Jane Austen: Gender and morality

Professor Kathryn Sutherland considers Jane Austen’s portrayal of female characters and her harshly moralistic outlook. Filmed at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton.

We think of Jane Austen as a woman's novelist, looking at the world from a woman's point of view and that's pretty much true. Her heroines are witty, they're attractive, they're intelligent, they're articulate – but we have to remember too, that she's a fairly harsh moralist. They may be witty and independent in certain ways, but she doesn't allow them to pursue individual courses of behaviour and she doesn't encourage passion and she doesn't encourage rebellion. I think that may seem harsh to us because we live in a world with so many more freedoms. So, you can sometimes come away from her novels with the sense that, you know, the best a woman can hope for is marriage to a companionate man who knows how to handle her and many of her novels do include sections in which the heroine is educated by the hero. Sometimes too, the hero is rather older and in some senses, wiser than the witty heroine who, to some extent, has to be tamed.

The realities of Jane Austen's society, are that women have much less freedom for experimentation than men. They didn't have careers, they didn't have a chance to go to university, their male contemporaries had both – young men had the equivalent of a gap year. They went for the grand tour, often before they went to university, which was an opportunity for experiment with all aspects of life. Women had no chance to experiment. The rules were very strict for women of this class – remember we're talking about the middle classes and the gentry – that they must be virgins when they marry and they must remain loyal to her husband, however foolish and indeed, however corrupt he might be.

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