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Jane Austenís Civilized Women

Morality, Gender and the Civilizing Process 

 

Enit Karafili Steiner

 

 London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012

Hardcover. vii + 228 p. ISBN 978-1848931770. £60

 

 Reviewed by Wendy OíBrien

University of Melbourne

 

 

ĎYou have proved yourself upright and disinterested, prove yourself grateful and tender-hearted; and then you will be the perfect model of a woman, which I have always believed you were born for.í Mansfield Park  [322].

With this Ďkindí tutelage, Edmund Bertram beseeches Fanny Price to display the feminine gratitude and acquiescence expected of her. Fanny is Edmundís unequal in every particular; she is impoverished, female, displaced from her home, and lacking the publicly ratified moral certainty of his religious calling. She should, according to the prevailing moral paradigm, heed the sage advice of her superior cousin, and gratefully accept the offer of marriage proffered by the handsome Henry Crawford. Female and impoverished though she might be, ďlittleĒ Fanny Price does know her own mind. Edmundís earnest plea is eclipsed by the vehemence of her response: "Oh! never, never, never; he never will succeed with me."

This exchange typifies a strain of relational morality found in Jane Austenís work, emblematic of Austenís contribution to a Ďreformative agenda that refuses to conceive of womenís submissiveness as the inevitable price to be paid for the survival of affectionsí [16]. Enit K. Steiner reads Austenís women as possessing a self-awareness and an inter-subjective understanding of the artifice of received ideas of feminine morality that means they are rarely content to comply with the requirements for Ďthe perfect model of a woman.í Not for Steiner the passive constructs of a debilitating moral zeitgeist: Austenís women are featured as moral agents in their own right.

Through Austenís juvenilia and her six complete novels Steiner charts the moral development of Austenís most significant female characters. Steiner draws largely on the sociological theories of Norbert Elias to advance her reading of the processual and relational aspects of this civilising process.  Austenís novels display female consciousness as a process, characterised by an inter-subjective balance between individual desires and obligations to others. In this, Steiner sees Austenís work as challenging conceptions of morality as fixed, universalisable and ineluctable: there is no singular or static moral sensibility to be narratively couched. Steiner sets her work apart from popular readings of Austen as Ďthe archetypal author of good mannersí [1], by identifying Austenís refusal to narrate morality in any authorial or omnipotent sense.

Austenís narrative restraint leaves the civilising process to Austenís women who, to varying degrees, embody a relational and introspective understanding of female consciousness that reveals received morality as artifice. Indeed, Steiner finds Austenís work to be far more interrogative of conventional social mores than is often credited. Austenís oeuvre maintains an interest in ideas considered unconventional in her time, including; female emancipation, self-gratification, and womenís enthusiasm for understanding and advancing their own moral agency by virtue of their interactions with others. In love, in domestic and public life, in language, narrative, history and in dress, the codes of femininity are read as finely wrought artifice. Steiner traces this fictive femininity through Austenís early work and also through the six novels that comprise her mature oeuvre.

Following Steinerís broadly contextual introduction, the constituent chapters take up various aspects of female moral agency evident in Austenís work. Chapters One and Two deal with Austenís early work; the juvenilia, Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey. The juvenilia are read as displaying a feisty resistance to the dictates of received morality. Collectively, the heroines of Austenís juvenilia embody a fearless pursuit of self-gratification, and a tendency for spontaneous love and friendship that Steiner, and others, see resisting received ideas of feminine propriety. Steiner also identifies that frank expressions of sexual desire suffuse Austenís work, with the juvenilia, in particular, depicting womenís active role in courtship. These early texts are also replete with acts of violence, a feature that Steiner affords a brief, but nuanced, analysis on feminist terms. Steiner identifies this violence, lessened in Austenís later work, as committed, at times, by women in protest against impediments to realised desire. She cautions against overly celebratory feminist accounts, however, suggesting that these might be tempered by an acknowledgement that Austenís women endure violence more often than they inflict it.

Steinerís diachronic reading links the feisty strain of femininity in Austenís juvenilia with the tempered and more subtly fashioned critique of received feminine morality that she finds evident in Austenís mature work. In Chapter Two, Steiner reads Lady Susanís manipulation of language as an artful appropriation of Ďfalse delicacyí, the very patriarchal language against which Mary Wollstonecraft rails. Lady Susan uses patriarchal language, and patriarchal expectations about her ďsituationĒ to advance her position. Lady Susan forgoes the violence and rash narrative action of the heroines in Austenís juvenilia, in favour of discursive manoeuvres that highlight, at once, the marginalisation of women in narratives that concern them, be they literary, historical, moral, but also the power of female knowledge production with regards to these self-same narrative modes. Northanger Abbey provides the grounds for Steinerís extended critique of the exclusion of women from knowledge production and narrative form. Steiner suggests that Austenís gothic novel portrays the power of women, as an excluded group of knowers. Using Sandra Hardingís work on standpoint theory, Steiner suggests that the narrative incorporation of hitherto marginalised female voices highlights the means by which hegemonic narrative modes perpetuate domestic despotism.

Chapter Three reveals Steinerís abiding interest in the dialogic character of Austenís morality.  Steiner provides explicit analysis of this dynamic in the novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, concluding that self-awareness and consciousness are developed via dialogic engagement with difference. For Steiner, Austenís work promotes an understanding of the individual as always inter-subjective: the I is, in fact, always part of a Ďweí. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, dissimilarities are seen as fruitful opportunities for exchange that promotes a greater sense of self-awareness and growth. It is this logic that accounts for the improvement in Darcyís deplorable manners towards Elizabeth Bennet. Steiner reads Sense and Sensibility as building on this theme by portraying morality as a produce of inter-subjective experience. By Steinerís account, Austen eschews the disembodied thinking agents of Rousseauís Social Contract, in favour of a dialogic conception of consciousness as informed by otherness. To pursue this concept Steiner engages Bakhtin, reading Sense and Sensibility as a dialogic conception of existence and moral judgment that ultimately refutes both the primacy of the essential self and the idea of universalisable moral maxims.

Chapters Four and Five, respectively, deal with Mansfield Park and Emma, novels that Steiner links through her analysis of human autonomy. The vastly different characters of Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse are both read as autonomous agents, whose actions frustrate and exceed the gendered determinates of eighteenth-century philosophy. In her final chapter, Steiner reads Persuasion as Austenís most explicit comment on the socially constructed notion of femininity. Here, Steiner reads the experience and moral agency of Anne Elliot as insisting that the homogeneity of public civil life be made to accommodate desire and feeling. In so doing, Steiner makes a powerful case for Austen as foreshadowing the feminist refrain that the personal is political.

There is already a great deal of feminist scholarship on Austen, to which Steinerís text makes a valuable contribution. Her project might more properly be considered philosophical, however, and it is to this discipline that Steinerís text makes the more necessary scholarly contribution. Although not the first to situate Austenís work according to the eighteenth-century philosophical tradition, Steinerís text is unique both for its broad-ranging philosophical treatment of Austenís work, and for the sustained feminist reading that carefully links Austenís civilising process to the concerns of contemporary readers.  Part of the value, and the challenge, of Steinerís ambitious work is that it evades temporal or disciplinary boundaries. Steiner situates Austenís work within a constellation of theoretical frameworks, including post-structuralist feminist, standpoint theory, sociological theories of habitus, Enlightenment theories of societal development, as well as eighteenth-century and contemporary philosophical and literary readings.

Jane Austenís work is very often read as a reinscription of received morality as it pertains to femininity, domesticity and the rules that govern womenís place in social life. Such readings place Austen as Ďthe archetypal author of good mannersí [1]. To consider Austen thus is to imply that she operates merely as a mouthpiece for the received morality of her zeitgeist, promulgating the patriarchal language of Rousseau and Burke that demands female submissiveness, subservience, and gentleness. Steiner is not blind to the limitations of Austenís workóher project, after all, is to embed Austenís texts in the political and moral ideas of Austenís time. But she has little time for the suggestion that Austenís is a simple patriarchal morality, imposed on an atomistic subject. Instead, Steiner engages the brilliant retort that Wollstonecraft offers the eighteenth-century proponents of Ďreceived moralityí. In so doing, she reveals substantial complementarity between Wollstonecraftís work and the active moral agents of Austenís civilising process.

The unquestionable value of Steinerís text is, in the end, powerful in its simplicity. If we accept it as axiomatic that the tradition of moral philosophy has largely functioned to exclude women, then Steinerís text constitutes a welcome addition to the philosophy by women that seeks to redress this imbalance. Steiner mobilises Austenís heroines in order to offer a sustained philosophical account of female consciousness, and the multiplicitious ways in which its legitimacy has been denied. She makes superb use of Wollstonecraft to further this end. Far from a ďmiss mannersĒ then, Austen assumes a role as an advocate for womenís active moral agency. And there is a hook for the contemporary reader too. By Steinerís reckoning, Austenís work encourages readers to produce rather than consume moral judgment. With this gesture, Steiner opens a space for an ongoing relational dialogue about the moral concepts with the greatest implications for women. Perhaps then, moral philosophy need not be a male preserve after all.

 

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