The Delicate* Feminism of Jane Austen

The title of this post comes from a comment by TikTok user @dramaticsonglyrics on one of my recent videos. I had never heard this phrase before, but thought for sure it must be from a famous quote. But strategic googling shows that, no, in fact, it is not very common. The phrase “delicate feminism” got a few hits but nothing that said, “yes, this is a famous quote by an important person and you need to credit them.” Except you, @dramaticsonglyrics, if you’re reading this. You are important and I love this phrase, and I am crediting you here!

In the video this comment was left on, I mention the Bechdel Test as applied to the works of Jane Austen. The Bechdel Test, which was never intended to be applied as a serious media metric, nevertheless sheds light on the systemic gender inequality in most media today. To pass the test, a work must (1) have two named female (or other marginalized gender, to go with The Bechdel Cast’s definition) characters, (2) who speak to each other, (3) about something other than a man. It’s a very low bar, yet many, many works still do not pass.

But every single one of Jane Austen’s novels does. With flying colors. Which may not be a surprise considering that they are novels about women, written by a woman.

But what’s more, none of Austen’s novels definitively pass the “reverse Bechdel Test,” which would require that two named male characters talk to each other about something other than a woman. That doesn’t really happen in Austen. We may get brief exchanges between two men in a mixed party, but nothing very substantive. The only example I can think of that even comes close to passing the reverse Bechdel is a conversation between Darcy and Bingley in Volume 1, Chapter 10 of Pride and Prejudice, beginning with:

“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”

(Yeah, this is the part of the book where Darcy’s still kind of a d-bag.)

Darcy and Bingley exchange several lines of dialog here, but Elizabeth is also part of this larger conversation, so I still don’t think it conclusively counts. In fact, Jane Austen never reveals a conversation where women are not present; there is no scene in Austen’s work where there isn’t at least one woman in the room. Austen would say this was because she didn’t know what men talked about when women weren’t around, so she couldn’t write that kind of conversation authentically..

But I like the reading that in Austen’s work, women always have control of the narrative; it is through women’s perspectives that we the readers see the story; it is through women’s actions or reactions to events that the plot is moved forward.

Undoubtedly, there are many off-page conversations between men with no women present, and choices made by men, that affect the stories, but these are only circumstantial. John Dashwood’s conversation with the now-deceased Mr. Dashwood before the start of Sense and Sensibility; Henry Crawford’s application to Sir Thomas Bertram for Fanny’s hand in Mansfield Park; Mr. Knightley’s advising of Robert Martin in Emma–all of these unheard conversations set the stage for the female characters to navigate the challenges they introduce. Austen’s women inhabit a world shaped by men, and their struggles lie in claiming the agency to shape their own lives within it.

Austen’s women inhabit a world shaped by men, and their struggles lie in claiming the agency to shape their own lives within it.

It can’t be ignored that Austen lived in a time and society even more patriarchal than our own, and that this society was shaped by British Imperialism–the ideology that subjugated one fourth of the world’s population under the assumption that the British way of doing things was superior to everyone else’s. (It’s almost like that’s where America got it from, but I digress…)

This is worth mentioning because it is the same rigid class system and beliefs that colonized, oppressed, and enslaved entire people groups that also decided that Mr. Collins should be the heir of Longbourn in Pride and Prejudice rather than Jane Bennet, and that determined the estate system and primogeniture should even exist in the first place. As much as we see the women in Jane Austen struggling against the strictures their society places on them, we also see Austen’s subtle, perhaps begrudging, acceptance of the class system as it stood.

Mrs. Bennet, the only character in Pride and Prejudice who vocally decries the injustice of the Longbourn estate being entailed away from her daughters, is painted as ridiculous. When Emma Woodhouse wants Harriet to marry above her social class in Emma, the benevolent classism of Mr. Knightley reminds Emma and the reader that that’s not a good idea–look how insufferable Harriet becomes when she thinks she’s too good to marry a farmer! And in Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is only allowed to marry Anne Elliot once he has acquired the rank and fortune to rise to her social status, and the book frames this as correct. (I wrote a paper on this idea in Persuasion in undergrad and I wish I could find it!)

It’s not a coincidence that all of these examples have something to do with marriage and/or child bearing, at least tangentially; as we all know, getting married and having children were essentially the only choices women of polite society had to ensure their security and survival.

Women of the working and serving classes, though, had even more difficult choices and often more dismal fates for getting them wrong. We never see the struggles of these women in the pages of Jane Austen’s books, but they are there, in the background, emptying chamber pots and dressing the heroines’ hair and cooking the dinner at Longbourn that Mr. Collins compliments. Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn offers an insightful look at the lives of these women who are virtually invisible in Pride and Prejudice.

A white, upper-middle class feminist reading of Jane Austen is easy: the books all pass the Bechdel Test; the heroines all claim independence and agency through their choice to marry, and marriage to the person of their choice; and all of the narratives in Austen’s works are shaped by the perceptions and actions of the women who live them. These points are all quietly revolutionary for early-19th century English novels, and Austen’s achievements and contributions should not be diminished.

But we also cannot ignore that there are many women left out of Austen’s feminism: poor women, servant- or working-class women (including sex workers), trans women (and all trans people–who definitely existed in Austen’s time, but most of whose identities were never known or were erased), and most women of color within European society. What choices did these women have? How could they claim their independence and agency in a rigid social structure even more limiting for them than for Austen’s heroines?

And for many of these women, forget claiming independence; what could they do to survive and make ends meet until their next meal? Or how could they avoid the predatory gentlemen and appease the fickle ladies in the households where they worked and not lose their positions? Or how were they going to feed their children this week?

There were other 19th century novelists who wrote about the struggles of women outside of polite society drawing rooms, and perhaps we should turn to them for explorations of these issues. But for Jane Austen fans, while we can love that there are no scenes without at least one woman in the room, it’s worth asking why we are drawn to works that take place in rooms only certain women could enter.

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