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Austens Women in a Conservative Society

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“ The social world she described so minutely was that of the Regency, a period, partly in the 18th, partly in the 19th century, that had its own particular characteristics. It was a time when the rigid class system of the earlier 18th century was breaking down, especially in the middle, between the top ruling class of the wealthy and influential land-owning aristocrats and the working classes” (Priestley, 1960: 79). This meant a change in the rigid system of manners that had typified the upper classes as wealthy merchants and sailors began to afford the properties of the decadent rich who, often placing more value on appearances than realities, began overspending.

With this change, the role of women was also changed, and it is this change that Austen captures in her novels as she introduces the idea of women as full thinking, feeling and reasonable people, planting the early seeds for the future feminist movements. Austen’ s characters, in true female fashion, sought nothing more than an advantageous marriage that would bring honor and dignity to the family as well as comfort and prosperity to her home, depicting the social ideal that the woman’ s place was in the home and her career, regardless of her personal tastes, opinions or desires, was to be marriage.

“ In addition to being able to sing, play an instrument and speak a little French or Italian, the qualities a young … gentlewoman needed, was to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of intellectual opinion” (Thomas, 2007). While each of her heroines are shown to possess these qualities in some form or another – Catherine of Northanger Abbey is innocently drawn into the world of ‘ horrors’ represented by the Gothic novel, Marianne Dashwood is illustrated as being an accomplished musician in Sense and Sensibility and Anne is greatly admired by Mr Elliot for her proficiency in translating Italian in Persuasion – most are also shown to have an independent streak that insists upon happiness as well, pushing their restrictions to find a semblance of freedom and independence even within the institution of marriage.    

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