Quest for autonomy

Published : Apr 21, 2006 00:00 IST

The five women profiled, regarded as radical, actually wrote from a conservative tradition that denied education for women.

THE relation between women's education and women's emancipation/subversion is a long-established one. In India, Pandita Ramabai, the "female pundit", was a prototype of the learned woman ostracised by society. Narratives of modern Indian women reveal that traditional India associated learning with widowhood. The case was not much different in 18th century Britain: the learned woman, referred to as a "She-Pedant" or a "Philosopher in Bibs", was an object of derision in the public mind, as reflected in the press of the period. The earliest English women writers, Aphra Behn and Mary Delariviere Manly, who wrote from the 1680s onwards, were viewed as scandalous and were recognised more for their supposed amatory exploits than for their writing. In the late 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft, writer, revolutionary and iconic feminist figure, was called, among other things, "a hyena in petticoats" by a contemporary, disparaging both her sex and her political affiliations. No wonder then, that even as late as the mid-19th century women were hesitant to publish in their own names, preferring anonymity or male-sounding pseudonyms.

Problematic issues raised by the post-Enlightenment development of women's education, the emergence in force of women writers, and the incipient urge for emancipation among women during and after the French Revolution are the subjects of Barnita Bagchi's book Pliable Pupils and Sufficient Self-Directors: Narratives of Female Education by Five British Women Writers, 1778-1814. She uses close literary analysis to uncover ideological and social contexts in selected fictional and non-fictional writings of five representative British women writers of the late 18th and early 19th century. The defining book on that particular area of the chosen period, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), falls within the period 1778 - 1814, but is excluded. The choice of relatively obscure writers, despite their being less individualistic or original, is perhaps justified by the fact that their works are more representative of the thought currents of the age. Wollstonecraft, despite having little formal education like other women of the period, is freed from the comparative intellectual insularity of the "representative" woman writer through her male friends and famous husband, who provided her with better access to the public world of men and politics.

Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen form the two poles of polemics and fiction as seen in women's writing of the period. These two authors also illustrate the progress of the contemporary woman writer from disrepute to respectability and canonisation. Mary Hamilton, Clara Reeve, Elizabeth Hamilton, Mary Brunton and Jane Austen are all highly respectable ladies of aristocratic birth, who did not need to write for their living. Indeed, Bagchi sees her writers as comprising the "conservative" pole of the political spectrum rather than the "radical" one. However, she tries to show that despite, or maybe because of, their social and political conservatism (they were either anti-French Revolution or anti-Abolitionists, or loyal supporters of the British empire), they bring out in greater relief the actual subversiveness so far as society is concerned: women's simple demand for education. The burden of Bagchi's book is that women's education continues to be a much-contested ideological site despite nearly two centuries of women's education.

The deep-rooted fear of educating women, common across all societies and cultures, appears to arise from the fear that education will turn women away from their primary reproductive role. The European Enlightenment provided women writers with the rationalistic argument, used by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication: women should be educated for the "greater good of society", since educated women making better mothers (and wives) than uneducated ones. Indian policy-makers are still using this argument.

Bagchi's women writers, products of the Enlightenment as well, extended the argument to include the usefulness of education in sustaining otherwise intellectually and emotionally barren lives and in providing a means of livelihood for the growing numbers of single women, spinsters and widows, deprived of male support.

Further evidence of these conservative women writer's espousal of radical feministic ideas is their use of utopian fiction as platforms for presenting subversive ideas on female education and autonomy. Distantly removing the setting is a recognised strategy for advancing claims that might seem fantastic or unrealistic in the light of the contemporary situation.

The writers discussed in Bagchi's book advocate women's education through rationalistic, utopian, didactic fiction like The School for Widows (1791), Discipline (1814), Self-Control (1811), Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1779) and Munster Village (1778), raising issues like the appropriateness of formal education (implicitly enforcing social control and internal policing) and more informal and experiential systems of education for the cultivation of female self-hood and agency, the relation between women's education and women's work and the problematic link between women's education and marriage.

The title of one book, written by one of the most authoritarian among them, the noble-born Lady Mary (Walker) Hamilton, typifies the aims of this type of writing: Letters from the Duchess Crui and others, on Subjects Moral and Entertaining, wherein the Character of the Female Sex with their Rank, Importance, and Consequence is Stated, and their Relative Duties in Life are Enforced (1776). Bagchi admits that such works of fiction cannot be called novels, the didactic moral being but thinly hidden beneath the veneer of fiction, compendiousness rather than unified structure being characteristic, reflecting the miscellaneousness of women's learning at that date. Her contention is that they are nevertheless significant because they embody a strain of independent thinking that was later lost in the more conformist if better executed fictions of their successors.

The utopian fantasies of these women writers, focusing on the creation of all-female communities and setting up new model girls' schools and providing female mentors to create a truly female education, only throw into sharper focus how informal and haphazard women's education was at that time.

As Bagchi shows, the import of the fiction is that women were apt to learn more in the "school of adversity" experientially than in schools, because formal schooling for girls had not yet been institutionalised. These fantasies put stress on women's internal disciplining by "sufficient self-directors" rather than submitting them as "pliable pupils" to societal values that desired them to be subservient.

Bagchi implies that these women could freely parade their limited and miscellaneous learning without self-consciousness and set themselves up as "philosophers" and instructresses of similarly placed young women. Ignored if not derided as "lady novelists" by the male-dominated literary establishment of the 1800s, they sought legitimacy in a "female tradition" of similarly placed women educators like the French Madame de Maintenon or Madame de Genlis, who had not only developed novel educational programmes for aristocratic and royal charges but publicised their experiments in fictional writings.

In the process, they provided a female counterpoint to the more pervasive educational theories of Rousseau. Furthermore, Bagchi's writers also drew on Christian moral traditions of self-analysis and prayer to achieve internal discipline and self-knowledge.

Women's quest for independence and autonomy is also seen in what were, for their day, novel thoughts that rejected the idea of marriage as the inevitable destiny of women. Three of the five authors studied, Jane Austen, Clare Reeve and Elizabeth Hamilton, were unmarried and could therefore align themselves with socially "deviant" or marginalised women to criticize the male models of mentorship and education that were prevalent in their day.

Like the educational writing of Rousseau, Emile (1762) and Eloisa (1860), works like Dr. Gregory's A Fathers Legacy to his Daughters (1790) and the sermons of Dr. Fordyce were influential in forming notions of female education in a period primarily focussed on making women pliable and ornamental. These writers, through their fiction, attempted to create a counter-image of women's education as seen from a women's point of view.

Though not free from class bias, and reactionary in tone, these women's writings stressed the importance of developing intellectual and rational faculties in order to enable women to lead independent existences, if necessary as working women, refusing to see marriage as the only destiny of women. The fact that these conservative women articulated such "radical" ideas is significant.

One of the many strong points of this book is that it convinces the reader that it would be wrong to dismiss the works of writers like Mary Brunton and Elizabeth Hamilton as historical curiosities.

The titles, for example, of Mary Brunton's novels, Discipline and Self-Control, strongly resemble the titles of Jane Austen's earlier novels like Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, showing the strongly moralistic strain in female fiction. Bagchi contends that the fiction of these forgotten writers contributed to the female Bildungsroman tradition represented in Jane Austen's mature works and became important influences in the later female tradition, in the works of the Brontes and George Eliot.

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