Jane Austen’s Insular Radicalism

This paper was submitted by Madeline in Tacoma Washington. She will be presenting it at the Northwest Undergraduate Conference in Humanities on November 3rd, 2018.


This paper will explore how Jane Austen’s reputation as a domestic goddess who was concerned simply with the domestic sphere, ignores the subtle radicalism inherent in her writings. Austen has long been thought of as a domestic goddess, happy to stay in the home away from prying eyes. However, the domestic sphere and the role of female friendships in her writings highlight the insular radicalism of Austen herself. Austen’s insular radicalism challenges the idea of Austen as a moderate, while contextualizing her politics and beliefs. Thus, showing modern audiences the results of being a moderate figure. Austen’s radicalism fell within the bounds of societal expectations set out for her, and it is a result of this insularity that modern readers struggle with her more ground-breaking beliefs.

Jane Austen’s Insular Radicalism

To modern readers, Jane Austen is more than just an author. She holds a place in society as a cultural icon; one who is represented on everything from socks to money. As a result of the overexposure of Austen in popular culture there are a collection of preconceived notions about her character and reputation. She is sometimes thought of as radical feminist author, but most commonly as an author of domestic fiction. After all, how radical can someone have been if they are now continuously represented on cookware and clothing? Jane Austen’s radicalism has been ignored and written over in attempts to portray her as a sort of domestic goddess for the purpose of creating an idealized version of British femininity. Austen is presented in a way that showcases how she fit into the domestic ideal, while the aspects of her life and works that were more radical are ignored to further the normative understanding of her life. The portrayal of Austen as a ‘domestic goddess’ is a continuation of the reputation created for her by (mostly male) family members after her death. This reputation is one that ignores the representations of women’s culture, political leanings, and early feminism that Austen included in her work. It is the continued representation of Austen as a sort of domestic ideal that erases the more radical elements of her works and creates an understanding of an author who did not push boundaries. In this essay I will explore how Austen utilized domestic spaces and other insular settings to establish her radicalism.

Austen’s writing focuses on a very insular community, the domestic space, and it is this interiority that has led to her identification as a ‘domestic goddess.’ I will be using the term ‘domestic space’ or ‘domestic sphere’ to describe the interior community or setting generally set aside for women. In Austen’s novels this expands beyond the kitchen or home; it is symbolized in female friendships and conversations. The domestic space/sphere is the private setting inhabited by women, a women’s culture. In reality, the women’s culture Austen was representing, while appearing normative, was subversive. Austen utilized a women’s culture in both her life and her novels to engage with questions about the responsibility of women to fit into the domestic role identified for them by the patriarchal society they lived in. The women in Jane Austen’s social group “saw resistance or adherence to the ideology of domesticity as a matter of choice” (Kaplan 5). This understanding of domesticity as a choice highlights how inappropriate it is for the common portrayal of Austen to enforce an identity she did not overtly choose. Domesticity as a choice does not extend solely to Austen’s life, her characters encounter the same struggle. Yet, in the same manner as Austen, these characters utilized the domestic space to become radical. They took advantage of the assumed propriety of domesticity to challenge norms and expectations. For example, Elizabeth Bennet’s desire for a companionate marriage, and her adamant refusal of Mr. Collins, is couched in the discourse of domesticity and this removes the social stigma from her decision.

Literary critics have “assumed that domestic fiction…produces what Nancy Armstrong calls the ‘domestic woman,’ a paragon of homely virtue whose internalization of the decrees of conduct literature naturalizes and conforms to its moral authority” (Sodeman 788). Austen’s novels turn this understanding of the domestic novel on its head. Austen utilized the women’s culture to present a different view of female authors; her writing “resists romanticizing the battle between the sexes” (Morrison 343). Austen presents a society that works in concert rather than in opposition. There is importance placed on the relationships between groups, “female friendships…were the linchpin in Austen’s women’s culture” (Kaplan 192). In her novels Austen expands on women’s culture to show how male understandings of female relationships placed too much emphasis on domesticity. Although the domestic space is highly gendered, Austen does not shy away from showing men existing in the domestic sphere. One only has to look at Northanger Abbey to see how Henry Tilney interacts with female characters in an easy and familiar way that leads to a sense of commonality while characters interact. However, this commonality between men and women fades away when examining the importance of female friendships in the domestic sphere.

The trajectory of female friendships throughout Austen’s works establishes her growing recognition of the importance of female relationships. This resulted in a changed understanding of the role of women writers in British fiction. As Susan Morgan states, “perhaps it required a virgin woman novelist to introduce into British fiction the simple point that women can grow, can be educated, can mature, without the guiding catalyst of a penis” (39). This analysis of Austen as reimagining the conventions of the marriage plot and the role of women in fiction is reflected in her own handling of these issues. The changes in Jane Austen’s handling of the courtship plot in the novels introduces a desire for companionate marriage, the idea that women can choose their spouse for themselves and that spouses can be friends. In addition to the changes in marriage, the more Austen wrote, the greater an emphasis was placed on female friendship. The longer Austen wrote the less she depended on preconceived notions of the domestic novel, she was able to utilize marriage plots to accomplish something more than entertainment. This can be seen in Pride and Prejudice in particular, “[the novel] at once satirizes the business-like marriages of the times and parodies the fantasy romance of the courtship convention” (Nussbaum 201). Thus, Pride and Prejudice represented the domestic novel in a way that interrogated the normative understandings of marriage in both fiction and society. Austen utilized the domestic novel and the women’s culture to challenge society in a socially acceptable way. Thus, her radical nature stayed insulated from society at large.

 This is not to say that Austen’s works were not revolutionary. Austen’s novels “first rewrite the conventions about character in British fiction in ways that were to open its possibilities for nineteenth-century British novelists” (Morgan 27). Thus, although Austen’s works were not revolutionary for social movements, they were revolutionary in changing the face of fiction. Because Austen’s novels do not overtly challenge social mores, it is easy to understand her novels as a direct representation of the world she was living in. It is this assumption of readers that Austen is faithfully representing her own world that has led to the implication that she was involved with the domestic management of her life. An assumption that is not helped by the famous statement brought to attention in R.W. Chapmans Letters “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” This understanding of Austen as being consumed by the domestic is facilitated by the fact that “Austen was the first to describe her work as narrowly ‘feminine’” (Clery 332). So, what does it mean that Austen’s work is ‘feminine?’ The focus she placed on the domestic sphere and female friendships does not relegate her works to purely entertainment with no social commentary.

Many modern readers chafe at the lack of overt feminism in Jane Austen’s novels, even though the feminist movement did not exist in the same way it does today when Austen was writing. Instead, Austen interrogates the assumed masculine nature of society and attempts to create a space for women. Although Austen’s novels reflect an awareness of social injustice and sexual stereotyping, “these are not of the same significance to Austen that they are to a late twentieth-century sensibility” (Morrison 344). Modern audiences try to force Austen to fit their ideals of feminism, while ignoring her radicalism. This is a privileged reading that does not engage with the context of her writing. Contemporary social movements “now seek to revolutionize the woman’s role by restructuring old images and descriptions of women” (Brown 323). This desire to revolutionize serves as erasure for the ways, although slight, that Austen was revolutionary in her own time. Modern feminism should not “obscure our recognition of the extent of Austen’s achievement in her portrayal of women characters” (Morgan 50). The domestic space female characters inhabit in Austen, while limiting to modern audiences, was radical to her contemporary audience.

Jane Austen’s radicalism, like her novels, is very insular. Although “many critics have noticed that feminist feeling and feminist ideas are easily apparent in her novels, there is not an overtly overarching political stance made in her work” (Kirkham 53). Austen was both revolutionary and traditional, “the coexistence of a ‘feminist’ awareness with an essential conservatism, of an impulse to reform together with a readiness to work within traditional structures, is fundamental to Austen’s fiction” (Jones 285). In her novels Austen is questioning and pushing against social mores, while remaining entrenched in normative social structures. This juxtaposition leads modern readers to believe that she was isolated from the early feminism that occurred in the 1790s. However, “her themes are comparable with the eighteenth-century feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft insofar as such feminism questioned certain masculine assumptions in society” (Brown 324). Austen was familiar with the early feminist revolution occurring around her, readers can see elements of her views on female education in Mansfield Park. Despite this awareness, her social position and upbringing did not allow for her to engage in these questions in an overt way. Instead, Austen used domestic space and gender politics in her works to highlight the inequalities and injustices she saw around her.

Jane Austen’s apparently demure reputation was created by those writing her biography after her death. Austen had declared her sex on the title-page of Sense and Sensibility, but any other information made public about her was done by other individuals (Kirkham 56). Austen’s reputation was carefully curated by male relatives (Kaplan 11). These biographers were eager to stress her domesticity and contentment, while her writing was presented as something Austen did almost unwillingly. Above all, she was a Christian woman who cared deeply for her family. For many generations this idea of Austen as a domestic figure has been accepted, but “the perceived femininity that was once a basis for praise of a qualified kind, now became an occasion for abuse” (Clery 332-333). Audiences are no longer happy with this one-dimensional view of Austen and there has been a recent desire to understand more about the conditions of Austen’s life. This interest has led to “two basic stances taken by critics to view her as a conservative holding the values of the landed gentry in the late eighteenth century or as a subversive who undercuts the very premises upon which English society rests” (Morrison 337). These two stances present the two extremes considering Austen, there is an expectation that Austen was firmly a member of either camp. In fact, Austen was more moderate in her beliefs, but this does not mean it is appropriate to identify her as simply a ‘domestic goddess.’ In the past, “it has been customary to approach Jane Austen, not only as a great novelist, but also as a representative of what critics have called the ‘feminist tradition’ in the English novel” (Brown 321). This idea of Austen as being in the center of two extremes brings up the importance of recognizing centrist figures. Even though her work was not overtly radical does not mean that it does not matter. Instead, it should be viewed as representative of the views of the majority of the population. 

When considering whether or not Austen was a subversive writer, readers and critics alike are concerned with Austen’s politics. There is an assumption that if her politics can be made clear than it will be simple to determine whether or not Austen’s subversiveness is a reflection of her writing, or of modern readings of her works. The “Tory versus Whig political ambiguity of Jane Austen’s age has led to some erroneous twentieth-century assumptions about Austen’s political sympathies” (Craig 7). There is an assumption that the more radical elements of her work signify her allegiance with the Whig party. However, Jane Austen and her family were affiliated with the Tory party. This does not erase the radical nature of works, “although Jane Austen was a Tory, and thus a conservative, she was also a liberal, that is a liberal conservative” (Craig 1). Austen’s radicalism concerning domestic management and gender politics looks conservative to modern audiences as a result of the changing nature of society. Although Austen does not overtly delve into the political dilemmas of her time, her “familiarity with the contemporary polemic about the status of women is abundantly clear” (Jones 285). This is not to say that Austen thought she could change the condition of women, her novels were not political statements. Instead, her works show an author aware of the society she was writing in, while not taking large steps to resolve inequalities.

For generations Jane Austen has been associated with the domestic sphere. While this is partially a result of self-identification, it is increasingly being understood as a reputation built for her by male family members. Contrary to popular understandings, Austen utilized the domestic sphere and gender politics to present a radical view on social interactions. Austen established a women’s culture in both her life and her works to show the power and importance of female friendships. In Austen’s novels, the domestic sphere is one inhabited by both male and female characters. There is no longer the intense divide between the sexes seen in works previous to Austen. While not engaging overtly with the social injustices and inequalities of her time, Austen was indeed aware of them and utilized the domestic space in her novels to interrogate them. It is this interior radicalism that establishes the inappropriateness of modern audiences establishing Jane Austen as a ‘domestic goddess.’


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