Awakening young Women to the “Re-perusal” of Industry

September 26, 2014

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.

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