By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen uses her novels to uphold a mirror of 19th-century society. Her works not only throw light on women’s education in the era, but also highlight the need to reform the same. As a writer, Austen emerges to be an advocate of women’s education, greatly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft.
One of the most powerful advocates for the need to reform women’s education in the late 18th century was feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from 1792, rails against the idea that middle-class women are being educated with the goal of turning into pleasing ornaments.
Wollstonecraft advocates for a system of national education. She argues against boarding schools and education in homes. She advocates for children being allowed to spend their time on terms of equality with other children.
Wollstonecraft’s Idea of Women’s Education
Wollstonecraft wants to expand who gets an education. There is a moral element to this for her as well. She believes virtue will never prevail in society unless the virtues of both sexes are founded on reason. As Wollstonecraft puts it, “It is not for the benefit of society that a few brilliant men should be brought forward at the expense of the multitude.”
Wollstonecraft advocates for boys and girls to be educated together. She argues that women will never fulfill the peculiar duties of their sex until “they become enlightened citizens, till they become free, by being enabled to earn their own subsistence, independent of men.”
She argues that this economic independence and inculcation of reason will improve society and marriage, too. Wollstonecraft concludes, “Marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions.” She doesn’t mean helpmates or playthings or ornaments. She means intellectually equal companions.
There were only a handful of people in the late 18th century who were supporting co-education or national day schools. Changes in schools came more slowly. But Wollstonecraft’s ideas almost immediately contributed to changing what the ideal accomplished woman might look like.
Jane Austen’s Views on Women’s Education
Austen’s views didn’t replicate all of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, but her fiction implicitly advocates for girls and boys to get similar educations in virtue and reason.
Nowhere is Austen’s view of the shortcomings of the prevailing model of the accomplished woman laid out more clearly than in her last, unfinished work, Sanditon. Austen’s description of the two Miss Beauforts is absolutely cutting.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Miss Beauforts in Sanditon
The narrator tells us that the Miss Beauforts “were just such young ladies as may be met with, in at least one family out of three, throughout the kingdom. They had tolerable complexions, showy figures, an upright decided carriage, and an assured look.”
After having described them as a type by their number, bearing, and looks, the narrator moves on to describe their minds. The two Miss Beauforts were said to be “very accomplished and very ignorant, their time being divided between such pursuits as might attract admiration and those labours and expedients of dexterous ingenuity by which they could dress in a style much beyond what they ought to have afforded.”
Education Only to Attract Men
In other words, the Beaufort sisters use their many accomplishments only to attract men or to look wealthier than they are. That’s called an ignorant act by the narrator. The Miss Beauforts, it’s said, were “some of the first in every change of fashion. And the object of all was to captivate some man of much better fortune than their own.”
This picture of Miss Beauforts provides us with a sad portrait of shallow women—educated, but into the wrong values. It’s the opposite of the intelligent heroines we’ve come to know best in Austen’s fiction. The name “Beaufort” is French for beautiful and strong, but that’s clearly meant ironically because it’s the opposite of what these English sisters are.
What Austen’s fiction advocates for instead is a culture that might cultivate a different kind of strong, beautiful, “accomplished” woman. In Austen’s fiction, such women are, above all, well-read.
A Case for Women’s Education in Persuasion
The conversation in Persuasion between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville about men, women, and books should also be considered. Anne and Harville are arguing about women’s capacity for constancy. Harville declares, “Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
Anne replies, “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” The two of them continue to spar from there.
Anne comes to the conclusion that she must not “undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow creatures,” meaning men or women. Harville concludes of Anne, “You are a good soul,” and putting his hand on her arm, says quite affectionately, “There is no quarreling with you.”
Austen’s Feminist Argument
Many have read this conversation as Austen’s feminist argument in favor of greater opportunities for women’s education. Anne certainly doesn’t seem to be operating out of a desire to serve or flatter Captain Harville.
Instead, she seems motivated by a desire to be seen and respected by him, as an equal, and to have, in return, genuine respect for him. It’s a conversation that indirectly advocates for men’s and women’s educational reform.
Common Questions about Jane Austen As an Advocate of Women’s Education
Mary Wollstonecraft believed virtue would never prevail in society unless the virtues of both sexes are founded on reason. Wollstonecraft advocated for boys and girls to be educated together.
Jane Austen’s fiction implicitly advocated for girls and boys to get similar educations in virtue and reason.
Jane Austen’s ideas on female education can be seen all through her oeuvre in varying degrees. However, nowhere is Austen’s view of the shortcomings of the prevailing model of the accomplished woman laid out more clearly than in her last, unfinished work, Sanditon.