PhD Research

Working Title: “Rational Creatures”: Examining independence in the novels of Austen, Edgeworth, and Owenson (1800–1820)


Austen, Edgeworth and Owenson: Voices of independence

Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan), published the majority of their novels between 1800 and 1820. This was a period of time marked by social and political upheaval in Europe and beyond; revolutions in France and America and a series of rebellions in England and Ireland caused many to question the status quo, where a person’s position in the world was largely defined by an accident of birth. As a result, structures of power and regulation were examined, formally or informally, in many of the texts written during this period.

Beyond the Canon

Canonical authors, such as Austen, are often deemed worthy of study because their works conform to an arbitrary set of criteria, for example those outlined by F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition (1948). However women’s writing, and writing from outside England, for example the novels of Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson have frequently been excluded from the canon, becoming marginalised, and therefore an exploration of how these lesser studied, non-canonical texts focus on independence concerns not only those with social and political power, but also considers those on the margins of society. Comparing Austen with her more overtly political contemporaries allows the traditional view of her work as domestic and conservative to be challenged

Sheltered Lives?

Traditionally, women were viewed as belonging to the private or domestic sphere, a domain which excluded the ‘masculine’ topics of politics, economics and history. Austen’s novels have often been viewed as a reflection of the domestic focus of her own life. With the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869, some fifty years after her death by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, Austen’s reputation as a skilled but uncontroversial writer, in keeping with the Victorian ideal of conservative, religious, womanhood, was set. This sanitised version of Austen has persisted, modern audiences are presented with film adaptations which focus on romantic and period details rather than presenting the sharpness of Austen’s own work.

Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth also appeared to live a relatively sheltered life, writing with her father, and helping to bring up her twenty siblings from his four marriages. Her early works were collaborations with her father and step-mother and dealt with the education of the young. Her later novels explored courtship, marriage and society. However, she was an avid letter writer and corresponded with a number of the intellectuals of her time.

In contrast, Sydney Owenson challenged the accepted scope of women’s writing, addressing a desire for Irish independence in her personal writing, and as a salon hostess encouraging intellectual and political discussion. Romantic and sometimes rather melodramatic, her novels also explored ideas of independence. However this made her the target for attacks on her talents as a writer and her morals as a woman.

However, all three authors’ writing, first and foremost, aimed to entertain. All three were writing with the goal of publication and were undoubtedly aware that publishers and the public had clear expectations of novels and that openly contentious works were unlikely to be published. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that the exact nature of their political ideology is hard to identify.

Power and Regulation

In their novels Austen, Edgeworth and Owenson examine the domestic, social and political world they live in. All three argue for greater freedoms for women and those who live outside the traditional hierarchy of the aristocracy and the landed gentry. These are not the silent and domestic voices so often, and erroneously associated with women writers from this period. Their opinions are shaped by, and echo, the political ideals of more radical writers like Wollstonecraft.

Novels, which have often been dismissed as mere ‘marriage plots’, argue for women existing on an equal footing to men, women being accepted, active participants in the traditionally male public sphere of politics, economics and history. They directly challenge the status quo through an emphasis on personal achievement rather than hereditary right, on employment rather than inheritance. There is open criticism of the double standards in play surrounding marriage, divorce and sexual morality in women and men. Marriage is used as a motif which calls for traditional values to be reconsidered, to be viewed as a union of equals – not financial equals, but equals in understanding and mutual respect. In essence, views which would not seem out of place in modern feminist writing.

“a leap, a wager – a hypothesis”

Traditional close reading by necessity focuses on the detailed analysis of small sections of text, it must be selective in the examples chosen to support the argument being presented. While it is possible to construct a convincing argument regarding the political beliefs of Austen, Edgeworth and Owenson, supported by extensive quotations from their novels, it is equally possible to construct an opposing argument using the same novels.

In searching for insight into the traces of a novelist’s political views, we need to look for more subtle patterns within and across the texts. In effect, we are looking for an understanding which goes beyond the individual novel, and in Moretti’s words “close reading will not do it” (Distant Reading. 2013. p48).

A possible solution may be found through a combination of techniques. Digital analysis such as thematic topic modelling and the word2vec algorithm, used in conjunction with traditional close reading, can perhaps help to provide a more definitive answer to the political nature of the writers. The advent of distant and scaled reading techniques within literary studies has explored the question of how to present texts in a manner which “defamiliarize…making them unrecognizable in a way…that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen” (Clement, Tanya. “Text Analysis, Data Mining and Visualisations in Literary Scholarship.”).

Applying these computational techniques to literary studies allows the ideas surrounding a particular topic to be examined, highlighting areas for further exploration. While close readings can identify specific examples where the authors are critical of the world in which they live, the application of this type of analysis suggests that a more consistent discourse of criticism of power structures exists across their novels. An exploration of the ideological views expressed through the novels can therefore be interrogated in combination with a more traditional close reading, leading to a thicker more nuanced interpretation.

Although a relatively recent addition to the range of approaches being used for literary studies, there is good reason to explore the application of computational analysis to literary texts further.