Austen read and reread novels, even minor ones. Austen's early works are often structured around a pair of characters. For example, Sense and Sensibility is a didactic novel based on the contrast between the beliefs and conduct of two heroines, a novel format that was particularly fashionable in the s and exemplified by Edgeworth's Letters of Julia and Caroline and Elizabeth Inchbald 's Nature and Art. Her view is corrected by the more cautious orthodoxy of Elinor, who mistrusts her own desires, and requires even her reason to seek the support of objective evidence.
For example, Marianne reasonably discusses propriety and Elinor passionately loves Edward. Between and , conduct books reached the height of their popularity in Britain; one scholar refers to the period as "the age of courtesy books for women".
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They offered their readers a description of most often the ideal woman while at the same time handing out practical advice. Thus, not only did they dictate morality, but they also guided readers' choice of dress and outlined "proper" etiquette. Austen's plots are fundamentally about education; her heroines undergo a "process through which they come to see clearly themselves and their conduct" and thereby "become better people". She realizes that she was mistaken about both Wickham and Darcy. In examining her mental processes, it dawns on her that she has never been objective about Darcy.
She understands that, apart from her stubbornly maintained feelings of antipathy, she has no objective reason to dislike or reject him:. She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either was concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself. Austen's narratives move towards these moments of self-realization, which are the most dramatic and memorable in her novels.
Throughout Austen's novels, reading is associated with intellectual and moral development.
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Not all reading practices result in "improvement," however. Those characters who read superficially to accumulate knowledge for the purpose of displaying their grasp of culture such as Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice , or of flaunting their social status, do not benefit from this moral growth. The ideal reader is represented in Elizabeth, who revises her opinion of Darcy by rereading his letter and keeping herself open to reinterpretations of it.
Morality, characterized by manners, duty to society and religious seriousness, is a central theme of Austen's works. Drawing on the Johnsonian tradition, Austen uses words such as "duty" and "manners" consistently throughout her fiction as signifiers of her ethical system. Manners for Austen are not just etiquette, but also a moral code. Austen feared that economic considerations would overcome moral considerations in human conduct; her most amoral characters—Wickham, Mary Crawford , Mr. Elliot—are the most economically motivated.
Her novels are intended to "instruct and to refine the emotions along with the perceptions and the moral sense".
Styles and themes of Jane Austen
Although she and Johnson shared a similar sense of morality, Johnson argued that only one-dimensional characters could instill virtue in readers. Critics and commentators have long agreed that Austen was "a conscientious and believing churchwoman. Austen's style was heavily influenced by the language of the King James Version of the Bible and, especially, by the Book of Common Prayer , both of which Austen heard spoken every week all of her life as a part of Anglican services. Doody points out that "she is singular among novelists of her age in her refusal to admit references to the Bible, or to biblical characters, scenes or stories.
Critics are uncertain about Austen's relationship to the rising Evangelical movement within the Anglican church of her day. According to Butler, whether or not Austen was sympathetic to Evangelical religion, her works reflect society's growing seriousness of tone and desire for reform. For example, both MacDonagh and Waldron argue that she personally disliked the movement.
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For example, Persuasion "is subtly different from the laxer, more permissive social atmosphere of the three novels Jane Austen began before It is she who most clearly characterizes Henry Crawford's affair with Maria in religious terms, in the language of sin, guilt and punishment.
She is portrayed as an earnest, strict and struggling Christian, not perfect but trying hard. Since the rise of feminist literary criticism in the s, the question of to what extent Austen was a feminist writer has been at the forefront of Austen criticism.
Scholars have identified two major strains of 18th-century feminism: "Tory feminism" and "Enlightenment feminism". Austen has been associated with both. Tory feminism, which includes such writers as Mary Astell and Dorothy Wordsworth , is a tradition of thought which recognized that "women were treated as an inferior class in a man's world".
Enlightenment feminism, which includes such writers as Catharine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft , is a tradition of thought that claims that "women share the same moral nature as men, ought to share the same moral status, and exercise the same responsibility for their conduct". They are not, especially in the later novels, allowed to get married at all until the heroes have provided convincing evidence of appreciating their qualities of mind, and of accepting their power of rational judgement, as well as their good hearts. Throughout Austen's fiction, according to feminist critics, female characters comment on male-authored texts and take charge of the creation of their own worlds.
In their seminal work The Madwoman in the Attic , noted feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that the literary world is dominated by men and their stories, and that Austen recognized and critiqued this. The best-known example is from Northanger Abbey , in which the heroine, Catherine, complains that history "tells [her] nothing that does not either vex or weary [her]. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome". Austen's juvenile parody of Oliver Goldsmith 's History of England is "authored" by "a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian".
In such statements, Austen suggests that history is a masculine fiction and of little importance to women. For example, Claudia Johnson views Emma as a powerful heroine, an artist who controls her home, her marriage choice, her community and her money. Emma composes stories for people's lives and thereby represents the figure of the female artist. Despite arguing that Austen's novels have feminist elements, scholars have still noted that women are frequently represented as confined in Austen's novels and that there are few depictions of female authority figures.
Women are literally confined in small spaces  but are constrained even more effectively by social factors such as "miseducation" and "financial dependency". You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions. In the novels, Butler argues, women do not progress from ignorance to knowledge, for example, and many of them are "oddly and even unnaturally ineffective".
Instead, they marry authority figures.
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Austen's novels explore the precarious economic position of women of the lateth and earlyth centuries. As Gilbert and Gubar explain, "Austen examines the female powerlessness that underlies monetary pressure to marry, the injustice of inheritance laws, the ignorance of women denied formal education, the psychological vulnerability of the heiress or widow, the exploited dependency of the spinster, the boredom of the lady provided with no vocation".
Worldly marriage is the theme of Austen's unfinished novel, The Watsons , which portrays a female economy in which the odds for marriage heavily favour those young women whose fathers can and will pay a dowry. Physical attractiveness and "accomplishments" are helpful but insufficient in the absence of adequate funds for a marriage settlement.
Watson dies, the family does not have sufficient money for the dowries or support of the four daughters. As historian Oliver MacDonagh writes, "[m]atrimony was their only hope of escape from current penury and future ruin or near-ruin. Dowerless, they were pursuing it with varying degrees of ruthlessness. MacDonagh points out that none of the marriages in Austen's fiction of which she approved was financially imprudent.
Was Jane Austen a feminist? The answer is in her stories
She advocated sincere attachment, material prudence and circumspect delay in the choice of a marriage partner. If the appropriate conditions were met, then marriage should follow. For example, as is explained in Mansfield Park , "Miss Maria Ward, 'with only seven thousand pounds', had the good luck to captivate a baronet, 'her uncle, the lawyer, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it'. To indulge in a marriage less lucrative than might have been expected was regarded as 'throwing oneself away', and someone like Mary Crawford, who prided herself on her realism, could not bring herself to do it.
Austen's depiction of sexuality is muted and indirect. While her depictions of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice include descriptions of their physical reactions to each other, which was unusual at the time,  the climactic moments of this and her other novels are presented from a distance.
For example, she writes that Elinor considers the "unaccountable bias in favor of beauty", which caused an intelligent man to choose a silly wife. This "unaccountable bias" represents sexual power, the physical attraction of one body to another, "everything that cannot be said about the relations between men and women". There is no agreement on Austen's political views and it was not until the second half of the 20th century that her novels were viewed as political at all.
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