misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Heydt-Stevenson's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Loving Lydia & Lucy/Mansfield Park as soft-core porn (!)

Dear friends and readers,

For about 9 weeks on Janeites, WWTTA, and Austen-l, Diane R and I again posted regularly on a critical book on Austen.  Last time it was JEAL's memoir; this time we chose Jill Heyd-Stevenson's Unbecoming Conjunctions, a book that could hardly be more different, on (so to speak) the opposite end of a continuum:  JEAL takes Austen to be utterly conservative and without a radical or new thought. a delicate woman writer of women's worlds all nuance, sweet reason and light (so he sees the world from his hierarchical retired standpoint), a retreat and thus matter for nostalgia.  Jill Heydt-Stevenson has Austen as something of a super-intellectual and heartless radical (not in the leftist or liberal sense, Heaven forfend, but simply as overturning stereotypes about women early 21st academic women don't like), all robust jokes, as male as female, political, so matter for post-colonial and consumerist theory-based dialogic performances.  We considered a chapter each week, and so I have a diary of reading and discussing H-S's book over nine weeks to share.

To put my disagreements with this book boldly -- as UC is for bold points of view  even if in jargon and discreetly written -- I do not think that in P&P Lydia Bennet is a the central coda character whose character we are to admire and sympathize with; I do not thnk that the texture of Mansfield Park is soft-core porn; I don't  think we are to laugh at Anne Elliot as ridiculously sentimental, someone who should have snapped out of it long ago even if modern hardened attitudes see the senselessness of grieving for what cannot be helped

The modern Anne Elliot of Lake House:  having a physician's license, she resolutely leaves her beautiful home and takes
a job (2006 Lake House, Sandra Bullock)

I'm more in agreement with Jill Heydt-Stevenson's analyses of S&S, which is a deeply uncomfortable harsh book; Northanger Abbey may also be a book about fashion, yes, and Emma is an uneasy erotic text

This time I thought I'd begin with commentary on the introduction to Unbecoming Conjunctions and then the final assessment I wrote about its conclusion, and then as a demonstration of what I mean, provide a selection of postings from the 9 weeks or so. 

Since there was so much to say about this book, I will divide this blog into two. This first one includes my postings on the introduction and conclusion of this book, partly in reply to Diane Reynolds (my mate or partner in this endeavour) goes over the Introduction to the book, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  Part Two will cover Diane's introductions and framing, and thenthe weeks on Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Persuasion, with some comments on threads that emerged over the course of the discussion.


So first, The Introduction:

Unbecoming Conjunctions has an agenda and the introduction is quite clear on that.  H-D means to be provocative too -- and that makes her book interesting and stimulating.  She is of the camp that sees Austen as questioning her society, implying broad themes, and delving into sexuality, not sentimental but satiric. 

I'll make two points about the perspective. One, there is a book written since, wonderful, which really shows her point about how the body is there in Austen, sensual and physical and sexual feelings and thoughts centrally registered for the central themes and characters: John Wiltshire's JA and the Body. It's lucidly written and I recommend it especially for S&S. I wrote a blog on it.

The second I'd put this way: her book extends Austen into discourses of sexuality and women's problems and lives today.  Looking at them from the perspective she does makes them platforms for choreographing social, economic, and sexual politics, for negotiating them in front of us.

On the other hand, I was very bothered by 1) the way she contextualizes Austen by continual salacious texts where she does not acknowledge that these are more than salacious  Take the texts on pp 13-15.  I agree with the person who objected to them. The language of that contemporary is different from ours, but he or she was objecting on the grounds of that this is a misogynistic, cruel and nasty way of looking at people. H-S implies the objector is just a prig.  Not so.  I am not amused at Johnson's by mistake making a pun and being laughed at. There is aggression and anger here (and not at the privileged or powerfful), and she should acknowledge it..  These double entendres *in the other texts* Jill analyzes occur in misogynistic, and often cruel and nasty texts (aimed at individuals in a venal way). I know Darnton has argued repeatedly that pornography, libertine books are radical revolutionary (I'll instance Therese Philosophe which I've been reading), but this stuff seems to me sarky snarky stuff like newspapers today. I agree with the protesters in the era and feel for Johnson

Remember Austen's ambivalent attitude towards laughter:  through Elizabeth and in The Watsons Emma we are told ridicule is a dangerous and cruel weapon.  It seems to me that recent books, say Devoney Looser's on Austen's depiction of Miss Bates actually might support H-S because Looser says Austen makes unkind fun of Miss Bates, but in doing so, Looser shows this humor is conservative and against single women.

Speaking of satire, while it can hit out at wrongs in society, it is often reactionary, angry and while the satirist endlessly talks of their moral point of view, at heart there is real anger, personal anger often.

These are issues that swirl around these texts she quotes and presents as context for Austen's. The caricatures of the day were horrible to women.  This brings me to her critique of essentialism.  Essentialism is a word which refers to any analysis of women as having a universal deeply rooted nature, ultimately from their biology, one very different from men.  In literature I'll offer the idea that "essentialism" gets some academic women mad because they see women's books as put in a ghetto they dislike (one not competitive and ambitious for large perspectives); but although there are those who want to obscure ideas about how women's literature really differs from men's, "ecriture-femme"  or whatever phrase you want to use to describe a specifically woman's sort of subject, text, gener (female gothic, women's poetry), there is such a thing.  Women do write differently and they act differently from men in some central areas because of the way they are brought up, their experiences, and yes, probably aspects of their psychology.  We are gendered.  In women's finest criticism (Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter Patricia Meyer-Spacks are just more famous names), Austen is valued for making a woman-centered point of view respected.

On women's writing, as I wrote, I'm one of these who with not only the French writers, but say Nancy Miller and her school and Elaine Showalter, writers about female gothic and many others (in poetry, Paula Backscheider) argued for women's writing having its own usual subject matter, outlook, tone, partly the result of how women are brought up and how they live, but also a result of something in their natures as a group. I'd say Austen belongs here, but I don't know why this should figure particularly in Jill (I hope she doesn't mind if we know use her first name)'s book.  We could make it relevant to the opposite thesis: we can take JEAL to take the radically other view of Austen; chaste, submissive, supportive of the establishment, never had a mean thought in her life, didn't dream one. The chapters where he tried to delineate what was Austen's achievement he immediately moved to cite other women's books.

Nancy Miller differentiates essentialism from women's writing -- in her Subject to Change she demonstrates that what we identify as a women's books comes from her circumstances, what women are taught, how they live.  Now Naomi Schor in her book on George Sand (I don't have the title to hand) takes another tack: Schor does go for essentialism but she come up with the idea that women go for romance and idealism, partly because if they stay with "realism" that must perforce uphold the establishment.  Realism = prudence, pragmaticism.  To want to have a vision other than the world hands us means idealizing and in her book she defends Sand against Balzac against these lines. But she slips and slides into essentialism a lot and doesn't mind, showing other women have done this and how natural.

Diane Reynold's cogent reply:  "I included the definition of essentialism because JIll uses the term in her introduction--on p. 24 (top of page) she writes that "to define as 'unthinkable' that a 'lady' could make such a joke, not only essentializes Austen ..." (Jill is talking here about  Mary Crawford's comments about rears and vices in MP). I thought Jill's  comment was interesting. Is essentialism--the idea that there is, for a lack of a better term, some irreducible trace of the female in women's writing,   used against JA (or Mary) --how could lady write/say such a thing; we must not have heard correctly ... versus an ecriture feminine that actively looks for female voice and embodiment in women's writing?"

To which I replied:  On the texts used to contextualize the punning in Austen: it's not that she is misogynistic, rather that they (the ones H-S picks out) are. And that one didn't need to be a prig not to like them and object.  I'll mention now Looser's argument that Austen is unfair towards single women in her depiction of Miss Bates because I do agree that this relates to how we see Austen's tone and satire, and, as I've said before, I like the way Fay Weldon (feminist) rewrites P&P in her film making sympathy for Mary and Anne de Bourgh where in Austen there is none and considerable spite in Elizabeth (apologized for by Elizabeth when she realizes she was being like Lydia, but not withdrawn as a just caricature by the narrator at all).

I also suggested that it's a big stretch to see such scabrous texts as having serious ideological weight -- even if one can make such an argument for texts like Therese Philosophe (I should have said nowadays increasingly attributed to Diderot).  Jill gives lengthy quotes and we don't need to have read much more to see what they are.  And that they are unkind and remind me of Gillray then and newspaper articles that are sarky today, written by journalists to get attention, make a reputation and keep afloat (times being what they are).

Then Final Thoughts:

The final conclusion of Unbecoming Conjunctions does stress H-S's emphasis on the importance of the body in Austen, but also subversive laughter in Austen, all, she says, in the service of freeing women.  (I should say I agree much body is there in the sense John Wiltshire shows in his book, JA and the Body.)  H-S conclusion presents the book as strongly feminist -- from an angle not all feminists would agree with (there are so many different perspectives, schools, "waves" &c). She says she's recovering and rescuing Austen by "nullifying the power of ideology."  The ideology she seems to be referring to is not exactly clear in this conclusion.  Murdock and Harding also wrote they were rescuing Austen: from hagiographers and the complacent. Mary Lascelles wanted to recover her art. It's all so general even if the title word "unbecoming" shows that what is wanted is to stop this demand for censorship of women by telling them what they are saying or doing is unbecoming to them (notions of good taste, upper classness, control &c&c).  While Austen's texts have been bowdlerized or at least lightly censured (as when she in the second edition of her S&S eliminated the phrase "natural daughter" for Eliza Williams), no one has changed her words or crossed out passages (as Jill admits). 

In the final chapter Jill alluded to William H. Galperin's The Historical Austen and I had a look at it.  Galperin is memorable to me for arguing that P&P and S&S are failures in a number of ways and deeply conservative in thrust.  Elizabeth learns to contain herself.  This is inadequate as a summary, just what I remember as main general points.  He also argues that the first versions, the cancelled chapters of Persuasion are much better than the present ones we read. He prefers this previous ones because he likes the slapstick. Much better, apparently.  The first time I read this I thought he was trying to call attention to his book by extravagant statements, but returning to it this week it seems to me he too wants to laugh at Persuasion and read it in ways I find against the grain. (Two of the movies have included the clashing scene of Lady Russell and Wentworth from the cancelled chapters, combining it as not funny with the final moving conclusion that is familiar to us all I assume.) 

Unbecoming Conjunctions is a book in the recent or new form of literary criticism that can be referred to as cultural studies.  It's clearly very different from much that we have had before:  To take two main opposing schools: there is the politicized thematic criticism as intellectual history seen in Marilyn Butler and her followers (Evans is one) and Claudia Johnson and hers (Sullivan and Todd come in here).  Butler finds a deep conservatism (Tory, pro-capitalist, deeply anti-socialist finally) in Austen and Johnson a qualified feminist subversion.   Then there are the close readings which use common sense psychologizing of an implied author and ethics, some again give us a humane Austen with deeply liberal impulses (Emily Auerbach recently) and some the more individualistic (recently Waldron); some concentrate on the art (Lascelles), some on genre (as gothic or sentimental); there's close readings on old-fashioned historical context (Improvement of the Estate, JA and Regency England, Southam on the navy).  Galperin's book seems to me the closest thing I've seen in book length to UC:  it is couched in the language and style of UC (very hard to read): however it's basically new historicism and makes no compromise with common fans' views of Austen as romantic. The Historical Austen is filled with assumptions about its academic audience's values and norms, assumptions I find disdainful in tone.

UC is rather catholic (in the sense of wide) and includes a wide range of "tools:"  from new historicism, to psycholanalytical, to cultural studies, to feminism, to phenomenology, to consumerism and fashion, so many I'd say the book could be subtitled:  texts by Austen anthropologically considered.  Interesting to me is how when anthropologists go off and study tribal peoples they often make a heroic attempt not to be judgemental, not to take sides, but Jill clearly does (as does Galperin), though the sides are all over the place -- not easily categorizable as liberal and leftist or conservative for she defends strong materialism (in her chapters on P&P) and intense adherence to fashion (NA, as very gay -- and I mean that pun good-naturedly). We are at a distance from Austen's texts and reconfiguring them through a new nexus of theories.

This book may be a herald of what's to come in Austen studies.  Certainly this kind of thing is found in romantic studies and it's all over Victorian studies nowadays, whole journals are increasingly written with this kind of stance or language and using these varous "tools."  The problem is that in the 19th century the writers then were increasingly themselves sophisticated and we might say proto-cultural studies, made aware of how theirs was one culture among so many different ones in the earth, anthropological about themselves even, so it really is not a leap in the same way. To find this in the 18th century one must go to Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville or D'Alembert; and there this kind of thing is in the service of secularism, radical thought (atheism to be frank, see Peter Gay's Modern Pagans).  For Austen an obstacle is her readership is strongly filled with a fan base, and periodicals have this large swath of the public in mind when it comes to publishing articles and publishers when it comes to publishing books.  The fan base sees Austen as conventional romance, and more strongly than ever a refuge in the post-feminist sense.


And now a selection of postings from the 9 weeks:

Lucy tells Elinor that Edward is engaged to her, Lucy Steele (2008 WBGH/BBC Andrew Davie's S&S)

Third week: 
Chapter 2: On Sense and Sensibility:

Diane Reynolds's posting:

As the chapter opens, JHS offers us a close-up of the "small objects" that add texture to the novel. As she puts it: "Austen weaves these tiny objects [miniatures, hair locks, etc.], replete with secret meanings, into her narrative in order to expose male entitlement ..." (34)

JHS focuses on the significance of these small objects. The gun Willoughby wears when the Dashwoods first meet him represents danger. Elinor assumes a ring twined with hair that Edward wears contains her hair, only to find out later it is Lucy's hair, pointing to the interchangeable quality of her and Lucy. Marianne can not
properly read patriarchical avarice when Willoughby takes a long lock of her hair, which JHS says is also an allusion to The Rape of Lock with its sexual meaning of "lock."

Interestingly, JHS picks up on several other critics, such as Angela Leighton, who see the ostensible story in S & S "screening" a darker shadow story that is possibly suggested more than articulated. Although JHS does not talk about this, I immediately thought of the fact that Elinor paints screens! If we are looking at representative
objects, what better represents how Elinor functions than as a screen-- sense covering for sensibility. And we see in Lady M's dismissal of Elinor's painted screen (a brutal scene even without any symbolism) a representation of Lady M's blindness to what is going on under her nose with the secret engagement of Edward and Lucy. Elinor functions to "screen" that reality from her view.

More prosaically, JHS also discusses the importance of objects made of a beloved's hair in the 18h and 19th century world and provides some context--for example, a woman could not accept a lock of a man's hair
until after they were engaged, though a man could accept a lock of a woman's hair pre-engagement.

JHS argues that JA is sending messages about the economic basis of love and courtship through these small objects. For instance, Lucy tells Elinor that she wishes she could give Edward a miniature of herself, the implication being that a woman like Lucy is too poor to have such an object made. Marianne, with her Romantic sensibilities, of course ignores the fundamental economic issues that will prevent W. from marrying her.
Marianne's sprained ankle and tumble down the hill play on sexual innuendos, according to JHS. To have a sprained ankle was a euphemism for being pregnant and tumble was a euphemism for sex. Also being
carried down a hill might symbolize being a fallen women. To her credit, JHS does not insist or argue that Marianne WAS sexually seduced by WIlloughby, but does argue that the novel is fraught with that suggestion, with the intimations of that secret. JHS argues that one or two innuendos might mean nothing but that the large number of them in the novel suggest secrets.

In the second part of the chapter, JHS moves from the significance of small objects to the use of bawdy humor in the novel. Characters like Sir John and Mrs. Jenning, with their bawdy ribbing of Elinor about the letter "f," for example, point to the underlying seamier side of the genteel romantic love that Marianne and Elinor pursue, as do the two fallen Eliza's and Miss Steele with her unpleasnt "beaux" talk. The Elizas function, JHS argues, to suggest the fact that no matter how chaste a woman is, there's ultimately no protection from male aggression and privilege.

I don't want to go on too long, but maybe someone else would like to comment on Willoughby offering to give Marianne a horse called Queen Mab, a reference to Romeo and Juliet?

Finally, JHS concludes that the novel is about the uncertainty of perception and point of view, an opinion I strongly concur with. Do you agree?

The chapter has helpful photos and I appreciate the book for pointing me at sources such as Angela Leighton and John Dussinger.

JHS's chapter on Sense and Sensibility made me suddenly see how much alike Elinor and Lucy Steele are, in other words,  an unbecoming conjunction. This was a surprise to me, because I have tended to perceive the two as opposites: Elinor dignified, well-educated, well bred, sensible and non-mercenary undergoing the torture of having to endure the vulgar, catty, poorly-educated, grasping and mercenary Lucy. But the two share commonalities: Both have to cover for a sister who is ready to embarrass the family (interestingly making Miss Steele and Marianne another unbecoming conjunction), both can be manipulative, both are intelligent and both are at financial  disadvantage on the marriage market. We (I) tend to like one and loathe the other (I tend to lump Lucy with Mrs. Norris as one of the most odious characters ever) but maybe things would look different
from Lucy's pov?

I replied:

As I wrote, I very much liked the first half of the chapter: it's a close reading of the text in the modern way, situating it in a larger here consumer culture and much intertextuality. I had not agreed at first that "tumbling" was the equivalent of sexual intercourse partly because I never saw this before, but I have come round now :); on the other hand, I feel the way of reading the lines of Marianne's fall is leaning too hard.  Similarly, references to hair are often puns, salacious and in general hair is seen as sexy (and the exchange of hair meant to evoke intimacy); but I don't feel the Rape of the Lock is alluded to consciously, but that a kind of feel in the air and culture the Rape of the Lock exploits could be in S&S too.  Jewelry is also susceptible of metonymy in the same way, and can be used funnily but I find saturnine satire of Robert Ferrars in the toothpick case. The rings show hypocrisy and treachery and to my mind to realize that Edward did give Lucy a ring and took one from her with her hair in it and spent 2 weeks with her suggests he is more doubledealing and sexually involved with Lucy than most readers like to suppose.  As to the bawdy double entendres Jill finds in the courtship between Willoughby and Marianne, I can see maybe some of them are there, but I genuinely feel to read the text this way is out of kilter with the tone of this romance in the book. I realize one can hold more than one tone at a time, but they need to be consonant.

Andrew Davies picks up on the disjunctive semi-bawdy nature of Nancy Steele's speech in his 2008 S&S delightfully, it's a form of bizarre appetite in the film.  I don't find Austen's S&S funny myself -- or the humor seems to me more like grimace or I feel appalled:  Mrs Jenning's crack to Mr Palmer he's stuck for life, and the presentatio of Mr and Mrs Palmer to my mind make D.W Harding's case in his essays on "Regulated hatred" and "caricature and character" in Austen.  These are early crude sketches for Mr and Mrs Bennet in a way: Mr Palmer married partly out of sheer sexual attractiveness as we are given to understand Mr Bennet did; Mrs Palmer doesn't know how to cope with his insults so she pretends not to understand them. If played seriously, this is painful stuff.  But it's presented grotesquely so it's hard to know what tack to take.  There are jokes here and there, such as Lady Middleton quietly reminding Sir John six and seven times a day, and neat ironies such as when Lucy says she never saw Edward in such spirits as the day he visited her to tell her Brandon had given him a living.

One could argue this is a youthful book and Austen is not wholly in control of her tone and that's why we have trouble interpreting or at least I see disjunctions that don't make sense (in Mr and Mrs Palmer). I've usually felt the passages when Elinor and Marianne first come to Cleveland and they sit there the first day to be kindly.

There is a mingling of comedy and tragedy in this book. I suppose the trip to the poultry yard at Cleveland has an equivocal quality. Uncanny seems to me too strong, but it is uncomfortable. This nitwit of a woman who insists on seeing benignity in the smallest misery she can find (and by extension large ones too); like Elinor though I feel for her and could forgive her for everything but the irritating laugh.  I now see Jill H-S's view is there is much farce here, but I feel the farce is but one thread and not the basic one.

I have read the Angela Leighton "Sense and Silences," and thought I had a copy in my house. If so, I can't find it. I remember it as suggestive in the way her work on women's poetry is. Nothing demonstrated, just suggestive. 


Lydia Bennett revelling in her new married clothes and status, aided and abetted by Mrs Bennet (1979 BBC Fay Weldon's P&P)

Fourth Week:  Chapter 3 and Pride and Prejudice:

Diane's posting:

Because there's so much there, we'll look at JHS's chapter on Pride and Prejudice over two weeks. This week, we'll focus on Elizabeth/ Darcy, flogging, Charlotte/Mr. Collins

This is quite an elegant chapter in many ways.

Some thoughts on P&P in general:

JHS sees P &P as kinetic, energetic and in motion, and as about physicality. Instead of seeing the body as passive, the novel explores physicality--"'the bodily dimension of consciousness''--and "dramatizes how the body materializes the ideologies it has absorbed." (71) Do you find this to be so?

We see this in:

Elizabeth often being in motion--walking six miles, "springing over puddles," face flushed from exercise. The physical responsiveness of Elizabeth and Darcy to each other, their appreciation of each other's physical attributes and the extent to which they express their emotions physically--Darcy paling and then coloring at Elizabeth's refusal of him; Elizabeth walking and walking in agitation.In general, people admiring each other's "forms." This ranges from watching soldiers from windows to Darcy watching Elizabeth from afar.

On the flip side: physical cruelty and revulsion:

JHS puts a great emphasis on a seemingly throwaway line about a soldier being flogged juxtaposed next to another soldier rumored to be engaged--this represents the conjunction of violence and marriage and becomes a segue into talking about Mr. Collins and Charlotte. Like Linda, I--and many of us--would think this section a bit harsh toward Mr. C and Charlotte. I keep in mind that Elizabeth goes away from her visit to Charlotte having learned to respect Charlotte all the more. I think JA was sympathetic to women who were not Elizabeths and wants us not to scorn them. She humanizes a marriage that could easily have been reduced to caricature.

Getting back to the flogging: JHS has this line in the novel carrying a tremendous amount of weight Does it hold up under it? Is JA trying to make a point about the conjunction of marriage and violence in P&P? (I would again note that, imho, JHS overstates Mr. Collins's "repulsiveness" to help buttress this claim, though in this case she's talking about psychic violence.) If the flogging is the ONLY place we see a reference to physical punishment, that might be a problem. Have people found other references? I can see JHS, the groundbreaker, setting a path and that could alert us to other instances. If so, this
would add credence to her claim.

Embodied confusion: Because he functions from gender stereotypes, Darcy initially finds Elizabeth's anger at his proposal amusing--he thinks she is playing the coquette. At the end of the novel, her father and Jane are confused that Elizabeth is in love with Darcy after all the mixed signals. JHS asks, does JA, like Elizabeth, have trouble conveying her anger because we refuse to see her as anything other than "arch" and "sweet?"

Embodied hostility: Pens as phallic symbols--Caroline Bingley offers to mend Darcy's pen ... but also as an example of women's subservience, making pens for others but not using pens. Does JA's "bawdiness" here represent feminist empowerment by expressing hostility to female subservience (JHS's words)?

I replied to Diane R's posting thus:

I hope Jill will clarify and tell us which of us is right when I say I disagree with Diane in this sense: I don't think Jill was reading P&P as "novel that not only upholds traditional patriarchal order in the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy but a novel that explores and critiques the constraints of patriarchy and marriage in a multi-faceted way by also showing us the less satisfactory marriages of Charlotte and Mr Collins, Lydia and Wickham  ..."

It may be I'm misunderstanding the chapter but my view is this:  Jill shows us conflicting inferences one can take away from the Charlotte and Mr Collins story and the Elizabeth and Darcy one and the presentation of Lydia (she doesn't say all that much about Wickham).  Her idea is these conflicting inferences taken together do add up to a thematized general point of view.  Jill doesn't say what she thinks Austen felt but by implication since Austen wrote the book, it must be Austen contained in her mind while she wrote these utterances these different views and shaped them to make a coherent work of art. And what is the coherent or dominating message:  that the novel as Jill reads it may be seen as subversive not only of patriarchy or male hegemony (as when Mr Bennet has the final say in whether Lydia gets a trousseau he is shown to be an indifferent absent father, irresponsible) but also (and this seems important) of stereotyped ideas about women's sexuality and women's characters.  Again the chapter says P&P undermines ideas about gender. Jill (as I understand it) does not read the novel as upholding traditional ideas. Like Claudia Johnson, she allows some readers read the books as conservative, but she does not think that is at all adequate to what is in front of us.

If I may I'd like to go back to one of the original seminal books which broke away from the interpreation of these books as complacent cozy romances we can escape to -- not that everyone thought that:  G. H. Lewes didn't, Margaret Oliphant didn't; others thought of them as having a refined sensitive morality only intelligent people who thought for themselves would appreciate.  Trollope saw Austen's books as quintessential women's books showing a narrow world a woman who had little experience of the wider world would show; R. H. Hutton (great Victorian critic) saw Austen's books as neglecting history and didn't reflect particulars of a given time and place in the way high Victorian novels did.

Jill probably didn't have D. W. Harding in mind but he's useful for what I see in her book.  Harding suggested that Austen wrote as a form of release, a place to "find some mode of existence for her critical attitudes."  The question is what are Austen's critical attitudes?  Again I may be wrong but I think Jill likes Lydia and feels that in the text there is much to support Lydia and celebrate her behavior; she thinks the text sticks up for Lydia.   It is true that a given incident or utterance can have different interpretations. So for example, when Lydia returns home married to Wickham and appears to be indifferent to all the misery and worry she has caused, and even flaunts her marriage as a wonderful thing she's achieved, and proceeds to needle Jane and ignore Elizabeth's pointed comments on what a lousy way this is to get a husband (never mind what kind of husbands one gets this way), we are given little words here and there which register Lydia's discomfort:  for example, amid the showing off, demands for congratulations, endless talking, Elizabeth sees Lydia "with anxious parade, walk up to her mother."  I'm calling attention to that word "anxious."  In fact Lydia is overacting perhaps.  Austen certainly wants us to abhor Mr Collins's view Lydia should have been thrown into the streets.  Elizabeth when thanking Darcy late in the novel refers to Lydia as her "poor sister," because without Darcy's money and connections, Lydia would have been up shit's creek altogether, and Elizabeth can foresee what the future holds for Lydia in Wickham's clear indifference to Lydia.

There is sympathy for Lydia; her childlike showing off of her ring has poignance.  But I find that this is as far as one can go, and Jill's finding enjoyment in Lydia's sexuality is not in the text, or can't be in it unless you erase and don't see all that shows Lydia to be shallow, obtuse and indifferent to everyone but herself ("perfect unconcern" is the phrase Austen uses more than once). So if there are conflicting ideas, there must be a coherent text somewhere. 

Now I know that there are passages which are enigmatic. How are we to take her dressing up that soldier?  I suggested the way I would read it:  it's a form of hazing and of a piece with Lydia's behavior to her sisters.  Why do I think this?  Because the preponderance of the inferences in the text about Lydia align with this.  I don't think Lydia a parallel or double with Elizabeth, but rather a contrast; this is seen from the way Lydia is treated by the narrator and Elizabeth who while ironized at is Austen's mouthpiece to a certain extent, and after her Jane Bennet -- the two in dialogue suggest Austen's perception of experience in this novel. 

I don't think Lydia "liberates" Elizabeth from a "narrow definition" of feminine life and enjoyment. I agree that Austen has an "interest in denying potentially disruptive female bonds," but this is so abstract.  What bonds are we talking about?  And what will Elizabeth get by breaking away from them?  if it's Austen who is experiencing this disruption, she's got an odd way of presenting Lydia, for she continually surrounds her with Elizabeth's embarrassment, irritation, and pity, and sense of Lydia as a liar.  I can't see how Austen is enjoying herself expressing sexuality through Lydia. I don't see her bringing out true female sexuality through Lydia either -- it's a masculinist point of view that Lydia embodies: she's a man-trapper, she's aggressive, and there is no sense of non-genital sensuality or the kind of multifold sexual feeling women have.

Austen did enjoy breaking tabooes left and right in her Juvenilia: she's going to murder her mother and father; the wild kinds of satires there and images.   But that's not realistic, not thought through and it's hard to know what her target is or where she herself stands in the burlesques.

The mother is a parallel for Lydia, and what do we see here?  she threw jane together with Mr Bingley but her behavior is such she continually makes their really getting together harder and makes his relatives against the match -- and that's an obstacle that almost overturns the romance.  Also, how can you ignore Jane's emotional pain at the way her mother goes on and on and humiliates and vexes and makes life so much worse for her.

I don't understand the idea of gender being undermined is more important; and as I suggested last week I think it hard to make a clear case for gender undermining but think one can be made easily for sensitivity and compassion:  Mr Bennet is insensitive out of his own bitterness at his lot.

Which is the more important? what makes Pride and Prejudice a novel worth reading and discussing.  What do we take away from it to strengthen and enrichen our lives?

Diana Birchall teased me comparing me to Fanny Price; I don't mind and what I said in the first part of this posting about how I read Lydia's behavior to others and her fate is in line with how Fanny notices how miserable Julia Bertram is during the play practice and feels for her -- as I think Austen wants us to -- and Maria's eventual fate.  Fanny is ironized and is less the central perspective of the novel than Elizabeth (it's Mary Crawford who feels for Maria -- well, up to a cetain point and no further) but this kind of view is central to Austen's six mature books.

If I may guess, I gather Diane reads Lydia more the way I do, and herself thinks and that's why she agrees with Jill or say Jill thinks "JA displays Lydia's sexual transgressions to satirize how the society tries to control the female body and uses "humor to show how such constraints lead to rebellion and pathology"  I also gather Diane sees the novel as ambivalent, partly conservative and partly not.  Correct me if I'm wrong, Diane.

What do I think?  When I teach books, I find myself having to force myself to put into words a coherent perspective that I find is true and can help the students understand the text.  A year ago last fall (fall 2008) I taught P&P and here's some of what I said: 

P&P closely mirrors the milieu she came from; Not realistic because of satiric caricatures. Collins a caricature; so too Mrs Bennet. Austen satirizes and uses irony and sometime emotional identification for what she doesn't care for and wants you to laugh at or reject.. Themes include intense pressure to marry as a way of supporting yourself if you are a woman of this class; clashes of class and money, mortification and love;  the mistaken idea we get from first impressions. You can only know someone from what they do over a long period of time.

 Those public scenes she dramatizes most often focus the reader on the outward manifestations of some inward embarrassment, misinterpretation, or frustration from boredom.  Someone has said to done something cruel and outrageous which society tolerates -- indeed can encourage by laughter.  When private cruelties appear in public they are mortifying.

Solace and comfort is in sisterhood and congenial companionship -- for those who have hearts.

P&P is not simply a happy book: Charlotte Lucas will spend the rest of her life with a boor and sycophant, she has to lie in his bed and let him impregnate her.  Mr Bennet writes a letter to Collins whose greatness is Mr Bennet shows that what Collins cares about is money and prestige, p 364. Mr Bennet has spent his life with a dolt; not uncommon.  The hard terms of people's existences are set before us

At the same time, P&P is perceived as a primal archetypal romance book which is respectable -- unlike so many womens' novels which are dissed.  After an ordeal (in this case the heroine learns to distrust herself), she’s given her heart’s dream of a handsome man, great wealth, prestige, and tender protective love in spades.

Is it false to women’s experience of powerlessness today? and the continued prestige and power of men and male heterosexual desires in the public marketplace explains why the novel is liked. In pre-feminist and now this backlashed post-feminist era, women have seen that education has not given them power, far less sexual liberation on male terms, and they turn to Austen’s version of romance as refuge, as places they can recuperate an identity they are not allowed to enjoy elsewhere.

Now is Lydia's existence one we can recuperate a good identity through. I can't see it.  Is Elizabeth's. Yes. Jane's. yes. There's hope for Kitty (look how Lydia leaves her flat -- no sisterhood there at all). Charlotte will not starve; she has a room to herself and can live with some dignity and self-respect.  Mr Bennet made a bad mistake early on and there's not much retrieval for him beyond what we see. But remember there is satirical caricature here and Mrs Bennet is not a real person but an exaggeration.  The novel has rounded characters and more flat ones, but it's not In Search of Lose Time: modern psychological depths and the evolution of a character through development in time and history and specfics of culture are not here. 

I tell students not to read characters as people nor anachronistically.   P&P is a complicated brilliant book with much depth to it but it's not gotten by psychologized characters; rather it's the interplay of the nuanced utterances, the larger patterns of characters against the story line, and through imagery. We also used the movies as ways of making visible how to read dramatic screnes for this novel is very playlike.  I talked about the gay and serious (grave hero and heroine) in the plays of the era as well as novels like Richardson's Grandison (characters in it).


Mary luring Fanny into lesbian sexual interaction in MP (1999 Miramax Rozema's MP)

Mansfield Park

Sixth week:  MP (Unbecoming Conjunctions places NA before MP in its chronology, evidently classing it as one of the three "first" or Steventon novels; for NA see part two of this retrospective blog)

First Diane Reynold's concise summary:

Making and Improving: Fallen Women, Masquerades and Erotic Humor in Mansfield Park

A question: Does Fanny metaphorically prostitute herself to get Edmund as a husband?

Jill opens with the thought that MP, often taken to be JA's most serious novel, is laced with (often dark) humor. Jill recalls JA's
niece's recollection of Jane working (sewing) by the fire, then starting to laugh, then jumping up to write down thoughts that became part of MP.

Central to JIll's chapter on Mansfield Park is the exposure of courtship (and hence marriage) as a commercial transaction. At the center of this is the figure of Fanny, bid on by Henry Crawford, pimped by Mary Crawford, and disposed of by Thomas Bertram. In how others would deploy Fanny on the marriage market, the boundaries between courtship/marriage and prostitution collapse.

Jill links Mary's "rears and vices" comment--already the subject of endless conversations since I've been on these lists--to William getting "made" as a lieutenant due to Henry's connections. As the world of promotion in the navy is one of trading favors, be they sexual or otherwise (Jill sees the rears and vices comment as a reference to sodomy), so marriage is a financial transaction. Henry uses William's advancement as an attempt to buy Fanny's hand in marriage. Rather than woo her, he initially takes (albeit, I would say, unconsciously) the easier path of trying to compel her into marriage by making her "owe" him. In essence, she's become the prostitute who has been paid for--yet she resists becoming the sacrifice in this transaction.

Jill links landscape, a motif in the novel, to Fanny, and, more broadly, to the commodification of marriage. Like landscapes, which are managed and controlled, Fanny veers between the two poles of decorative and useful, but is almost always seen by the other characters as an object. As Jill put it, Fanny functions as "a fetishistic commodity," encouraged to sell herself for rank and money.

Sexual references: When Henry speaks of making a small hole in Fanny's heart, this is a reference to "defloration." Sotherton is filled with sexual references, from Mary's musings on what the female servants forced to go to church services in times past might have been thinking about to Rushworth's missing "key" as a symbol of his impotence to Fanny's warnings to Maria that she will hurt herself, "tear her dress," (and by we know what that means) if she follows Henry around the gate. In examples of bawdy humor, riding becomes a metaphor for sex, both for Mary and Fanny. Mary's "early prowess" at riding makes her "unwilling to dismount" from Edmund's horse, and all exercise fatigues Fanny, "except riding."

Jill focuses on the highly fraught episode of the amber cross and the gold chain, in which Fanny is mercilessly manipulated--and deceived-- by Mary into accepting Henry's gold chain to go with her cross, a gift from William. As JHS points out, Mary twice reduces Fanny to a body part (an object), "a lovely throat." (This also reminds us of Jane Fairfax.) Mary, in addition, attempts to infantilize Fanny by calling her "my dear child." Finally, Jill attributes significance to Austen's choice of amber for the cross (the crosses that Cassanda and Jane actually received from their brother were topaz). Amber has sexual
qualities: it was known to be warm to the touch, to conduct electricity and sometimes thought to be hardened whale sperm or seed.

Mary adds eroticism to the novel and JHS argues that her voice mirrors the narrative voice, and in at least one instance, JA's voice itself.

Mansfield tries to expel pollutants, such as Maria after her elopement and Fanny when she refuses to marry.

JIll focuses on a particularly disturbing comment of Mr. Price when he learns of Maria's elopement-- he would 'give" his own adulterous daughter "the rope's end as long as I could stand over her." JHS links this both to "colonial references" in the novel (she also likens improving the land on estates to colonizing) and to Sir Thomas's banishment of both Fanny and Maria from MP, which JHS characterizes as cruel and ruthless.

In her conclusion, Jill hones in on Fanny's ability to hide her motives, to dissemble, as a key to her success: "she has performed the role patriarchal rules dictate women should play" and thus becomes the daughter Sir Thomas "wanted." In MP, JA offers a more "radical attitude toward prostitution and courtship" than the surrounding society, which sets prostitution apart from most women. In the end. the dissembling Fanny has prostituted herself (apparently through pretending be what others want to be--the "masked" woman-- and her name is also an allusion to Fanny Hill) to get her man. Thus, while the adulterous Maria is banned from MP, "Austen's final joke is that one of the fallen women is in the parsonage."

I replied:

UC:  MP as soft-core porn lite?

Diane gave an outline of the major points and then went over the examples Jill H-S offered for each section.  She did again and again refer to the eroticism of the text as seen by Jill H-S.
Imitating Diane, I ask, Do you read MP as frequently offering up salacious puns all intertwined and do you laugh at these?  Do you think when Mr Rushworth couldn't find the key or forgot it at Sotherton we are to read this as telling us he is impotent?

For, as I read the chapter, Jill H-S finds a continual soft-core porn lite (or light soft-core porn) going on in MP.  She also suggests that while "this seems like the least funny and the most morally earnest work" (to whom we are not told, as clearly she does not read it this way herself), Austen's nieces testified to her writing MP or coming up with ideas for it while sewing, so that she would from sewing "burst out into laughing" and then "jump up" to run over and write something down and then return to "quietly working as before." 

To demonstrate this:  pp. 138-39 are all about rears and vices and that the narrator's voice is much closer to Mary's point of view than Fanny's.  Do you think this?  (I don't; I think it's another voice outside both of them, though frequently sympathizing with Fanny and a few times making allowances for Mary's). pp. 140-41. Riding becomes fucking; and Mary is "unwilling to dismount" from Edmund's horse (unwilling to get off fucking him).  pp. 142-43 carries on about sodomy in the navy (and indeed along with rum and the lash it was common).  Are we supposed to read the William's promotion as consciously and even if indirectly about William selling his sister's body?  The hole in Fanny's heart, is that her vagina? I could carry on page by page but this is typical.

I wonder if this process as described by the nieces is that of the first draft?  It's not Fanny nor Anna who described this by the way, but another younger Austen sister (Edward's daughter) who was excluded from readings behind the door (and heard them laughing and laughing and must've felt left out). I also don't know what Austen was laughing about -- perhaps she saw her writing this novel as getting back at someone (for example, when she was young and watched her brothers and Eliza doing that play) or paying off some latent debt of hurt (my view is the description of Caroline gone a-visiting the Austen-Knight cousins is the origin of Fanny and I'm one of those who agree that Elizabeth Austen, Edward's wife, didn't like Austen, and what could be better than defend the vulnerable child against the woman who didn't invite her to the grand house).  Austen was not sitting and writing but sewing as she laughed; she was jotting things down early on, a first draft, perhaps in 1808 on one of her visits to Edward when she is described (by the nieces) as carrying her desk and papers about with her.

But I don't know. This is sheer speculation and has nothing to do with the nuances of the text at hand -- which like the other novels is a product of much rewriting, revising, endless polishing and nuanced changes. 

There are obviously problems here. First some of the puns (as in the earlier chapters) seem to me a real stretch (especially the key, Fanny's heart, the chain on the necklace to the amber cross as  "right fit"). Not all: I agree that Fanny's father saying how he'd love to whip Maria Bertram is seriously meant and this kind of flogging aboard ship would probably have gratified appetites of all sorts. But more: we are presented with passages by Jill H-S and told they are "humor" which I don't find funny. I realize this is a matter of taste.  Freud's Jokes and the Unconscious famously is filled with passages many people don't find humorous.  What bothers me is the word "humor" is not defined. What kind of funny?  If it's a grimace, I can see it, but I would not call that humor and find calling it humor erases the real feeling of what's in front of us.  The word "bawdy" suggests the kind of humor we find in Shakespeare's Pyramus and Thisbe in MND: broad, raucous, rollicking, without any real rootedness in real experience.  The whole thing an exaggerated send-up.  This is not Austen's MP -- though it is some of her Juvenilia.

So, as in the other chapers, we need to see why this book is being presented as bawdy to us.  It's not insignificant that finding texts to be forms of soft-core porn lite are fashionable today. I read one such reading of Trollope's short stories recently.  Jill H-S says this laughter is at the novel's "comic treatment of courtship and erotic material."  Is it comic?  Fanny's love for Edmund, hidden and traumatic?  Maria's adultery?  Whatever you think of Sir Thomas, his position?  What Henry does to Maria and Julia?  There is comedy and it's in the comparison of the play and the actual story before us and there indeed Rushworth is made fun of as a stupid clown in absurd pink satin.

I do agree perhaps it's useless to repeat once again the "apparent morality" (why apparent?) and "endorsement of sacrifice" in the novel, but tertium non est?  I did like how Jill H-S emphasizes the importance of careers in the novel. That is not sufficiently discussed. We do see how corrupt was patronage, how little connected to real merit but rather to rank.  Austen's MP connects directly to Edgeworth's Patronage (published in the same year).  But it loses the meaning by immediately turning to looking for puns "eroticizing" this process of promotion. 

Where it has meaning is that Mary wants Edmund to give up his desire (vocation) for a clergyman and sell himself for some fancy prestigious career, and she sneers at his integrity by saying anyway he is willing to take a career or place from his father.  Who then is he to pretend to integrity. He's just a coward.  Here the operative text is Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde and her three Jamaican tales.  There the heroes go out to the West Indies to get rich after having been promoted based sheerly on cronyism, and Smith describes the viciousness they see and how it sickens them. In the case of the hero of Ethelinde, he deserts this place. He'd rather do anything but carry on this way.  I can't imagine Austen's Edmund Bertram even enduring the voyage; he is spoilt; he is dense (he think Mrs Norris might value Fanny, actually wants her to live with her).

But all this real relevance to our world today in the book is lost.  Our world today is one of crony capitalism and endless corruption in all areas of life, perhaps the very worst medicine where people are most vulnerable:


For medicine, we have to turn to the first draft of Sanditon, and it's too scanty.

Moving along, the second perspective put before us as making sense of or belonging to this soft-core porn lite text is the landscape scam.  Quite right that Austen is deeply against the Repton approach, and the destruction of trees here (as in S&S) is an emblem of the ruthlessness of the society at the time, the hollowness, the utter egoistic selfishness which takes pride in some ugly fashion rather than seeing the eternal quieter beauties before us.  I do not see that Sir Thomas is likened to Repton in the novel, can find no connection in the text, nor that Repton is the despot. Rather it's the imbecility of those who hired him who enable him to enclose (and throw off desperately poor people -- referred to in the carriage ride to Sotherton).  I suggest finding puns in this aspect of the novel detracts and distracts from the tone and meaning -- which is not sardonic but rather intense with deep love for the English countryside.  (Clare Harman goes into the natural landscape as one of the places where Austen's passion comes out strongly and says it was early on recognized, in the 19th century say, by critics and readers alike.)

The third perspective is called "making things safe" and we are now at Portsmouth for a context for Maria and Crawford's affair.  There are other perspectives, but certainly this is one on offer. I've said I do agree Mr Price's comment is ugly and could be seen as sexual. But I don't see where we find the filth and grim of the Portsmouth home as equivalent to an adulteress's body (Maria Bertram), unless we are in some paranoid version of Mrs Grundy's mind. To pull in Mary Douglas's theories about dirt and pollution will not make the dirty cups a link. Dirt here is about poverty, it's about the city and town, it's (alas) about Mrs Price's laziness or inadequacy (for which Austen does blame her).

Here though I discerned a familiar theme:  it seems Austen is (as in P&P and NA) "undermining" polarities, this time the one between MP and Portsmouth.  They are not so very different it seems.  I was waiting to hear how gender was undermined, but no this time it's neighborhoods. I quite agree that Mr Price and Sir Thomas are equally obtuse about their daughters, and that both are powerful patriarchs (even the drunken officer on half-pay), but I find that Sir Thomas does have some redeeming qualities that Austen does not give Mr Price.  Mr Price will try to appear sober and civil before upper class males (partly to get his son a position) but there is nothing beyond that, that controls him to be humanly decent or kind.  Examples of Sir Thomas's appreciation for kindness may be found, from his taking Fanny in in the first place, to his protecting her against Mrs Norris, to his offering to free Maria from Rushworth (even if it loses the Bertrams patronage), to his at the end understanding that he had made some bad mistakes in handing his daughters over to Mrs Norris for education.  He is kind to his wife; I don't know that Mr Price is unkind I admit -- the movie by Rozema made him a sexual beast but that's not in the text. 

The next section takes on the same kind of thinking: now we are told "Austen destablizes the boundary between prostitution and courtship, the clean and unclean, Portsmouth and Mansfield."  What is gained by this kind of statement?  It would be that we are shown how in Austen's and our society marriage is a form of prostitution, that only money makes the difference between cleanliness and dirt and P and M, but no this is not what Jill H-S moves to: it's rather that we are to take Fanny as a sort of unconscious and forced prostitute.

For my part I have long seen a parallel between Manon Lescaut and Fanny Price.  Both are utter underdogs, both are submissive, both will yield to whoever is powerful nearby;  thus if Fanny lived in France, she is as like to end up in prison as Manon did.  But I do not see this as a way of unmasking either of these women's "true selves."  This is what Jill H-S says. (This after telling us for more than a hundred pages there is no selfhood and gender is undermined.)  Rather it's that both women have natures which can be exploited by their society, and the hatred Fanny Price often incurs from modern readers (pride) reveals how wrong it is to despise women who have to prostitute themselves to survive for money.  Fanny Price's equivalents are Marivaux's Marianne.

Does Fanny act out resentment? we are told this "destablizing of boundaries" reveals to us Fanny is manipulative, performative too. Her "apparent prudishness" is a mask and excites Crawford's craving.  Her behavior does excite Crawford (the way Clarissa's does Lovelace), but the prudishness is no mask.

It's the desperate believed-in protection of a young woman continually in danger of being thrown out of the beautiful house -- and she is at one point.  Fanny suffers silent torture (as does Elinor Dashwood, Jane Bennet, Jane Fairfax, Anna Elliot) because she experiences a deep love she cannot show unless she is to agree to utter public humilation or scorn.  This is what Marianne feels at the ball Willoughby snubs her at. She is exposed.  Fanny's is yet more dangerous: it could be called incest in the era if the powerful people in the family didn't want to countenance it.

Fanny does end up pregnant -- one of the few pregnant characters during the text in Austen (poor Miss Taylor indeed is another).  Again vulnerable, pregnancy among Austen's sisters-in-law killed a number of them off.  Fanny is quickly pregnant and could be so again and again (if we are to play the game of extrapolation). I am one of those who think pregnancies killed off Jane Fairfax (together with that pulmony complaint).  There's sex for you.  We must assume of course when she gave birth and looked at Edmund she was not put off (the way the woman Austen described in her letters was).

Jill H-S's Conclusion: I have not read the Monthly Review so don't know the full context in which Fanny Price is called "a bewitching little body;" when Austen uses the term "my Fanny" she registers real fondness for the naivete of her kind heroine. This has nothing to do with any aim of Austen's to "perforate oppositions between respectable women and their deviant sisters."   Austen registers intense harsh comments when it comes to Maria who is the most transgressive of the women in the story and yet feels for her when she is ejected and left to live with Mrs Norris, and I think would say that Maria did not have to sell herself (Sir Thomas offered to get her off the hook) even if she might have had to stay under Sir Thomas's thumb if she couldn't get to London any other way.  (I'd say had she had any brains, she could have taken up like Madame de Merteuil and had lovers and been discreet; that's what Mary Crawford envisions, but Maria is too sincere, too much in love with the skunkish Henry).  Yes there's sympathy for both, but it is losing the text in front of us to say Austen sees a direct parallel. Fanny is not fallen, Mary is (as her amorality is finally admitted by Edmund who nonetheless regrets her as he's so sexually attracted).  MP does not leave things topsy-turvy. In fact it leaves them back in a quiet order which gives those who can stand it peace and tranquillity. No one offered any happiness, But then as Austen says, life is endurance, no?

This is a reading of MP which could have emphasized the humanity and decency of Austen's approach (the exposure of patronage, the vulnerability of Fanny) and her turn to something eternally fostering in the natural world -- these things are just glimpsed here and then dropped.

I agree there are some erotic puns (as these are part of this ugly regency world), but the comedy of the book as a whole is not rooted in the genital; it's rather in the keen acid irony of the narrator say (to give the classic example) of the opening paragraph.

Ah just think of it, the (to Mrs N's mind) spectacle of the ceaseless benevolence of Mrs Norris who never ceases actively to contrive benefits for everyone around her.  What is it in nature makes these blind and hard-hearts, this respectable baseness all around us?

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austen novels, women's art, women's novels

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