As part of my research for the Literary Detectives, I have done a great deal of work on the complicated historical question of women and the novel. In Jane Austen’s day, following pioneering work by Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe, novel-writing was well on its way to becoming a respectable occupation for ‘a lady’, and although her name was not put to any of the four novels published during her lifetime, Austen’s identity was sufficiently well-known for the Prince Regent to contact her and request that her next novel (Emma, published 1816) be dedicated to him, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818 with a ‘biographical notice of the author’.
Although Jane Austen probably had good reason to conceal her name and safeguard her middle-class respectability, her writings make it very evident that she sees no shame in novel reading or novel writing. Apart from her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey, her letters and other writings reflect her own enjoyment in novels, and also her belief that, in the words of the eminently sensible clergyman Mr Tilney, ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’ (NA, ch. 14). In a letter to Cassandra in 1799, she shows hearty disdain for the Mr Gould who ‘walked home with me after tea. He is a very young man, just entered of Oxford, wears spectacles, and has heard that Evelina was written by Dr Johnson’. This brief and efficient annihilation at once takes on the ancient institution of Oxford University as perhaps too ancient and churning out scholars completely out of touch with contemporary popular culture and literary advances, and the implicit sense of superiority of the educated young man over the – formally – uneducated woman.
Dr Samuel Johnson himself would probably have been appalled as well by poor Mr Gould’s slip-up. In Jane Austen: Feminism and fiction, Margaret Kirkham sums up his attitude towards the novel as follows:
‘In the eighteenth century the novel was new, and was seen to engage with the contemporary world and problems about conduct in it in quite a new way. The controversy over Pamela and later Tom Jones, in which Dr Johnson played an important part, was sharpened by fears about the effect of novels upon impressionable readers. Johnson, in Rambler 4, sees that the novel, or “familiar history” as he calls it, invites readers to apply what they learn from it to themselves, as the romances of former times did not, being “so remote from all that passes among men”. Further, the novel was read, without tutorship, by readers whom Johnson did not feel could be trusted to draw correct moral inferences from it […] He does not mention women specifically, but we may take it that he had them in mind, for the satirist’s nightmare of romantic girls and their giddy governesses shut up together with a cache of novels from the circulating library, was already familiar. Ignorant young women were not the only readers likely to be unhinged by fiction of doubtful moral import, but it was widely believed that they were peculiarly vulnerable.’ (1987: 13)
Of course, sharp-witted authoresses such as Jane Austen were thoroughly aware of this stereotype, and of the challenges it posed to the adoption by female writers of a new form of writing fiction that did not yet have a firmly established masculine and patriarchal tradition, and they engage with this notion frequently and on many different levels. Aside from the well-reasoned and impassioned defence in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen also tackled the sexist stereotype of the vulnerable young female novel-reader in more subtle and comic ways. For example, in her unfinished novel Sanditon, set in an up-and-coming new watering place, the gender stereotype is inverted completely through the character of Sir Edward Denham, a poetry-spouting coxcomb enamoured of the heroine, Charlotte Heywood. Austen remarks of him,
‘The truth was that Sir Edward, whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot, had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s; and such authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character. – With a perversity of judgment, which must be attributed to his not having by nature a very strong head, the graces, the spirit, the sagacity, and the perseverance, of the villain of the story outweighed all his absurdities and all his atrocities with Sir Edward. – With him, such conduct was genius, fire and feeling. – It interested and inflamed him; and he was always more anxious for its success and mourned over its discomfitures with more tenderness than could ever have been contemplated by the authors.’ (Sandition, ch. 8)
Thus, Sir Edward, despite his title and his sex, is precisely the sort of person Dr Johnson ought not to trust with a novel: weak-minded and frivolous, he takes much worse lessons from his reading material than impressionable young women such as Catherine Morland – for they cause him to harass women and think himself a hero because of it.
A similar literary gender inversion takes place in my favourite Victorian matriarchal novel – written, strangely, by a woman whose fiction does its utmost to uphold the social status-quo. The town which lends its name to Elizabeth Gaskell’s serialised novel Cranford is populated – and therefore ruled – entirely by single middle- and upper-middle-class ladies, who are able, within the confines of their town, to lay down their own rules of social etiquette. Ruler supreme amongst them is the old clergyman’s eldest daughter, Miss Deborah Jenkyns. Miss Jenkyns takes the teachings of her late father very much to heart, and this has led her to model her own (letter-)writing style on Dr Johnson’s. Thus, it is she who takes to task the upstart man Captain Brown for his admiration for The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s forerunner of what would become the new Victorian novel. Interestingly, her reprimand to him, though milder, is strikingly similar to
‘Johnson’s well-known rebuke to Hannah More, on hearing her speak with levity of “some witty passage in Tom Jones”, shows that he believed even rather learned and highly respectable ladies, no longer so very young, to be in special danger: “I am shocked to hear you have read it, a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.”’ (Kirkham 1987: 13)
Miss Jenkyns, we assume, was permitted to read The Pickwick Papers, as an elderly and well-educated woman, who is well above being corrupted by a new-fashioned popular author. At any rate, she is able to tell Captain Brown with the all the weight of her learning and moral superiority,
‘I must say, I don’t think they are by any means equal to Dr Johnson. Still, perhaps, the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.’ (Cranford, ch. 1)
Thus, in this scene we have Miss Jenkyns embracing the traditional Victorian female role of a morally superior being – but she is policing the morals of a grown man, and not in a familial context, but from her position as the local social despot. Although her strong sense of right is a direct result of her father’s upbringing, it is clear that her father passed on to her much of his own education, and persuaded her of his moral sentiments because he was convinced of them, not because she was a girl and unfit to read other works.
Furthermore, it is important to be aware of the publishing context of Cranford: it appeared in instalments in Dickens’s magazine Household Words between 1851 and 1853. Thus, her reference to Dickens’s first novel-writing success functions at once to set the scene in its historical context and to show how behind the times the Cranford ladies are, but also allows the matriarchal despot of a town populated by impoverished but genteel spinsters – fair game for caricaturists everywhere – to take Dickens, the literary sensation of middle-class novel-reading Victorian Britain, down a peg.