Wages in America stayed low in large segments of the population, and jobs remained seasonable and precarious even before a financial crisis arose in 1819. In England, an industrious woman of any rank was treated with equivalent respect to a gentleman of high rank, but even Americans of high rank stayed middling in comparison to their British counterparts. If the ‘Republic of Columbia” was to be more than an experiment in democracy, then dissipation, wonton self-indulgence, scattered, wasteful use of resources, would not be tolerated. Industry, characterized by hard work, steadiness, and diligence, combined with meekness, was the feminine ideal for women in the new America.

The American exemplum, “The Female Choice,” published shortly after Austen’s death introduced young Americans to two characters – Dissipation and Industry (Picket 1818: 51-3). In the story, young girl named Melissa sits down in a pleasant wooded area, where she falls asleep. In Melissa’s dream, two women approach. The first woman dressed in a gown of shear pink fabric, green trimmings, and a sash of silver gauze, advances saying, “My dearest Mel’s, I have watched you from your birth. See what I have brought you.” Her fair hair fell in ringlets down her neck, adorned with a headdress of artificial flowers interwoven with feathers. She offers Melissa a ticket to a fancy ball and a gown fashioned with spangles and knots of ribbons, “This dress and this ticket will give you free access to all the delights of my palace. With me you will pass your days in a perpetual round of ever-varying amusements.” She informs Melissa that her sole obligation in return would be to “flutter from flower to flower, and spread your charms before admiring spectators.” She introduces herself as Dissipation, and promises “No restraints, no toil, no dull tasks, are to be found within my happy domains.”

Although simplistic in its nature, Austen would have recognized the seminal choice at hand. Melissa is inclined to follow the fashionable woman when the second lady approached clothed in a simple habit of brown fabric relieved with white. Her smooth hair is pinned under a plain cap and her domineer is serious but satisfied and she is sedate and composed. She holds a distaff for spinning in one hand; a workbasket hangs on her other arm; and the girdle around her waist contains scissors, knitting needles, reels and implements of female work – along with a bunch of keys hanging at her side. This woman states, “Melissa, I have been the friend and companion of your mother; and now I offer you my protection. I have no allurements to tempt you.” She explains, “Instead of spending all of your time in amusements, if you enter yourself in my train, you must rise early, and pass the long day in a variety of employments, some of them difficult, some laborious, and all requiring exertion of body or of mind. You must dress plainly; live mostly at home; and aim to be useful rather than shining.” She clarifies, “But in return, I will ensure you content, even spirits, self-approbation, and the esteem of all who thoroughly know you.” She warns Melissa that Dissipation, “has promised much more than she can ever make good. Perpetual pleasures are no more in the power of dissipation, than of vice or folly to bestow.” She concludes, “My name, it is Industry. I shall never seem to you less amiable than I now do; but, on the contrary, you will like me better and better.” Then she states, “It is time for you to choose whom you will follow, and upon that choice all your happiness depends.”

As in an Austen novel, Melissa is given the opportunity to re-search the situation: overawed by Industry’s guileless manner, she turns again to take another glance at Dissipation who still offers enchanting gifts. Tempted, the girl is unable to resist. By a lucky accident, Dissipation’s true face is unmasked. Her once smiling features of youth and cheerfulness, are transfigured to reveal a countenance wan and ghastly with sickness, and soured by fretfulness. Melissa turns away in horror, and readily offers her hand to Industry.

Austen’s work instilled the sensibility of didactic fairy tales that asserted if a young woman maintained her moral standing she could expect respect in any circumstance. American novelists Foster and Rowson supported the rhetoric that virtue would cement the foundation in the new America. This was not necessarily a sensibility that American women wanted to remember or celebrate once frontier challenged to civilized living diminished. Emma was unique among the Austen heroines because she had no awareness of insecurity; she delineated a character study of dissipation, and was “about the relatively new phenomenon of class consciousness (Duckworth 1971: 152).” Emma presented nuances of male and female dynamics with the character of Frank Churchill. When Churchill appears, “Emma is no longer the puppet-mistress of Highbury but instead becomes a marionette in Churchill’s more subtle show (Duckworth 1971: 163). Churchill is a double-dealer in an Emma-Churchill-Jane triangle – similar to a triangle that unfolded in The Coquette. Emma sees indications of his character, “Emma’s very good opinion of Frank Churchill was a little shaken the following day, by hearing that he was gone off to London merely to have his hair cut (Austen 2011: 199).” She justifies it, “Wickedness is always wickedness but folly is not always folly. – It depends upon those who handle it (Austen 2011: 206).”

In Austen’s world of shared assumptions, every situation has an appropriate and expected public response and individuals communicate by means of a common vocabulary of words and gestures dictated by prescriptive literature. Austen creates dramatic tension in her novels when characters thought to be of high rank fail to “act predictably (Duckworth 1971: 166).” This is the conversation where the fairy tale ending occurs – Emma’s happily-ever-after arrives when she easily steps into the proper role that English society as marked for her by marrying Mr. Knightly.


Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: HarperPerennial Classics, 2011.

Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Picket, Albert. The Juvenile Mentor; Being the third part of the Juvenile spelling book containing progressive reading lessons in prose and verse, adapted to the comprehension of youth: calculated to improve them in reading and speaking with elegance and propriety, and to imbue their minds with sentiments of virtue, morality, and religion. New York: Daniel D. Smith, 1818.

Emma, and the Female Choice

September 29, 2014

Emma was published in late-1815, and dedicated, “To His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent,” who would later be crowned King George IV. As in fairy tales, in Austen novels men are always active (they hold virtually all agency) while single women are expected to be passive (acted upon), and once women marry they retire to domesticity in order to produce a male heir. When a woman weds and steps into the role of wife, and she is the agent for intergenerational money and property transfers. Austen’s character Emma is free in her conversations; she appears to be “handsome, clever, and rich (Austen 2011: 3).” Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) anonymously reviewed Emma in the Quarterly Review (October 1815): The faults of these works arise from the minute detail which the author’s plane comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Mrs. Bates, are ridiculous when first presented but if too often brought forward, or too long dwelt on, the prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society (Austen-Leigh 2008: 107-8).”

Carey was the only American firm to publish an Austen novel during her lifetime and that novel was Emma published in 1816. In a sense, protagonist Emma initiates an egalitarian experiment, but she assumes erroneously that her society’s conversation does not apply to her. This theme would be of great interest to American readers (male and female) as a cautionary tale. To publish a novel featuring a British female character of independent means in America at a time when poverty was a visible threat presented an interesting dichotomy.

The female choice in the United States remained that of submission or alienation as described in The Coquette. Families did not have resources to support self-indulgent women – a taste for dissipation could draw a woman’s attention from domestic production including childbearing and free domestic labor. With two wars occurring within a generation, women experienced periods of independence only when they filled male roles during wartime. When the wars ended, men returned home expecting their patriarchic dominance to resume, and women were systematically relegated to submissive roles.

Like Eliza, Emma does not see the necessity of marriage – she does not recognize that in England marriage is connected to inheritance, land distribution, and economic stability. Emma devotes her time to assisting friends to find upward mobility within marriage, and all the while Emma remains clueless. Emma is capable of voicing adulation as a means to manipulate friends to pursue certain paths, and at one point Mr. Knightly calls her on this point, “You will puff her up with such ideas of her own beauty, and of what she has claims to, that, in a little while, nobody within her reach will be good enough for her. Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief (Austen 2011: 61).”

An American essay entitled “Address to Young Misses – By a Lady,” presented a popular emphasis found in contemporary literature that asserted constancy of mind (as opposed to the empty benefits of vanity) created moral strength that does not decay, but rather, increases with use and experience. The author declared, “I listened to the voice of adulation; and her bewitching blandishments allured me to destruction (Boston 1808: n.p.).”

Since Emma’s fickle father Mr. Woodhouse is very rich, until Emma marries a man of good moral character, her future remains very uncertain. Mr. Knightly personifies the model husband for any young woman: he holds a mature and balanced view of the world and has the moral courage to correct the wayward Emma. At one point he states, “I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years experience and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child (Austen 2011: 96).” Emma does not match his sensibility of industry, “She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding… Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family (Austen 2011: 34).” Emma in England, like Eliza in the United States, does not adhere to societal expectations – she needs to marry and produce a highborn heir. Emma is found “to be doing more than she wished, and less than she ought (Austen 2011: 160)!”


Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: HarperPerennial Classics, 2011.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, and Katherine Sutherland. A Memoir of Jane Austen and other Family Recollections. Oxford University: Oxford University Press, 2008.

The Boston Primer being an improvement of the New England primer: Containing among many other things suitable for young Children, the Catechism, with a variety of instructive lessons and hymns, suited to the capabilities of children and designed to assist them in learning to read and write. Boston: Printed and sold by Manning and Loring, 1808.

Jane Austen drafted Sense and Sensibility as an epistolary novel in about 1795 and Pride and Prejudice was drafted as an epistolary novel called First Impressions between 1796 and 1797. Austen’s novels chronicled the challenges of British middle- upper class women navigating through a particular conversation – American viewpoints were not part of her consciousness. Women in the United States also faced tumultuous economic and social climates but received inculcation to be productive. American playwright Royall Tyler (1757-1826) lamented on the impact of national mourning on Columbia’s collective consciousness and the impact of various captivity narratives on American literature, which he described as “some dreary somebody’s day of Doom (Bradsher 1912: 32).”

A British embargo on American goods in 1809 created shortages of money and book sales declined (Leary, 1984, 142). American intellectuals were disturbed by the notion that the United States remained immature – lacking a national character. While the United States had won economic independence, it remained culturally dependent on England and the output of the American press consisted of reprints of British authors (Bradsher 1912: 29).” Americans continued to read British books, order British products, and emulate English models of metropolitan behavior. The development of a distinct American literature “was retarded for a half a century merely by the lack of a medium through which it might express itself.” The War of 1812 coincided with the War of the Sixth and diverted personnel and resources from England’s battles in France. Americans who fought in the War of 1812 considered it to be America’s second war for independence. Another period of economic depression followed the War of 1812, which continued into the early-1820s. This barren period in American literature came as one generation of literary and intellectual giants was dying out, “and a new one which forms the pride of American literature was just coming into existence (Bradsher 1912: 65).”

Carey combated these trends by publishing didactic literature. Sunday schools books written at this time revealed that working-class labor and poverty were part of a trend towards secularization. But the issues were far more complex. Sunday-school literature was first introduced to British children during the 1790s and became the predominant genre of literature for the newly literate adults. Hannah More established a system for distributing chapbooks with her Cheap Repository Tracts between 1795 and 1798. Parish workers distributed tracts designed to teach virtuous conduct and the evils of intemperance, blind ambition, and vice. These tracts written in a lively and entertaining style for young readers were brought home and used to teach older family members to read. In America, the New York Tract Society was established in 1812; the New England Tract Society was established in 1814; and the Hartford Evangelical Tract Society was established subsequent to the Battle for Baltimore in 1815.

Critics could speculate that Austen’s stories were so timeless due to her lofty indifference to current events in her treatments; one would hardly know that the industrial revolution was underway with the steam engine transforming manufacturing or that the abolitionist movement culminated with reforms in England in 1808 from reading her books. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and wartime England was the backdrop for Pride and Prejudice published in 1813 (Austen 2003: 78). Austen thought the latter was not half “so entertaining” as Sense and Sensibility; they both promoted the notion of re-searching or rereading events to discover hidden meanings. Austen devoted considerable time in Pride and Prejudice for Elizabeth Bennett to reread letters from her sister Jane and Darcy to see elements of character beyond the surface or to correct “first impressions.” Elizabeth Bennett’s ability to re-peruse events allowed her to discern facts from her life’s exemplum (Lynch 1998: 129). Austen imbedded an element of realism into Mansfield Park (1814) where she developed a male character Edmund Bertram who succeeded with moral courage rather than just inheritance (Austen 2003: 87). Mansfield Park presented the “estate” including slaves in Antigua symbolizing the whole social and moral inheritance; it challenged the status quo of slavery in American culture, and therefore it would not appealed to Carey as a good prospect when he was trying to cultivate a market in the American South.


Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s letters. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, 2003.

Bradsher, Earl L. Mathew Carey, editor, author, and publisher: A Study in American literary Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912.

Leary, Lewis. The book-peddling parson: An account of the life and works of Mason Locke Weems, patriot, pitchman, author, and purveyor of morality to the citizenry of the early United States of America. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1984.

Lynch, Deidre. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Mathew Carey (1760-1839) launched the career of chapman Mason Locke Weems (1754-1825), who charmed Columbia’s common folk with his soapbox and plethora of little books on religion and right living as he carried the news of the day. Weems observed that amidst a land of plenty, many Americans seemed to surrender to their inclination towards gluttony and bawdy entertainments. He preached to the newly literate and his chapbooks became their introduction to enlightened thinking. Weems lamented, “The country is in darkness (Leary 1984: 2).” He observed that in the rural areas of the frontier, people struggled with what their newly achieved freedoms meant. Their thoughts according to Weems were “uninformed, their minds bitter, and their manners savage.” Weems recognized that Americans with a growing sense of nationalism needed stories of “homegrown” heroes. Weems, a Freemason who obtained his medical and theological training in England, offered a moral agenda for Americans far different from clergy featured in Jane Austen’s fictional landscapes. Weems identified piety, patriotism, industry, benevolence, and justice as immortal characteristics that could be cultivated in all Americans. Dissipation, wonton self-indulgence, scattered, wasteful use of resources that were akin to the mob violence. The Founding Fathers perceived these attributes to be the unnatural break down of the Columbia’s spiritual body. However, Carey recognized America’s thirst for British literature so he was among the many American publishers to import and pirate British literature to be repackaged into chapbooks.

Carey published the first American edition of Emma in 1816; it was distributed in Philadelphia from his establishment located at 121 Chestnut Street and in Boston by Wells & Lilly, Booksellers. In Austen’s story Emma, the vicar Mr. Elton mirrors the protagonist in his conversations. He is described as, “very full of his own claims and little concerned about the feelings of others (Austen 2011: 131).” While Austen’s works point to Anglican clergy with some disdain, Weems was far more eccentric (some would say zealous) in seeking patronage than any Austin-created vicar. Earlier, Weems’ experiences in England, specifically the Anglican Church’s restrictions on American clergy, caused deep resentment. He self-published a small booklet in 1799 called The Philanthropist, or, A Good Twelve Cents work of Political Love Power, for the fair Daughters and patriotic Sons of Virginia. Weems cribbed Scottish reverend William Lawrence Brown (1755-1830) from his Essay on the National Equality of Man (1793) embellishing it to suit his populist style. The Philanthropist argued that American citizens should gratefully ante up the tax of $1 per $1,000 essayed to support the federal government, “for in no country do they derive so much from government, or pay so little to it,” which was small and efficient in comparison to the British government that was obliged to support the Anglican Church and the Crown (Weems 1799: 21).”


Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: HarperPerennial Classics, 2011.

Leary, Lewis. The book-peddling Parson: An account of the Life and Works of Mason Locke Weems, patriot, pitchman, author, and purveyor of morality to the citizenry of the early United States of America. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1984.

Weems, Mason Locke. The Philanthropist, or, A good Twelve Cents worth of Political Love Powder, for the fair Daughters and patriotic Sons of America. Dumfries, VA.: Printed by J. May, 1799.

Female industry would temper the steel of American democracy, which was still considered to be a political experiment; time and its prudent usage would be the means for a young America to steer a safe course. Politically connected and Irish-born, Mathew Carey (1760-1839) immigrated to Philadelphia and established a printing and publishing house with seed-money supplied by the Marquise de Lafayette (Leary 1984: 20). Carey was a founding member of the First Day Society, a secular Sunday school established in Philadelphia in 1790 promoting literacy education (Rainier 1996: 79). Carey hoped to cultivate a broad audience of female readers in the new America and published The Lady’s Pocket Library (1792) offering prescriptive advice on life and comportment. Carey published the first American edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1794 (Green 1985: 24). He published everything from romances to religious tracts, but recognized that the Word was the American bestseller. He earned his fortune and reputation by publishing the first American Catholic Bible and numerous editions of the King James Version of the Bible (Leary 1984: 79).

Carey also published the first bestselling novel in American. American-born Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) wrote Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth in the British style of the novel and it was England in 1790. In her introduction, Rowson wrote “I flatter myself, be of service to some who are so unfortunate as to have neither friends to advise, or understanding to direct them, through the variations and unexpected evils that attend a young and unprotected woman her first entrance into life (Rowson 2009: 7).” This cautionary tale described the seduction, and subsequent betrayal, of an unworldly boardinghouse student by a young British army officer. Betrayed first by a trusted teacher, she was lured across the Atlantic to America where her family could offer no guidance. Abandoned, pregnant, and destitute – Charlotte represented every parent’s worst nightmare – and she presented a warning to young women to avoid rakish men. After giving birth to a girl without assistance, Charlotte lost her senses (what Sarah Fielding referred to as “calm mind”), and tragically died alone.

Columbia was in the midst of her awkward youth. In 1812, Carey wrote Rowson, “Charlotte Temple is by far the most popular & in my opinion the most useful novel ever published in this country & probably not inferior to any published in England (Bradsher 1912: 50).” He continued, “… It may afford you great gratification to know that the sales of Charlotte Temple exceed those of any of the most celebrated novels that ever appeared in England. I think the number disposed of must far exceed 50,000 copies; & the sale still continues. There has lately been published an edition at Hartford, of as Fanning owned 5000 copies, as a chapbook – & I have an edition in press of 3000, which I shall sell at 50 or 62 ½ cents (Bradsher 1912: 50).”

Hannah Webster Foster (1759-1840) anonymously wrote the second best-selling American novel called The Coquette, or, The History of Eliza Wharton: A Novel Founded on Fact (1797), based loosely upon the life of poet Elizabeth Whitman (1752-1788) who rebelled against gender limitations in real life. This story presented an opposite extreme from Charlotte Temple by depicting a thirty-seven year old spinster who sought an egalitarian marriage in her youth. The Coquette, first published in Boston by S. Etheridge, described American locations like those in Charlotte Temple that became popular tourist destinations. Eliza rejects many suitors, only to choose the wrong man as a husband. In a tragic story of self-destruction, Eliza is a strong woman of independent means, who demonstrates undesirable characteristics and dies alone and friendless in childbirth. In the story, Eliza’s virtuous friend Lucy Sumner (happily immersed in a good marriage) advises: We are dependent beings; and while the smallest traces of virtuous sensibility remain, we must feel the force of that dependency in a greater or lesser degree. No female, whose mind is uncorrupted, can be indifferent to reputation. It is an inestimable jewel, the loss of which can never be repaired. While retained it affords conscious peace to our minds, and insures the esteem and respect of all around us (Foster & Locke 2009: 132).”

While Austen was beginning to draft her first novels in epistolary form, Columbia subverted her former mother country England with a natural beauty rather than the more flamboyant beauty established in the European courts. Industry was depicted as the feminine ideal in various religious, social, and political messages in order to develop Columbia’s character. While the United States won economic independence, America remained culturally dependent on England until the conclusion of War of 1812. Cosmopolitan Americans continued to read British books, order British products, and emulate English models of metropolitan behavior. Teaching literacy to the working class children spread throughout American communities shortly after it spread through British communities and expanded markets for literature.


Bradsher, Earl L. Mathew Carey, editor, author, and publisher: A Study in American Literary Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912.

Foster, Hannah Webster, and Jane E. Locke. The Coquette: the history of Eliza Wharton, a novel founded on fact by a lady of Massachusetts. [Charleston, N.C.]: BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Green, James N. Mathew Carey, Publisher and Patriot. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1985.

Leary, Lewis. The book-peddling parson: An account of the life and works of Mason Locke Weems, patriot, pitchman, author, and purveyor of morality to the citizenry of the early United States of America. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1984.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775-1850. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. Rockville MD.: Serenity Publishers, 2009.

Jane Austen’s work was not in sync with the emerging American nationalism that was a new social construct of imagined communities (not naturally expressed in language, race or religion) as Columbia’s citizenry moved toward a single overarching national identity. The frontier challenged any fictional portrayal of women having niceties based solely upon virtue. Ann Eliza Bleecker (1752-1783) spawned a homegrown American genre in the form of the captivity novel. The posthumous publication of her History of Maria Kettle (1797) set during the French and Indian War containing graphic scenes of violence presented epistolary prose in the British style that was exciting to readers. No English woman would have witnessed the brutal murder of her children by Native Americans, or have been stripped of her “habits, already rent to pieces by brier, and attired… with remnants of old blankets (Bleecker 2010: 19).” Bleecker’s exaggerated style created a hauntingly brutal journey into a conversation on the American frontier. It inculcated moral lessons that assured its captive protagonist, married at the age of fifteen years to a farmer and immersed in innocent righteousness, would be returned to the loving arms of loved ones.

Crewel stitching by Constance Eliassen turned into a pouch by daughter Meredith

Crewel stitching by Constance Eliassen turned into a pouch by daughter Meredith

In celebration of the first day autumn, a sample of my mother’s stitching:

“Republican womanhood,” a concept of American womanhood described by historian Linda Kerber, to define the notion that the Republican mother integrated political values into her domestic life. She was dedicated to the nurturing of public-spirited male citizens, and infused her sensibilities of virtue into the young country. This reconciled politics and domesticity and justified the status quo of coverture. For instance, P. -J. Boudier de Villemert in his The Ladies’ Friend: Being a Treatise on the Virtues and Qualifications which are the brightest Ornaments of the Fair Sex, and Render Them most Agreeable to Sensible Part of Mankind (1781), asserted that a woman should place her whole affections on her family, which made the mother the ideal parent to rule the “gentle empire” of the home.

However, a woman’s worth on the frontier (without the established class system found in England) was measured by her service to God and neighbor. American women grappled with newly defined gender roles. As in literary fairy tales, ordinary women were tested in daily life and exhibited quiet heroism when their world was economically destabilized; they often employed an unrecognized female-managed “grey” economy dating back to the Revolution when men were on the warfront. This verse of Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) in her collection of essays called The Gleaner (1798) reflects a rarely delineated sensibility of American womanhood cultivated in Columbia’s less-structured class system:

I love to trace the independent mind;

   Her beamy path, and radiant way to fine:

I love to mark her where disrob’d she stands,

   While with new life each faculty expands:

I love the reasoning which new proofs supplies,

   That I shall soar to worlds beyond the skies;

The sage who tells me, spirit ever lives,

   New motive to a life of virtue gives.

Blest immortality! – enobling thought!

   With reason, truth and honour, richly fraught –

Rise to my view – thy sweet incentives bring,

   And round my haunts thy deathless perfumes fling;

Glow in my breast – my purposes create,

   And to each proper action stimulate (Murray 1992: 493).

In marriage as in fairy tales, the male reflected the active side of the pairing, while the female reflected its passive more receptive side. Traditional parental influence waned in relation to a daughter’s marriage prospects during the 1790s. American women practiced more freedom in choosing marriage partners as romantic love and premarital sex grew. Single women who did not correspond to the status quo were marginalized. Literature of the day justified this conversation by placing women into a model wives as the purveyors of morality. American women were active out of necessity. Where in Sense and Sensibility, a physician is called when Marianne Dashwood becomes dangerously ill to administer the more psychologically dramatic therapy of bleed letting (suggesting a connection to the upper ranks of society), more conservative remedies would be employed by midwifes in rural America.

Marriage was had become a rite into retirement, and not necessarily the enchanted dream of happily-ever-after. Once a woman wed, under coverture she became a mere cipher. The legal doctrine of coverture declared that a husband and wife became but one person in marriage – that person was the husband whether he lived by virtue or vice. A married woman was considered to be sub potestati viri – under the power of her husband – and therefore she was unable to make contracts or establish credit without her husband’s consent. The husband was liable for his wife’s support, but his legal obligations to his wife extended only to necessities – what she needed to survive. In practice, everything beyond the wife’s mere maintenance was dependent upon her husband’s sense of propriety or generosity.


Bleecker, Ann Eliza. The History of Maria Kittle: in a Letter to Miss Ten Eyck. Glouchester, U.K.: Dodo Press, 2010.

Murray, Judith Sargent. The Gleaner. Schenectady, NY.: Union College Press, 1992.

British essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) first coined the term “Columbia” to represent the symbolic female personification of the American colony in a 1738 issue of Gentlemen’s Magazine. Johnson defined active as “that which acts, opposed to passive, or that which suffers (Johnson 1785: 1: ACT),” and he defined passive as, “receiving impression from some external agent (Johnson 1785: 2: PAS).”

In traditional fairy tales the male represented the active side of human nature, while the female represented human nature’s passive more receptive side (Meyer 1988: 73). American publishers during the early Republic were especially sensitive to the semantics of active and passive in promoting a strong new America, and American publications promoted feminine virtue as a tool for building nationalism. However, they remained in accord with earlier British essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele who warned of the deplorable effects of fashionable education on young women: “From this general folly of parents we owe our present numerous race of coquettes (Lasch 1997: 68 and Tise 1998: 362).” They suggested that raising daughters to be “artful” made them fair game for seducers, when parents should rear daughters to make them morally attractive as marriage partners for upwardly mobile young men.

Pouch with stitching by Constance Eliassen

Pouch with stitching by Constance Eliassen

While Jane Austen was in sync with the contemporary Anglo-American sensibility that young women should not have any exaggerated sense of self-worth, the dependency of her heroines upon reputation was too akin to the sense of dependency experienced by men in colonial America. The memory of economic and cultural dependency on the mother country lingered undermining national confidence. American women craved British literature during the 1790s because it did not mirror tumultuous conditions of contemporary life. American publishers in literary hubs including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Georgetown, and New Haven, drew upon the British female writers to attract new female readers. However, American publishers were slow to cultivate a sophisticated readership.

In England, as well as in the Colonies, an idle “novel reading” woman was seen not only as a burden to her family but also as a risk for becoming immoral. Reading was not a leisure activity for women in the new America. Within communities where there was very little individual privacy, one frivolous woman in a household could create scandal for the family patriarch resulting in hardship to the entire family since patronage more than inheritance influenced credit. Congregational clergyman Reverend Dr. Enos Hitchcock (1745-1803), in his epistolary novel Memoirs of the Bloomgrove Family, composed a series of letters to Martha Washington explaining how European educational systems were not applicable in the United States: “it is now time to become independent in our maxims, principles of education, dress, and manners, and we are in our laws and government (Hitchcock 1790: 15-7).”



Hitchcock, Enos. Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family: In a series of letters to a respectable citizen of Philadelphia. Containing sentiments on a mode of domestic education, suited to the present state of society, government, and manners, in the United States of America, and on the dignity and importance of the female character interspersed with a variety of interesting anecdotes. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1790.

Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. London: J. F. and C. Rivington, l. Davis, T. Payne and Son, T. Longman, B. Law [and 21 others in London], 1785.

Lasch, Christopher, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Women and the common life: love, marriage, and feminism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Meyer, Rudolf. The Wisdom of Fairy Tales. Edinburgh: Floris, 1988.

Tise, Larry E. The American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800. Mechanicsburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 1988.

French-born Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) introduced a folk motif that resonated in Jane Austen’s novels when she created an English translation of the short adult novel La Belle et la Bête by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1695-1755) in her three-volume set of dialogues called The Young Misses Magazine published in 1757. Mme. de Beaumont’s informal style established the literary fairy tale as a popular genre for moral instruction. American folklorist Stith Thompson in his six-volume Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1932-37) classified “Beauty and the Beast” as a tale of disenchantment (Thompson 1955: D735.1). In Barbot de Villeneuve’s version, the Beast is genuinely savage, and in Leprince de Beaumont’s version the mesmeric façade of human ugliness is unmasked and reduced to its native nothingness. Love is conceived as Beauty to re-searches the Beast’s actions to discover the characteristics of an attractive life partner.

Austen, who built drama in her plots by placing characters in conversations sometimes inconsistent with societal expectations for class behavior, would have been quite at home with the themes of magnetism and virtue entwined in this story of disenchantment. Fear of the appearance of ugliness was a fictional inter-generational issue in many of Austen domestic conflicts. In the fairy tale, Beauty is metaphorically removed from that which protects her and placed in a radically different conversation in the Beast’s enchanted environment. Beauty is initially frightened of the Beast and remains obedient to his apparent power until the moment she is given the power of choice that comes with the rite of passage into marriage. The Beast’s apparent ugliness places him in a position of having to act upon his indigenous goodness where there is no material compensation or upward mobility. The structure of this motif obliges Beauty to reject what she would normally be eager to accept as a good husband. Fielding and Beaumont constructed dialogues to educate and enlighten, and they paved the way for other women to write conversations for female readers about history, philosophy, and science. Austen took classic themes embedded in this story and embellished them subtly to craft realistic fairy tale resolutions for her heroines.


Thompson, Stith. Motif-index of folk literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Diolog[ue]s and Conversations

September 18, 2014

Emma (1814) was the only work Jane Austen (1775-1817) to be published in the United States during her lifetime. Austen’s romantic fiction remains more popular in the United States than the work of gritty bestselling American female authors of the same era including Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840). Austen merged several female literary genres including the fable, the dialogue, and epistolary fiction to create conversations that women could emulate. The semantics of conversation in the context of Austen’s work refers to “behavior; manner of acting in common life (Johnson 1785, 2: CON).” American publishers did not embrace Austen’s work until the 1830s, and the choice of Emma as her introduction to American readers creates a curious subtext of changing women’s roles that came with the emerging American nationalism between 1790 and 1820. Sensibilities of disenchantment run throughout Austen’s plots creating adult exemplum without fairies. The enduring American fascination with Austen’s character, as well as the authoress herself, has lingered with the excitement of a meeting between two cousins long-separated by a family dispute; it reveals an inclination of American readers to read about domestic conflicts in the private sphere abroad rather than public conflicts mirrored in the familial sphere at home in the United States.

Women were generally self-taught and garnered intellectual access to male-dominated fields through the genre of the dialogue or conversation. The dialogue provided a non-threatening literary mechanism so women could read about science without drawing attention. Austen would have been familiar with Sarah Fielding (1710-1768), the younger sister of novelist Henry Fielding, who wrote the first full-length novel for adolescent girls The Governess, or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which was noted for its innovative adaptation of John Locke’s educational theories. The Governess utilized literary devices innovated by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) but it lacked plot complexities found in novels written for adults. Its frame story centered on the daily activities in a boarding school for adolescent girls – it presented a familiar conversation going on between students and their teacher and among each other.

British editions of The Governess could be found in affluent colonial households and the first American edition was published in Philadelphia in 1791. Its lessons would have been familiar to American girls, but culturally and economically a great divide existed. The vast majority of American girls would have little need to attend to a “female academy” unless their families were affluent enough to pay for finishing schools, they would have been modestly educated at home by mothers using primers that might use fables to inculcate very distinct behavior. Fables and fairy tales in Fielding’s story were repeated as mnemonic devises built upon themes of how passion, lying, and cunning adversely affected a girl’s chances for happiness (Fielding 1968: 280). Fielding employed neither “high-sounding Language, nor the supernatural Contrivances” to tell stories, suggesting to readers that great care be taken not to be “carried away, by these high-flown Things, from that Simplicity of Taste and Manners which is my chief Study to inculcate (Fielding 1968: 166).”

Austen’s characters, like Fielding’s, were seldom elegant, but she resolved plotlines with the moral precision characteristic of didactic fairy tales. Austen’s greatness came from embedding themes utilized by Sarah and Henry Fielding in characters that were placed in conversations familiar to readers in the growing middle-class in an industrializing British society. At a time when every girl had little chance for social advancement beyond her choice in marriage partner, Austen mastered a realistic fairy tale where fantasy was spun into reality transposing ordinary into extraordinary. Austen promoted the notion that a girl’s indigenous goodness in any circumstance would bring goodness into her life, and her success in asserting this logic was that she wrote about conversations that were very familiar to her. Austen would later advise her niece Anna Austen Lefroy, an aspiring novelist; against including desultory conversations in her stories, “You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath… there you will be quite at home (Austen 2003: 101).”


Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s letters. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, 2003.

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess, or, Little Female Academy. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. London: J. F. and C. Rivington, l. Davis, T. Payne and Son, T. Longman, B. Law [and 21 others in London], 1785.

In the art of war, the esprit des corps – the movement of muscles in unison together with chants, song and loud rhythmic yells – creates euphoric energy in battle. The British confident in their ability to defeat the unseasoned American militia selected Baltimore to be the next target. Prior to the battle, Francis Shunk (1788-1848) quoted the opening lines of “Farewell Song to the Banks of Ayr” (1786), Robert Burns’ farewell dirge to his native land, and wrote, “The dark clouds filled with thunder & rain hastened to verspread [sic] the fermentation. The gloom of approaching night adds terror to all surrounding objects… and here I wonder amidst the contention of elements forlorn and silent depressed and unhappy too well does the tumult of my heart accord with the violence that surrounds. After the battle, Shunk happily anticipated the celebration of victory with friends where he would play Green Grow the Rashes, O (1783) – with all his might on the violin. The British did not anticipate that a gutsy Senator named Samuel Smith would change tactics by instituting regular drills featuring marching songs.

Hence, the Battle for Baltimore as chronicled by Francis Scott Key in “The Star Spangled Banner” proved to be a turning point when British forces were repulsed at Fort McHenry, and the city of Baltimore was saved:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

A poor farm boy in a multicultural world. Be not deceived, my friends, the carefree days of youth amang the lasses, O, do not a wayfarer still. Mr. Chunk, as he was sometimes called, stayed close to home and hearth, becoming a governor of Pennsylvania who built public institutions of learning and was an early proponent of married women’s property rights.

Next we will explore Jane Austen in a new America…