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The Myth of the Accomplished Woman: The Arts in Austen’s Novels

In an era when a woman’s accomplishment was measured by how well she played the piano, and the quality of her education by how well she used a paintbrush, Emma Woodhouse is regarded as one of the most prestigious young women of her hometown. The irony, of course, is that Emma lacks both attention to and accomplishment in the arts. We are informed that in none of the arts has Miss Woodhouse “approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of” (Austen, Emma 39). Meanwhile, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet neither sings, draws, nor plays the piano well (Austen, 168-169). These heroines interact on a regular basis with young women of accomplishment in the arts. Emma associates with the highly lauded Jane Fairfax, while Elizabeth’s chief competition for Mr. Darcy—whose sister is praised for her accomplishment on the piano forte (45)—is the rich and well-educated Miss Bingley, who demonstrates greater musical skill than the heroine (61). Yet by the novels’ ends, Emma Woodhouse has married the wealthy, well-bred Mr. Knightley, and Elizabeth weds the exceedingly rich Mr. Darcy. Both matches are highly advantageous ones for the young women. This makes it appear that the “accomplishment” of young women who manage themselves successfully in the arts may actually count for little when it comes to thriving socially and economically in the complex 18th century society which Austen depicts. The differing fates of the young women in Austen’s novels serve to illustrate how the attentiveness paid to the arts is merely lip-service, and that such an independent vehicle as artistic accomplishment will not allow women such social success as it would appear.

The appearance of accomplishment in the arts was touted as vital to a young woman’s economic and social survival in 18th century society. In Austen’s era, women’s options in life were extremely limited: They might work as a governess, they might stay at home and care for their aging parents, or they might marry—all fates which Austen’s novels explore. Marriage is portrayed as the desirable outcome, as a married young lady may exercise a degree of independence not available as governess or homebound daughter, who both remain dependent on their providers and scheduled at the whims of others. Marriage also allowed a young woman to retain dignity, while the role of governess “was a position beneath the social rank and status of middle and upper class young women and was thus regarded as humiliating” (Swords). More importantly, marriage provided financial stability for a young woman that was rarely available elsewhere. As “inheritance further limited women’s economic freedom” by often excluding female descendants from any settlements (Swords), a woman could not be sure of financial stability when her father died. A married woman came under the financial responsibility of her husband, a far less tenuous position to be in. However, it was widely expected that a respectable young woman—one eligible for marriage and, thus, its benefits—would be, or at least appear, proficient in the arts.

The title of accomplished woman in Austen’s age is no trifling matter. Miss Bingley declares that a young woman deserving of the word must “have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages” as well as a “certain something in her air” (Pride and Prejudice 45). While this is an impossibly high list of standards, Mr. Bingley says he has “never heard of a young lady… without being informed that she was accomplished” (45). Clearly, not every young lady was accomplished to the degree of Miss Bingley’s rigorous standards, and we must account for the conflict between these two descriptions. Mr. Bingley’s statement is genuine and sincere. The key difference is that while Miss Bingley judges herself and by a high, specific list of standards, Mr. Bingley has never heard—never been given the impression—of a young lady not accomplished. He does not discriminate in accomplishments, expressing sincere admiration for the “common extent” (45) of such endeavors, and accepts the statements of others and superficial display in comprehending a young lady’s accomplishment. While being truly “accomplished” would require a good deal of time, effort, money, and—let us not forget—that certain air, Austen’s novels wryly suggest that appearing accomplished is an acceptable substitute, and one important for young ladies to assume.

Emma Woodhouse understands the necessity of this accomplished appearance in the arts. She sporadically “played and sang, and drew in almost every style; but her steadiness had always been wanting” (Austen, Emma 39). Emma does not show any mastery, but maintains a widespread impression of proficiency. Emma “was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as artist or musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved” (39). Though understanding that the extent of her accomplishments in the arts is actually quite limited, Emma is both willing and pleased to be known in society as accomplished and thereby gain credibility as a respectable woman. Austen’s language emphasizes the superficiality of this accomplishment—those who believe Emma to be truly accomplished are “deceived,” believing a lie. Nonetheless, this false appearance of accomplishment is valuable to Emma’s image and societal rank, and one she is pleased to have circulated.

Elizabeth Bennet also understands the necessity of appearing accomplished to escape society’s ridicule yet is often hindered by her family. It is not coincidence that the members of Bennet family, the majority of whom seem to lack respectability and are constantly displaying “impropriety of conduct” (207), have no education in the arts (168-169). Elizabeth and Jane, the two Miss Bennets who do later go on to make successful marriages, demonstrate more of an acquaintance with the arts than the remainder of their family. Both dance (21), and Elizabeth plays the piano (179), trims hats (14), and does needlework (56). Nonetheless, though Elizabeth makes a better showing in the arts than the several of her sisters, her accomplishment in them remains questionable. Elizabeth is not well-practiced in her music (179), and when shown “good paintings . . . Elizabeth knew nothing of the art” (247). While Elizabeth maintains just enough virtue in the arts to be more respectable than the majority of her family, she lacks legitimate artistic accomplishment.

Though Austen’s heroines in both Emma and Pride and Prejudice lack any serious accomplishment in the arts, the two novels are by no means devoid of artistic young women. The beautiful and well-educated Jane Fairfax excels in the arts. She is the “really accomplished young woman” that Emma, whose own accomplishments are a thin facade, “wanted to be thought herself” (148). Jane knits (79), has “excellent” handwriting (140), and dances (205), but her most dazzling accomplishment is her musical talent. Described as the “mistress of music” (193), Jane’s talent on the piano is compared to the “sun” (208), splendidly outshining every other performance near it. Moreover, Jane seems to even possess that rare, indescribable “something in her air”: “[Jane’s] was a style of beauty, of which elegance was the reigning character, and as such, [Emma] must, in honour, by all her principles, admire it” (149). Jane clearly seems to deserve the title of accomplished bestowed upon her throughout the course of the book. Elizabeth Bennet also encounters examples of accomplished women in Pride and Prejudice, the most sincerely accomplished of whom is Georgiana Darcy. Miss Darcy draws (247), plays piano, and sings (244), and like Miss Fairfax, is renowned for her “exquisite” (45) musical accomplishment. In Dr. Gregory’s conduct manual for young ladies, he advises that, “one of the chief beauties in a female character, is that modest reserve, that retiring delicacy, which avoids the public eye” (Gregory 31). Both of the highly accomplished young ladies display this attitude. Emma’s Jane is described as “reserved” (153), while Pride and Prejudice describes Georgiana as “exceedingly shy” (256). These quiet reserve of these two paragons of feminine accomplishment strike a sharp contrast with the other women of middling talents who often put themselves brazenly forward, suggesting an accomplishment in an even more elusive art: feminine manners. The manipulative Miss Bingley displays “alacrity” (61) in showing off her playing and voice before Mr. Darcy, and the condescending Mrs. Elton constantly discusses her own (never actually displayed) musical accomplishments (247). Though these women, like Emma and Elizabeth, do not attain the level of artistic accomplishment shown by Miss Darcy and Miss Fairfax, they nonetheless put themselves forward in such a manner so as to give an even greater appearance of their accomplishments, going far beyond Emma’s mere willingness to be misrepresented by others (39) and inflating their own artistic image with repetitive insistency.

Though each maintains a small array of artistic accomplishments, both Emma and Elizabeth’s main attractions are not their endeavors in the arts. Each is frequently surpassed—either genuinely or though exaggeration—in accomplishments by many female characters. Yet these two women make the most advantageous marriages possible for their respective social circles. Austen is hinting that artistic accomplishment is not the ultimate and most effective recommendation of a young woman. If we examine how her characters use the term, we find those who critique the accomplishments of women are most often other women. Austen’s men often seem to lack the same exacting degree of artistic discernment insisted on by many of the female characters. Mr. Bingley’s low standards for feminine accomplishment are maligned by Miss Bingley (45), while Emma is irked by Mr. Elton’s praise of her “charming talent” when he “know[s] nothing of drawing” (38). Mr. Elton goes on to marry Miss Hawkins, circulating “fame of her merits”—merits which Mrs. Elton pays much lip-service to herself but declines to demonstrate, wryly suggesting to the reader her actual lack of accomplishments—and the man’s either lack of perception or else his willingness to have his wife appear more successful than is true.

The two men in Austen’s novels who show high artistic standards are the two men who marry the middling-talented heroines, Emma and Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy complains “the word [accomplished] is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse, or covering a skreen”, and goes on to note that he “comprehends a great deal” in the term (45). Meanwhile Mr. Knightley informs Emma that her dislike of Jane Fairfax stems from the fact that Jane shows real accomplishment of which Emma, lacking herself, is envious (148), showing a keen perception of the difference between Emma’s thin accomplishments and Jane’s rich ones. Yet Mr. Darcy marries Elizabeth and Mr. Knightley marries Emma, despite the young ladies’ lack of high achievement in the arts. This clearly contradicts the apparent assumption that a young woman of accomplishment was the one likely to do well. Additionally, of the two most accomplished women of the novels, Georgiania Darcy’s reputation is almost ruined by a near elopement (202), and Jane Fairfax is forced to submit first to a disreputable secret engagement, followed by the humiliation of offering herself for the position of governess, and finally marrying a young man of questionable character. That the most highly accomplished woman is the one who rises most easily though society proves a myth in Austen’s novels. Accomplishment in the arts, though mildly beneficial in gaining respectability, is not the ultimate criteria for a young woman’s marital eligibility. Austen’s novels seem to suggest two alternate factors, neither of which depend on a young woman’s ability to play the piano or paint a portrait.

The first is class, which is linked with fortune. A young woman’s education required money. Austen’s women lacking finances for education, like Miss Bates, who does “not know one note from another” (Emma 193), or Charlotte, who comes from a large family who can give their daughter “little fortune” (Pride and Prejudice 131) become either old maids or are married to generally undesirable husbands of middling income. Though Emma and Elizabeth both marry into much larger fortunes, they both have enough finance for mild education and still marry within the same class, from landed gentry into landed gentry. Even though Jane Fairfax is highly praised for her accomplishments by Mr. Knightley, she also, though raised with the education of the landed gentry, comes from the lower class and must return there to work as a governess. Despite all Mr. Knightley’s admiration, the idea of entertaining a romantic interest for her “never entered [his] head” (258). The same man cautions Emma against trying to raise the class of lower-born Harriet by seeking to elevate her through marriage (56-58). Neither Darcy nor Knightley considers looking beyond his own class lines in marrying. Such borders were the first and real limit on acceptable marriages.

Austen’s second factor is the eligible young woman’s ability to match intelligence with the man she marries. Much in opposition to the docile picture of the accomplished young woman playing her instrument or using her watercolors, Emma and Elizabeth are both the most strikingly intellectually talented of their respective narratives. Elizabeth’s “wit and vivacity” (117) are emphasized, while Emma is characterized as “clever” (1) from the opening line of the novel. In both of their relationships, the interactions are defined primarily by serious, even at times confrontational, conversation, in which the women assert their ideas as eloquently as the men. This makes the two matches much more give-and-take, with each side of the partnerships able to see faults and flaws in the other, rather than a well-mannered, accomplished conversation which produces little personal insight or connection. This dynamic is the opposite of what would be expected from an accomplished young lady. Young women were to be educated in the arts, not in intellect, and one conduct manual even advised young ladies “if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of… a cultivated understanding” (Gregory 37). The arts were the medium through which a young woman expressed herself; speaking heatedly or argumentatively, or even merely demonstrating developed intellect before a man would be considered improper—yet Austen’s most happy and accomplished marriages display interaction between the two partners on an equal level of intellect.

Though Austen’s novels agree on the surface with society’s views of the artistically accomplished woman as respectable and therefore desirable and successful, the fates of the young women—and the natures of her heroines—in her novels contradict this convention. Though accomplishment in the arts is somewhat necessary for the appearance of respectability, its consequence is not what it is alleged. The arts provide a mere facade of respectability, but no actual benefit beyond being paid lip service as “accomplished”. The true factors influencing a young woman’s ability to secure wealthy and dignified partner—and succeed financially and socially—in Austen’s novels are intellect and class position.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Race Point Publishing, 2015.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Rockpoint Publishers, 2015.
  • Gregory, John. A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters. 1775. Project Gutenberg, 2015.
  • Swords, Barbara. “‘Woman’s Place’ in Jane Austen’s England. Persuasions 10 (1988): 76-82. Accessed Feb. 21, 2021.
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