Jane Austen was writing in an era of momentous change. The French Revolution of the late 18th Century revealed various tensions in English society, and print culture became a medium whereby political beliefs could be expressed. This social and political uncertainty, incited by the spread of Jacobin ideals, led to a breakdown in the distinction between traditional male and female roles. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Austen’s novels have attracted so much feminist commentary. Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry, particularly The Canterbury Tales, has also been interpreted as having feminist motivations. His ‘marriage tales’ (labelled thus by Professor Kittredge) exemplify the questions raised about male and female roles in his time. Austen’s Emma and Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale and The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, despite being written five centuries apart, are very similar in their approach to female emancipation. While both writers seem to accept patriarchy, they both present it as unfair.
Chaucer and Austen lived in societies in which women were subjugated, and both writers seem to accept this. This subjugation is particularly evident in Chaucer’s Tales, which have only three female pilgrims. Chaucer’s age was one where young girls were married off against their will (like both The Wife of Bath and May) and were then treated as commodities by their husbands. In The Merchant’s Tale, male dominance is demonstrated when January is awoken by his own coughing, and then orders May to “strepen hire al naked” because her clothes get in the way of the “plesaunce” he proposes to enjoy. Austen’s age, too, was one of male dominance; for example, the men engage in “parish business” once the females have left the dinner table, and although Emma and Mrs Churchill seem to be prominent members of the society, they are the arbitrators of domestic matters, while Mr Knightley is the actual owner of Highbury. Robert P. Irvine even suggests that Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley is her “submission to the overwhelming social imperative for women to marry.”
Not only do the two writers accept patriarchy, they also appear to support it. Emma, a Bildungsroman, narrates the moral growth of its heroine through the guidance of a dominant male figure. Irvine notes:
“The plot of the novel subjects Emma to a process of education whereby she discovers the limitations of her judgement and learns the superiority of Knightley’s: theirs is a lover-mentor relationship…”
In fact, Emma’s inferior judgement causes the novel’s main catastrophes: the Box Hill incident and Harriet’s heartbreak. She is seen as a heroine who must be tamed and educated by a male, just as Catherine Morland is educated by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. At the end of the novel Emma has nothing to wish for “but to grow more worthy of him [Knightley], whose intentions and judgement had been ever superior to her own,” and this could imply that men are morally superior to women. Chaucer’s Tales also seem to imply that women are morally weak. St Jerome, Theophrastus and Walter Map all wrote treatises known as ‘mal marié’ (‘badly married’), which depict women as lustful, scheming and greedy, often citing Eve as the Biblical example. The Wife of Bath, as Pamela King writes, is “designed as a living example of the kind of wife warned against in the treatises.” Her use of religious texts for her own advantage (for example, she argues for promiscuity, claiming that Abraham, Jacob and other holy men “hadde wyves mo than two,”) shows her manipulative nature, and this may have been seen by the contemporary reader as a reason not to trust women. May is also characterised by her immorality, being explicitly compared to Eve on a number of occasions. For example, Damian is compared to an adder, and the garden in which the adulterous act takes place ostensibly resembles the Garden of Eden. May abuses January’s anxiety about Damian’s feigned illness, and this suggests a certain female immorality similar to those warned against in the treatises. Chaucer’s poems, at first glance, can therefore be seen as warnings to men about the untrustworthiness of women.
However, this does not do justice to the depth of Chaucer’s Tales and to his skilled use of narrative technique. It is vital to remember that the Tales do not always represent Chaucer’s views, and indeed Valerie Allen writes that, by making himself one of the pilgrims, Chaucer’s “own stance on the issues he raises is hidden within a complex creation of masks and disguises.” Indeed he acts as if these tales are not his own creation, but that he is simply rehearsing them: “…but for I moot reherce / Hir tales alle…” For that reason, each tale must be considered to represent the teller’s beliefs too, and not just Chaucer’s. The Merchant is a wholly misanthropic man, and indeed in his prologue he complains about marriage, claiming: “We wedded men lyven in sorwe and care.” It is no wonder, then, that May is characterised as deceptive and manipulative, and that January’s character corresponds directly to the ignorant ‘Senex amans’ burlesque character of anti-feminist literature. Furthermore, if The Wife of Bath was intended to demonstrate female immorality, Chaucer would not have made her so likeable. Similarly, the claim that Austen values male morality over female morality is false. Her use of the Bildungsroman form, rather than suggesting the superiority of males, can be put down to the conventions demanded by her genre. Moreover, Emma’s decision to choose Knightley over Elton and Churchill is famously a prompting from within and it is wholly her decision; she is freely and spontaneously choosing Mr Knightley. Thus, although they may seem to in some aspects, Chaucer and Austen do not support patriarchy.
Chaucer shows his sense of injustice at the unequal status of women through both his use of irony and his inspiration of sympathy. It is particularly ironic that, while the Merchant is trying to make the reader dislike May, they actually begin to pity her because of her youth compared to January’s age:
“The slake skyn aboute his nekke shaketh,
Whil that he sang, so chaunteth he and craketh…
…She preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene.”
Not only is he depicted as old and unattractive, but also arrogant; January says: “God forbede that I dide al my myght!” The Merchant, by presenting January in a bad light and as ignorant, evokes sympathy for May, and this is clearly not his intention. The reader also sympathises with The Wife of Bath; she, like May, was forced into marriage at an early age. Moreover, she is now single, old, unattractive (she is “gat-tothed” and has “hipes large”), and in search of a new husband to look after her. She laments that now her “flour” is gone, she must sell the “bran as best she can”. She is also nostalgic about her past and her youth, exclaiming: “But age, allas! that al wole envenyme, / Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.” Her tale is another source of sympathy. It depicts an old woman marrying a young Knight, and then becoming young again – this is exactly what she desires to do herself. Ian Bishop described her tale as “an unconscious ritual act of wish-fulfilment”. Thus, The Wife of Bath, along with May, is covertly presented as a sympathetic figure, since her quest for a husband seems pitiful, even futile.
Austen described Emma as a heroine whom none will like but herself, and she said this because, although she saw her faults, she sympathised with her and saw these as the product of her society. Through Austen’s use of free indirect discourse the reader sees Emma’s point of view and warms to her as a character. Many critics, Roger Gard in particular, defend Emma, putting her mistakes down to boredom; after all, Highbury affords her “no equals”. Gard believes that Emma is the victim of her own marvellous ideas and that she always chooses what she sees as the most exciting option – this, for Gard, is what her makes her so attractive to the reader. He goes on to say:
“It is not malice or ill nature that insults Miss Bates on Box Hill, but restlessness and boredom coupled with an habitual esprit – so that we can see the episode sympathetically as well as through Mr Knightley’s justified dismay.”
Just as a misogynistic Chaucer would not intend to make May or the Wife sympathetic characters, so a misogynistic Austen would not let the reader warm to Emma. By evoking sympathy, both authors appear to be defending woman’s corner.
There are, of course, other characters in Emma whom Austen intends the reader to sympathise with, notably Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. Miss Bates is described as “neither young, handsome, rich, nor married”, and with “no intellectual superiority”. The Bateses are described as living in “a very small way”, demonstrating their position in the lower class. Here Austen is sympathising with the spinster figure, just as Chaucer sympathises with the Wife of Bath. Jane Fairfax also inspires sympathy, having “very limited means” and “no advantages of connection”, but described by Mr Knightley as a “really accomplished young woman”. Austen, who never married, is demonstrating the plight of the contemporary woman: unless they are born into a rich family they must either marry or face the melancholy fate of Miss Bates. Irvine notes that Jane Fairfax “represents a much more female powerlessness, and specifically the possibility of downward as well as upward social mobility.” Her marriage to Frank, whose manifestly inferior mind and character become detestable to the reader, demonstrates this powerlessness. Both Austen and Chaucer, by inspiring compassion for the troubles women were forced to face, invite the reader to challenge the status quo.
The three female characters, as well as being sympathetic, are also laudable for their methods of overcoming their suppression. The obvious starting point is The Wife of Bath and her use of “maistrie” to gain “soveraynetee” in marriage. Throughout her prologue she is depicted as a powerful and dominating woman. She wears “a paire of spores sharpe” and a hat likened to “a bokeler or a targe”. Moreover, her cloth-making business is a tribute to her female independence. She says of her first three husbands that she “governed hem so wel, after my lawe,” explaining that to gain this power from them she “sette hem so a-werke” and that “many a nyght they songen ‘Weilawey!’” The reader also applauds the wife for her pugnacious stance against the numerous misogynist attitudes of the time. For example she says:
“Thou seist to me it is a greet meschief
To wedde a povre womman, for costage;
And if that she be riche, of heigh parage,
Thanne seistow that it is a tormentrie.”
For a woman to question patriarchy and tackle misogynistic Bible teachings was, in itself, a feminist act, and the reader applauds the Wife for her determination and wit. The fact that she flaunts and revels in her rejection of the status quo makes her a character one can easily warm to and admire. Finally, the Wife uses maistrie on her fifth husband, Jankyn, and this is clearly depicted in the finale of her prologue. Her trick is so effective that Jankyn even burns his “book of wikked wyves” and promises to allow her to do whatever she pleases. The Wife’s use of her wit to such effect (pretending to be dead) undermines the widespread assumption that women are less intelligent than men. Again, Chaucer is questioning misogynistic beliefs.
May also uses maistrie; she deceives her husband in his blindness, and indeed she is able to trick him even when he has seen her in the act. January is very subtly compared to Pluto, who abducted Proserpina; it is Proserpina who then gives May the power to use her maistrie and trick her husband. Thus, despite perhaps pitying January in his cuckolding, the reader realises that he has provoked this state of affairs. The tale can therefore be seen as Chaucer’s warning to older men not to take younger wives, which he clearly viewed as similar to abduction. In Emma, the women of Highbury exercise a vast amount of control over the men. From the instant we meet Mrs Elton she is a dominating figure; Emma has an almost free rule over Highbury (Frank refers to her as “she who could do anything in Highbury!”) Mrs Churchill has a huge amount of power over Frank, comparable to the power Mrs Ferrars has over Edward in Sense and Sensibility. Moreover, Highbury’s men (except for Mr Knightley) are really rather loathsome characters. By giving these women such power Austen is showing that the need for a patriarchal society is highly questionable and out-dated. Emma has all the confidence of the so-called ‘new woman’ that emerged in the 19th Century, and indeed she is entirely in control of all she does. By presenting such autonomous and individual females, the writers seem to be promoting female equality.
Clearly Chaucer and Austen were not unequivocal feminists. If they were, they would not have presented such imperfect female characters. However, both writers oppose the status quo of their times, and both allow their female characters to evade the limitations placed on them by their society. Austen, while opposing radical feminism of the Mary Wollstonecraft type, was nevertheless strongly disapproving of the unequal status of women in society, and is happy to make her characters a mouthpiece for her opinions in this respect. Anne Elliot of Persuasion could not be clearer about men’s unfair advantages in society: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Chaucer also questions the intrinsically unfair nature of the patriarchal society by using the Wife as a mouthpiece. She demands to know: “Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?”
Gilbert and Gubar note that “Austen admits the limits and discomforts of the paternal roof, but learns to live beneath it… Austen makes a virtue of her own confinement, as her heroines will do also.” Chaucer too, whilst illustrating the limitations of the patriarchal society, allows his characters to work around them. Therefore, both writers clearly do question the status of women in society. Through their skilled use of narrative technique and satire, their inspiration of sympathy in the reader, and their presentation of female determination and individuality as admirable, both authors have succeeded in creating works that can be more accurately described as critical portrayals of the role of women in society, rather than as radical manifestos for change.
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