Jane Austen Explains Mansplaining

Feild, Jones in “Northanger Abbey”

Wednesday

Literary Hub‘s Kelly Coyne recently had a useful article about Jane Austen’s criticism of mansplaining that reminded me of a senior project that student Carolyn Zerhusen wrote under my guidance several years ago. Carolyn described Austen’s fury at inferior male authors who looked down on her. Coyne holds up Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney as Exhibit A.

She examines the scene where Tilney scolds Catherine Morland for suspecting that his father murdered his mother:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

Coyne notes that

Henry’s lecture fits within a tradition of Austen criticism that Eve Sedgwick calls the spectacle of “Girl Being Taught a Lesson,” in which a heroine is put in her place by the male lecturer. 

Coyne then quotes one of the women who introduced the concept of mansplaining. In her essay “Men Explain It to Me,” Rebecca Solnit recounts a parallel incident:

When [Solnit] was young, she had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One family event, the physicist recounted, “as though it were a light and amusing” story, “how a neighbor’s wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her.” Solnit asks the physicist how he knew that the husband wasn’t trying to kill his wife. Of course, his explanation is just like Henry’s. The husband wouldn’t kill her, he explains gently, because “they were respectable middle-class people.” Thus “it was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her.” It’s a frightening story, but one that repeats itself again and again.

Mansplaining, Coyne explains, can undermine a woman’s instincts and cause her to doubt her intuition. In Catherine’s case, she is right that something is amiss, even though the general hasn’t in fact killed his wife. He has been a tyrannical husband, however, and he shows his true character when he unceremoniously kicks Catherine out of Northanger Abbey upon learnining that she has less of a fortune than he thought.. Catherine’s familiarity with gothic villains hasn’t entirely led her astray.

We have early indications that Henry Tilney is a mansplainer. At one point, for instance, we learn that he is attracted to Catherine because he can explain things to her: Austen wryly explains how this works:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Austen goes on to say that “to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms,” and she shows how Catherine’s naiveté feeds Henry’s vanity:

But Catherine did not know her own advantages—did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. 

I’d like to mount a partial defense of Tilney, however, who after all is the most sensitive of all Austen’s leading men. For one thing, he allows his sister to chastise him after he calls out Catherine for using the word “nice”:

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

In other words, although guilty of mansplaining, Tilney is also open to correction. With this in mind, we should revisit his later scolding of Catherine. I pick up uncharacteristic defensiveness in his reference to “every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.” Perhaps the general’s harsh treatment of his mother became a subject for neighborhood gossip and Tilney felt ashamed, especially since he felt powerless to protect her. Thus, when Catherine sees to the core of the general, he feels once again exposed and lashes out. His father more than Catherine is the real subject of his anger. In any event, he makes it up to her by braving his father’s wrath and coming to see her after she is kicked out of the house.

Mansplaining has its roots in male insecurity, which is why feminism, in this as in so many areas, liberates men as well as women. If men don’t feel pressured to come across as superior know-it-alls, they can have genuine conversations with women. Everyone benefits.

Further thoughts: In her article, Coyne fails to distinguish between sensitive and insensitive mansplainers. Austen’s novels are filled with egregious examples of the latter: John Thorpe, for instance, and Mr. Collins. For a counter example, Captain Harville in Persuasion catches himself in the act of mansplaining, which in turn leads to a powerful feminist insight. He and Anne Elliot are arguing about women’s constancy:

“But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

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