It’s been a great first day at the British Women Writers Conference. My highlights were the Jane Austen panel in the morning and the George Eliot panel in the afternoon. Though I probably won’t get round to doing this for all the panels I attend, I managed to summarise my notes and thoughts on the Austen panel for this blog.
Austen’s Networks: Brothers, Sisters, and Friends
Looking at Emma, Libby Bagno-Simon questioned whether Austen’s heroine really evolves at all through this narrative. Is it in fact simply a lesson of ‘there’s no place like home?’ as Emma learns that she had everything she needed before she started her journey of discovery through friendship and matchmaking? Is Austen suggesting that Emma doesn’t really need a close-knit female community? And is Jane Fairfax the friend that Emma ought to have had, or even the heroine that the novel deserved?
Interesting though these questions are, I’m not sure I agreed with the arguments in this paper. I’ve always read the novel as being a comment on egotism – Emma learns that other women aren’t simply mother or child substitutes, that they are in fact their own selves with their own lives and ambitions. This can of course lead to them being potential competitors – for the attentions of Frank and Knightley – but it can also lead to a different kind of friendship becoming possible.
On the question of Jane Fairfax, I’ve come to read her character as a sort of judgement on the way that some in society raise protegees above their station and who then in adulthood experience a mismatch of their circumstances and their sensibilities. Emma shows a blindness to social hierarchy not only in her raising of Harriet above her station, but in feeling inferior to Jane Fairfax. In a way this is very democratic, but it’s also shown to be short-sighted and leads to her treating both women badly. While Emma has the excuse of youth and naiveté, the Campbells should have known better than to raise Jane’s social expectations when she must either earn her living as a governess or stoop to deceit in order to make a good catch. At any rate, I think it’s very difficult to think of Jane as a typical Austen heroine, or even to like her that much.
Talia Vestri Croan turned to Pride and Prejudice to argue that Elizabeth’s development of character and self-knowledge stems from her sister Jane’s mentorship rather than to anything that Darcy might have said. Convincingly, Croan demonstrated how, while for Elizabeth emotional reactions lead to firm impressions – feeling being equated with knowledge – Jane understands that everything is open to interpretation and that we can only ever have potential knowledge. She employs this scepticism practically, in that she is happy to ‘doubt’ things that she is told about other people. This is also why Jane will not make decisions and has been seen as largely ineffectual.
I think this can be taken too far however. If we apply Sharon Marcus’s practice of ‘just reading’ to Austen’s text – a technique that seems very appropriate for Austen who clearly always chose her words carefully – we can read that Jane in fact does make her mind about some things – when they are positive. She does not like ‘to be hasty in censuring any one’, but she’s very happy to strongly and quickly believe the best of people. The extracts that Croan provided show that, fascinatingly, Jane’s quick reason can see the full implications of a potential truth and it is her horror at those that leads her to refuse to believe it can be possible – ‘do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner […] it is difficult indeed – it is distressing – One does not know what to think.’ Rather than express Jane’s scepticism as ‘doubt’ I would suggest it is a form of ‘faith’ in goodness and morality.
The Q&A session was necessarily short, but was helpful in the way it recognised these two papers as both exploring the role of friends and sister relationships a bit more richly than has been so far. Rather than unproblematically seeing such relationships as preparation for marriage, Austen suggests that women’s relationships can provide mentorship just as effective, if not more so, as the male mentoring we see in Knightley and Emma. She also suggests that women can approach friendship in ways which lead to what might be seen as a failure of women’s relationships – but this doesn’t necessarily affect their marriages.
The final paper in this panel was a really interesting one on the potential of the Austen family archives for developing our understanding of Jane Austen and her novels. Alice Villaseñor has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen brothers’ engagement in the British elections of 1806 and 1807 and has some potentially radical suggestions about how involved they were in supporting abolition and working for the election of a more radical MP. Unfortunately we have no letters from Austen during this interesting time, and have no way of knowing whether this was because she was busy with these topics, or if the Victorians got rid of the evidence of her involvement, or – my opinion – she simply wasn’t writing letters because she was staying with her usual correspondent (Cassandra).
This is a common archival frustration, and I think we have to be very careful not to read into lacunae what we would dearly love to be there. As an English student though, I’m a lot happier reading something into an existent text – for example the wonderful possibility that Lydia’s tale in Pride and Prejudice of dressing a soldier called Chamberlain in women’s clothes could be an allusion to a newspaper piece – maybe by one of the Austen brothers – that painted a picture of the Hampshire politician, Chamberlain, retreating from the political fray, dressed in women’s clothing. A bit of a stretch, maybe – but you never know!
Read about other sessions at BWWC: