I would like to think about Mary Wollstonecraft’s influence in Persuasion—in particular how notions of gender and equality are taken up by Jane Austen in a novel filled with both silly, insipid, and rational hardy women. In particular, it might be useful to give a gloss of how social class and gender rights are operating in Persuasion (1818)—and how we might think about the influence of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) in the scene between Captain Harville and Anne wherein they discuss the difference of emotions in gender:
“Ah!” cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, “if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!’ And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth’s absence, perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, ‘They cannot be here till such a day,’ but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do, for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!” pressing his own with emotion.
“Oh!” cried Anne eagerly, “I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as–if I may be allowed the expression–so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”
She could not immediately have uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.
“You are a good soul,” cried Captain Harville, putting his hand on her arm, quite affectionately. “There is no quarrelling with you. And when I think of Benwick, my tongue is tied.”
This scene asks us to consider the quality of emotion and the difference in employment of emotion (and employment of life) between men and women during the Regency period. With women seen as having less strong of emotions than men, with Captain Harville using the plethora of literature that writes of the fickleness of women as his evidence. This evidence is quickly shot down however when Anne aptly notes that most literature is in fact written by men during this time period. A subtly powerful statement which speaks not just to the inequality of representation, but Austen’s own voice claiming that literature proves nothing when women were only scantly to be heard across the canon. This brings to my mind the power of what Wollstonecraft achieved in her publication of Vindications, as a woman entering the male-dominated sphere of philosophical enquiry and debate—she was quite singular in her use of this style of rhetoric in advocating for women’s equality in a vein familiar to male and female readers. Furthermore, Anne speaks to the strength of female attachment as having no time limit—no end as it does for Captain Harville in his time estimations (twelvemonth, twelve hours, etc). This is due to the fact that women lack the opportunity for true occupation which Captain Wentworth actually points out earlier in the novel—that he was able to overcome his affection for Anne and the pain at her refusal by going to sea and working in the navy. This difference calls to mind, again, Wollstonecraft’s insistence on the right for women to be equal to men—to be thought of a rational and to be allowed to be a partner in a marriage rather than a high idol or lowly slave. To have a purpose. In particular, when put alongside a well-known quote from Vindication, the parallel threads of dignity and equality offered to the female sex becomes a paramount issue:
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour.”