A Broadening of Prospects: Female Progression in Austen and Eliot
Austen and Eliot register the turbulence and transformation of their respective historic moments in the portrayal of a young heroine on the cusp of adulthood with a number of potential paths ahead of her. The heroines, like their societies, are caught between old and new as they seek to acknowledge the ties that bind them to the past and simultaneously create a future of their own. This dilemma reveals the nineteenth-century novel’s concerns of the individual’s ability to grow while being enmeshed in a network of relationships, and the place of the past in an increasingly unstable future. Beginning with Emma (1815) and The Mill on the Floss (1860), and concluding with a comparison of Persuasion (1817) and Middlemarch (1871), this thesis tracks Austen and Eliot’s depiction of female development which moves from a focus on the centrality of the childhood home, and in particular the heroine’s relationship with her father, to a narrative which ends on a more conscious note of ambiguity and broadening prospects. Emma and Mill both depict heroines who find their future in their past. Emma and Maggie develop and assert their own agency, but their circumstances and experiences of childhood bind them to their site of origin. Conversely, both Austen and Eliot’s later works enact a deliberate loosening of the hold the heroine’s childhood has on her, and Anne and Dorothea end up in very different places to where they began. They both reject their position as part of the rural landed gentry to instead gain entry into a more dynamic and inclusive community. This personal transition is accompanied by a more explicit delineation of the evolving socio-political landscape, an increase in the heroine’s mobility and fluidity, and an ending that frustrates a sense of stable closure in preference for one of more open possibility. Thus, so far from being read simply as ‘marriage plots’ Austen and Eliot subversively depict the young woman’s changing position and prospects as a matter of national importance.