Why No Woman is Simply a Product of the Time in Which she Lives
Marian Veevers lives in the Lake District, just five miles from Grasmere, and works for The Wordsworth Trust. As Anna Dean she is the author of the Dido Kent series, which is set in Bath and Hampshire in the late 18th century. Her new book, Jane and Dorothy, compares the upbringing and education of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth - born just four years apart in teh 1770s - home lives and loves and, above all, their emotional and creative worlds. Original insights include a new discovery of serious depression suffered by Dorothy Wordsworth, a new and crucial discovery about Dorothy and William's relationship, and a critical look at the myths surrounding the man who stole Jane's heart. This is the first time these two lives have been examined together. Below, exclusively for Foyles on the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, Marian Veevers explains why no woman is simply a product of the times in which she lives.
Writing about the lives of women in the past is hard for a feminist. The past – we are frequently told – was different; people didn't have the same attitudes; the past should not be judged by modern standards. Good advice up to a point, but it leaves unanswered the question of what standards should be applied. And are we simply to assume that women didn't notice the injustices which restricted their lives?
Of course women notice when they are treated unfairly. For my period – late Georgian – the best evidence for this simple fact lies in Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Not all women accepted with equanimity the influential male view encapsulated in Daniel Defoe's belief that 'the great use of women in a community is to supply it with members…and keep up a succession'.
At any given time there are on any subject nearly as many opinions as there are individuals who have considered it; and Public Opinion, that nebulous force which exerts its pressure on all our lives, is not static, but in a constant state of change. If it were not, British women would still be enduring the ducking stools and scold's bridles of Medieval days.
So, when writing my first non-fiction book, Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility, I decided to start by acknowledging that no woman is simply a product of the time in which she lives. We are all – as Jane Austen herself says – 'rational creatures'. We are all able to make judgements and take decisions for ourselves.
By bringing together the stories of two talented women – Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth – who never met but who lived through the same times, who endured the same restrictions and who faced the same difficult decisions, I found I was able to highlight the choices that those two individuals made about their lives – the very different ways in which they sought meaning and fulfilment.
Hilary Mantel has recently criticised some women writers of historical fiction for 'falsely empowering' female characters, endowing their subjects with anachronistic ideas and behaviours. And, as a writer of historical fiction, I know how difficult it can sometimes be to balance my desire for accuracy with editors' insistence on 'strong' 'sympathetic' central characters. Editors (and, by extension, I suppose, readers) certainly like female protagonists to be 'feisty', a word I distrust since it is almost exclusively applied to women – and occasionally animals. They should also be appealing, of course. One American editor objected that a heroine of mine was just not likeable enough; the character in question was Lady Macbeth and I felt I had done everything I could to make her sympathetic, considering the constraints of history!
But, as I turned from fiction to fact and began to trace the Austen and Wordsworth stories, I began to wonder whether the difficulty might lie in how we define 'strong' or 'empowered'. In the Georgian world women's smallest victories were hard-won.
Jane and Dorothy, born just four years apart, both faced a world in which it was almost impossible for genteel women to live independently; a world which expected women to marry; a world which ridiculed the spinsters they both chose to be. Neither of them made a fortune as a businesswoman or harangued her menfolk on feminism – as they might have done had they inhabited the kind of fictional world which Hilary Mantel dislikes. But there was rebellion, there was subversion. Neither life was a passive acceptance of injustice.
Theirs were quiet, small, but deeply significant acts of independence which deserve to be recognised. Whether it is Dorothy's 'unladylike' determination to walk long distances in order to save the coach fare, or Jane's quiet writing on subjects of which her family must have disapproved; whether it is Dorothy's running away to live with a slightly disreputable but dearly loved brother, or Jane's integrity in refusing to commit her life and body to an advantageous but loveless marriage, we should not underestimate the courage and determination which lay behind those actions.
But sometimes Jane and Dorothy's decisions brought pain and heartbreak. Jane's empty life as an unmarried daughter in Bath affected her mental health. Comparing her letters and the recollections of her relatives with modern medical analysis of depressive illnesses suggests just how much it cost such a brilliant woman to live the dull life of 'moral rectitude' and 'correct taste' which her nephew would celebrate in his memoir. And Dorothy's relationship with her brother was a troubled one. The talk of incest which began in her own lifetime resurfaced in the mid-twentieth century, much to the discomfort of some scholars who chose to take refuge in Thomas De Quincey's derogatory dismissal of Dorothy as 'unsexual'. But there is no evidence to support this denial of Dorothy's sexuality, and when I set recent research into the sexual attraction of siblings alongside certain known, but rarely discussed, facts about William Wordsworth, I found a heart-breaking narrative.
Jane and Dorothy were born into similar circumstances, but their decisions took them along diverging paths. For both there was a degree of fulfilment, for both there was a measure of pain.
Were they 'strong'? Yes, they most certainly were. Were they 'empowered'? Perhaps not in the way we would wish them to have been. They had little political, economic or legal power. But they were not entirely powerless when it came to doing what they believed to be right and in shaping their own lives.