely to define proper femininity and instruct women on proper behaviour. As a tool to suppress women they established rules and expectations that aimed to stifle women’s self expression and free will. I think that it is inevitable to identify the efforts that were made to control female behaviour, because otherwise we are likely to misunderstand the writer’s use of comedy and overlook some of the most vigorous criticism.
The main effort in this thesis is yet devoted to those passages that focus directly on the novels. Evelina Anville and Elinor Dashwood in cooperation with other female protagonists serve as generic characters that help to understand women’s condition in the context of the time and novels. Against the background of gender oppression, the analysis of these female characters will also serve to illustrate a shift in domestic literature by promoting the rise of female authority and power.
2. Women and Writing in the Eighteenth-Century
In order to understand more fully the rebelliousness and underlying complexity anchored in writings of Austen and Burney, we need to consider the time and cultural milieu in which they wrote, in particular those views and values that exerted pressure on female self-expression. Unless we don’t recognize and understand the efforts that were made to control women’s behaviour and to oppress them, we are likely to misunderstand the writers’ use of comedy and overlook some of the most trenchant criticism. Thus, the knowledge compiled in this segment will facilitate the understanding of the construction of female characters in Evelina and Sense and Sensibility.
In this chapter I will first look at the literature designed to instruct women on proper femininity, focusing on conduct-books writers’ efforts to suppress women and assign them a particular role in society. I will then describe how shifts in domestic ideology affected women novelists, especially those who disagreed with the basic assumption about gender made by the conduct-book authors.
When we imagine the lives of eighteenth-century middle-class women, we tend to think of family parties, drawing rooms and fancy soirees. However, these images are solely standard features of domestic environment used by conduct-book writers to construct an ideal of femininity. The realities of women's lives were yet very different from the paradisiacal accounts portrayed by conduct authors. Women's social status is captured accurately by a statement made by Lord Chesterfield insulting women as “children of a larger growth” (Chesterfield 66). If a woman married, her legal identity and maturity was claimed by her husband, if she remained single, she was subject to the will of her parents. The possibility of leading a financially secured life as a single woman was hardly an option. “Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony” (qtd. in Bilger 191). This statement by Jane Austen herself elucidates the dreadful situation single women were placed in. An unmarried woman had to rely on family or relatives for if she had none, her whole existence was endangered.
For sentimental writing relied so heavily on stereotypes of domestic order and the assumption that women should be subordinate to men, social fears and pressure made it difficult for writers to be comic, critical and female (cf. Bilger 21). To nourish such fears, numerous conduct books of the period defined proper femininity, setting up strict rules and guidelines for feminine behaviour. Those books were mostly in terms antithetical to the critical spirit of female comedy and laughter, which were considered a great threat to consisting social orders. The conduct writers contributed to what literary theorists call “naturalization of the feminine ideal” (Bilger 21).
In the next passage I want to illustrate how exactly that ideal looked like by quoting some of the most distinctive conduct literature of the period. Daniel Defoe, English writer, journalist and pamphleteer, commented on the role of women in a tract entitled, Some Considerations upon Street Walkers with A Proposal for lessening the present Number of them:
The great use of Women in a Community, is to supply it with members that may be serviceable, and keep up a succession. They are also useful in another degree, to wit, in the labour they may take for themselves, or the Assistance which they may afford their Husbands or Parents. (Defoe)
Defoe’s expectations of women are limited merely to their community and domestic duties. Conduct literature suggested that a woman’s purpose in life was to “to conceive, to give suck and to breed up children” (A Physician). Another favoured topic of conduct literature was the concept of matrimony. The role of a wife was in terms largely similar to that of a mother. Wetenhall Wilkes, theological writer and controversialist, provides interesting insights into the life of a married woman in his dissertation on chastity:
The duties of a wife to her husband, in every degree and state of life, can be no less than love, fidelity, and obedience to all his lawful desires, and prudent counsels; so that, according as she is disposed, in herself, to perform these duties, every circumstance of life is to give her pleasure or pain. (Wilkes)
Whereas earlier views promoted women as seductive and disobedient daughters of Eve, the eighteenth-century ideal of femininity completely opposed the possibility of female resistance. New properties, however, rose greatly in importance. Audrey
Bilger refers to historian Marlene LeGates who suggests that during the eighteenth- century, the “image of the disorderly woman is replaced by the image of the chaste maiden and obedient wife.” (Bilger 21) Chastity, modesty and delicacy were considered the most desirable properties for a woman to perfect. Humor, wit, or exuberance on the other hand were highly inappropriate for a middle-class woman to engage in:
Sometimes a girl laughs with all the simplicity of unsuspecting innocence, for no other reason but being infected with other people’s laughing: she is then believed to know more than she should do. – If she suffers a very complicated distress: she feels her modesty hurt in the most sensible manner, and at the same time is ashamed of appearing conscious of the injury. The only way to avoid these inconveniences is never to go to a play that is/ particularly offensive to delicacy. – Tragedy subjects you to no such distress. – Its sorrows will soften and ennoble your hearts (Gregory 48).
Femininity required tranquillity which meant a woman of delicacy would rather remain silent than to object. And let’s just remember that rape and domestic violence were, no doubt, as common in the eighteenth-century as today.
Obviously, a gender system like that required certain consent. Historian Susan Moller Okin explains that the new domestic order soon took on a life on itself, a life that depended on women’s complicity for its survival.
This special sphere of life was held to depend for its health on the total dedication of women […] Thus anyone who wished to register objections to the subordinate position of women had now to take considerable care not to be branded as an enemy of that newly hallowed institution – the sentimental family. (Okin 88)
James Fordyce, conduct writer of his time, advises his female readers that if they want to get respectable husbands, they must refrain from laughter and wit.
[W]hen I speak on this subject, need I tell you, that men of the best sense have been usually averse to the thought of marrying a witty female? […] Men who understand the science of domestic happiness, know that its very first principle is ease […] But we cannot be easy, where we are not safe. We are never safe in the company of a critic; and almost every wit is a critic by profession. (Fordyce 191)
The fear of female power was nothing unusual in eighteenth-century England. In fact, the endeavour to reconstruct femininity as virtually asexual arose from the fear of sexual power exerted by women.
In spite of all the cultural pressure to suppress women’s self-expression, Burney and Austen began their careers in a time that was not completely adverse to women writers as a group. In fact, by the end of the eighteenth-century, a number of middle-class women had obtained a prominent position in the world of literature (cf. Bilger 32). However, we must not forget that for a woman writing itself was a rebellious act. And if that writing contained critical, aggressive or even indelicate aspects, careful women writers had to find a way to disguise such unfeminine elements. In point of fact, masking their literature was a necessity to ensure their own safety and protection. As I will explore further when dealing with the novels, for women any violation of society’s decorum brought along loss of reputation. Loss of reputation in turn often meant that men’s liberties with such women rose. Consequently, not only women in general, but women writers in particular had to be extremely careful when publishing a novel. What we can say safely about conduct literature though is that it urged women to be submissive, modest and gentle, but neglected to prepare them for any of life's real dangers.
Notwithstanding and against the conduct writer's believes, female critical writers existed. Burney and Austen alongside other women writers demonstrate that critical writing could work out for a woman novelist. In the following chapters I will therefore look into distinctive literature by Burney and Austen to find out to what extent Sense and Sensibility and Evelina mirror the dreadful conditions of women described in this chapter. Also, I will examine how Burney's and Austen's female characters differ from those promoted by conduct-book authors.
 It’s questionable however, whether marriage for a woman was desirable for any other reason than financial security. The basic idea of marriage in the 18th Century was that upper and middle-class women had to stay dependent on a man: first as a daughter and later as a wife. Once married, it was extremely difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce . The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 gave men the right to divorce their wives on the grounds of adultery. However, married women were not able to obtain a divorce if they discovered that their husbands had been unfaithful. Once divorced, the children became the man's property and the mother could be prevented from seeing her children.
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- Sandra Schülke (Autor), 2009, Female Protagonists in Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" and Frances Burney's "Evelina", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/205155