Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth seem to inhabit different worlds. Dorothy Wordsworth is remembered for living a rather unconventional life in the wilds of the Lake District, while Jane Austen is associated with the gentry of Hampshire. But those two very different lives were not pre-ordained; they were forged from the choices that the two women made as they grew and matured.
Born in 1771 and 1775 respectively, Dorothy and Jane were born into similar comfortable circumstances. But they were both left with little to live on when their fathers died. And it was hard being a woman of small fortune in the world which Jane and Dorothy inhabited! It was almost impossible for genteel women to live independently; they were expected either to marry or to be dependent upon their families. Spinsters were ridiculed and seen as having missed the true purpose of their existence.
What was the best way for an intelligent woman to deal with these restrictions and limited expectations?
Of course the way a woman reacts to her situation depends on her character. And I believe the stories of Jane and Dorothy are worth comparing because, although they inhabited the same world and faced the same problems, they were very different people. Jane Austen's letters reveal a remarkably reserved woman. She drew back from people. Dorothy Wordsworth, on the other hand, was open-hearted and exuberant. These two very different young women could almost be the sisters that Jane Austen describes at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility:
'Elinor ...' writes Jane, 'possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement ... her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them; Marianne ... was ... eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.'
I wondered whether, by tracing the lives of two young women who resembled Elinor and Marianne, I could test Jane Austen's intuition that a cautious, unemotional approach to life would steer a girl more safely through the perilous waters of Georgian society. I hope that, by placing these two lives alongside each other, I've found a new way of understanding them. By examining the experiences and influences which were common to women of their time and class, I have highlighted the choices that these two individuals made: the choices which shaped their lives. Jane and Dorothy is a book about choices.
Because no woman is entirely a product of her circumstances. We are all, as Jane Austen says, 'rational creatures'. When faced with restrictions and injustice there are many ways of rebelling, conforming, or simply surviving. And I think the story of how women battle for autonomy is one which will always be worth telling.
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