“Are You So Severe upon Your Own Sex?” Femininity According to Jane AustenKathryn S.
“The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
The last article of mine that our editors at Counter–Currents kindly published was about the masculine topic of military history. To complement a foray into the Napoleonic Wars, I included a clip from the 1970 film Waterloo. In the comments, a reader shared an observation about one of the few Waterloo scenes that did not take place on a battlefield. Instead, this particular scene immersed audiences in a Brussels high-society fête, where the Duchess of Richmond hosted the Duke of Wellington’s officers at her famous summer Ball of 1815. What a glittering and “ordered” world of ladies in their pearly taffeta gowns; of lords in their high-collared tailcoats, swaying in one another’s arms; of plaid-socked Scotsmen as they leapt to the strain of bagpipes over their broadswords.
But hold — what was that?
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew apart the balcony doors and let intrude amid Regency conversation and candlelight the bluster of the stormy Napoleonic night. Bonapartism — chaos and disorder! — was literally on the march. Love was in the air, and war awaited the dawn at Quatre-Bras.
The question one of our patrons put to me, dear readers, is this: Why aren’t women feminine anymore? What has disrupted our “ordered” societies of ladies and gentlemen and turned the world upside down? It is an important question with multiple dimensions, but I argue that we can sum up the cause(s) thusly: As George Fitzhugh pointed out, we have championed masterless-ness and freedom from obligation — those dues that we owe our families, communities, and nations. While there are more decent, feminine white women out there than perhaps is obvious, the fact is that femininity has fallen on hard times.
It is first necessary to clarify terms and what the following essay will use as its definition of femininity and what constitutes the feminine: They are the positive traits white women have, by socialization and nature combined, historically exhibited to our race’s benefit. These have included
♦ The emotional and physical nurturing women generally perform better than men — the gift of a gentle touch in the service of young and old alike;
♦ Loyalty and devotion in domestic life;
♦ A concern for beautification of themselves and of their everyday environments; feminine women have always been encouraged to have a tasteful eye for color, design, and gardening; and
♦ Personal virtue and modesty that maintains a necessary set of social standards.
Such is white womanhood at its best.
This life and race-affirming femininity is under attack, because feminists/progressives have degraded these positive traits that make women valuable, just as they have attacked masculine traits for their “toxicity.” Know this: feminism (and now “progressivism”) is an assault on both white men and women, even if feminists pretend otherwise, for both white men and women will ultimately lose if we fail to reverse the cultural and demographic trends plaguing our Western societies. Indeed, the feminist movement has many damaging contradictions at its core, one of which is the presumption that women are “better” than men . . . but not as women per se. Instead, followers assert that women can be better than men by acting just like men. They should excel at the same kinds of jobs that men have performed, and they need to behave with a sexual license in the way that men have sometimes done, among other stupidities. These demands are illogical on several levels. They have not “liberated” women. For every differential outcome that seems to disfavor the fairer sex, we must blame the stronger sex, or the machinations of the diehard “patriarchy.” How could such a perverse formula amount to anything but resentment?
Desacralization defines our modern age. Its agents have targeted every bit of inherited wisdom, traditional norm, and ordered system of thought bequeathed to us. This deconstructive force has laid siege to both the West’s “enlightened” side: our drive for objectivity, truth, reason, and genuine progress; and the West’s “romantic” side: our deep desire for ancient spiritual purpose and the nurturing of the chords that bind us to one another through blood and belief. The West’s duality of “enlightenment” and “romance” once fostered a creative tension that literally moved mountains and launched spacecraft into the neverending unknown, so drawn were we to chase after the mysteries of Heaven and Earth. It also encouraged a sense of obligation. It was our duty to pursue truth and beauty, and then to pass on our discoveries to junior members of our race.
So much for that.
What is there to say now that these once awe-inspiring ambitions have since reduced themselves to one motivation and one (begging the) question: “Does this company/classroom/committee/period drama/random space have enough ‘diversity’?”
There is one woman who would have a lot to say on the matter. Ironically, the nineteenth-century novelist Jane Austen has never been more popular. Just as progressives have appropriated many figures from the past for their own agendas, so they have lauded Austen as a proto-feminist and her characters as heroines for our “feminized” times. Never mind that Austen was the queen of “cis-het” (dreadful term, forgive me) fiction; that her stories rewarded good female behavior and denounced the bad. Never mind that even as she gently mocked some of the absurdities in her society, she cherished the Regency-ordered world as depicted in Waterloo — a time when obligations, duties, and reciprocities ruled the relations between masters and servants, parents and children, patrons and clients, husbands and wives. Not even the Duke of Wellington was free to do as he pleased, for he served his country and the common good, as he saw it. Never mind that Austen remains the doyenne of what we in the English-speaking world consider to be a classic form of femininity. Yes, how rich it is that “marriage-skeptical” feminists have embraced Jane Austen, the Lady Eminence of the marriage-plot, as one of their own.
No matter what these equity-pushers might say, they read Austen’s books and bask in Regency aesthetics, because it was a time when neither feminism, nor “equity” had wrought a disordered world. They have mistaken Austen’s concern for the plight of economically insecure women to mean that she wished to overthrow the “patriarchy.” Their subconscious draws them to an an era when all recognized that to pursue a masterless existence was to court not Mr. Darcy, but dystopia.
Critics have pointed to Austen’s narrow focus on a certain class of English men and women — the class that we call the petite-noblesse, or gentry. They might seem like a frivolous group of toffs, but compared to the later Victorians, their lives were not luxurious. Before the “changes wrought by a century in . . . manners and way of living,” this Regency caste subsisted on simplicity. Few “displays of plate and flowers and decorations” garnished their drawing rooms. Their idea of a comfortable piece of furniture was a “stiff angular sofa.” They dined on cherished household recipes, rather than foreign delicacies. Instead of silver forks, the rounded tip of a butter knife often served as the main utensil. They had fewer books, but plenty of time to read the classics over and over again, until the eloquence of great Western literature became part of their being. Shakespeare, Herodotus, and Cicero were old friends. The few heirlooms they had, they prized beyond anything that we feel for our own possessions today. Can we of such a shallow society call them “frivolous?”
Although Austen now belongs to the “chick-lit” genre, I hope female and male readers will enjoy and perhaps find something useful in this essay. Leading authorial luminaries like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott praised Austen’s work as a tonic that “soften[ed], grace[ed], and amend[ed] the human mind.” It is easy to forget that Austen’s focus on ordinary, everyday happenings signaled an innovative turn for the literary arts. She loved to present readers with dualities that mocked certain male and female tendencies, yet still upheld an image of classic femininity as it existed on the eve of Waterloo. While exploring a few of these dualities in her novels, I invite readers to ponder with me the mutually-reinforcing communion of obligation and femininity that once made the unions between men and women, siblings, and entire communities things of worth beyond compare.
A good novel, Austen reasoned, “must show how the world truly is. Somehow, [it must] reveal the true source of our actions.” Her books revolved around domestic life, the implied argument being that, while men may justifiably dominate in the adventure, heroism, and glorious war genres, the domesticity more suitable for women had its own value and quiet beauty that deserved a telling. Let us go then, you and I, guided by one of the first great novelists, to an era when women were feminine; to an era when the sexes (even after the occasionally bad first impression at a country dance) respected each other; to an era when a keen sense of duty balanced romance. Let us get lost in Austen.
The Mentor and the Bad Influence: Feminine Patronage
One of a woman’s perennial obligations is to fill the role of mentor who advises her younger friends and relations in a sort of patronage, or apprenticeship: the female equivalent of a seasoned knight training a squire to one day take his place at the lists. In order to cultivate femininity, aging generations must pass on the rules that govern female conduct. Austen’s novels had no shortage of good and bad examples of these guidance counselors. Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy) admired her aunt Mrs. Gardiner, a woman who modeled for her niece elegance, propriety, and a successful marriage — this in contrast to the book’s other older women, including the ridiculously pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as Elizabeth’s own mother. Indeed, “had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own [household], she could not have formed a very pleasing [idea] of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort.” Mrs. Gardiner was a godsend.
When Lizzy confided to her aunt her affections for army officer George Wickham (a duplicitous rake), Mrs. Gardiner “was rendered suspicious” by her uncharacteristically “warm commendation,” and observed the couple with a sharp eye. Deciding that though they were not “seriously in love,” their regard for ”each other was plain enough to make her a little uneasy . . . she resolved to speak to Elizabeth on the subject.” Upon finding an opportune moment to confront her, Mrs. Gardiner implored her niece: “You are too sensible a girl, Lizzy . . . and, therefore, I am not afraid of speaking openly.” Around Wickham, “I would have you be on your guard.” Having listened to her aunt’s word of caution, Lizzy promised to do what she thought “wisest,” and “thanked her.” It was, the narrator noted, “a wonderful instance of advice being given on such a point, without being resented.” Of course, events proved Mrs. Gardiner more correct about Wickham than even her keen insight could have predicted.
That said, sometimes taking the advice of one’s friends is a terrible mistake. As a foil to Mrs. Gardiner and her benevolence, the eponymous character in Austen’s novella Lady Susan had a bad influence on all whom she met. An amiable sociopath, the widowed Lady Susan Vernon was a caricature of the worst female tendencies, for she used her power over others to cause social chaos; a female version of George Wickham, and one who also used her appealing exterior to disguise a predator within. Though an “older woman” (an elderly 35 years), Lady Susan appeared “excessively pretty.” She had managed to retain a “sweet countenance,” and with shows of sincerity she bewitched even her most vociferous critics. This fair form was a façade.
After reading a friend’s (Mrs. Johnson) letter that complained about her husband, Lady Susan responded with her typically awful advice. So what if Mrs. Johnson’s husband forbade their continued association? She was not duty-bound to obey. In fact, it was “better to deceive him entirely, and since he [would] be stubborn, he [would have to] be tricked.” Why had her friend made the foolish mistake of marrying a man of such “advanced age” in the first place? Alas, by having done so Mrs. Johnson had saddled herself with a man “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”
But if she was a bad friend, then she was a worse mother, dismissing any obligations toward her only child Frederica. For most of the girl’s life, Lady Susan had neglected her daughter’s education and instead had left her “to the care of servants.” Her love affairs with married men kept her too busy to bother with trivial matters, like parenthood. What could she have done differently, after all? Frederica was “the greatest simpleton on earth . . . [and] born to be the torment of [her] life.”
As for Lizzy and her beloved Mr. Darcy, “they were always on the most intimate of terms” with the Gardiners, and “really loved them.” Lizzy in particular was “ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who . . . had been the means of uniting” the younger couple. Her relationship with Mrs. Gardiner represented the healthy and reciprocal obligations shared between generations that have ever been the ultimate source of love, respect, and continuity. Without these, there can only be “torment.” Without good female patronage, femininity frays.
The Loyal and the Wayward Woman: Feminine Constancy
Faithfulness, too, was a “torment” for Lady Susan. Her kind of constancy was the non-existent kind. She was an “individualist” in the negative sense, a euphemism that actually means selfishness and self-indulgence. To none but her own fancy, was she beholden. She had a habit of blowing into town amid the warm breezes of summer’s fair-weather, then leaving under a cloud. She loved the sport of “reduc[ing] everyone to a universal admiration” of her person, in spite of their better judgments. Of dalliances with rich men, they were plentiful; of her fly-by-night lifestyle, drifting from one great house to another, it never settled. Sooner or later, her victims came to realize that she was “the destroyer of all comfort [and] the deceitful betrayer of trust.”
At the end of the novella, Lady Susan left her daughter to the care of her Churchill relatives, a family that truly valued Frederica. Meanwhile, her mother, though inviting Frederica “to return [to her] in” a few “affectionate letters,” readily consented that she should stay at Churchill House indefinitely. After two months, Lady Susan “ceased to write of [Frederica’s] absence, and in the course of two or more to write to her at all.” Unsurprising, given that she had never been a constant in Frederica’s life. We can assume that she continued to behave badly, until age diminished the beauty that had so often excused the Lady. No one missed her.
By contrast, Austen’s most mature work, Persuasion, was about a constancy that, though spanning many unrecoverable and lonely years, was yet of a steadfastness that flowered after youth had gone: the star-crossed romance of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. Rival obligations to her family and to her beloved had caused Anne’s personal tragedy. Convinced years before by her relatives to give up her relationship with the young man who had virtually no inheritance, Anne refused Wentworth’s marriage proposal. This rejection spurred Wentworth to leave England and make the sea his permanent residence. Over the next eight years, he endeavored to prove his worthiness to both Anne and his naysayers — the parties guilty of his restless unhappiness. For her part, Anne’s regret over her decision “clouded every enjoyment of youth.” Indeed, her failed love affair caused her to suffer “an early loss of bloom” — a classic nineteenth-century affliction suffered by disappointed old maids. When at last Wentworth (now a Captain) returned to shore, Anne discovered that, unlike her lover’s absence, her feelings for him had never departed. It was this constancy of Anne’s heart that eventually thawed the Captain’s own and melted the bitterness of a long-ago rejection that neither time nor the sea had washed away.
Austen broached a number of interesting topics in Persuasion, including the nature of male and female constancy. One man of Anne’s acquaintance “believ[ed] in a true analogy between . . . bodily frames and . . . mental [ones].” Just as men’s bodies were stronger, so were their “feelings; capable of . . . riding out the heaviest weather,” he argued. To this, Anne demurred, but added that “the same spirit of analogy [authorized her] to assert that” women’s feelings were “the most tender.” Men were “capable of everything great and good in [their] married lives . . . [and] equal to every important exertion . . . so long as” they had “an object” — so long as the “women they loved lived, and lived for them.” All the “privilege” she claimed for her own sex was the perhaps “unenviable,” but noble one “of loving longest, when existence or when hope” has fled. Happily for Anne, her dashing Captain proved that his love was as “robust” as it was enduring.
The sea made a good metaphor for Anne and Wentworth, and the oceans between them — but an ocean that ultimately bore the Captain back to England. The sea has always symbolized a deep and constant presence, like its tides. But it is also a roiling surge that is sometimes the cause of shipwrecks and tears. At last, and after suffering many tears themselves, Anne and Wentworth renewed “those feelings and those promises which had once seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of . . . estrangement.” At last, “they returned again into the past,” their attachment “more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character.” Anne’s faded loveliness revived “in the glow of her spirits.” Unlike Lady Susan, whose beauty bloomed early and became her means to avoid commitment, Anne’s bloom flowered later in life because of her commitment. Though flawed, she personified feminine devotion: that strong fusion that marries love to obligation, come whatever sea-swelling tempest may roll.
The Prudent and the Passionate Woman: Feminine Feeling
Austen’s spare style countered the “youth culture” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that made Romantic melodramas fashionable. “It was not,” for example, in novelist Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic tales “that human nature . . . was to be looked for.” But in the mysterious, strange landscapes of the Alpine forests and Pyrenees, lady readers enjoyed trekking the vistas of a romantic imagination. There, wondrous heights and horrible depths tested Radcliffe’s heroines. George Gordon, Lord Byron, after having read too many of his own poems, traveled to Greece so that he might volunteer in that country’s war of independence. Percy B. Shelley could not have picked a more dramatic subject than that of his Prometheus Unbound. The Brontë sisters wrote about tortured ghosts and madwomen in the attic. Not even a young Napoleon Bonaparte was immune to brooding pathos. After reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, he did what the other cool kids were doing, and penned “On Suicide” — a histrionic essay in which he described his own death.
I have a tentative theory that since the eighteenth century, Westerners have fallen into one of two general worldviews. The first of these is the “enlightened” perspective, whose members have felt more comfortable with the premise that everything must have a rational explanation — usually a scientific one. The second of these is the “romantic” position, and its members have felt more comfortable with the idea that many important phenomena cannot be explained with reason alone; that the cosmos is and always will be a mystery that we can only dimly perceive during transcendent moments of sublimity, or intuition.
Despite being the greatest romance novelist of all time, Austen was a clear and rational thinker — a member of the “enlightened” set. Indeed, her books parodied the overwrought genre of Romantic Gothicism. She chose settings, characters, and plots that reflected her readers’ own small-village lives, sans the supernatural or extraordinary events. Austen’s near-contemporary Charlotte Brontë disliked her novels for their apparent lack of “anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt. These would [have been] utterly out of place in commending [Austen’s] work.” All that “throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death — this Miss Austen ignore[d].” In a comical way, Brontë unknowingly assigned herself the role of dramatic Marianne to Austen’s Elinor, two sisters from Austen’s celebrated book, Sense and Sensibility.
Which feminine temperament should women adopt toward the world: one of good sense, or romantic sensibility? Should devotion arise from duty, or passion? Austen explored this answer by making Elinor and Marianne Dashwood into these dual and dueling archetypes. The former “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her . . . to be the [family] counsellor.” These qualities enabled Elinor “frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind . . . which must generally have led to imprudence.” The latter, meanwhile, “[had] no moderation . . . she was everything but prudent.” While (over)caution restrained Elinor, Marianne was restrained by nothing at all. Elinor revealed the depth of her feelings to no one, and her impetuous younger sister expressed the violence of her emotions for all to see and gossip about. William Cowper and Walter Scott were her guides. Indeed, Marianne was adept at “turning melancholia into an exquisitely agonizing artform.”
It seems clear to this writer that Austen’s narrator (and probably Austen herself) favored Elinor’s personality over her sister’s self-indulgence — but not entirely. When Elinor complained to an acquaintance (Colonel Brandon) of Marianne’s “unfortunate tendency to set propriety at naught,” she sighed that “a better acquaintance with the ways of the world [was] what [she] look[ed] forward to as [Marianne’s] greatest possible advantage.” According to Elinor, her sister’s enthusiasm too often superseded obligation.
Colonel Brandon chided Elinor’s severity. No, “do not desire it,” Miss Dashwood, for when the “romantic refinements of a young and unspoiled mind” become too well-acquainted with a cruel world, “how frequently they are succeeded by such opinions as are but too common and too dangerous!” In other words, the innocent idealism of those like Marianne, once shattered by “the ways of the world,” sink to despair, or warp into bitterness of the acutest kind. Austen’s message was that we should encourage sense and duty, while protecting a healthy sensibility, lest our lives become drab and we lose our longing for the marvelous. After all, the preservation of beauty is among the most important obligations that we have. Perhaps we should call this balance of mind and heart “sensitivity,” one of femininity’s chief virtues: that ability to “read” other people and see through illusions, while also nurturing the great white imagination. When wept from the sensitive woman’s stirred soul rather than her self-pity, her tears are noble. She is not overwrought, but overcome.
The Accomplished and the Vain Woman: Feminine Modesty
By the end of the nineteenth century, literary critics had long praised Austen’s “extraordinary creative faculty.” Despite her gifts, she’d had little desire for fame and “none of that attraction to her peers which almost invariably [drew] authors together.” Instead, she’d “been content with the affection of her brothers and sisters, preferring this to all the homage and admiration which would have been paid to her had she chosen to sit at the receipt of [public] tribute.” The “accomplished” poetess Emily Dickinson would resemble this shy and modest temperament decades later.
Anyone familiar with Austen’s oeuvre will also be acquainted with the Regency idea of the “accomplished woman.” Embracing femininity did not, and does not, mean that a woman must confine herself to the kitchens or washrooms. Austen’s female protagonists were educated and expected to know the classics (Austen certainly did). Although most did not attend schools during this period, girls from good families had private tutors, or relatives who taught them literacy, foreign languages, and the arts. Based on their many allusions to the playwright, Austen and her characters knew Shakespeare well. It was a common practice in Regency England to end an evening with recitations from his dramas, or from the writings of Classical authors. And if they wanted entertainment, they had to provide it themselves. Marianne Dashwood’s interest, for example, lay in music and song. Once upon a time, white people thought it important that gently-bred ladies knew how to play an instrument at least “tolerably well.”
Even an informal tutelage expanded the mind and resulted in a liberality of thought (and I mean “liberal” in the educational sense), as well as an appreciation for beauty. Though Elizabeth Bennet “knew nothing of” painting, still she enjoyed gazing at the portraits at Pemberley House. She moved through its nearly endless rooms, “lofty and handsome.” The art arrested her, while “from every window there were beauties to be seen.” At that moment, “she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something,” and felt humbled. Did Lizzy marry her one-time bête noire for the view? People have exchanged vows for worse reasons. With new admiration, she mused that Pemberley “was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance, than the furniture of” Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s residence at “Rosings.”
Against this accomplishment and modesty, Austen juxtaposed the unearned vanity of Elizabeth’s younger sisters and of Lady Catherine. Rather than being accomplished or learned, they were “silly and ignorant” women, possessing not a shred of self-awareness. Though de Bourgh had “no extraordinary talents or miraculous virtues,” she “delivered her opinion on every subject.” Lizzy realized that “nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others” — perhaps her only skill. Lady Catherine could scarcely point out “Middle C” on the pianoforte, yet she claimed that “There [were] few people in England . . . who [had] more true enjoyment of music than [herself], or a better natural taste.” Unlike Elizabeth, who needed more practice, Lady Catherine no doubt enjoyed an innate aptitude for the piano. “If [she] had ever learnt, [she] should have been a great proficient.” The pretense of learning, rather than learning itself, was the Lady’s sin.
Thus, education and intelligence do not render a woman unfeminine. There are few smart or ambitious men who would find a dull wife satisfactory. Lizzy had proof of that when she reflected on her own household’s dysfunctions. Her beloved father had married her mother because “youth and beauty” had captivated him, “and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give.” But Mrs. Bennett was a “woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.” By the time their children were grown, “respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished forever; and all [her father’s] views of domestic happiness were overthrown.” He had been a fool for marrying one.
“Accomplishment” and wit have attracted the best sort of men and grounded the most stable marriages. Feminine women should emulate Austen’s genuinely accomplished women, whose abilities did not make them vain nor prone to hold inflated opinions of themselves. Instead, they were happy in the knowledge that they could provide their families respite from “the ways of the world” beyond the domestic sphere.
The Patriotic and the Frivolous Woman: Feminine Nationalism
29 of Austen’s 41 years of life took place during the Anglo-French wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Napoleonic conflict just the latest episode in this chronic rivalry, but whose scope and destructiveness was nevertheless unprecedented. A lack of references to these Wars within the pages of her novels might therefore surprise readers. Perhaps she was one of those women who took little interest in the male pursuits of politics and war, both of which the Napoleonic Era elevated to the grandest of stages. Perhaps femininity required that she and her female characters ignore matters concerning their nation. Careful readers must reject these conclusions.
After Austen’s death in 1817, her family were sorting through some of her unpublished writings when they found a transcription she had made of Lord Byron’s poem, titled: “Napoleon’s Farewell.” Its lines mourned the fall of a great man — the Great Man — of the age. “Farewell,” its beaten narrator began,
to the Land where the gloom of my Glory Arose and o’ershadow’d the earth with her name . . . I have warr’d with a world which vanquish’d me only When the meteor of conquest allured me too far; I have coped with the nations which dread me thus lonely, The last single Captive to millions in war . . . Farewell to thee, France! — but when Liberty rallies Once more in thy regions, remember me then . . . Yet, yet, I may baffle the hosts that surround us, And yet may thy heart leap awake to my voice; There are links which must break in the chain that has bound us, Then turn thee and call on the Chief of thy choice!
Jane Austen and Napoleon Bonaparte might seem an odd pair. The one was a reclusive Englishwoman who did not seek fame nor fortune, but spent her quiet days writing books about quotidian events. The other was a historical colossus and Emperor of the French, a man who traveled every corner of Europe and beyond, fought in 60 battles, and lost only 7 — she, the Grande Dame of the domestic sphere, and he, the General-Statesman extraordinaire. They were witty and cynical romantics, less-than-lucky in love, and struck down by mysterious illnesses long before old age could claim them. The spirits of both — the Regency courtship dance and Napoleonic Sturm und Drang — were present at that dramatic ballroom in Brussels, the eve of Waterloo. Austen’s interest in Byron’s poem suggests that she, though certainly not a Bonapartist, was an admirer of the kind of nationalism that Napoleon’s exploits inspired in friend and foe alike — and that perhaps she was more sentimental than she cared to admit. While she did not dwell on this conflict of Titans that raged in the background, her novels were filled with a sense of ethnonationalism. Protagonists held anniversaries celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar, while soldiers in uniform were deemed the most attractive male specimens. For every wicked Lieutenant Wickham, there was an honorable Colonel FitzWilliam, or Brandon.
In his Memoir of Austen’s life, her nephew James Austen-Leigh commented upon his aunt’s “meticulousness” as it related to her brothers’ military service. Their “honourable career[s] account[ed] . . . for the readiness and accuracy with which she wrote” about the Navy. With “ships and sailors she felt herself at home . . .” Her older brother Henry joined the Army, while her other brothers Francis and Charles served in the Royal Navy. They wrote letters to her detailing their adventures in the Atlantic and Caribbean. On furloughs between naval missions, Charles even managed to win the heart of the Belle of Bermuda, a Miss Fanny Palmer. For his part, Francis never got over having missed Trafalgar, the great sea battle of the Ages. He was aboard one of the few vessels that Admiral Nelson had only days prior to the action sent to Gibraltar for supplies. Nevertheless, Francis Austen eventually earned the country’s highest rank as Admiral of the Fleet.
To one male boor, Persuasion’s Anne Elliot defended the character of Navy men, “who had done so much” for England. They deserved “to be respected and loved.” Anne’s admiration for the sailors on whom her country’s security depended was in contrast to her feckless sister, who waved away such thoughts dismissively, for “[she] really [could not] be plaguing [herself] forever with all the new poems and states of the nation that [came] out.” Virtuous women took news of national significance seriously. That Austen began writing Persuasion, part ode to the English Navy, on the day the newspapers announced that Napoleon had sailed into his final exile, might not have been a coincidence.
Austen modeled the novel’s Captain Wentworth on her brothers. After returning from his decade-long sea odyssey, Wentworth had become a distinguished man of means — one of Austen’s classic wealthy bachelors. His riches he owed to his service in the West Indies, where prizes seized from enemy privateers had rewarded his daring and patriotism. At the time, the Royal Navy entitled its captains to keep up to nearly one-half of the total value of every captured ship’s cargo. Austen would have been familiar with this method of profit, for her own brother Charles benefited from the practice. An 1808 article from the Bermuda Gazette announced that “All persons” aboard “His Majesty’s Sloop of War Indian,” captained by “Charles John Austen, Esquire, [were] entitled to” shares of “the French Schooner Jeune Estelle and Cargo, captured on the 19th June, 1808, and condemned in the Vice-Admiralty Court of these Islands . . .” Charles spent some of this prize money on gifts for his sisters. In a letter dated 27 May 1801, Jane wrote that Charles had “received 30£ for his share of the privateer & expect[ed] 10£ more — but of what avail [was] it to take the prizes if he [laid] out the produce in presents to his Sisters?” He bought them all “Gold chains & Topaze Crosses.” “He must be well scolded,” she joked.
Beyond her fondness for the Navy, readers can perceive Austen’s brand of nationalism by her attempts to write novels that illustrated the English (not British) character. The incredible and globe-spanning saga of the Napoleonic Wars was in contrast to Austen’s entirely credible fictions about English provincial life. She was conscious of writing books that encapsulated English manners in the same way that J. R. R. Tolkien’s gentle satire would later use the Shire to represent “the simple life” of English country folk, one devoid of adventures (“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”). Every one of Austen’s female leads cherished the English countryside and felt their spirits lift “in a high flutter” when gazing at the beauty of their homeland. Indeed, they were just as likely to take scenic walks over heights crowned with heather and through valleys carved by rivers as they were to “take [turns] about a room.” England’s landscape was “sweet to the eye and the mind.” Her characters reveled in “English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive.” Without being oppressive, say, as that “sizzling solar pan” that scorched the West Indies, India proper, or even other white lands, like Mediterranean Europe.
So struck by this was one of Austen’s readers that she sent a letter to Emma’s publisher: Her stories had “so much of the English fireside [in them], that you fancy yourself seated in the circle.” Austen’s villages were commonwealths in miniature, complete with the “gradations of rank” and quintessential English borough-fixtures — the schoolhouse, church, shops, small farms, landed estates, etc. Her novels were the prose equivalent of still life paintings that captured domestic English life in all its everyday-ness, while their most eloquent passages made literary love to pastoral scenes. The country near Lyme was particularly affecting in Anne Elliot’s case, with its “high grounds and extensive sweeps” of pasture and woodland. Dark cliffs backed a “retired bay,” where fragments of low and “green rock chasms” down amid the sands made it “the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, [or] for sitting” a day in “unwearied contemplation.” Many generations had passed in this manner, the locals loving their shires with a fierceness borne of ancient nativity. Austen combined lovely local scenery with ordinary people, thus making both of them more beautiful than before. Women, like Elizabeth Bennett’s jealous rival Miss Bingley, who did not enjoy walking through these towns and rural paths, but saw only “a country-town indifference to decorum” lacked substance. Miss Bingley’s disdain was indicative of other weaknesses that blighted her character. It is almost too easy to compare this attitude to the urban globalists who curl their lips and crinkle their noses at “flyover” whites. When women thought of themselves as having obligations to their country; when they cherished the beauty of nature and their homelands, to the core they were feminine.
Of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, Lord Byron (“he is a rogue, of course, but a civil one”) composed another Napoleonic verse that Austen almost certainly read. Against the tumult of those final, uncertain days, there was yet
a sound of revelry by night, And Belgium’s capital had gathered then Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men; A thousand hearts beat happily; and when Music arose with its voluptuous swell, Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again, And all went merry as a marriage bell . . .
But what was that? No bell — but perhaps the wind, or some great carriage rumbling, clattering across the street? No, it was the cannon’s nearing roar. Was it just “Last noon [that] beheld” the city “full of lusty life,” last eve at the Lady’s Ball “in Beauty’s circle proudly gay”? The early hours “brought the signal-sound of strife, The morn the marshalling in arms, — the day Battle’s magnificently stern array!” Over the field the thunder-clouds broke, making “the earth . . . thick with other clay, Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent, Rider and horse, — friend, foe, — in one red burial blent!”
These are the most romanticized lines about that most romanticized event. At Quatre-Bras, witnesses claimed that many Britons fell while still clad in their party dresses. There they lay in silk stockings and buckled shoes. Half a century later, British pilgrimages to Brussels proved disappointing. No one knew where the famous ball had taken place. Locals could not even direct tourists to the right street with confidence. Some thought that city planners had razed the building. Maybe Lady Richmond had held the dance at a “late coach-builder’s shop,” rather than her own residence. Only ghosts, wispy memories of a generation dying out, remained. There are events in history that have become legendary, serving as sunset-touchstones for descendants looking back across the years, full of wonder and of worry. Have we been worthy successors? The vanished “saloons of the Duchess were [once] filled with a brilliant company of distinguished guests. The officers in their uniforms threading the mazy dance with the most lovely and beautiful women.” Where had all the flowers gone? What had happened to that “ordered” (and very white) Regency society? How had that kind of masculinity and femininity bled away — a defeat that threatens to be as fatal to us as Waterloo to Napoleon?
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that without a sense of devoir faire to encourage femininity and its graciousness, womanhood suffers. Young girls will look to degenerate role models, and then become bad influences themselves as they age. Capriciousness eclipses constancy, while self-indulgence and vanity overtake sincere feeling. Love for one’s people withers. Why are women no longer feminine? There are too many Lady Susans, Lydia Bennetts, Lady Catherines, and Miss Bingleys, and not enough heroines have yet countered their thrall over the rest. Women should not feel ashamed of being feminine. Neither does choosing femininity require that we do away with a lively female spirit, or intelligence. On the contrary, feminine women are usually more interesting than feminists. The latter parrot the same old lines and in the same, shrill old tones. Who would want to waltz with them at an Austenian country party, or an elegant Brussels ball? “So dull, so wretchedly dull!” To the patron who commissioned this article, I thank you for the invitation to dance.
* * *
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 One that I recommend as being among the greatest and most underrated war films of all time.
 Ladies, if you, too enjoy love and war in the age of Napoleon, I recommend Georgette Heyer’s well-researched historical romance: An Infamous Army.
 James Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1871), 32-33.
 Walter Scott, “Review of Emma,” in Quarterly Review (October 1815) and republished in B. C. Southam, ed., Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, Vol. I: 1811-1870, (London: Routledge, 1979), 72. Interestingly enough, Charlotte Brontë and her sisters disliked Austen’s work for its want of passion or high melodrama. In response to a male friend’s enthusiasm for her, Brontë asked rather haughtily, “Can there be a great artist without poetry?” Based on this (albeit very limited sample size), it seems that Austen might have had more male than female fans in the nineteenth century.
 I am unsure if Austen actually wrote this, or if the screenwriters for Becoming Jane (2007) made it up.
 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 2018), 178.
 Ibid., 111-112.
 Regardless of their levels of villainy, virtually all of Austen’s antagonists were at least amiable.
 Jane Austen, Lady Susan (Free Classic Books.com), 10.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 10, 4.
 Pride and Prejudice, 285.
 Lady Susan, 14.
 Ibid., 65.
 Jane Austen, Persuasion (Free Classic Books.com), 18.
 Ibid., 148-149.
 Ibid., 153.
 “Strange” to most Englishwomen, anyway.
 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (Free Classic Books.com), 120.
 Napoleon was a pragmatist who really wanted to be a romantic.
 Charlotte Brontë, Extracts from Letters, The Brontës: Their Friendships Lives, and Correspondence (1932), republished in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, Vol. I, 141.
 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (Free Classic Books.com), 8-9.
 Ibid., 82-83.
 M. A. W., “Style and Miss Austen,” Macmillan’s Magazine (1885), republished in B. C. Southam, ed., Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, Vol. 2, (New York: Routledge, 1987), 180. Austen published her work anonymously — “by a Lady,” or “by the Author of Sense and Sensibility,” or of Pride and Prejudice — even after her identity became widely known. However praiseworthy Austen’s humility was, her agoraphobia had a down side. While she married off many characters in her novels, she never married herself.
 Pride and Prejudice, 182-185.
 Ibid., 124, 132.
 Ibid., 178.
 Lady Susan among them.
 George Gordon, Lord Byron, “Napoleon’s Farewell,” 1815.
 Collins Hemingway, “How the ‘Long War’ Affected Jane Austen’s Family and Her Novels,” Persuasions (Winter 2018), pp. 34-56, 35.
 Francis Austen also took part in Britain’s infamous 1804 victory over French forces, the latter desperately clinging to survival on Saint-Domingue. Thus did the Royal Navy ensure that the fleur-de-lys of their racial kinsmen fell for good to the red machete of Haiti’s black rebels.
 Persuasion, 63, 137.
 August 8, 1815.
 Bermuda Gazette, April 5, 1808.
 Jane Austen’s letter to her sister, Cassandra, 1808.
 Pride and Prejudice, 45.
 Jane Austen, Emma (Free Classic Books.com), 31.
 Edna St. Vincent Millay, “To a Calvinist in Bali,” in Collected Poems (New York: Harper-Collins, 2011), 329.
 William Blackwood, founder of Blackwood’s Magazine, in a letter to John Murray, 1 January 1816 (manuscript letter, Murray Archives, Blackwood Box 2).
 See Brian C. Southam, “Jane Austen’s Englishness: Emma as National Tale,” Persuasions, no. 30 (Winter 2008), pp. 187-201, 194.
 Persuasion, 60.
 Pride and Prejudice, 31.
 George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Project Gutenberg).
 The sinking of the Titanic, for instance.
 Emily A. R. Shand-Harvey, “Letter to the Editor,” London Times (September 11, 1888).
 Sense and Sensibility, 352.
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They had fewer books, but plenty of time to read the classics over and over again, until the eloquence of great Western literature became part of their being . . . The few heirlooms they had, they prized beyond anything that we feel for our own possessions today.
Florence Farr made a similar point: “The Japanese, who keep only one beautiful object in each room, know the reward of limiting sense impressions and giving the imagination time to work with the impression it has received. A line of verse, a piece of inlay, may easily sink so deep into the substance of thought that it can take root and grow, for that is the meaning of culture.”
There is a two-part documentary on Japanese gardens that I watched recently called Monty Don’s Japanese Gardens, and it illustrated your point perfectly — their painstaking work does not seem to try their patience; instead it all becomes an opportunity for reflection. It rewards them with a subtle elegance that no one else can match.
Women dont reach adulthood any longer.
The 17th most sold newspaper is vanity faire.
And No.1 on Campus.
From where that retarded version of women is cultural downstream.
“Honestly this explains why so many women creators on twitter all speak like Buffy rejects even though a lot of them are in their 50s. It’s so sad to watch.”
Says the first comment under the video that pointed my Zinken into the correct direction.
Reads so mundane, but is well worth it.
You are not wrong, Hitmarck. Many women in their thirties still read mostly YA fiction. And let’s face it, almost every YA book is really about high school (Hunger Games, for instance), or bad Disney revisionism.
What a lovely essay. Thank you.
Thank you, sir! Your thoughtful comments are one of the highlights at C-C.
This reminds me of one of the later books in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, the one where the characters are in Gibraltar right after Waterloo, maybe a month after. They are attending an Englishwoman’s salon, with naval and military officers, a consul, merchants, anyone notable. Someone lets drop that he had been at Waterloo and saw some of the battle. (Imagine being in a bar in anywhere in America, say, five days after 911, and someone casually says he was in the South Tower when the second plane hit, that’s what this is equivalent to.) Immediately he has the full attention of everyone as he describes what he saw and heard, using salt shakers and other table items to map out the action on the tablecloth. What’s great about this is that O’Brian cuts between the Waterloo story and the saloness’s heroic efforts not to interrupt the storyteller, who turns out to be kind of an autistic dullard, yet valued highly as a witness: she intercepts her new, awkward servants as they approach the table and then does their jobs herself so as not to interrupt or distract the storyteller, and she politely but efficiently steers boors away from the table while still listening to the riveting story.
This might have been in the novel The Hundred Days, I’m not sure because I read the series mostly from library books and don’t have them at hand.
I will have to try to look that up, thank you! Waterloo is interesting, because despite being perhaps the most written-about battle of all time, we’re still unsure what really happened. The sequence of events, where certain people, or regiments were. Was it really the Old Guard that broke, or was it the Young Guard? The fact that its telling made even a boor riveting proved how eager people were (and still are) for more details, more explanations, more feats of heroism. It seems your Lady of the Salon was just as good a hostess as Lady Richmond.
Beautiful, beautiful work, Kathryn S! I’ve thought of this essay — word tapestry, more accurately — often over the past couple of days. It is a reminder of a world of grace and beauty that is so easily lost in the wearying daily routine.
I’m so glad, Hyacinth Bouquet, and thank you! My own rereading of Austen has prompted me to watch the (probably excessive) Austen film adaptions. They never get old.
Lots of writers are good, some very good, a few are superb…..but this is another order of brilliance entirely. To orient Austen like this, in history and for us today, while paying elegant tribute to her language and psychological insight, and her true Englishness, is miraculous. Bless you Kathryn S. – live to at least 100 and keep writing every day!
You are too kind, Mr. Caudill! If I do live to 100, I will (eyesight permitting), still find myself wanting to reread and laugh along with Austen. It would be a privilege to keep writing for C-C, and to keep engaging with commenters. May it endure — and triumph — for many years after that.
To your health, sir!
Thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking article. I admit that I’ve had an aversion to Jane Austen after being made to study Persuasion at school. 30 years later I realise that, whatever its merits, it was never going to appeal to an 18 year old male.
Hedgerow refers to one of Patrick O’Brien’s novels. I recall seeing a BBC documentary about O’Brien about 20 years ago, before O’Brien’s true life story came out and when the BBC still produced some interesting and worthwhile material. I recall O’Brien admitting to great admiration for Jane Austen and to being influenced by her. Having read this essay, I can see why.
I would very much like to know what Kathryn thinks of George Elliot in general and Middlemarch in particular. Written 60 years or so after Austen and set 15/20 years after Persuasion, for me it’s the greatest 19th Century novel written in England.
There’s also a very strong lesson here for the men on our side. If you want a movement to include the women described by Kathryn, you need to behave accordingly. You need to try to act like a gentleman in public and in mixed company. If your posts online would offend your mother, your wife, your sister, or if you wouldn’t want your daughter to read them, then think about what you’re saying. Remember that our adversaries try to stop normies encountering Greg Johnson, Jared Taylor and those like them, and portray our movement as low IQ, violent and crude.
Thank you, Papinian —
As for Eliot and Middlemarch, I remember that almost every page contained some witticism, interesting prose structure, or new way of looking at character/history/the world that made me pause in further thought. And unlike Austen’s work, Eliot’s Middlemarch is a sprawling affair (in the great nineteenth-century tradition), so when I finished, I felt like a second (or third) reading was necessary. Eliot — though I think a richer read by far — has not gotten the attention Austen has, because Eliot/Evans has not been so easy to digest, categorize, or turn into a sparkling, several hour miniseries, or film. Understandable, but a shame. I enjoy Austen, while I admire Eliot, with no denigration to either by such a statement meant.
I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
One of the most observable effects of the loss of femininity in our current society is the straight, straight, straight heaps of hair hanging down around the faces of women today where curls once flourished. Many women today look like a cross between Vampira and a destitute beggar, despite their attempts at businesslike attire. The immediate vision that abounds is stringy locks, parted down the middle and left hanging. Even women with natural curly hair have chemically straightened, or ironed, or waxed the mess into a straight cup around their head. The hair is so pressed against the head that the grown, voluptuous woman looks like a stray waif. This is what I call “The Woke Style”. Whatever else would push women to deny their own gender femininity that this foolishness is pushing out into our society today.
Amy Goodman, a leftist news commentator on “Democracy Now” (on KCET in L.A.), presents the epitome of a good little secular Jewish girl (in her 60’s now) who has made good, and has “The Correct Woke Hairstyle” to look the part. Truly ‘The Wicked Witch of the West’.
Hello, Miss O!
Ha, I see what you mean about Goodman. I guess I’ve never given much thought to “woke hairstyles,” beyond the stereotypical blue/purple dye job, or the Gloria Steinem stringy look. As we should never cease to point out, we whites are the most diverse race of people on our own, and that of course includes hair color and texture. As long as a white woman’s hair looks natural, healthy, and it complements her complexion, then I have no objections.
I wonder if you know of “color theory,” an idea that used to be popular (maybe still is in some quarters of the beauty industry) and that divides people into “seasons,” based on their coloring? Summers, for example, have soft, fair complexions and look their best in whites and cooler pastels; winters usually have light skin and darker hair, and can wear the hell out of black, optic white, and strong-cool colors, like cobalt and fuchsia. My mother was always a huge fan of the theory, and I think it has a lot of merit. Everyone (men included) should know what to wear and the colors in which they look their personal best.
Thank you for commenting!
Top-notch and insightful essay.
“So struck by this was one of Austen’s readers that she sent a letter to Emma’s publisher: Her stories had “so much of the English fireside [in them], that you fancy yourself seated in the circle.” Austen’s villages were commonwealths in miniature, complete with the “gradations of rank” and quintessential English borough-fixtures — the schoolhouse, church, shops, small farms, landed estates, etc. Her novels were the prose equivalent of still life paintings that captured domestic English life in all its everyday-ness, while their most eloquent passages made literary love to pastoral scenes.”
– this sums up everything I love about older English literature.
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