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I always find it interesting to read about different women’s experiences throughout history. During each stage of history, there is always a backdrop by which to understand the people of a particular time. This backdrop includes social, economical, political, and cultural factors that all roll together to influence what people believe and how people behave. And the key to understanding people properly is to understand their “backdrop”.

The Weaker Vessel: Women's Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)

I have recently finished reading The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser, about women and their role in seventeenth century England. It is a fascinating account of real women and what they did during this period.

During the seventeenth century, it was often proclaimed that women were the weaker sex. This term was preached from the pulpit, professed in poetic verse, and generally acknowledged by everyone. However, it was unclear exactly how far to extend that precept. Women were certainly weaker than men physically, but there was more uncertainty as to whether women were weaker spiritually or intellectually.

In any case, women often viewed themselves (that is, their own sex) as weak, so much so that they often apologised when a show of strength was required in order to endure whatever circumstances confronted them.

Marriage and Love

No passion could be long lived, and such as were most in love forgot that ever they had been so within a twelvemonth after they were married.

Henry  Osborne

Fraser examines women in the context of marriage in the seventeenth century, where marriage, at least in the upper classes, was often a financial transaction settled between parents. Whilst there was consideration for the suitability of the prospective spouses for each other, this manner of arranged marriage did result in some unhappy marriages but it also resulted in some happy ones too. What we would call love was not actively sought when marriage was contemplated, and was even thought to somehow damage the offspring of such a match. However, Fraser gives several examples of couples who had somehow developed this mutual love in their relationship (or beforehand) and there is little doubt that they certainly enjoyed their life together more.

“Dost thou love me?”, Elizabeth Walker would ask of her husband, smiling. To which he would reply, “Most dearly.” “I know it abundantly,” she would answer, “to my comfort; but I love to hear thee tell me so.”

Often, after the death of a spouse, the obituaries or memoirs conveyed hauntingly how treasured this love had been that had developed during a marriage. Ann Fanshawe had endured much with her husband, Richard, during his life, including an escape from a plague-ridden town after first fleeing Cromwell’s troops. They also had an eventful – and frightening – voyage to Spain which included an imminent capture by a Turkish ship and a violent storm which almost resulted in shipwreck. However, their lives together were peppered with that very mutual respect and even, on occasion, passion [God forbid!] that good marriages are built on. Ann, when writing to her son after her husband’s death, said:

Now you will expect I should say something that may remain of us jointly, which I will do, though it makes my eyes gush out with tears, and cuts me to the soul, to remember and in part express the joys I was blessed with in him. Glory to God we never had but one mind throughout our lives, our souls were wrapped up in each other, our aims and designs one, our loves one, and our resentments one. We so studied one the other that we knew each other’s mind by our looks; whatever was real happiness, God gave it me in him…”

Ann Lady Fanshawe

Motherhood

There are many accounts of women greatly fearing the pain accompanying child-bearing. And it was not only the pain, but the reasonable expectation of death – either during or afterwards.

These are doubtless the greatest of all pains the Women naturally undergo upon Earth.

Jane Sharp (midwife)

And labour was not the only peril of motherhood. The high infant and child mortality rate meant that many women buried many more of their children than they reared. The grief of losing children, and sometimes losing many children, was often enormous and was not lessened by the fact that death could be reasonably expected. Fraser cites many first-hand accounts of parents whose “great affliction” was all-encompassing.

We are so comfortably sure that the poor innocent babies are taken out of a naughty world to be very happy, that I have often wondered at the excessive sorrow I have sometimes seen on these occasions.

Anne Digby, Countess of Sunderland

Education

One of the things that most intrigues me about history is the up-and-down nature of progress. Often we think of the rise of women’s rights, for instance, as progressing in a rather linear manner; that is, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one. However, quite often generations “lose” the advantages, progresses or knowledge of previous generations. This is particularly so in the case of women’s education in the seventeenth century.

The sixteenth century had been presided over by a particularly strong woman, that of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign it became acceptable, even a mark of elegance, for a woman to learn the classics, including Latin, Greek, arithmetic, writing, and music. Indeed, even the Queen could translate Latin to Greek! However, the next monarch, James I, did not share the same opinions as his predecessors and so education declined to a more basic sort for young women (music, dancing and French), which inevitably lead to a decline in female literacy.

This verse written by Anne Bradstreet summed up the change well;

Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know ’tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the sisters Queen Mary II and Queen Anne had lamentable education for their eventual roles as monarchs. Mary, luckily able to leave state matters to her husband, William III, confined herself to refined accomplishments such as needlework, while Anne was known to have an appalling knowledge of history and geography with dreadful spelling and grammar. They are in stark contrast to the Queen of the previous century.

The most advantageous daughters, in terms of education, were those who had a learned father who believed in the importance of education, and Fraser cites several examples where a significant parent radically altered the educational experience of their daughter.

In Wartime

During the middle of the seventeenth century a civil war raged in England. Charles I had taken great liberties with his powers of kingship and had eventually been overthrown, put on trial and executed. Oliver Cromwell took the reigns of government and what ensued was a nine year war between the exiled heir to the throne, Charles II, and Cromwell’s troops. Naturally the nation divided. On one side stood the Parliamentarians and on the other the Royalists.

There are many examples of women taking extraordinary roles during this period of wartime, generally involving feats of strategy, strength, determination and cunning that was deemed beyond the bounds of female ability but was applauded nonetheless.

My dear wife endured much hardship, and yet with little show of trouble; and though by nature, according to her sex, timorous, yet in greatest danger would not be daunted, but shewed a courage even above her sex.”

Sir Hugh Cholmley

There were great ladies who defended their great homes when under siege. The Countess of Derby successfully defended Lathom House against attack for over three months until reinforcements could arrive. The Marchioness of Winchester was valiant in the siege of Basing House, with her and her ladies casting bullets out of the lead stripped from the castle, and held out for over two years before falling to their attackers. Lady Bankes of Corfe Castle only had her daughters, her waiting women and a garrison of 5 soldiers to defend her home, and managed to hold out successfully against a troop of 500 men. Eventually this castle fell in a subsequent siege when one of her soldiers smuggled enemy troops into the castle under the guise of reinforcements. Brilliana Lady Harley successfully defended Brampton Bryan Castle from attack for 10 months. After only one month of relief the siege began again but this time she became sick with an illness and died, leaving her great house to fall to its attackers within three months of her death.

Then there were other women who defended their towns from attack by helping to construct fortifications. They fought fires, threw stones and suffered injuries.

Still other women dressed like men and went to war so that they could follow their husbands. In these cases it was often expedient to adopt soldier’s dress, but there is evidence that some women actually fought (with weapons) as – what came to be known as – “she-soldiers”.

Her Husband was a Souldier, and to the wars did go,
And she would be his Comrade, the truth of all is so.
She put on Man’s Apparel, and bore him company,
As many in the Army for truth can testify.

The Gallant She-Souldier (1655)

In Business

Women of the lower and middle classes needed an income like anyone else, and could often be found working as ale-house keepers, linen drapers, tobacco sellers, booksellers, merchants, and shop-keepers. The type of occupation a woman had was usually a result of some sort of family connection to a particular industry. Mrs Constance Pley assisted her husband with his business in the manufacture of sailcloth, which was supplied to Cromwell’s Navy. However, when the business became a partnership and was expanded to include manufacture of hemp and cordage and the importation of canvas, Mrs Pley became a key part in keeping the business productive. One of her roles was to correspond with many navy officials, often demanding outstanding payments for wares already delivered. Her business partner, Mr Bullen Reymes, even said that the business “would have been aground long since but for his woman partner.”

Pray be punctual with her [Mrs Pley], she being as famous a she merchant as you have met with in England, one who turns and winds thirty thousand pounds a year…

Colonel Reymes

Sometimes a widow, able to control her assets after the death of her husband, was able to use her capital to start her own business. Joan Dant, a widow, became a pedlar and imported and sold wares in and around London. By her death, she was able to bequeath 9000 pounds to be distributed by her executors.

The upper classes of women would normally rely on income from the family estates, but women here could also conducted business. Anne Russell, the Countess of Bristol, had a licence to import and sell wine, and did so until she was 80.

There are many more illustrations of actual women and the lives that they led within this book – religious women, women teachers, actresses, prostitutes, and midwives – more than I could include here. Each one serves to illustrate the breadth of experience of life that women had in the seventeenth century. Far from being the mere seventeenth century ideal in virtuosity and obedience, in reality there were many women who led much more active lives within their social circles. It makes for interesting reading.

To conclude, I found one particularly poignant sentiment communicated between a mother and her daughter; one which probably still applies today.

Believe me, child, life is a continual labour, checkered with care and pleasure, therefore rejoice in your position, take the world as you find it, and you will I trust find heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Rachel Lady Russell (1695)

Related Posts

What would You want in a Wife?

Sarah Hurst’s Diaries: From 1759 to 1762

Sources and Relevant Links

All quotes from The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon

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In my first post in this series, I looked at the movies Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008) and began to explore the ways in which these movies are historically accurate. In my second post, I elaborated on the known details of a number of suitors that were attracted to Jane Austen during her life, and discussed the likelihood of Jane having “her very own love story”. In this post, I am examining the likely career prospects that Jane Austen could have had (if she had lived longer) when compared to other female writers of her era.

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

A watercolour painting of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen.

Jane’s Career Prospects

In Regency society, career options for gentlewomen were few. Lower classes of women generally had more options for earning money, but Jane Austen was a member of the gentry, traditionally country landowners. Men and women of the gentry generally lived off the income from their land or investments, and whilst younger sons of the gentry were required to have a career to supplement their income, the women were not expected to work for money.

Unmarried women of the gentry would be supported by their fathers and, upon their father’s death, their father’s estate or their brothers would provide them with income. Unmarried women from richer families could also inherit funds or property that would provide them with an independent source of income. (It is this reason that Emma (from Emma, by Jane Austen) could reasonably decide that she had no wish to marry, as she would have had an independent source of income from her father’s estate upon his death.)

However, upon marriage any property would generally transfer to the husband. Married women could still keep property or funds given to them in a trust or specifically for their own use, but they needed their husband’s consent to dispose of it. Often the fathers of these women would work into a marriage agreement that the woman’s inherited property was for her use alone, limiting the husband’s automatic rights to ownership. However, a married woman (by law) did not have exclusive rights to her own wages, that is if she was in a position to earn any.

Rather than being concerned with earning money, women of the gentry generally did other things with their time. They ran their household, cared for the poor or sick living within their area, completed handiwork such as embroidery, and developed their musical accomplishments. There were women who sought more active employment within their sphere of influence, such as Jane Austen’s friend, Mrs Lefroy, who taught the local poor children to read.

Many women of both the eighteenth century and Regency periods expressed concern that there was not adequate education for girls and women. I have also read the personal accounts of women who frequently felt disempowered to make any real difference in the world because they lacked the opportunities to do so. However, women of the gentry during the eighteenth century and Regency times did not view careers for earning money in the same way it is viewed today, that is, as a way of becoming financially independent and of developing a sense of self outside of domestic duties.

Jane Austen is represented in both Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets as being quite concerned with poverty and her family’s lack of money, even to the point that she feels pressure to provide for them. She is also portrayed as having a strong desire to cultivate a career for herself. When the historical background of the Regency era is taken into account, as well as the voice of Jane in her own letters, I have wondered if the modern representations of Jane Austen in movies are at odds with this evidence.

Would Jane have felt pressure to provide for her mother and sister?

As the youngest child of eight, and a daughter, it is unlikely that Jane should have been expected to provide for her mother and sister after her father’s death. After Mr Austen died, the Austen brothers rallied together to help their mother and unmarried sisters with a supplemented income. The brothers managed to increase the income from 210 pounds to 460 pounds a year. Whilst this was still a smaller income than the women were used to, and it required them to move from Bath to cheaper lodgings in Southhampton, it was still enough for them to keep a servant.

Did Jane Austen want to be famous?

Early in her life, Jane appears to have written for the enjoyment of herself, her family and her closest friends. Her first attempts at publication were at the encouragement of her father, and she remained quite obsessive in her secrecy about her writing throughout her life. She published her books anonymously (which was common for women authors of this period), instead attributing the authorship to “A Lady”, and some of her own nieces and nephews were unaware of the true author when her first books were published.

Once her brother Henry dropped the secret and her name became more widely known, she still persisted in her reluctance to attend functions where she might meet other influential literary people. She seemed to consistently deny all appearances of fame that people tried to put upon her, even refusing an invitation to a party to meet the famous authoress, Madame Germaine Da Stael. From these instances, as well as her own letters, she did not seem to write particularly to achieve fame.

Could Jane Austen have made her fortune in the career of an authoress?

Jane Austen made 140 pounds from the publication of her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, and her total earnings from her writing was 684 pounds at the end of her life. Whilst her six novels were all published within seven years (1811-1818), most of them had been started much earlier in her life and had undergone a long process of revision. Even if she had continued to write a novel every year from then onwards, she would have struggled to produce a very large fortune by her pen.

Looking at other female authors of the time, monetary compensation for a writing career was generally low when you consider what sort of income a member of the gentry considered appropriate to live on. In addition, both male and female writers usually did not merely live by the income made from writing novels. They often had other forms of income in the form of royal pensions, earnings from investments or estates, or other forms of writing such as literary reviews or submissions to journals or magazines.

At this point, it is interesting to examine the careers of other female authors during the time of Austen, compiled in the table below. I have only included women writers who wrote in the fiction genre (the newly emerging novel form), as Jane Austen did. There were, of course, other women during this era who were influential in writing other forms of material, such as educational pamphlets and conduct literature.

Copyright Kelly Lock. Disclaimer: This information was compiled using limited web-based research. Any inaccuracies will be amended once discovered.

Copyright: Tea in a Teacup. Disclaimer: This information was compiled using limited web-based research. As there is often not enough available information on the particular earnings of authors, I have included as much information regarding earnings as I could accurately discover. Any inaccuracies will be amended once discovered.

By this rather brief and simplistic comparison, one could conclude that Jane Austen was underpaid when compared to several of her contemporaries. It has been suggested by others that, by leaving the financial negotiations to her father and brother, she may have unwittingly limited her income because they were unskilled at such negotiations. It is unclear how she could have combated this though, as Charlotte Turner Smith managed all her own negotiations with her publishers and still struggled to enhance her financial position.

One significant difference between Jane Austen and other women writers of her time is that most of the other women actively sought patronage from notable peers known to them or their families, sometimes even asking permission for their works to be dedicated to them. Most of the women listed in the table also moved actively in literary circles, often getting to know other famous authors such as Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, and Hester Thrale, and other female authors. Whilst Jane Austen was not interested in actively promoting herself in literary circles, she did manage to attract the patronage of the Prince Regent who offered her “permission to ask for permission” to dedicate Emma to him, which she seemed to do fairly reluctantly and only after advice from her family. 

Even if Jane Austen could have managed to overcome some of these differences, it is probably still inaccurate to say that she could have made her fortune by writing novels. Whilst she had several unfinished manuscripts in progress when she died (The Watsons and Sanditon) as well as an unpublished epistolary novel (Lady Susan), she still may not have been able to produce a novel every year, especially considering her previous propensity to spend much time revising and perfecting her work. This natural restriction of time frame would – itself – have limited her income.

In order to live comfortably as an English gentleman or lady, it was desirable to have at least 300 pounds per annum for each individual within the family unit, equating to roughly the annual interest on 6,000 pounds. Unless Jane Austen could save that amount for herself (as well as for her mother and sister), there would have been little hope that she could have lived in such a comfortable situation once she eventually stopped writing later in life. Indeed, many of the women who, by necessity, had lived solely on the proceeds from their writing ended their lives in poverty as their writing income dried up.

So, whilst Jane Austen would have certainly made more money from writing more novels if she had lived longer, and she could well have been able to better negotiate her earnings with her publishers, seek out some form of patronage and promote herself in literary circles, it still seems unlikely that she could have lived a comfortable life as a member of the gentry purely on the earnings of writing her novels.

Was Jane Austen a meek and mild, content-to-be-at-home, aunt?

I have read criticism of the popular conception of “Aunt Jane” as a “meek and mild”, family-focused woman who refrained from devoting herself fully to her writing in favour of availing herself to her nieces, nephews, and other family members. Certainly, from reading her letters I never had this impression of her!

Portrait of Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The Victorian version of Cassandra’s portrait of her sister Jane, published in James Austen-Leigh’s Memoirs (1869).

It appears that this picture of Jane Austen could have come from her portrayal to the public during the Victorian era, probably because Austen’s Victorian relations wanted their “dear Aunt” to appear as their version of a “proper” woman, or a woman that deserved their Victorian esteem. In this way, the Victorian perspective of Jane Austen may not be accurate.

However, it is just as dangerous for us – as people wedged firmly in the 21st Century – that we not assume that Jane was just like us! That she wanted to have a career because she wanted to be independent. Or that she wanted to fall in love and elope. Or even that she held feminist ideals before her time. If we do this, we could be accused of painting that same sort of inaccurate picture that we accuse the Victorians of doing! That is, painting a picture of Jane Austen that does not accurately represent who she was in the context of the time she lived.

Biographer David Cecil expresses it well when he says:

I have come across critics who discuss [Jane Austen] and her view of life and character as if they were those of a contemporary of their own. The result is a portrait comically misleading. For, as we should have learned both from social historians and common observation, we are all largely the creatures of the world we happen to have been born into and our outlook is conditioned by its assumptions and beliefs and conventions and customs.

In summary, whilst I enjoy movies depicting Jane Austen’s life, I do find it problematic when they are not historically accurate. Sometimes modern movies tend embellish these historical characters with values that we – as modern men and women – think are important, particularly in the area of the rights of women. In essence, these movies could sometimes say more about our own 21st Century ideals than they say about the reality of Jane Austen, her perspective and her life.

Related Posts

Jane Austen. Who? – Part 2

Aunt Jane!? An Author!?

A Happy New Year – letter from Jane Austen to her niece, Cassy

Sources and Relevant Links

A Portrait of Jane Austen, by David Cecil – Amazon

Becoming Jane (2007) – the movie

Review: Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence – by AustenBlog

Fact and Fiction in Becoming Jane – by Following Austen

Miss Austen Regrets (2008) – the movie

Miss Austen Regrets: How Jane lost her own Darcy – an article by The Independant (April 2008)

Jane Austen’s letters, Brabourne’s edition – read online

Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh – read online

Women and Literature in Britain: 1800-1900, edited by Joanne Shattock – buy through Booktopia

Pride and Prejudice Economics – by Jane Austen’s World

Other Jane Austen Biographies

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

Jane Austen: A Life, by Carol Sheilds

Jane Austen: A Family Record, by Deirdre La Faye

Jane Austen: A Biography, by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Life of Jane Austen, by John Halperin

Jane Austen: Her Life, by Park Honan

Jane Austen: A Life, by David Nokes

Jane Austen in Context (a collection of essays), edited by Janet Todd

Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence

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Historical literature is filled with the censorious proclamation to women… “you talk too much!”

From Ancient Roman times, to Shakespeare, to Jane Austen; literature is filled with references of women being talkative. These references are also contained in the contemporary journals and morality sermons of the day, such as The Spectator and Fordyce’s Sermons, of which some excerpts are below.

We are told by some ancient Authors that Socrates was instructed in Eloquence by a Woman, whose Name, if I am not mistaken, was Aspasia. I have indeed very often looked upon that Art as the most proper for the Female Sex, and I think the Universities would do well to consider whether they should not fill the Rhetorick Chairs with She Professors.

It has been said in the Praise of some Men, that they could Talk whole Hours together upon any Thing; but it must be owned to the Honour of the other Sex, that there are many among them who can Talk whole Hours together upon Nothing. I have known a Woman branch out into a long Extempore Dissertation upon the Edging of a Petticoat, and chide her servant for breaking a China Cup, in all the Figures of Rhetorick.

The Spectator, No. 247, Dec 1711.

But what words can express the impertinence of a female tongue let loose into boundless loquacity? Nothing can be more stunning, except where a number of Fine Ladies open at once – Protect us, ye powers of gentleness and decorum, protect us from the disgust of such a scene – Ah! my dear hearers, if ye knew how terrible it appears to a male ear of the least delicacy, I think you would take care never to practise it.

For endless prattling, and loud discourse, no degree of capacity can atone. … How different from that playful spirit in conversation spoken of before; which, blended with good sense and kept within reasonable bounds, contributes, like the lighter and more careless touches in a picture, to give an air of ease and freedom to the whole!

Sermons to Young Women, James Fordyce (1766).

Whilst it is fascinating to hear the ‘real’ admonishments to the ‘real’ women in history, it is also interesting to look at the inadvertent reprisals to women that take place in literature. Rather than issuing a directive, literature uses the voice and experience of a character to convey the message of the author.

A few examples of talkative, ‘out-there’ women in English literature include:

  • Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing
  • Kate – Taming of the Shrew
  • Mrs Middleton – Sense and Sensibility
  • Lydia Bennet – Pride and Prejudice
  • Jo March – Little Women
  • Anne Shirley – Anne of Green Gables

I had expected to find many negative portraits of women in literature; women who are chatty, vain, and frivolous, and indeed there are many. These women are the ones who gossip, slander, meddle, endlessly talk, are annoying, and have an unguarded manner.

What I did not expect to find was as many positive women as I did. These women are witty, playful, courageous, have educated opinions, and often express a sense of humour. In hearing the voices of these types of women through literature, it is evident that the authors have developed ways for the Fairer Sex to speak in socially accepted ways through the medium of their stories.

In essence, perhaps the lesson these various writers had for the women of their time is that it is not the talking in itself that is the problem. It is the effect is has on the people that listen. And I am sure that the issue has not changed through the passage of history… today our talking still affects those around us!

Who are your favourite female characters in literature? Are they the talkative, out-there kind?

Related Posts

What would You want in a Wife?

Sources and Relevant Links

Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1766)

“Women really DO talk more than men” – Daily Mail Article (2006)

“Talkative Women Myth Debunked” – NPR Article (2007)

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