10/14/2014 08:18 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Jane Austen: Feminist In Action

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Jane Austen was certainly not the first feminist in print -- Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of The Rights of Woman was published when Austen was still only 17. But she was certainly the first feminist in action, her novels less remarkable for their emancipatory ideas than they were ground-breaking for their emancipatory example.

You see, by the time Jane Austen came to write, what had been a brief flourishing for feminist ideas had come to a rather abrupt end, as the expression by women of ideas of women's equality with men came to be regarded as essentially immoral, a sure sign of a hopelessly degraded character -- William Godwin's publication, in 1798, of his wife Wollstonecraft's memoirs, which gave details of her extramarital affairs and offspring, was surely a contributor to this association of women of ideas with debauchery.

What was needed by the time of Jane Austen, then, was not so much new ideas as new ways of expressing them. The direct route was now closed -- it was no longer possible simply to publish them straight. Something more careful, we might even say more cunning, was needed. Austen required a strategy, to put feminist ideas into circulation. What she came up was masterful. What she came up with was irony -- that pretended ignorance which allowed to her a freedom that no other woman then enjoyed.

In 1816, Austen wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen, of "that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour." It is a modest image of the woman writer, identifying her work as the literary equivalent of netting purses, especially when it is contrasted, as Austen contrasts it in her letter, with "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." Austen commits to what appears a counter-feminist image of the woman writer -- as decorous, demure, domestic and dutiful.

And it worked. Walter Scott's 1816 review of Austen's novels predicted that the "youthful wanderer" might return from their perusal to the ordinary business of life "without any chance of having his head turned" by them; in 1859, George Eliot's lover, George Henry Lewes, relegated Austen to a "quiet niche" in the great temple of literary achievement; and as recently as 1997, Margaret Kirkham's Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction identifies Austen as presenting a "difficult critical problem on account of the slightness of her subject matter and her restricted attitude to it." In short, the figure of "gentle aunt Jane," given to us by the memoir of Austen, written 50 years after her death by the nephew to whom she wrote of that little bit of ivory, has been the figure to dominate our view. Nothing immoral here, folks; only "narratives conducted with much neatness and point," as Scott described them almost two hundred years ago.

And yet, what did Austen do in that "quiet niche" through which any youth might wander? She gave us women of such energy and spirit that they are more than equal to any man about them! Women of such self-possession and determination that even onerous social mores could not make them submit! Women of such intellect and principle that they continue to mark the standard for which we all must strive! There is no explicit defense of women in the work of Jane Austen -- only Persuasion so much as approaches the theme. But each and every one of her novels is an implicit defense of this kind, as they place before us woman after woman whose claims to equality with men are utterly impossible to deny. And all without raising so much as an eyebrow of suspicion, that here was anything more than what Walter Scott unwittingly claimed were "such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks." What an achievement by Austen! -- not only to have written a six-fold feminist manifesto, but to have done so in such a manner as to make feminist ideas appear ordinary, so common as to be familiar to "most folks."

Jane Austen sometimes gave advice on writing novels to her young niece Anna, to whom she famously wrote that "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on." It was the very thing Jane Austen worked on, as she crafted for herself that quiet niche from where she could take on the world. "Make full use of them," is her urgent advice to her niece. Anna had probably very little notion of what her aunt could mean. Certainly no one else could have guessed, that three or four families in a country village could be used to vindicate the rights of woman! Austen's subject matter may indeed have been "slight," but her attitude to it was anything but "restricted"!

What are we to learn from Austen's brand of feminism? Nothing more or less than this: that feminist ideas mean very very little in the abstract, for they still require a strategy to make them work in the world. Our world is different from that of Austen, of course. We do not need her quiet niche. In Austen's time, feminist ideas were not at all easily said; in ours, they are, by whatever medium takes your fancy. But easily said is one thing; easily done, quite another. Jane Austen needed to be a feminist in action just to be a feminist in print. We are quite free to be feminists in print, but we must follow her activist example if we are ever to be feminists in fact.

Sinéad Murphy is the author of The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide To Modern Love (Melville House).