Historical & Cultural Context

In 1789, the French Revolution led to the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and the subsequent abolition of the monarchy in France. The resulting radicalism that permeated France found supporters across the English channel in liberal and political English writers and philosophers such as William Wordsworth, William Blake, Tom Paine, Anna Letitia Barbauld, William Godwin and Robert Southey. Others, such as Edmund Burke, were not as sympathetic to the plight of starving French peasants, and instead expressed his fidelity towards the aristocracy, even going as far as to portray Marie Antoinette as “the offspring of a sovereign distinguished for her piety and her courage” and declaring that “levelers [seeking democracy and equal rights of man]…only change and pervert the natural order of things” in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) (Damrosch and Dettmar 118). Burke’s pamphlet provoked a sharp response from a young Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), defending the poor and critiquing Burke’s insensitive attitude towards the underprivileged in society. Wollstonecraft writes, “All your pretty flights arise from your pampered sensibility…True happiness [arises] from the friendship and intimacy which can only be enjoyed by equals; and that charity is…an intercourse of good offices and mutual benefits, founded on respect for justice and humanity” (Damrosch and Dettmar 123-4). Not surprisingly, this swift and antagonistic response cemented Wollstonecraft’s reputation as a radical, and she continued in a similar vein of philosophy with the publication of her famous book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, presenting the “case for universal rights, social equality, and women’s economic independence” (Black 63).

Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication became well known throughout Europe, and spawned in turn a series of varied responses from supportive or outraged political writers (Black 63). While some, like Anna Barbauld were in favour of women’s rights, they viewed Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary stance as too aggressive and declined to take part in the developing debate for women’s rights. Such was the state of the literary milieu for female authors at the time that Jane Austen took to writing “Catharine, or the Bower,” the longest of her juvenilia, written in the later years of her formative adolescence, in 1792. It is doubtless that she could have ignored the feminist debate begun by Wollstonecraft in England, and though Doody feels that the “Regency [era] was a tight time” during which “determined efforts [were made] to police [prose fiction],” “Catharine, or the Bower,” provides ample evidence for the alignment of Austen’s sympathies with Mary Wollstonecraft, and dispels what John Leffel identifies as “the persistent myth of a prim and proper, unsexed and ahistorical author” (Doody 11,13, Leffel 131).


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