Jane Austen as a Source for Eighteenth-Century and Regency Women

Jane Austen’s famous works have transcended the past two centuries and are as well-known now as they were when they were first published. Her novels on the lives of the Bennett sisters, the Dashwoods, and the famous Emma were popular in their own times and today, with film and TV adaptations especially popular since the mid-1990s. However, Austen’s novels are also a commentary of the time they were so set, and written in. The two novels I’ll be looking at in this post in particular will be Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. These novels take place during the Regency Period of 1811-1820, when the Prince Regent ruled the country. Although none of her novels strike as particularly feminist – an ideology, in fact, that wasn’t really established until nearly a century after the Regency Period – they are about women: their relationships with one another, the situations they face and their place in society. Pride and Prejudice, deemed to be one of the most famous love stories, is itself more about the Bennett sisters and their positions in society. Austen’s books are not just detailed in the lives of her characters, but also in the polite and leisure society of Georgian England. Her books are a commentary and highly descriptive text on the ideals this polite society was supposed to have – how women were supposed to behave, how courtship occurred, and how a woman in society was seen through the way she acted.

Polite Society

Hugh Thomson's illustration of a scene from Sense and Sensibility
Hugh Thomson’s illustration of a scene from Sense and Sensibility

The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth brought with it the advent of polite society. A society where etiquette was of up most importance, a sign of your class and standing. It’s no surprise the idea of polite society was on the rise just as a true class consciousness was building in Britain. During this period, who you knew, how you acted and what you could afford was a sign of your importance, driving huge wedges between those with wealth, and those without. Austen’s works were usually focused on middle classes of no great wealth, and their positions compared to the higher status aristocracy, who took part in the cycles of leisure society. However, although class consciousness was on the rise due to the advent of the middle classes; the furthering poverty of the labouring classes and the events of the French Revolution, Austen’s novels do not generally discuss labouring classes. Her work is mostly focused on middle class women. The rise of a ‘middle class’ in the eighteenth century was due to a booming commercial society, and a rise in real income of professionals who were not elite or landed gentry. Merchants, tradesmen and schoolmasters all became capable of affording luxury products and were therefore able to become a part of the polite and leisured society.

In her work Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity Vivien Jones discusses why this focus on polite society was evident in literature of the time. She claims  women had a large influence on emphasising the private experience in novels, and more particularly, on the subject of ‘sensibility’. The idea of ‘sensibility’, which means appreciating and responding to surrounding influences, dominated fiction in the latter half of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, as well as playing a role in the emergence of Romanticism: themes that are both evident in Austen’s work with sensibility playing a major role in the aptly titled Sense and Sensibility.

The Cult of Sensibility

Hugh Thomson depicts Marianne crying over Willoughby
Hugh Thomson depicts Marianne crying over Willoughby

Sense and Sensibility was written during a time where feelings were meant to be repressed. Originally, it was to be an epistolary novel, a novel comprised completely of letters, as letters were valuable tools to observe thoughts and feelings that would be frowned upon in public. Austen’s social commentary on public and private life is told through the two Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Marianne, the youngest, is a romantic, and the embodiment of ‘sensibility’. Elinor, therefore, takes the opposite role of ‘sense’. Sense was also a definitive term in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, alongside sensibility, meaning not only common sense, but restraint and social responsibility.  Austen was certainly writing about highly relevant and socially charged subjects of the time, indicating that her work would have been a very topical and provoking read. The ideas of sense and sensibility were discussed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, when he criticised how society corrupted men and women by distorting and holding back their emotions and urges. Writing and publishing for women in this period was not just part of a pastime or way to achieve status, but also an act that went against the moral and social boundaries contemporary women were constrained by. By discussing such a highly topical, philosophical and provoking subject as sense and sensibility, Austen was, as a woman, taking a bold stand on remarking upon the values of Regency society. Vivien Jones emphasises this by demonstrating that women’s writing was defined as a threat to the existing social order, and at its most extreme was seen as a loss of chastity and an act against femininity. For Jane Austen, her writings were often ways of commenting on the values of society.

Women and Marriage

Tinted Line Drawing by H.M. Brock: Lady Catherine de Burgh question Elizabeth about her relationship with Mr. Darcy
Tinted Line Drawing by H.M. Brock: Lady Catherine de Bourgh questions Elizabeth about her relationship with Mr. Darcy

Austen’s works can tell us a lot about women and marriage in this period. In his work on the eighteenth century, Jeremy Black highlights how it was social and economic pressures that drove women towards matrimony. In Austen’s works, Mrs. Bennett wants to marry at least one of her daughters off to someone rich; Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins because, at twenty-seven she’s on the verge of forever being a spinster; Marianne Dashwood cannot marry Willoughby because he does not have enough money and wishes to marry Miss Grey, who has £50,000 a year; Elinor Dashwood is seen as an unsuitable match for Edward Ferrars because of her low funds and status; Jane Bennett is under the same situation with Charles Bingley. The underlying importance that is stressed in all these cases is that these women need to marry in order to achieve some sort of wealth, and the fact that they cannot inherit from their fathers once they die. The Dashwoods’ father dies at the beginning of the novel, and their estate and possessions are left entirely to their half-brother. The Bennett’s father is alive and well, but Mrs. Bennett is all too aware that once he dies their home and belongings will not pass to any of his five daughters, but to his male cousin, Mr. Collins. In this period, women could not inherit from their fathers, and her property, once married, was her husband’s. Through her depictions of marriage in these works, Austen underlines how achieving a marriage was about achieving stability, in wealth more so than for love and companionship. Of course, her major characters marry for love, but the way marriage is treated by many of the surrounding characters and by the narrative assumes that it is a device in which women can find a home and a husband to provide for her once her father can no longer, while also, for the upper classes, a way of creating and maintaining ties with important families. The Bingley sisters oppose of Charles Bingley’s affection for Jane Bennett, because she is of a much lower class and has little standing of her own; Lady Catherine de Bourgh refuses the idea of her nephew, Mr. Darcy, from marrying Elizabeth Bennett because of her family’s reputation; and the same narrative, although in a completely different setting, is apparent in Sense and Sensibility in the case of Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. It would appear that in society, marriage was a case of propelling one’s status or achieving some wealth, and for the upper classes especially, about maintaining high status in society. It should also be noted that, according to values of the eighteenth century, women who remained unmarried were social failures, as Austen highlights in the case of Charlotte Lucas and her marriage to Mr. Collins. By the end of  the century, with declining employment opportunities once available in business and commerce, it was implied the only means to exist was marriage.

Drawing by C.E. Brock, 1895 Macmillan edition of Pride and Prejudice: One of the Bennett sisters, Lydia, shows off her wedding ring
Drawing by C.E. Brock, 1895 Macmillan edition of Pride and Prejudice: One of the Bennett sisters, Lydia, shows off her wedding ring

Desertion and Divorce

Bridget Hill discussed how no divorce was possible unless the marriage was proved invalid, that is: adultery or bigamy had been committed. However, it was practically impossible for a woman to divorce her husband even if she did prove he had committed adultery. Deserting husbands was incredibly difficult because a woman had no claim to property and, worse still, could not claim custody of her children either. Austen discusses this painful reality in her story of Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility. Eliza, forced into a marriage with a man she could not stand, seems to be trapped. A plan to elope with her husband’s brother, whom she truly loves, is thwarted when a servant gives the plan up to her father-in-law. Driven by her unhappy marriage, she sleeps with another man and is divorced by her husband, left with nothing. In the story told, it is referenced that after her divorce ‘there was every reason to fear that she had removed from him [her first seducer] only to sink deeper in a life of sin.’ This is possibly an implication of her prostitution in order to survive. This is heavily implied by the fact that many poor women, with nothing else to turn to, turned to prostitution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the end, she lies dying in a sponging-house (a bath or spa) of tuberculosis, leaving an illegitimate child in the care of her ex-husband’s brother, who tracked her down in her dying days.

Therefore, although Austen’s work is heavily focused on the middle classes and polite society, it is also a heavily critical commentary of what this sort of society causes, and what marriage for women could mean. Although Austen’s main characters end up with their happy ending in love-matched marriages with wealthy men, the other side is underlined in many other of the women characters engagements – Eliza’s being one example. Less extreme examples are that of the Bennett sister’s parents, whom the sisters themselves comment as being a loveless marriage, if at least a content one; Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins is one that merely helps her circumstances, though she also claims to be content with the situation; Marianne marries Colonel Brandon and because she ‘could never love by halves’ she became ‘as much devoted to her husband, as [she] had once been to Willoughby.’

Hugh Thomson's Illustration of a scene in Sense and Sensibility
Hugh Thomson’s Illustration of a scene in Sense and Sensibility

What Austen Cannot Tell Us About Women

Essentially, however, Austen’s books focus on the middle and upper classes who played a larger role in polite society and the sort of social values she was making such a commentary on. In both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, servants are mentioned and given small speaking roles, but their lives are not looked into nor are their ideas, thoughts and emotions described. This is most probably due to the fact that Austen was a member of the lower orders of landed gentry, and the society she was commenting on was not that of the labouring classes. The lower classes rarely would have taken part in polite and leisure society. Although poverty is touched upon – the Dashwoods are considered to be poor but their strong connections keep them afloat – Austen’s novels remain concerned with the middle classes and the landed gentry. Labouring women of the eighteenth century, apart from appearances as servants, make up very little of  these two particular novels.

However, Austen’s works give us a very particular insight into the lives of women and their roles in polite society. In a society that was based on hierarchy and where subordination was everywhere, in manners and in speech, Austen’s work was driven by class, and were a social and economic commentary of the period and of the women in that period.

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2 thoughts on “Jane Austen as a Source for Eighteenth-Century and Regency Women

    1. Thank you! I think it is definitely important not to romanticise the past but also to try to understand the society and their values in that time

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