Posted by: Tony Grant, London Calling
Jane Austen published Emma in December 1815, sixteen years after the French Revolution had ended but during a time when the women of that revolution were campaigning for women’s suffrage and especially for female education. It wasn’t a concept of education that had been considered before for women. Women were always thought unable to think like men. Their minds and brains worked differently on a much more superficial level, apparently. The grave subjects of philosophy, concepts about societies social needs, the study of History,mathematics,science, theology or Latin or Greek, were certainly not encouraged. It was a form of intellectual slavery. Women were kept childlike They were for marrying, procreating, looking after the home, bringing up children and being proficient in the finer arts of sewing, playing the pianoforte, singing, speaking French and being able to shop in a dress shop.
Rouseau and the Marquis de Condorcet (Marie Jean Caritat) in France and Mary Wollstonecroft here in England had different ideas for womens education.These ideas were infiltrating into the thoughts of Englishmen and women. They were the sort of ideas that would change society. I think Jane Austen introduced the character of Jane Fairfax to hint at such radical ideas. Jane Fairfax is an uncomfortable character within Emma. Emma Woodhouse can’t relate to her although they appear to be each others doppelganger, a mirror reflection of each other in many ways. But of course mirror reflections are opposites and you can’t actually become in contact with your reflection. There is a barrier, a layer of glass between you and your reflection. Jane and Emma, seem to exist in parallel worlds that cannot touch.
Jane Austen, herself was an authoress earning money from what she wrote, but she still remained within the bounds of decent society. Emma is introduced by, “the Author of Pride and Prejudice.” She did not use her name. She was careful enough to dedicate Emma to The Prince Regent when it was suggested she might like to. She followed her urges and her intelligence and her talents but she kept her head down. She herself was critical of the education offered to young ladies and she herself had a horror of the profession of teacher as a result of her own experiences. Towards the end of her life Jane was writing Sanditon. Her heroine, Charlotte Heywood, is perhaps the most radical of her characters, in her views and in her actions. Would Jane Austen have eventually, “come out?”
Jane Fairfax was the daughter of Lieutenant Fairfax, and her mother had been, before marriage, Miss Bates, the youngest daughter of Mrs Bates of Highbury.When her father was killed in action in a foreign country and her mother died soon after of consumption, Jane had returned to live with her grandmother and aunt, her mother’s elder sister in Highbury. However, Colonel Campbell, her fathers superior officer, offered to educate her and bring her up in his own small family to give her all the benefits of education and culture he could provide. Lieutenant Fairfax had been instrumental in saving his colonel’s life years before and being a dear officer and friend, Colonel Campbell felt it his duty to look after his friends daughter, Jane. Here is a passage from Emma describing Jane Fairfax’s education.
“ She had fallen into good hands, known nothing but kindness from the Campbells, and been given an excellent education. Living constantly with right minded and well informed people., her heart and understanding had received every advantage of discipline and culture; and Colonel Campbells residence, being in London, every lighter talent had been done justice to, by the attendance of first rate masters.”
It is interesting to note that Jane alludes to two sorts of education in relation to Jane Fairfax. First she says that she was, “given an excellent education,” and associated with well informed people and received every advantage of discipline and culture. The discipline bit is a little vague. It might refer to personal, behavioural discipline or it might refer to an intellectual discipline of the mind, inquisitive, challenging ideas, thinking. Maybe Jane Austen is being vague on purpose to allay the doubts and fears of the middle class reading masses. But what does Jane Austen mean by “an excellent education?” We know what she means by, “every lighter talent.”
It can only mean one thing. Jane Fairfax had been educated in cultural aspects that might include history, geography, mathematics, science and all the areas of learning usually kept for the great universities and the exclusive education of men.She had had the influence of right minded and well informed people too. Jane Austen herself had undoubtedly been immersed in and influenced by this sort of cultural education by way of her father’s library and erudite discussions with her intelligent and learned brothers.
Jean Jaque Rouseau ( 28th June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was a philosopher and writer.
“ The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up.”
His idea of education being important to women was so that they could then, in turn, educate their sons. He was only a little on the way to realising the full possibilities and potential for women. He wasn’t for giving women total freedom.
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat (1743 – 1794) the Marquis de Condorcet, wanted to go much further than Rouseau with women’s education and freedoms. He wanted universal education as did Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jeffereson. He thought that the advances in reason and science would automatically limit family sizes leaving women the freedoms to expand their talents and energies in other directions. He wanted women to be admitted to the rights of citizenship. A very modern gentlemen. He had to go into hiding for his beliefs.
In England there was Mary Wollstonecroft. In the introduction to her “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Mary Wollstonecroft writes,
“Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for the truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman expected to co operatre unless she knows why she ought to be virtuous? Unless freedom strengthens her reason till she comprehends her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good. If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman at present shuts her out from such investigations.”
What Mary Wollstonecroft is actually saying here is that men and women need to be equal for the good and progress of mankind and if women are to be the teachers of children they need an education which enables them to think and explore and understand ideas, otherwise she cannot teach those ideas. An argument which cannot be challenged surely. Teachers today have degrees and are expected to have a thorough knowledge of their subjects and to be able to think and be creative.
How does this bring us back to Jane Fairfax? Jane Fairfax has had an, “excellent education,” and she appears to be evasive. It might be more a case of her having to be evasive as a means to survival. Emma Woodhouse cannot form a close relationship with her. As the novel unfolds we learn Jane is breaking societies strongest taboos. She and Frank Churchill are a match made in the realms of a freedom not acceptable in the England of those times. They are of a different economic and class backgrounds. Frank Churchill’s guardian, Mrs Churchill, while alive, would never condone such a relationship. Jane and Frank keep it secret and have to resort to all manner of subterfuge. Emma Woodhouse, in all her plans and manoeuvrings, and imaginings is defeated. Jane Austen is delving into areas that are perhaps closer to her own heart than she may well want to admit out right. In her final novel Sanditon, I think the way the character of Charlotte Heywood develops Jane was becoming more outspoken in her views about hypocrisy and the role of women in society. If Jane had lived into old age, with societies changes becoming more rapid with the industrial revolution, she might have become a champion of womans rights herself.
Finally, Jane Austen resolves the dilemmas, in a sort of Midsummer Nights Dream way. Characters find their true loves and permission is given, after Mrs Churchill’s death, for Frank and Jane to marry. So we have a happy ending for everybody. In a way, because Jane rounds everything off too nicely, as modern readers used to the full force of rough reality in the modern classic novel, perhaps we itch for Jane Austen to have gone the full hog. But, written as it was in the Georgian period, it was brave enough to allude to these issues. Jane couldn’t resist her true beliefs, really.
Gentle Readers, Tony Grant, who lives in England and oversees the blog, London Calling, wrote this most timely post. At the turn of the 19th century, women were not allowed to vote. This post points out the harsh realities for our female ancestors just a few generations ago. Regardless of party affiliation, I urge every woman in the U.S. to go to the polls on November 2 and exercise their hard-won freedom to VOTE for the candidate of their choice. – Vic
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