Close Reading & Analysis

“Caricatures and Capitalizations”

a close reading of Jane Austen’s satire in “Catharine, or the Bower”

Since stumbling upon the realization that Austen’s juvenile short story was written in the same year as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published, I have wanted to compare Austen to her contemporary in the effort to establish a context for the socio-political opinions that emerge from “Catharine, or the Bower.” It is Austen’s satirizing of aristocratic values and morals that leads to the recognition of her as a feminist in the tradition begun by Mary Wollstonecraft. As those familiar with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman know, Wollstonecraft believes that “Women’s amorous preoccupations…render them superficial, fanciful, mindless, and dependent creatures, in large part because their entire training is devoted to captivating a man…Women must be raised to see that winning a man’s love is compatible with developing their mental powers” (Carlson 24-25).

While Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication compares marriage to slavery and oppression, Carlson points out that Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman can be read as “a treatise on sex education…[and] its basic message is that society needs to be re-educated about the practices and meanings of sex so that sexual activity does not dehumanize individuals, especially women” (Carlson 33). Through a discussion of textual parallels resulting from a close reading for satiric devices in “Catharine,” this critical introduction seeks to show how both writers present the female identity in relation to, and as shaped by eighteenth century conventions of courtship or marriage, and how both pressed for educational reform for women. More specifically, my examination of Austen’s writing leads to the conclusion that she agreed with Wollstonecraft’s feminist argument for adequate sexual education as necessary to the functioning and improvement of society.

Austen is notorious for her use of satiric devices, and the presence of caricature, hyperbole, farce, and verbal irony are strong in “Catharine.” A close examination of characters in “Catharine” yields the conclusion that the principal figures among them are caricatures. Camilla Stanley is the most obvious embodiment of a frivolous, air-headed young woman who is nevertheless seen as a conventionally acceptable lady. She appears to be Austen’s exemplification of the majority of young women in eighteenth century England who received specific “Modes of…Education” (Austen 165). Austen does not mince words in her sarcastic introduction of Miss Stanley as,

 “[having] been attended by the most capital Masters from the time of her being six years old to the last Spring, which comprehending a period of twelve Years had been dedicated to the acquirement of Accomplishments which were now to be displayed and in a few Years entirely neglected. …Those Years which ought to have been spent in the attainment of useful knowledge and Mental Improvement, had been all bestowed in learning Drawing, Italian and Music, more especially the latter, and now she united to these Accomplishments, an Understanding unimproved by reading and a Mind totally devoid either of Taste or Judgement” (Austen 169).

The mention of “the acquirement of Accomplishments” is reminiscent of Wollstonecraft’s thoughts on the education of women, which acknowledges that “[women] spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments…to the desire of establishing themselves…by marriage” (Wollstonecraft 309). Through this association, it can be conjectured that Austen understands her society’s view of the education of women as being dependent solely on its potential for enabling them to acquire a spouse. It can be seen that she denunciates the methods in which a female is educated by suggesting that Camilla’s time has been wasted in “learning Drawing, Italian and Music,” (Austen 169). Added to this negative construct is Camilla’s assertion that “Maria is one of the cleverest Girls that ever were known – Draws in Oils” (Austen 176). Since it has been established that Camilla lacks intelligence and therefore, verbal authority, her portrayal of Maria as the “cleverest Girl” by reason of a useless accomplishment is sarcastic and renders Maria a caricature, similar to Camilla. It also recalls Wollstonecraft’s statement that “women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence,” and Camilla is plainly degraded in this aspect (Wollstonecraft 309). Austen discloses Camilla and Maria as two examples of the outcomes of female education that are a very clear reflection of Wollstonecraft’s sentiments on how “the cultivation of the [female] understanding is always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment” (Wollstonecraft 311).

Camilla’s character as a caricature is also endlessly sustained by her manner and content of speech in her conversations with Catharine. In the first few pages of her appearance, she refers to many of her acquaintances as “[sweet / sweetest / happiest / luckiest] Creatures” no less than nine times, demonstrating an excessively limited vocabulary, prone to exaggeration (Austen 170, 173-177). This simple-minded repetition grates even on the reader’s nerves and Camilla’s character is not redeemed by the superficial and materialistic sentiments she expresses in most of her discourse. In everything she says, she has the tendency of introducing and showing judgment based the topic of clothing and physical appearance. For instance, when “[she] met Miss Dudley last Spring with Lady Amyatt at Ranelagh…she had such a frightful Cap on, that [Camilla has] never been able to bear any of them since.” Camilla’s shallow mind also exposes itself when she declares, “the Barlows too are just such other sweet Girls; but [she wishes] Augusta’s hair was not so dark” (Austen 175). Camilla’s preoccupation with clothes is shown to be so ridiculous that when her brother Edward returns to England on occasion of “a very Melancholy affair,” she is more concerned with the fact that he had “set off directly for England…without packing up another Coat…without a change of Cloathes” than with his well-being (Austen 184, 190). Austen makes explicit that Camilla’s “Modes…of Education” are deficient, and it is unmistakable that Camilla is a caricature intended to provoke questions about educational values (Austen 165).

While Camilla Stanley is the epitome of an empty headed and frivolous young woman, Mrs. Percival stands in as the caricature of a strict moralist, who “watched over [Catharine’s] conduct with so scrutinizing a severity, as to make it very doubtful to many people, and to Catherine among the rest, whether she loved her or not” (Austen 164). This description of Mrs. Percival illustrates her possession of extreme philosophies and she “plies [Catharine] with sermons, conduct books, and conservative fiction,” in what Leffel identifies as “a misguided attempt to regulate her niece’s character and conduct” (Leffel 132). Her philosophy advocates a hyperbolized social construct of female identity different from that of Camilla’s – that of an obedient, submissive, virtuous and sexually repressed woman. While her intentions are good, her methods of education are nevertheless shown by Austen to be insufficient in the development of females. In Mrs. Percival’s angry lecture to Catharine on her impudence, Austen makes a pointed reference to Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife, a conduct novel. The allusion to More’s writing through the use of a satirical character “clearly reveals Austen’s disagreement with More’s advocacy of stringent and often hypocritical notions of female decorum” (Leffel 138). It would not be farfetched to say that Austen would agree with Wollstonecraft in thinking “it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (Wollstonecraft 311).

The unfortunate effect of Mrs. Percival’s sheltering overprotection and suppression of “[Catharine’s] exercise of [her] own reason” is that Catharine remains sexually ignorant, naïve and “ironically…more vulnerable to social and sexual manipulation…[and] to breaches of conduct and even sexual violence” (Wollstonecraft 311, Leffel 141-2). Austen proves the inadequacy of Mrs. Percival’s attempts to educate Catharine morally through Catharine’s interactions with Camilla’s brother Edward Stanley, a handsome and dashing young man. Edward is yet another caricature whose excessive ignorance and vanity not only reflects Austen’s satirical portrayal of the English aristocracy, but also shows how men are involved in the sabotage of reason and sensible education for women. He is excessively flirtatious and forward in their first meeting, especially since Catharine is found alone at home, insists on accompanying Catharine to the neighbourhood Ball without a chaperone, and is sexually suggestive towards Catharine in his speech and conduct. In the carriage where they are alone together, Edward speaks of how “[they could] go in[to the Ball] together…[and] be the talk of the Country” and upon arrival at the Dudleys, he “would neither allow her to wait, or listen to what she said, and forcibly seizing her arm within his, overpowered her voice with the rapidity of his own, and [Catharine] half angry, and half laughing was obliged to go with him up stairs” (Austen 188). Edward continues to trespass social conventions of propriety in a flagrantly farcical manner. He was:

 “[Catharine’s] partner during the greatest part of [the Ball]” and “took infinite pleasure in alarming the jealous fears of her Aunt by his attentions to [Catharine], without considering what effect they might have on the Lady herself…his Conversation was addressed to her alone, and she seemed to be the sole object of his attention” (Austen 192, 195).

Edward’s blatant disregard for the modesty and virtue of a young woman shows that he views Catharine as an object or plaything rather than as a human being worthy of respect. Austen’s portrayal of Edward is evocative of Wollstonecraft’s conclusions on how “men…[consider] females rather as women than human creatures, [and] have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives…and endeavour to sink [women] lower, merely to render [them] alluring objects for a moment” (Wollstonecraft 307). Essentially, from a Wollstonecraftian point of view, Austen’s male caricature shows that men are accountable for the shaping of the female identity through the ways in which they elicit a response in their (irresponsible) behavioural projections. Lloyd’s summarization that Austen was skeptical “about male definitions of female emotions, sexuality, education and modesty” supports the fact that Austen also saw a need for the sexual education of women. (Lloyd 336). Perhaps this could be extended to include the (sexual) education of men – as Wollstonecraft relates, and Austen demonstrates – “Men, indeed…try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood” (Wollstonecraft 311).

In contrast to these three principal caricatures that indicate where Austen’s disapproval lies, Catharine is the only realistic character, and she is seen as a practical, levelheaded young woman, despite her aunt’s beliefs that she is “one of the most impudent Girls that ever existed” (Austen 195). When she suffers from a toothache and faces the threat of missing out on a ball, she “[considers] that there were Misfortunes of a much greater magnitude than the loss of a Ball…and that the time might come when She would herself look back with Wonder and perhaps with Envy on her having known no greater vexation” (178). Catharine’s sensible mind is emphasized by Camilla’s absurd response to Catharine’s toothache, in which she “[wishes] there were no such things as Teeth in the World; they are nothing but plagues to one, and [she dares] say that People might easily invent something to eat with instead of them” (179). This employment of hyperbole to satirize aristocratic values is also prominent in the investigation of Austen’s many noun related capitalizations.

Throughout “Catharine,” “[Austen] maintains the habit of occasionally emphasizing a noun by beginning it with a capital letter,” but it is “an eighteenth-century practice rapidly becoming outdated during her lifetime” (Bree, Sabor & Todd 14). Perhaps Austen retained the use of these capitalizations, not only out of habit, but also with the intention of producing a sarcastic emphasis. An examination of several phrases offers examples where the usage of capitalization has the effect of sarcasm and mockery. Austen introduces “Mr and Mrs Stanley [as] people of Large Fortune and high Fashion” (Austen 169). The capitalization of “Fortune” and “Fashion” suggests that these nouns are important values in the social context of “Catharine.” Yet, Austen’s succeeding paragraph critiquing Camilla Stanley’s expensive education questions the efficacy and worth of possessing a “Large Fortune” or “high Fashion” (169). Later, Mrs. Stanley waxes poetic on the value of “Elegant Letters,” but the letters are shown to be long accounts of clothing and little else (180). It is not only the upper class that is mocked for their questionable values in this manner of exaggeration. Austen also seems to poke fun at Mrs. Percival’s “Cares and Alarms” and obsession with “Decorum and Modesty” (195-6). The highlighting of these terms through their capitalization shows once again that while her heart is in the right place, Mrs. Percival valorizes social values that Austen finds problematic and sees as moralistic impediments to a woman’s right to a rational and sexual education.

Finally, Austen engages with satire through the use of free indirect discourse. This is the writing technique that involves the blending of the character’s consciousness with the author’s narrative voice. The reader can simultaneously interpret the thoughts expressed by a character as belonging to the character and as the insertion of authorial opinion. While Austen is now well known for this methodology in her print novels, in “Catharine” it appears that she is only just beginning to experiment with free indirect discourse. When Catharine awakes with a toothache that threatens to disappoint her desires of going to a ball, she nevertheless thinks, “she was not so totally void of philosophy as many Girls of her age, might have been in her situation…[and] considered that there were Misfortunes of a much greater magnitude” (Austen 178). This sentence reads as Catharine’s inward thoughts, yet, the absence of quoted or direct speech, and of indirect speech implies that the source of the thoughts come from the writer herself. Because the sentiments expressed are in favour of a calm and rational mind, it is feasible to attribute the mockery of “many Girls [of Catharine’s] age” to Austen (178). The reader is made aware of where Austen’s principles lie in regards to the educated feminine ideal.

The final sentence Austen penned of “Catharine” also reads like free indirect discourse. Catharine has been led by Camilla into believing that Edward is in love with her, and “She went in high spirits to her Aunt’s apartment, without giving a Moment’s recollection on the vanity of Young Women, or the unaccountable conduct of Young Men” (Austen 203). This is ironic because Catharine had been lamenting on “the vanity of Young Women, or the unaccountable conduct of Young Men,” moments before Camilla’s approach (203). Her conclusion about Edward’s abrupt manner of leaving is that “It is just like a Young Man, governed by the whim of the Moment, or actuated merely by the love of doing anything oddly! …And Young Women are equally ridiculous!” (201). Catharine even begins to think that “[she] shall soon think like [her] Aunt that everything is going to Sixes and Sevens” (201). Hence, the last sentence gives the impression that Catharine is consciously reminding herself to disregard her recent and former thoughts, at the same time that it sounds like Austen is suggesting to the reader that her heroine should, in fact, be “giving [these thoughts] a[nother] Moment’s recollection” and be knowledgeable on the issue of human sexuality in the face of her own sexual awakening (203).


If Austen’s feminism was in doubt, this introduction should dispel it. It is a delight to see how the abundance of textual parallels between “Catharine, or the Bower,” and Mary Wollstonecraft’s published philosophies prove how effortless it is to align the arguments of the two women writers. Their techniques vary, since Wollstonecraft makes explicit, polemical statements about the social conditions for women, while Austen lashes out with a “sexually charged humour [and] aggressive wit” and illustrates these unsatisfactory environs with comical, yet severe caricatures (Leffel 131). It is safe to say, however, that their arguments can be united against “sophisticated commentators like Hannah More” who suggest that a liberal or sexual female education “will directly lead to the downfall of all social and moral order” (Leffel 138-9). As Austen has attempted to show, the neglect of Catharine’s social and sexual development is actually an act of irresponsibility, and “[a factor] that contribute[s] to [her] vulnerability…[and susceptibility] to exploitation and abuse” (Leffel 146-7). Likewise, Wollstonecraft depicts the reformation of a “false system of education” as the means by which women can seek to overthrow their oppression and counter dehumanizing sexual vulnerability (Wollstonecraft 306). Where the patriarchal system believes that (sexual) education for women will corrupt and ruin, Wollstonecraft and Austen wish to “let woman share the rights [of man] and [then] she will emulate the virtues of man” (Wollstonecraft 324).

(Works Cited)


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