In season two of Netflix’s wildly popular television series Bridgerton, protagonist and resident feminist Eloise Bridgerton tells her friend Penelope Featherington: “We should both aspire to be . . . unmarried, earning our own money.” This aspiration, so familiar in the twenty-first century, so at odds with the Georgian period in which Bridgerton is set, also seems at odds with that most beloved of Georgian authors from whom the show draws inspiration—Jane Austen. Austen would have much to teach Eloise, whose shallow twenty-first-century feminism stands in direct contrast to the anthropologically rich feminism presented in Austen’s work, which regards women as rational creatures capable of heroic virtue.
Eloise is a feminist without direction. She despises the mating ritual that so consumes the other young women of her social class and longs for an alternative to the path of marriage and motherhood that her own mother and older sister joyfully embrace. She is fond of making derogatory comments about the marriage market that young women must enter: “I’ve never understood the fashion for feathers in the hair. Why would a woman want to draw more notice to the fact that she’s like a bird squawking for a man’s attention in some bizarre ritual?” Season two ironically begins with an angry Eloise wearing a giant white feather on her head, preparing to officially enter society. When she hears that her brother is adding Albania to his Grand Tour, Eloise remarks bitterly, “How happy for him that he can simply decide to do that.”
Eloise resents female ornamentation and male freedom, but has not found an alternative. Instead, she spends her time complaining about social injustice. In season two, we learn that she has been reading Mary Wollstonecraft. She quotes from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” But, despite her anger and her reading, Eloise is aimless.
Jane Austen would say to the young woman, “Your entrepreneurial feminism is much too narrow. Think bigger. Greatness can be found by cultivating the rationality natural to you as a human being and striving for the happiness secured by heroic virtue.” And, if she was living in a society in which women had more vocational options, she might add, “whether married or not.”
Wollstonecraft, whom Austen likely read, despised the solicitous flattery and showy service that men rendered to women: “I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority.” She declares, “I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the
lady could have done herself.” Austen also condemned such gallantry. In Persuasion, the gallant Captain Wentworth hates to have women on board his ship “from feeling how impossible it is, with all one's efforts, and all one's sacrifices, to make the accommodations on board such as women ought to have.” His sister, Mrs. Croft, instead of appreciating such chivalry, accuses her brother of a “superfine, extraordinary sort of gallantry” and declares, “I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
Wentworth’s concern for female comfort is not seen as kindness but as a denial of female rationality and even of female fortitude. Women, no more than men, do not expect to always be comfortable; they too will face storms, and they too have the ability to face those storms well. Anne Elliot, the novel’s heroine, shows her ability to endure rough waters. She does not need the luxurious accommodations that Wentworth sees as indispensable for a lady: “A bed on the floor . . . would be sufficient for her.”
“Lady,” according to Wollstonecraft and Austen, is a social construct deeply damaging to women because it prescribes different virtues for “ladies” and men. Men exercise fortitude in response to rough seas; women, on the other hand, must be perpetually pampered. The construct of “lady” also prevents women from being heard. In Pride and Prejudice, during Mr. Collins’s awkward and protracted proposal, Elizabeth Bennet pleads, “Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.”
The artificial “lady” is the problem; “rational creature” is the solution. Rational creatures are capable of exercising and growing in virtue, in cultivating habits that make heroism possible. So while none of Austen’s heroines end up owning their own dress shop, or becoming prominent writers, they are heroic in their pursuit of the greatness proper to a rational being, even as wives and, presumably, mothers. Wollstonecraft herself was not at war with domesticity; she believed that the cultivation of the virtues proper to human beings would make women better mothers and wives. Austen’s characters could teach Eloise that true feminism does not mean that all women become small business owners, but that the truly great ambition is to strive for virtue—to courageously endure the rough seas as Anne Elliot does. That striving for virtue leads the rational creature to its ultimate end—happiness.
Dr. Tiffany Schubert is assistant professor of Humanities and Trivium at Wyoming Catholic College.
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