Reading Austen Through the Historical Lens of Scott

In the article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” Scott argues that feminist historians must mediate between the study of particular subjective experience and general theoretical analysis to arrive at meaningful explanation for gender as an analytical category. Although Scott does not provide a clear methodology for such a project, she proposes the following to her readers:

 Historians need instead to examine the ways in which gendered identities are substantively constructed and relate their findings to a range of activities, social organizations, and historically specific cultural representations. The best efforts in this arena so far have been, not surprisingly, biographies (1068).

In light of Scott’s instructions, how does a feminist reader or a historian approach a text such as “Pride and Prejudice”? While this work of fiction does not fit in the category of biography, it oftentimes reads like one: the reader walks away from the text with a sense of understanding the life of a woman elligible for marriage in the 1800s. Or, to be safe, we could step away from the biography label and consider Austen’s piece to be a “historically specific cultural representation.”

Having established that Austen’s work fits Scott’s criteria for forms of culturally and historically constituted knowledge that may be related to the examination of gender identities, how exactly does the reader proceed? To which formal, stylistic, and contextual details should the reader pay particular attention to? Scott maintains that gender “provides a way to decode meaning and to understand the complex connections among various forms of human interaction” (1070). If this is so, how can we use gender as an analytical category to inform our reading of Austen’s text?

Halfway through my reading of the novel, it is clear that Austen is attentive to the nuances and complexities of human interaction, particularly between the genders. She draws attention to and often satirizes the implicit rules of courtship. Such examples include moments such as those between Darcy and Elizabeth: “Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?”(69). Or, these rules are more awkwardly displayed in interactions between Elizabeth and Collins: “I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on first application… as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character” (83).

What kind of meaning can be gleaned, or as Scott would say, “decoded,” in these relationships and interactions? To what extent does subjective experience matter in developing a robust analysis of gender relations? How is the notion of knowledge through subjective experience further complicated by the use of fictional representations?


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