Womanly Advice The authors Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, and Florence Nightingale all lived during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the same time period in which Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey, takes place. Therefore, these three women and Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen’s novel, would all have been faced with the same social situations involving politeness, fashion, and the relationships between women and men. Catherine is portrayed at the beginning of the novel as an innocent and socially naive young woman. The insights on life that she acquires come primarily from the direction of the people she spends her time with, rather than from looking inside herself. Perhaps if Wollstonecraft, Martineau and Nightingale had educated her, Catherine’s approach would have been different. Mary Wollstonecraft, born in England in 1759, is often credited with founding the women’s rights movement. As a young girl, she witnessed her father routinely bully her mother, and, as a result, became very aware of the submissive role women had in society at that time (Watts 1). This fueled an interest in doing what she could to help other young women, and she left home as soon as possible to run a girls’ school with her sisters. The school was quite successful, but its largest benefit was the picture it gave to Wollstonecraft of the period’s unorthodox ideas. This made the threat of her actions on women’s rights seem less frightening in comparison to some of the wilder ideas of the time, and therefore more of a possibility (Encarta 1). In 1786 Wollstonecraft used her teaching experience to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. She believed that unless they received the same education, there was no way women could contribute to society like men did, and thus be their equals (Watts 1). In enraged reaction to the French Revolution’s failure to attain better rights for women, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In this book she argued that women must be men’s equals, and if society did not change to reflect that, intellectual and moral progress would stop (Watts 2). “There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind are chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride.” (Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Chap. IX.) Wollstonecraft also had strong views comparing women’s actions and values according to society and to themselves: ” women live, as it were, by their personal charms ” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Chap. IX.). She suggested that when only beauty, weakness and ignorance were built upon in a woman’s character, that her character itself would be missed or destroyed. “When a woman is admired for her beauty, and suffers herself to be so far intoxicated by the admiration she receives, as to neglect to discharge the indispensable duty . she sins against herself by neglecting to cultivate an affection that would equally tend to make her useful and happy.” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Chap. IX.) Harriet Martineau, born in Norwich in 1802, was also a lifelong feminist, and became one early and on her own. She participated in many groups in both England and the United States that concentrated on women’s concerns. She was a devout Unitarian, and the Unitarian and Utilitarian religions were very important in her work and personal life. The philosophies of these religions were very favorable to women having a larger place in intellectual and public pursuits. Martineau wrote many pieces for local newspapers, in which she covered themes such as the advisability against marriage, the abuse of women, and the necessity of equal treatment, including education opportunities, of all humans (Webb 50-51). Martineau’s father tried to arrange a marriage for her, which she first accepted with some hesitation, and later changed her mind and declined. John Hugh Worthington, the prospective husband, was troubled with insanity and died a few years later from an apparent suicide. This is thought to be one major element in the shaping of Martineau’s life (Webb 51). Martineau claimed that “Worthington’s death liberated [her] to be alone and like it” (Pichanick. Harriet Martineau. Pp. 109-110). In this solitary situation, Martineau had plenty of time to devote to her work. She wrote extensively about what she believed to be an appropriate set of principles for society, which differed from the way society actually performed. These principles dealt with morals, or deep values held and acted upon, and manners — assumptions and practices of courtesy, kindness, politeness, or the absence thereof — the “surface manifestations of moral depth” (Harriet Martineau. 110). Florence Nightingale, a British nurse, hospital reformer, and humanitarian, devoted most of her time to establishing nursing as a medical profession. She was born in Florence, Italy in 1820 and raised in Derbyshire, England, where she received a thorough classical education from her father. In 1850 she began training for nursing in Alexandria, Egypt, and by 1853 became superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen in London. After the Crimean War broke out in 1854, the minister of war proposed that Nightingale assume direction of all nursing operations at the war front. Through her efforts the mortality rates among the sick and wounded was greatly reduced. At the close of the war in 1860, Nightingale founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses at Saint Thomas’ Hospital in London. The opening of this school marked the beginning of professional education in nursing. In 1907 she became the first woman to receive the British Order of Merit. In 1915, following her death in 1910, the Crimean Monument in Waterloo Place, London, was erected in her honor. Nightingale’s writings include Notes on Nursing, written in 1860, Notes on Hospitals, written in 1859, and Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes, written in 1861. (Microsoft Encarta 1). Nightingale was not respected by everyone for her work. Her male contemporaries often referred her to with disapproval. ” .I have heard enough of my ‘ostentatious & unnecessary benevolence’ to be aware that, even were I not a woman, it is of the highest importance for me that all things should be done quietly .. I hope you do not think me a ‘turbulent character’ as I have been called.” (Letter to Dr. Taylor from Florence Nightingale. 1857.)In spite of the criticism she received, however, Nightingale persevered. She did all she could to continue her nursing work, even if it meant planning and setting up a clinic in secret, as this excerpt from one of her letters refers to. She was a woman of dedication and confidence. She did not let society dictate her actions. Catherine Morland, the fictional heroine in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, was quite different from these three historical heroines. Catherine was a good-hearted, shy, naive young lady. She wore certain clothes because everyone else did. She spent her time socializing or reading novels because that’s what young ladies were expected to do. She associated with people who were considered high society because it would have been considered improper to have friends from a lower social class. Catherine based her decisions on other people’s advice, and molded her actions to imitate theirs. “What gown and what head-dress she should wear became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening .” (Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey. Chap.10. Pp. 77.)
Toward the end of the novel, she comes to realize that individuality is a rewarding and virtuous character, far more important than the talent of knowing what to wear, and she finally begins to make her own decisions. However, she had a tough time reaching this realization. Perhaps if she had had Wollstonecraft, Martineau, and Nightingale to guide her, Catherine would have been more confident in developing her own individual identity. Mary Wollstonecraft probably would have been enraged by the idleness of women in Catherine’s time. Weakness was an admirable quality in the female sex, so the women of the upper classes spent their time doing such useless tasks as crocheting, reading novels, shopping for new fashions, and entertaining guests. Wollstonecraft was a strong believer in shared duties and equal education. “Women are, in common with men, rendered weak and luxurious by the relaxing pleasures which wealth procures; but added to this they are made slaves to their persons, and must render them alluring that man may lend them his reason to guide their tottering steps aright.” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Chap. IX.) She probably would have encouraged Catherine to get an education, because ignorance in a woman was not truly attractive, as it was believed to be. She would also have suggested that Catherine choose a hobby so that her free time could be used wisely. Hobbies such as painting or playing a musical instrument were admired in Catherine’s time; Catherine did not find herself successful at any of these, however. Since that was the case, Wollstonecraft may have encouraged her to pursue something else that she did have talent in, such as fighting for women’s rights, like herself. The advice she would have given would have stressed that Catherine should use her time to make a difference, in some way or another. Wollstonecraft would have had something to say to Catherine concerning social classes. She believed they were a hindrance to human cooperation, and especially harmful to the progress of women.”The preposterous distinctions of rank, which render civilization a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants, and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of people, because respectability is not attached to the discharge of the relative duties of life, but to the station, and when the duties are not fulfilled the affections cannot gain sufficient strength to fortify the virtue of which they are the natural reward. Still there are some loop-holes out of which a man may creep, and dare to think and act for himself, but for a woman it is an herculean task, because she has difficulties peculiar to her sex to overcome, which require almost super-human powers.” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Chap. IX.)Catherine became very caught up in the ways of the upper social class during a stay with wealthy friends. She enjoyed their exclusive social functions and also got some pleasure out of the pampered, idle lifestyle that the women led. She made some decisions based on social acceptance which she later regretted, wishing she had been brave enough to act on her instinct. Perhaps if Mary Wollstonecraft had been Catherine’s instructor, Catherine would have been able to see through the masks of the upper class and notice their unhappiness. She could have prevented herself many moments of guilt and regret over not trusting herself above anyone else. Harriet Martineau’s most important advice to young Catherine would probably have been to have the courage to always be herself. Martineau submitted many articles to the local newspapers about women’s movements. She was met with a lot of rejection from both the editors and the readers, most of them refusing to print her work and many criticizing it. ” .and most of all it is quite impossible not to be shocked, nay, disgusted, with many of the unfeminine and mischievous doctrines on the principles of social welfare .A woman who thinks child-bearing a crime against society! An unmarried woman who declaims against marriage!! A young woman who deprecates charity and provision for the poor!!!” (Schoolnet. Pp. 2). Her ideas were too farfetched for popular society to accept. Still, she kept trying until she found an editor who liked her work and supported her. She did not break down and change her writing to make herself agreeable to society. Martineau stood by her own ideas. Martineau would have also have questioned Catherine’s intentions to marry. In many of her pieces she questioned the advisability of marriage for everyone, a position that required considerable bravery in 1838. She raised the question as a means of making judgements about the character of a society, stressing the opinion that the wife’s role in marriage was too stereotypically dependent and shallow. However, Martineau would most likely have approved of Catherine’s engagement to Henry Tilney because it was based on genuine affection instead of appearances and property. Dedication and confidence are two values Catherine could have learned from Florence Nightingale. Catherine was already a very dedicated friend, daughter, sister, and admirer, but she was not very dedicated to herself. She tended to overlook her first instincts with the anticipation of waiting to hear what others had to say about things. Catherine also lacked self-confidence in these situations, meaning that she often sacrificed the right decisions for acceptance into society. Nightingale would have recognized that Catherine’s own ideas of right and wrong did not always correspond with what she did. Nightingale would have prompted Catherine to act on her own beliefs and to stand by them, even if it meant making a sacrifice socially. This was a very important characteristic to Nightingale, because she believed that if women let others choose what they were to do and think, that they would never get anywhere (Microsoft Encarta. Pp. 1.). These three historical women contributed significantly to their respective societies and time periods. They would have had a lot to offer Catherine Morland in the way of advice and instruction, especially since they faced many of the same social situations. One quality that Wollstonecraft, Martineau, and Nightingale all had in common was the capacity to stand by what they believed in. This would probably have been the most valuable piece of advice they could have offered Catherine, for once Catherine embraced her individuality, she found herself much happier. If these women could have been there to guide Catherine in her endeavors, perhaps this happiness could have been achieved much earlier. Catherine eventually reached a level of self-confidence and independence that Wollstonecraft, Martineau, and Nightingale would have been proud of, but the four women probably would have enjoyed pursuing Catherine’s social education together.
1. Watts, Tommy. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” 1-2.2. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Encarta Concise Encyclopedia. 1998. 1-1.3. Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Boston: Peter Edes, 1792. Chap. IX.4. Webb. Harriet Martineau. 50-51.5. Pichanick. Harriet Martineau. 109-110.6. “Florence Nightingale.” Microsoft Encarta. 1995. 1-1.7. Nightingale, Florence. Letter to Dr. Taylor. 1857.8. Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1980.9. “Harriet Martineau.” Schoolnet, 1997. 1-4.