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Archive for September 24th, 2010

Far be it from me to criticize Jane Austen, but an unfortunate consequence of her popularity has been the assumption that Englishwomen living during the reign of George III spent all their time writing letters, attending card parties, and striving to make a “good match”.  Admittedly, the Bennets, Elliots, Dashwoods et al. represent a particular segment of society, the provincial middle class, but even so, were these women really so limited in their outlook and aspirations?
Undoubtedly, some of them were.

Jane Austen was too astute an observer of manners and morals to misjudge things badly.  Nevertheless, some middle class women did venture beyond the parsonage and the manor house, either through necessity or the desire for a wider experience.  I thought about these women when I was creating my heroine, Mary Finch.  She doesn’t represent any particular person who actually lived at the end of the 18th century, but when constructing her adventures I did consider whether there was a contemporary precedent for what I was planning, or whether her strengths and weaknesses were out of line with what I knew about women of her time.  So when readers ask me whether someone like Mary could really have existed in the 1790s, I say, yes, I think she could.

Let me give you examples of two Georgian women who, in their different ways, are somewhat in the Mary Finch mold.  The first is Hannah More (1745-1833).  Having been taught Latin, mathematics, and foreign languages, she and her sisters ran a girls’ boarding school in Bristol, while her parents presided over a like establishment for boys.  From an early age she enjoyed writing, and her work attracted the attention of the London literary elite.  As a young woman she made the acquaintance of David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Samuel Johnson, and was invited to join the exclusive Bluestocking society.  Her plays were popular and won rave reviews from the critics.  A devout Anglican, More’s writing had always had a particularly moral tone, and increasingly she devoted herself to what she considered important social and political causes: education, patriotism and respect for authority, and abolition of the slave trade.  In the last of these she worked closely with William Wilberforce and was a member of the Clapham Sect of Evangelical reformers.  Her loyalist tracts, published during the war years, sold enormously in Great Britain and America.  While of dubious literary merit, they were extremely important in providing a coherent, easily accessible platform for the forces of political, social, and religious conservatism.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was cut from a very different cloth.  Almost entirely self-taught, she left home at the age of nineteen to escape a violent father who had squandered the family’s resources.  After unsuccessful stints as schoolteacher, governess, and paid companion, she decided to become an author, and began supporting herself by writing stories, book reviews, translations, and essays.  Her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters was published in 1787.  While More sought to uphold values of deference, obedience, and loyalty, these were anathema to the egalitarian Wollstonecraft.  She enjoyed the company of the leading radicals and rationalist thinkers of the day, including Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and William Godwin, and she published the first refutation of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, entitled, A Vindication of the Rights of Men.  In it she attacked monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and traditional institutions that promoted inequality.  Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, took her arguments a step further, charging that women were being denied (and denying themselves) equality through a lack of rational education and a cloying celebration of feminine “sensibility”.  Similarly, while More attacked the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft defended it; indeed she travelled alone to France in 1792 to observe events firsthand, only returning in 1795.  Her intrepidity was also evident in an expedition she made to Scandinavia – accompanied this time by her enfant daughter – to pursue her lover’s business interests.  More never married, but Wollstonecraft’s personal life was by far the more exceptional.  She had a child with a married man, and only wed William Godwin (they were both opposed in principle to the institution) when she discovered she was pregnant.  They moved in together, but he also leased a separate workspace so that they could preserve their professional independence.

I don’t mean to suggest that More and Wollstonecraft were “average” women, or that their conduct passed without comment by their contemporaries.  Their political views won them both support and censure, and Wollstonecraft, in particular, was strongly criticized, even by some of her friends, when she revealed that her first child had been born out of wedlock.  My point is rather that despite the constraints and conventions of their time, they both managed to lead adventurous lives.

Adventurous people are necessarily unusual – and adventurous characters in novels are even more so. As Captain Holland reflects upon first making Mary Finch’s acquaintance, “He had never met a girl who said and did such odd things – and not just occasionally, but one right after the other.”  Holland’s own career is not exactly straightforward, but he has never met anyone quite like Mary.  He would undoubtedly have considered Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft rather odd as well.

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A big thanks to Rose for visiting today. You can learn more about her here or here http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Rose-Melikan/45491181/widget.

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