Final Thoughts, Gender, Northanger Abbey

On Gender–Part 2 (And Final Thoughts on Northanger Abbey)

In Northanger Abbey we have a heroine whose immaturity seems to outweigh her positive characteristics. In many ways she makes similar mistakes as Marianne and Emma, and although she learns her lessons just as painfully, she does not appear as wise by the end of the novel as the afore-mentioned characters. But she does have romantic partner that serves as a teacher poised to reprimand.

My question here is why does Austen so frequently assign a her heroes as the moral compasses and lecturers of her more misguided, young heroines?


One thing that these three heroines in particular have in common is the lack of parental involvement in their transition into adulthood. Marianne’s father passes while she is still in the state of adolescence and her mother behaves as if helpless. Emma has spent nearly her entire life without a mother and has a paranoid, childlike father incapable of giving her any real advice, though he cares very much for her welfare. Then there is Mr. and Mrs. Morland, who have too many children to give too much focus to anyone in particular. It would appear to be the case that, in the absence of strong father figures and engaged mothers, the responsibility of guiding a young maid safely into the proprieties of womanhood, oddly enough, falls onto her future husband.

More questions I’m having trouble answering: For an independent woman who writes female characters to have independent thought and free will, why give this sort of reign to the male characters in her novels? And why do we as readers respond so positively to this bizarre romantic dynamic? If this were a legitimate essay I would attempt answers to these questions, but I am honestly perplexed.

One thing I do know is that this characteristic of their romantic relationship brings even more awkwardness to the age differences between each couple. Perhaps, then this can all be tallied up to a cultural aspect of the time, but I find myself unconvinced. I find myself even a bit frustrated with Austen for not allowing her heroines to make their mistakes and grow into adults and choose their mates while maintaining their independent will.

I may be a bit disillusioned, but I can at least take comfort in the fact that I have coined a phrase to describe this phenomenon: The Knightley Effect.

fanfic, Northanger Abbey, Original



Isabella plopped down onto her back on her bed and let out a heavy sigh that was too exaggerated to carry any tone of real hardship.

Then Isabella got up.

Isabella strolled around the room.

She sat on the poof in front of her only chair. She sighed again.

This time Isabella jumped up with a force that could easily be mistaken for purpose.

She scuffed back and forth irritably.

She ran her fingers across the books on her shelf and then let out a loud groan of agitation before falling on her bed again, this time face-forward.

She even kicked her legs a couple of times, though she would never admit to such a childish maneuver in the presence of company, not even Catherine.

The case was all too clear. Isabella Thorpe was bored out of her mind.

And well she should be. How was a young lady to find any entertainment with her best bosom buddy away having adventures at an awful old castle with skeletons in every closet. No doubt, Catherine was off solving hundreds of murders, all without a thought for poor Isabella. She had faithfully promised to write Catherine while she was away, but had not been able to draw herself to her writing-table without the pang of heartbreak (she refused to harbor the word jealousy) at Catherine’s complete abandonment. How could she be so intolerably selfish? This led to another loud sigh as Isabella comforted herself with the thought of how thoughtlessly she had been cast-off, something she herself could never do to such an important friend as she. After all, Isabella could love no one by halves.

Her thoughts inevitably turned to marriage. That was where her thoughts always found their home when she wasn’t fully distracted, which was hardly really ever. Even a good book or dance would always bring her back in the end. It was her one true calling in life and well she knew it. She could hardly remember a time when she hadn’t known in her deepest heart of hearts that she would marry and marry well. It was her only choice. She had been blessed with breathtaking beauty and cunning and wit, but placed in an economic situation that prevented her from using these to her full advantage. So from a very young age she knew that securing a comfortable home was not only her only option, but also her duty. She had found a lovely, educated man who loved her to bits and would always care for her comfortably enough in Catherine’s dear brother, and was completely and blissfully happy. Well mostly happy. Satisfied, definitely. But maybe…just a little…bored. 

Perhaps she could get into just a little bit of trouble before she was completely tied down. She was young, shouldn’t she take advantage of that? Who could blame a girl in her prime for not wanting her aptitude go to waste.

With that thought she hit the streets. She knew she was no ordinary girl, and right now she was a girl in search of trouble.

Coming-out, Court, Debutante, Northanger Abbey

I’m Coming Out–Part 2 (Northanger Abbey Style)

“Isabella having gone through the usual ceremonial of meeting her friend with the most smiling and affectionate haste, of admiring the set of her gown, and envying the curl of her hair, they followed their chaperones, arm in arm, into the ballroom, whispering to each other whenever a thought occurred, and supplying the place of many ideas by a squeeze of the hand or a smile of affection.” –Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

In Northanger Abbey we learn nothing about Catherine or Isabella coming out, but we know they are able to go to social gatherings such as balls in Bath.

How does this relate to you? Well if your family is of humbler means like the Morlands and the Thorpes, there will likely be a small country ceremony in the late spring or early summer for the girls of your village, which you may attend. However, you may have the good fortune to capture the attention of a wealthy patroness who can pave the way for you to be presented in London.

4. You haven’t given in to any wicked behavior, have you? In order to be presented at court you must have a woman of status to vouch for your moral and social character.

5. If you have made all of your preparations, then it is time to submit your application to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain. He will contact you with the date of your ball. The debutante balls at St. James Palace are held on Thursday evenings at 10pm, during the high social season in London. Expect the celebration to be sometime between Easter and the end of June.

6. Now that all of the stuffy, boring details have been accounted for, we can proceed to the entertaining pastime of planning your dress! The Lord Chamberlain has issued a strict dress code for the court debutante balls.

The court dress is expected to have a low bodice with a high waist and a train that reaches at least three feet long. The train’s end must be precisely 54 inches wide. As you are unmarried, it is vital that your dress be white. You may notice many women who are your senior wearing dresses of color. They most likely have not had the opportunity to be presented earlier in life, and, of course, white is most unsuitable for a woman of higher years.

Your gloves should be white unless you are in mourning, in which case it is permissible for them to be black or grey. However, it is never excusable to wear a black dress when coming-out, regardless of the circumstances.

If you will be coming-out at a smaller country affair, your dress should still be white, but there is much more leniency in the length, cut, and so on. Chances are, you may have an older sister or cousin who is ready to hand down the dress in which she came-out. A charming way to pass the torch, as I’m sure you will agree.


And now for the pièce de résistance (if we must quote the French): the plumes! It is absolutely necessary for your plumes to be white, regardless of age or mourning. As an unmarried young lady you shall wear three plumes whereas your married counterparts will be sporting two.


All that’s left is to keep practicing your court curtsey and you’ll be all set!

Congratulations on your debut! Once you are out, you must show yourself in society as often as possible and take full advantage of the social season either in London or in your own town. As you can abandon the reservation and demureness that propriety required of you before, you now have the opportunity to acquaint an abundance of eligible young men with all of your desirable accomplishments and family assets. It is your time to shine. Remember to ride your horse publicly as means of showing off your figure, and you are sure to snatch up a wealthy lord or duke and produce an heir in no time!



Gender, Sense and Sensibility, The Reader

On Gender–Part 1(Plus Final Thoughts on Sense and Sensibility)

The other day I heard someone use the phrase “women-centric” in an interview with a member from a television series with a predominately female cast. My immediate reaction was to question if this is even a real word, which was followed by the thought that I hardly know what constitutes real words anymore and what defines language because A) I just took my first linguistics class which opened my perception of language evolution to new levels and pretty much blew my mind, and also B) YOLO (you only language once?)…but aside from that tangent and punctuation nightmare, I’ve been throwing the phrase around in my head in relation to Jane Austen’s body of work. I’ve mostly discovered that my thoughts on the subject are hardly concise enough for a coherent piece of writing, so I’ve decided to turn it into a series of posts relating to three of the Austen’s novels and their portrayal of gender as well as modern readers perceptions of gender within these novels. I know. It’s a bit rambly, but I’m getting somewhere with this.

Clearly the reader’s first reaction is to say, sure, Austen’s work is totally “women-centric.” How could it not be? All of her protagonists are female and most of them are bold and independent in their own ways *cough cough except Fanny Price cough cough.* But something about my die-hard Austenite friends reactions to the characters has been bugging me. Every Austen fan I know is obsessed with Austen’s heroes and her heroine’s end up almost being an after thought. Certainly, these fans have favorite heroines and ways in which they relate to them, but they are quick to point out these character’s faults when in their eyes the Mr. Darcy’s and George Knightley’s have none. I want to address this odd bias further in later posts, but for now I wish to discuss what I find to be the one exception: Sense and Sensibility.


It is my opinion that Sense and Sensibility celebrates womanhood and sisterhood, as well as the awkward “not a girl not yet a woman” Britney Spears stage of growing into adulthood, the most highly of all six of Austen’s novels. In some way the bond between Elinor and Marianne outweighs their affections for the men in the novel.


There is something about Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon that lacks the dashing qualities which we associate with so many of Austen’s heroes. Colonel Brandon possesses a quiet wisdom and emotional fortitude which give him the feeling of being somewhat withdrawn, and until he his moment of valiance in rescuing Marianne from the dreaded rain, he is mostly just lurking with the occasional purpose of being an intellectual companion to Elinor. We have so little first-hand experience with Edward Ferrars in the book. We hear from him about three times, in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, and although he is extremely kind and honorable, he leaves much to be wanted in his personality. And then there is Willoughby. Sigh. His carelessness and vanity prevent his being entirely endearing, despite his amiable personality, even before the reader discovers his rake status.

What we do experience in great detail is the affection and the deep empathy and understanding that the elder Dashwood sister’s share despite the differences in their sensibilities and we see, through their acute pain and exquisite pleasure, each of their journeys into their own graceful womanhood.

Sense and Sensibility, Trees

Marianne, the Trees Aren’t Interested, and You’re Starting to Make Them Uncomfortable.

The trees at Norland are not very approachable.



“Shhh, shhh, still your leaves!”


“Okay, okay. What’s up?”


“She’s headed this way again.”




“Don’t look! You know, the flouncy one? One of the roaming saplings with the soft, supple trunk, and the—I said don’t look!—the long, ashen branches that hang like a willows. The quick mover with the short roots.”


“Alright, but which one is it? My bark is itching to peel for a glance.”


“I dunno, they call her Marigold or Mari-whoosit or whatever. Look, just kind of lean over subtly like you just caught a low wind. Steady now.”


Abruptly, the clamorous sound of leaves rustling was emitted from the branches of one of the two trees.


“Really? Is that you playing it cool?”


“I don’t know what else I can do; she’s almost leaning on me now!”


“Oh for the love of—is she doing it again? Is she doing the thing?”


“What thing?”


“Passing the wind through her branches to make that horrid noise. Whispering ‘sweet nothings’ and other such rubbish I bet.”


“I’d hardly call it whispering, but yes, she’s going on about ‘leaves decaying’ and ‘unconscious pleasures’ or something.”


“What is that even supposed to mean?”


“Beats me. Sounds a bit questionable, I’d say.”


“Well, first of all, I’m a little uneasy about her attempts at dallying with both of us while the other is within hearing distance. Do you recall hearing her going on about ‘basking’ in my shade the other day? Disgraceful!”


“Hmm, yes, that was a display.”


“And once more, I’ve been hearing whispers from leaves passing in the south wind that she’s been philandering in the north garden as well. I mean hello! Could you be more desperate?”


“Oooh! You don’t say? What a coquette. And she doesn’t even know anything about us, really. She just throws herself at any vegetation that sprouts in her general vicinity. She’s as bad as moss.”


“Let’s not be unnecessarily wicked. Then again, I feel sorry for the poor shrub who becomes entangled with her.”


“Sheesh, I’m rustling just thinking about it.”


“You would think that after years of blatant indifference and forward silence she would catch on.”


“Sure! Take a hint, why don’t you! What an oblivious sod.”


The trees both scoffed. Suddenly, Marianne heaved a low, heavy sigh, laden with despair. Then, with a quick hug and kiss to each, Marianne walked away from her well-known trees for what she believed to be the last time—mostly because she was a melodramatic, hyperbolic teenager with no sensible concept of what the future might bring. And as she disappeared into the distance, the trees swayed their trunks in an effort to shake off the feeling of violation which they shared, leaning against each other to brush away any remaining essence of the unwanted affection they had been given, and then they sat in general dissatisfaction for the rest of the day.

Sense and Sensibility, Servants

The Help–Part 1

“They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!”

–Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Shows like Downton Abbey (be still my heart!) and the revamped Upstairs Downstairs have roused a renewed interest in the ins-and-outs of domestic service in British history. You’ve likely noticed that Austen mentions servants from time to time in her novels, but in Sense and Sensibility she touches particularly on the way service differs between class lines. As the Dashwoods downsize, it becomes necessary to assemble a much smaller domestic team.

downton-servants-horizontal has a wealth of information about servants, if you wish to learn more, but for now I would like to focus on the servants at Barton Cottage.

Being in a smaller middle class household, the Dashwoods require only a skeleton crew for help. As the narrator of Sense states, “[Elinor’s] wisdom too limited the number of their servants to three; two maids and a man.”

The man most likely functions as butler and gardener, receiving visitors and managing the small area of Barton in which the cottage presides. He likely would have also carried the duties of a groom and other stable workers if the Dashwoods had had the facilities to keep their horses and carriage.

The two maids seem to be what are known as “maids-of-all-work.” Such maids were usually paid very little and expected to carry out a massive list of responsibilities that would usually have been executed by a variety of maids and other female servants in a larger house. Their duties would include things such as cooking, cleaning, lighting fires, laundering clothes and linens, and much much more.


Maids-of-all-work and others employed in less well-to-do households were often the hardest working servants and were not often treated well by their employers. It would seem that the Dashwoods are the exception to this rule. Although we don’t have much insight into the relationships between the Dashwoods and their servants in  Sense and Sensibility, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, especially that of Elinor and her mother, leads me to believe that they may very well have shared the house workload with their servants. Likewise, as the Dashwoods demonstrate kindness and patience with others throughout most of the novel (minus the occasional indiscretion *cough* Marianne *cough cough*), I have a hard time believing they could gravely mistreat any living creature, regardless of circumstances.


To Be Continued…

Keep an eye out for more information about servants in the second post during my Pride and Prejudice responses.



Help!—Servants During the Regency by Kelly Giles

Below Stairs: The Servant Hierarchy 19th Century by Genie Bohn

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work by Vic

More Information

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

(The 1920’s maid’s memoir that inspired the creation of Downton Abbey. Not the same century, granted, but still a super cool resource!)