Scribbling Women

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Ralph Emerson on Jane Awesome:


"Miss Austen's novels . . . seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer . . . is marriageableness."

It's interesting, albeit unsurprising, that Emerson would consider "marriageableness" a problem worthy of curt dismissal. A cursory acquaintance of Austen's era reveals marriagebleness to actually be one of the major problems of the time. Indeed I thought the genius of Austen's mask was that she was using matrimony as a disguise to write about a society in which women are systemically denied economic power.

Having said that, I'd like to take a detour: Margaret Anderson's lecture series talks about how recent scholarship on Western Europe has demonstrated that women in pre-industrialized West  were arguably more liberated than anywhere else in the world. Apparently, they married later and did not marry at all unless, along with their partner, they had the funds to support themselves. Anderson said in England a rather shocking 25 percent of couples featured pairings between older women and younger men. The fertility rates in England tended to be lower--something on the order of 3.4 kids, at a time when couples around the world were averaging ten kids.

Has anyone seen any writing on this? Am I misinterpreting what I heard? Can any of resident historians expound? And how does this research mesh with Austen's depiction? My sense is that Austen was still discussing the gentry--the lower class gentry, but the gentry nonetheless. These were people who could afford to have servants. Perhaps the point about independence and women can only be applied to the laboring classes.

Any info would help.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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