Jane Austen, Feminist Icon




Jane Austen, Feminist Icon by Devoney Looser

January 20th, 2014 reset - +

LEAVING BEHIND 2013’s 200th anniversary celebration of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for 2014’s of Mansfield Park, I find myself feeling wistful and almost a little sad. Poor Mansfield Park! What are its chances at capturing the limelight, cast as it is in the shadows and on the heels of Pride and Prejudice? No 12-foot fiberglass statue of Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram will be installed in a London lake. Out of Print Clothing has not made a Mansfield Park T-shirt. Thinking about it all is enough to make me miss last year’s endless, painful news articles beginning, “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” Anyone who might try to trot out, “About 30 years ago ...” risks being mistaken for riffing on the Gettysburg Address or a gold watch ceremony.

Yet this movement from celebrating the character imagined as Austen’s most beloved heroine, Pride and Prejudice’s spunky Elizabeth Bennet, to contemplating her least appreciated, Mansfield Park’s mousy Fanny Price — is also a perfect liminal moment. It is an opportunity to think more deeply about Austen’s reception and about her relation to the women’s movement. Many readers today celebrate spunky Lizzy Bennet as a proto-feminist role model. What will we do with the dour, humorless Fanny? Are we doomed to repeat what most of the characters in Mansfield Park do and simply ignore her?

I hope not. It has been an exciting, troubling year for Jane Austen as a feminist icon. Last summer’s announcement of Austen’s selection as the face of the new £10 note was both a high and a low point. British women’s media activists hailed the choice, the result of having agitated for a female face — other than the Queen’s — to remain on British currency. In the wake of celebrating their success, feminist leader Caroline Criado-Perez received rape and death threats on Twitter. Of course this prompted soul-searching conversations on the dangers of abuse on Twitter, but it also provoked debate about claiming Austen for feminism. Some found in the connection a new form of preposterousness, akin to mixing her fiction with zombies. Others trumpeted ours as the first generation to discover her feminist subtexts.

Both, as it turns out, are wrong.

After the £10 note debacle, I set a Google alert for “Jane Austen” and “feminism,” which delivered me endless time-wasting fun. I learned that British newspaper articles mix these terms most frequently, with The Huffington Post’s bloggers a close second. Most often, I found myself clicking on links to ponderous, error-laden essays, in the grand tradition of Google search results. The question of feminism sometimes came up in a piece about Austen. But just as often, her name was invoked in an essay on the state of feminism.

What struck me, combing article after article, was the mistaken impression in both kinds of articles that the question “Was Jane Austen a feminist?” is either a stunningly new question (“Never thought of before! Right there before our eyes! Just like Mary Wollstonecraft!”) or a proud product of the second-wave, 1970s, Equal Rights Amendment, Kate-Millett-to-Katha-Pollitt (or Gillian-Beer-to-Germaine-Greer) women’s movement. Even when Virginia Woolf’s or Rebecca West’s essays on Austen get a mention, which is all too rare, the history of Austen’s feminist reception is given short shrift. This holds true not just in the popular press but also even in some of our best scholarship.

But the question is neither new nor recent. Debating the connection of Jane Austen to feminism is not just an old saw. It’s a very old saw, dating back to the late 19th century — when the word “feminism” as we know it first comes into the English language — if not earlier.

It may surprise those who saw Simon Reade’s summer 2013 stage version of Pride and Prejudice at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London — or saw it in Minneapolis at The Guthrie Theater, where it starred Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser as Mr. Darcy — that the first dramatic adaptation of Austen’s novels preceded it by over 100 years. Rosina Filippi’s Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen: Arranged and Adapted for Drawing-Room Performance (1895) was designed for amateur actors, and features seven adapted scenes from four novels.

Performing Austen began as a populist enterprise, not in our toniest theatres. Filippi (1866–1930), a successful actress who ran a London acting school and taught elocution, had a passion for Austen. She declared, “I am convinced that Jane Austen as a play-wright will fascinate her audiences as much as she has her readers as a novelist.” Her prediction bore out for a while. Dozens of dramatizations of Pride and Prejudice would grace the stage in the early 20th century, many decades after Austen’s nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) had set off her first mass popularity. Even A. A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame threw his hat in the ring, with his play Miss Elizabeth Bennet (1936). Filippi’s trailblazing book — which went through several editions in the early 20th century — has been briefly noted by previous critics but is usually dismissed as lightweight trash.

Whether or not you believe Filippi’s Austen scenes are literary treasures, Filippi herself was no lightweight. Regularly cast in roles alongside such stage luminaries as Sir Seymour Hicks, Filippi was also responsible for the first professional performance of Austen’s novel. The now little-known The Bennets: A Play Without a Plot: Adapted from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was performed in an afternoon matinee at the Royal Court Theatre in London on March 29, 1901. Filippi wrote the play and appeared in it as its comical matron, Mrs. Bennet. The Bennets was never printed, and no copy of the script appears to have survived. This may explain its virtual disappearance from our histories of Austen. A short essay on the play by Chris Viveash appeared in 2003 in the Jane Austen Society Report but failed to gain much notice or traction.

The little we know of The Bennets comes from its brief reviews. The London Times found Filippi’s performance as Mrs. Bennet extremely amusing but was still unwilling to give her “a free pardon for laying violent hands upon Jane.” It’s hard to imagine Filippi responding to this reviewer with anything but a scoff. She was a woman profoundly unconcerned with pleasing the establishment, who would, a handful of years later, go on to prominence in the women’s suffrage movement, producing suffragist plays. Today she is more often mentioned as a minor figure in the first wave of the women’s movement than in Austen scholarship.

Indeed, no previous Austen scholar seems to have noticed Filippi’s feminist credentials, which seems an odd omission. Perhaps we’ve been more interested in trying to figure out what women’s rights meant to Austen herself — or might mean to us through reading Austen’s fiction — than to examine the subject as it has roiled in most of the generations in between. Perhaps we mistakenly believe that print and film were the only mediums in which adapting Austen mattered, not stage, radio, or early TV. To date, our studies of Austen’s reception, including her feminist reception, have been either dreadfully partial or intensely navel-gazing. Digging further, we find much more.

Filippi’s involvement in staging The Bennets is not its only first-wave feminist connection. The play’s co-director, Winifred Mayo (Winifred Monck-Mason) (1870­–1967), also starred as its beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. The Times reviewer complained that Mayo played Elizabeth as too “pert and petulant.” Mayo was one of the founders of the Actresses’ Franchise League and later joined the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, becoming a friend of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. In other words, Austen’s fiction was first brought to both the amateur and professional stage by — adapted, directed, and starring — early feminist activists.

Mayo engaged in illegal activities to support women’s suffrage and published a moving autobiographical essay, “Prison Experiences of a Suffragette,” in 1908. She was accused of assaulting the police during a demonstration and objected to the use of the word “assault,” as she never touched an officer. When the charge was reduced to “insulting the police and resisting them in the execution of their duty,” she told the inspector, in delightfully pert and petulant fashion, “Really, I wonder that you don’t feel ashamed saying anything so silly.”

Mayo would eventually take the stage as Jane Austen. Austen was featured as a character in Cicely Hamilton’s suffrage play A Pageant of Great Women, a 30-minute production that debuted on November 10, 1909 at the Scala Theatre in London. Jane Austen was one of the play’s 44 “great women” characters and its only British woman writer among four literary women lauded for learning, including Madame de Staël, George Sand, and Madeleine de Scudéry.

A Pageant of Great Women presented audiences with a vivid spectacle of female role models throughout history, raising funds for the cause and rousing audiences to action. Hamilton’s play became an international success, traveling across Britain, staged in more than 15 cities, and adapted and performed in Washington, DC. Each time it was performed, an activist/actress played Austen in support of women’s rights.

Those may be Feminist Icon Austen’s most prominent public appearances, but there is another contender. On June 13, 1908, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies staged a Great Procession through the streets of London with “a thousand beautiful banners [...] each different, each wrought in gorgeous color and in rich material,” according to impresario Millicent Fawcett. Ten thousand marchers, mostly women, joined groups carrying banners. The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage volunteered to assist women in carrying these banners for the two-mile march across London, but their offer was turned down. It was seen as crucial for women to bear the banners’ burdens. The Women Writers’ Suffrage League carried its own large banner and many smaller bannerettes, honoring famous women. One of these gorgeous banners — a cream, yellow, and red silk number, decorated with a name, dates, a book, and a quill pen — honored Jane Austen.

Which suffragist held the Austen banner as it traveled through the streets of London that day in 1908 appears to have gone unrecorded. Such a woman would have had to be physically robust. The day was a windy one, and carrying banners was said to have required significant strength. Taunts from male spectators that female banner carriers needed a man’s help meant that the stakes were high for holding on tight, no matter what. The novelist May Sinclair (1863–1946) is said to have seriously injured herself once by carrying a suffrage banner for several miles.

In June 1914, Sinclair, too, would appear in public dressed up as Jane Austen. She attended a Costume Dinner of Suffragists, held at the Hotel Cecil in London, in an evening billed as showcasing “rebels of all the ages impersonated by rebels of to-day.” Sinclair came as what one newspaper called “a very demure Jane Austen.”

Jane Austen, demure feminist rebel. We might say that the spirit of that label has stuck, and stuck in the craw, for more than a century. Austen’s prompting rape and death threats on Twitter is new to our generation; the ferocity of the debate is not. Claudia L. Johnson has argued that, in the early 20th century, loving Jane Austen was “principally a male enthusiasm shared among an elite corps of publishers, professors, and literati.” She has documented the Edwardian clubmen who doted on Austen as charming and utterly safe, as well as their anxious chums who feared any man who loved her might be a pansy. Such intramural debates do not make up the sum total of her late 19th- and early 20th-century prominence. Progressive women activists also saw Jane Austen as their rightful property.

As we continue to document more carefully Austen’s posthumous history — including the ways that readers have used her image and understood her fiction as feminist — we should be able to consider the subject of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, female servitude, and the history of the women’s movement with far more sense than sensibility. Who knows? We may even be ready to talk with feminist historical nuance about Emma (1816) with just a couple of years’ notice.

¤

Devoney Looser teaches at Arizona State University. Her latest book is Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850

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