Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The Sexing up of Jane Austen

Jane Austen Book Club even meets in the hospital; one of the good sequels, movie Robin Swicord, book, Karen Joy Fowler

Dear Friends,

This past May my good friend, Diana, in her "Light, Bright, and Sparkling" blog wrote an entry called "The Selling of Jane Austen."  She made the excellent observation that the world of Jane Austen studies has been corrupted by the ability of people to make big money on movies and sequels, and is now ridden by venomous quarrels because prestige projects and personal career agendas can be promoted by working on texts which can be attached to the name "Jane Austen."  Really anything goes if it will attract attention, money; you need only appropriate her texts in some way but the more sex (Nights at Pemberly anyone?) and the stupider and more inane (Zombies, Twilight), the more wide-selling. And for scholars you can speculate just about any allusion into Austen's texts at this point.  (9/12/09: this morning she added Jane Austen and the Jackals, where she also reviews three books, one of which, James Austen's poems, is an important addition to the genuine Austen canon.)

Among the scholars willing publicly to join this bandwagon is John Sutherland, who is none too scrupulous when it comes to creating a limelight for himself by being provocative.  This past weekend, he used the occasion of a review of Claire Harman's book, Jane's Fame, to argue (reasonably enough) that  there is more sex in Austen than is admitted because of the Victorian-sentimentalization way she has been read.

Harman argues that there have been two major turns in Jane Austen's reputation thus far: the first her nephew's 1870 memoir which framed her as chaste, retiring, good, sweet, a retreat, idyllic, harmless comedy under which perspective her books began to be seen as popular and at least Pride and Prejudice become a mega-hit; the second occurred in the 1990s with the making of several lavish costume dramas, especially the spectacular 1995 BBC/WBGH Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and then amused himself by likening Harman's stance to the motives or outlook of Rozema in her 1999 MP, Davies in his P&P, NA, and S&S, and the makers of a recent porn video, Porn and Penetration.

Mary Crawford and Fanny Price in incipient lesbian partners after a rain in the 1999 MP

Catherine Morland reads the most titillating passages from Lewis's the Monk and has sexy dreams in 2007 NA

There is more sex in Austen than is admitted. In Sense and Sensibility, we have two back story heroines impregnated by men not their husbands, a clandestine engagement between Lucy Steele and Edwards Ferrars ("these past four years"), and Marianne lets us know that she would have succumbed to Willoughby but that he made her no promise and didn't engage himself to her, so that "he's not so bad as you think."  Allenham is the place where they shied away.   In Pride and Prejudice Lydia runs off with Wickham and her letters to Elizabeth shows she was no virgin by that time; we are told that as a later married woman, she never lost her reputation (while Wickham gambled to support them). Mansfield Park brings us Maria Rushworth's and Henry Crawford's fornication (perhaps at Sotherton while they rambled outside that fence) and then adultery at the country house weekend; in Emma we have a clandestine engagement so Frank and Jane could have petted heavily, but since she was so willing to give him up rather then endure the torment he subjects her through making her jealous, she would break it off.  She becomes ill with migraine headaches when she thinks she might lose him and about how he has treated her, but it is left vague, so that the torment is as much from her coming probable future as a governess (slavery she says). It's true we somehow don't feel much sex happened between the Captain and Anne Elliot in Persuasion 9 years before it begins, but enough intimacy did; and perhaps more than that between Isabella Thorpe and Captain Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

The back story made torrid prologue in the 2008 S&S

However, what has been happening is an increasingly sexed  up Austen by no means in her texts. For example, due in part to Austen's use of irony and suggesting of stories Emma glimpses but cannot see the whole of or understand and gets wrong too, people are concocting wildly anachronistic stories from this text.  A paper by Arnie Perlstein at the recent Chawton meeting argued that Jane Fairfax is pregnant, John Knightley the father, the baby born in the novel and attributed to Mrs Weston, Mrs Elton in love with Frank. The only evidence adduced is Jane's not being able to eat much.  Perlstein assumes that when Jane Fairfax can't eat much that means she is having morning sickness; what we have is Miss Bates's reference to the family's pulmonary complaint (a probability of incipient TB or consumption). He never mentions John Knightley's visit to Highbury and where he discussed Jane's visits to the post office to get Frank letters (this would be a cover), nor the nuances of custom that we see in the novel, for Jane is engaged and has been promised; yet on the other hand, there is no public sharing of their relationship (which judges looked for when condemning a young man for seducing a girl in ancien regime France).  The rest of the paper was flourishing statements about how much the writer would reveal to us.  The procedure reminded me of Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Alice in Wonderland where the twins say if they say a thing is so (X=Y) it is. I doubt Davies would laugh.

Edith Lank and her sister once had fun with Austen's not quite controlling the ironic perspective some years ago: they wrote that Harriet's father and mother were either Mr Knightey and Mrs Weston (whence their influence) or Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse (Miss Bates's name is Henrietta). I discovered that according to a calendar I could work out in the novel Miss Bates visited her sister having baby Jane at around the time she would have had to leave to hide her condition.  It was all tongue-in-cheek, mine as well as theirs.

My real wonder if how far is this Emma theory like that of Spencer's Becoming Jane (which is unscrupulous and shows signs of bad faith).  I've seen some behavior on the Austen-l and Janeite listserv to suggest this may be so. For example, when I wrote some of the above on Austen-l, there was a wild spree email insinuating that Mr Martin gathering walnuts for Harriet Smith was salacious and that walnuts=a man's balls. It was more than an attempt to shout down common sense; there was a cunning glee to it.  This email is why I connected the theory to the movie scenes (Davies gets a great kick out of his "wet shirt" scene, points to a similar chopping wood scene in the 2008 S&S, and probably enjoyed replacing Radcliffe with Lewis, and having the actress read Lewis aloud and having another nake person in the tub scene), the marketing of the sequels, and videos (described by Sutherland).   Other than that the context is the one outlined in The Selling of Jane Austen.

Other theorists of this type on the two Austen lists don't promote themselves with this stuff. Elissa has Jane pregnant by Frank but is content to think so or say so on the lists without fanfare.  Hers is the equivalent of the long filling in of scenes and interpretations of Austen's books with the characters made into people found frequently on these lists; on my ECW list with Sylwia I've talked this way just a little.  I used to do it more in the mid1990s (that is, I used to go on in a psychologizing vein about the characters such that I began to leave the story). What is being done is really incipient (or fragments of) fanfiction.

Witty wet-shirt scene from 2008 Lost in Austen, a riff on the 1995 P&P, a kind of fanfiction tongue-in-cheek

Renee Zellweger as obedient Bridget wearing ludicrous Bunny outfit to please Hugh Grant character, 2001 Bridget Jones's Diary, satire

I used to not know what to make of an older paper which was titled "Why is there no sex in Jane Austen," and it's argued that Austen eschewed open sex in order not only to maintain her personal reputation, but also to be able to discuss female issues and problems as central to the texts.  I would now argue this putting sex into Austen places her in a male-dominated context, and makes her books men's stories (Oedipal often). 

It's simply true that males are sometimes embarrassed to go to Jane Austen movies nowadays, even though the stories are rearranged and characters reconceived enough to make the men central characters, there at the climax no matter what it is (and climaxes in Austen are not always about love).   In the biopic movies she is presented as in despair because forsooth she'll never or have babies. Had she done that she would not have had time to write. I've come to the conclusion the attempt to find allusions to major canonical works by men (much praised) is an attempt to make Austen more respectable and of course the writer of such studies by placing her in a male tradtion.

Renee Zellweger as Miss Potter who finds time to write, draw, and buy her own house



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 11th, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
My Talk at Chawton House

My paper at Chawton House apparently really got under your skin, as you keep repeating the same sarcastic comments about it in every posssible Janeite online venue. Because you continue to do so, having made it very clear to me that I am "fair game" for your repeated sneers, I must at least make one relevant reply at this time in my own defense.

In my talk at Chawton, I gave a great deal more evidence than the smattering of evidence you mocked, for the shadow story scenario I claim was intended by Jane Austen, the spine of which is that the shadow Jane Fairfax is pregnant. However, as you well know, I (like the other 70 non-plenary presenters at that very crowded conference) only was allotted 20 minutes to make my entire argument, having to start my audience from Point Zero on my entire concept of shadow stories, and to put the Jane Fairfax scenario in a larger context within the total literary output and life of Jane Austen.

In other words, I was forced to make an extremely ruthless selection of evidence, and could only present the barest of samplers. Had I had been given more time, I had an infinite supply of evidence I could have presented. I could have given a 20-HOUR talk about the shadow story of _Emma_, had I been given the chance to present the entire book I have already fully researched, and am now in the process of boiling down to book length.

So, the lady (in this case, you) doth protest an awful lot about my Alice in Wonderland scenario (and by the way, my research on shadow stories does include some interesting material I have found about Lewis Carroll and the shadows of his stories), and I wonder why you would not simply ignore me if I am a charlatan and a crank.
Sep. 11th, 2009 12:59 pm (UTC)
I did not realize....
....that my message would be posted as "Anonymous"--I am, as could be inferred, Arnie Perlstein, to whom you referred in your post, above.
Sep. 11th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
No such thing
You seem not to know how to read tone. I'm not mocking you; I'm bothering to set your paper in a context and critiquing it. I'm paying it the compliment of rational opposition, bothering to talk about it. As to the lack of evidence, you had many sentences which said nothing.

And my blog is about far more than your paper. It's a comment on Sutherland as well as the whole state of Austen studies today; you are just one example of a trend in the blog.

Sep. 11th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
Re: No such thing
No, I beg to differ. You were mocking me, minimizing and deriding my ideas, in a very sarcastic way. There are MANY equivalently mocking, minimizing and derisive comments I could make about your approach to literature, but what would be the point? You're not listening.

Mandy Caelli
Jun. 23rd, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
Re: No such thing
Dear missyslyviadrake,

I have long noted Perlstein cannot stand criticism of any kind regarding his umm, 'inteesting theories'. Further, I am not convinced he even understands Jane Austen's texts, forget about subtext. Speaking as a historian, I can tell you he has no empathy or understanding of Jane Austen's times and society. He merely thrives on attention, even if negative- so does not deserve the compliment of your rational opposition.

Yours, Mandy N
Sep. 11th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
We are into he said, she said. You have ignored the rest of the blog which I pointed to. Mine is not a sarcastic tone and not mocking; it's a description of your argument and critique of your evidence. You don't want any objections; in fact, no talk back is what you would prefer. I leave it to anyone who might come here, to read the email on Walnuts to which I refer:


and see what they make of it. I assume you can argue your point of view and marshall evidence in future papers in further conferences, in Persuasions and other academic and popular periodicals and/or magazines, online, on blogs, on listservs. Wherever you please.

If the reader wants to read a sarcastic review, I have written in a vein of sarcasm; here is one where I begin with a mocking quotation from Kipling:


I will answer no further postings from you.


Edited at 2009-09-11 05:26 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
Vampire Jane Sequels
From Tyler on Trollope19thCStudies:

"Hi Ellen and all,

I enjoyed your blog and did not realize so many liberties had been taken with Austen, but perhaps because I had not sat down to count them all out--I certainly was surprised by some of the sexy moments in the films you reference when I initially saw them.

I was surprised by the mention of "Twilight" not even having noticed its Jane Austen connection. When I finally got around to watching the film, even though I love classic Vampire stories, I find out it very boring.

I'm curious if anyone has read the two "sequels" to "Pride and Prejudice" where Darcy is a vampire. (Mr. Darcy's Diary and Mr. Darcy, Vampire by Amanda Grange). I generally avoid reading sequels to the classics, but I am intrigued by this one and considering it.

Sep. 11th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Vampire Jane Sequels
Actually, Mr. Darcy's Diary is by the same author, but not in the same "universe" as Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. The former is fairly decent, if completely forgettable. The latter I have not read.
Sep. 11th, 2009 08:16 pm (UTC)
The video, Andrew Davies, JABC
From Ian:

"Oh, and Porn and Penetration is actually a spoof - not actual porn"

me: I couldn't find Porn and Pentration except on what looked like porn sites.

Ian: "It's actually a YouTube spoof - if you search on YouTube, it'll turn it up. It's not in terribly good taste, but it's not actual porn"

Me: Ah. Thank you. I'll look.

Ian: I'm actually interested in the topic as it is, so I'll add that to my response after I'm done. This makes all of Andrew Davies' speculations and additions look like absolutely straight readings (not that they are, just in comparison) :-) :-O

me: Davies is in fact in some ways careful. In one of my paragraphs I went over what sex we can suppose and Davies goes after that as far as he can.

Ian: "Well, while I've not always agreed with Davies in his interpretations, I've always thought he had at least some textual support for his claims. Oh, and Spence's Becoming Jane Austen is incredibly similar in method."

me: Yes. I linked it into the blog.

Ian: "I'm thrilled we both enjoy JABC, though. It is indeed one of the good sequels (though I prefer the film to the book) - infinitely superior to the zombie, vampyre, sea monsters, and sex rubbish that's been insanely popular recently

me: Yes the book is good too. I think the book gives more sense that the modern characters are rewrites of Austen's and I like the questions at the back which show Fowler does look at her work ironically."
Sep. 11th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
Great post! I've been fuming about some of these things for some time now, and your thoughts are quite insightful.

I completely agree that JABC is a good sequel, and one of few. I myself prefer the film to the novel (which, importantly, are both "by" women), as I thought the book was a bit self-indulgent and treated the reader with a certain amount of contempt (at least, I was off-put, mostly by the author's treatment of the characters, and the aloof tone of the "we" voice in the narration). The film, on the other hand, was much less arch in narrative methods, but no less artistic - and it considerably strengthened the plot by restructuring all the characters stories so they took place simultaneously, reaching an emotionally satisfying climax. I also loved how each of the characters had an arc in the film - most of them are static in Fowler's original. But both are indeed very good.

I would also add that it’s not just Jane Austen studies, but even those who simply wish to enjoy the novels (and perhaps the films) without a constant barrage of advertisements and artificially induced “dialogue” based on these spurious items.

(Oh, and before I forget, Porn and Penetration isn’t actually a porn film - it’s a parody by the group National Banana, and can be seen here on YouTube. WARNING - this video is not porn, but it alludes quite frankly to porn and related activities - definitely not work safe.)

And having glanced at Mr. Perlstein’s work, I find the methodology far too tenuous to justify anything like the assurance with which these theories are presented. Indeed, for all his publicized riling up of Janeites, I doubt Davies would laugh much either - as a former teacher, I would hope his students were a bit more common sensical in their reading of any and all books, but particularly Jane Austen.

You reassure my mind greatly about the whole Harriet Smith parentage affair - I came across the article several years ago, and didn’t catch the tongue in cheek aspect, and was thus rather disturbed at such insinuations about Mr. Knightley and Miss Bates’ characters.

And really: walnuts?

Humorously (to me, at least), the whole wet shirt business seems to be completely retroactive - in both cases, originally, the characters were supposed to be nude or topless, and it was only after actors or producers balked that the shirts were added. The fact that it became such a hit still rather mystifies me. (Though, having seen Rupert Penry-Jones, star of the recent truncated Persuasion, in his show Spooks on the BBC, I completely see why the producer babbled about him being “sex on legs.”)

I have absolutely no problem with speculation about the offscreen, future, or past activities of Jane Austen’s characters - she herself did so, reportedly - but I prefer they remain in more congenial outlets, such as fan fiction. I do not see how salacious theories which require great text-straining to “prove” enhance anyone’s reading of any novel, let alone Jane Austen. It’s more akin to decoding or sacred text studying than any literary analysis. If there is a need for fine-comb detail, I’d rather they follow the example of John Burrows in Computation into Criticism, where statistical analysis is applied with great insight.
Sep. 11th, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC)
Part II
Sorry, it cut my comment off. Here's the second half:

Spence’s biography is, to me, the epitome of bad faith. He claims that by naming a character a certain common name, Jane Austen was “clearly” signaling Tom Lefroy her love, since the name happened (it was very common) to be the same as a character in a book Lefroy supposedly (notice how many suppositions are necessary to make any of this even plausible, let alone possible or believable) introduced her. Um, instead of, you know, just naming the character a common name? And the film is worse - implying that Austen was incomplete in her artistry before meeting a none-too-bright rake, incomplete without said rake’s approval, incomplete without making an idiotic “sacrifice for love” (which, by the way, totally destroys the ideas of both sense and sensibility - as it’s sentimentality vs. sentimentality in the film - neither side showing either rational thought or true feeling), and, above all, incomplete without copying down other people’s dialogue - as if Jane Austen wasn’t a genius who could invent her own dialogue! (The last point also provided my reason for ceasing to read the Jane Austen Detective/Mystery series, as the author continues to have Jane copy not only dialogue, but characters and situations from her fictional life into her books. Plus, she also continually provides Jane with love interests and caricatures Cassandra.)

I don’t know about putting Jane Austen into a male context - I am a male reader of Jane Austen, so I may be doomed to blindness on this account. All I know is that I find some things acceptable (most of Andrew Davies, since he at least seems to have some thought and textual basis for his adaptations), some things annoying (the zombie/vampyre mashup - and that’s mostly plagiarism, and not very funny examples of it, too), some things angering (the prurience and salaciousness), and something just too boggling to be believable.

Thanks for such a great post!
Sep. 14th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)
Cult figures
Dear Ian,

Let me leave aside the more subjective argument stemming in part from this article on "Why there is no sex in JA", and also from my perception of Perlstein's sexism in his treatment of Austen's and other texts.

I wrote this blog because once I understood this particular argument was that Jane Fairfax was pregnant by John Knightley and the logic the Tweedledum one, I just felt I had to counter it. Had the theory been Jane was pregnant by Frank it would at least have had some possibility, I would have said nothing much. Some woudl say this is so outrageous, it's not necessary to argue against it. I disagree and here's why.

I wrote this (and my blog critiquing Spence) because someone really ought to speak out against what Diana B calls the jackals -- the way in the larger world we should speak out against outrageous falsehoods -- who seek money, attention, prestige. Jane Austen are two words to conjure with. Money can be made, prestige and attention gotten and thus cranks, both deluded and knowing and unscrupulous people will be drawn to the flame.

Take the Rice portrait. There's a man who wants money. The figure doesn't in the least look like Jane Austen -- and the family had certain features. Albeiro and others who are learned in costume have said the costume and age rules it out. But as long as people pretend to believe in it, the portrait will be hauled out. In my judgement Claudia Johnson _knows_ the rice Portrait is phony and backs it up because she so wants to counter the conservative faction in JASNA and JA Society groups. So much she'll publish a Norton with this picture on the cover.

We see the same kind of thing in Sherlock Holmes cult groups.

Now if no one else cares enough to say anything, this obscure blog will not make much difference one way or another. Chawton and BSECS accepts such papers as sports to amuse and include in their tents everyone (they care more about that than anything); Persuasions could publish it. But somewhere, here, someone has put into public a small text quietly objecting.


Edited at 2009-09-14 01:27 pm (UTC)
Sep. 14th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)
One shining moment
I completely agree that though I might not agree that Jane is pregnant, if the theory is that Frank is the father, it has significant textual basis, and thus is not dishonest. I also agree that things like Spence and more "coding" readings of such things should be spoken against.

I'm not sure how Johnson thinks that pumping for the Rice portrait's authenticity is a blow against the "conservative" faction of Jane Austen studies. It's probably my bias against her readings of Austen, but that really smacks of a similar type of dishonesty (similarly her introduction to the Mansfield Park screenplay - written by a filmmaker who has said openly that she dislikes both the original novel and the main character). However, for all my disagreements with how and why she reads Austen, I think her arguments are vigorous, thoughtful, sincere, and based on the text (I just also think they're wrong). Though I often find her tone offensive as in her "The Divine Miss Jane" article in the "Janeites" volume, I really got a sense, similarly to Sutherland, that she holds most people who love Jane Austen in contempt - nothing new, certainly, since Harding claimed that Jane Austen herself felt this way, but I think it's rather uncharitable of her.

Um, again, not sure what is being said with the Holmes note - I've been reading Holmesiana since I was thirteen, and while the majority of it is idiot "scholarship," I'm not sure how that's part of an ideological thing.

But back to the main point - it's probably because I've been reading Arthurian stuff, but the idea of small voices speaking out light into a vast, avaric-filled darkness really appeals to me.

Onward into the breach!
Sep. 16th, 2009 11:46 am (UTC)
Rice portrait
Dear Ian,

Claudia Johnson is a superb scholar and close reader; but everyone has their lower moments and her behavior over the Rice portrait is the kind of thing that can result when a writer becomes such a large cult figure: factions emerge and people within these factions really hate one another. A friend, an Austen scholar, writes me that just about everyone knows the Rice portrait is wrong, and that the Rice family is in need of money to keep their estate going. Those arguing for it are factional.

On my other blog, here is the sort of thing on Austen I put together there:


I do 18th century movie postings too:


I don't know how many people livejournal reaches. Are they posted somewhere each day on a major part of the site according to some formula? Do we reach people beyond serendipity through google? I put postings on Wordpress because I can see the mechanism for reaching more people.

I had a good time with you and hope we meet again soon. I'm glad you're reading Middlemarch and will be reading these great 19th century novels. I recommend going over to the Performing Arts building and finding out about their schedule of plays just to go as well as perhaps join in.

Sep. 17th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Rice portrait
I'm not sure what kind of readership LJ has. I have read entries (usually in communities) which get well over 100 comments. These, however, tend to be the journals of people already famous for something. Or internet celebrities. But in general, I've learned that 10 comments is quite a lot for a general poster. You can be found through google, but I don't know how certain that is - I found your journal by experiment that way, but my journal and many of my friends seem to be a lot hard to find through basic searches.
Sep. 18th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)

I don't know how to join a community. My older daughter set up this account and my husband my wordpress account. The next time we get together I will ask you to show me how. We can go to a computer room if you don't mind.

My website is on google and that makes my journal entries easier to find as I've linked both blogs into the website :)

I do like this one being less known, for then I can be more daring (as in Sexing Up Austen or talking about myself), on the other hand, one longs for a readership :). I think a lot of blogs are friends talking to one another across cyberspace. Listservs tend to devolve into quarrels; blogs help keep things at a distance while (paradoxically) they are more generally available.

Sep. 18th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
Re: Communities
Ah, to join a community is very easy. You just find one you want to join (you can search LJ's "interests" to do that) and click "Join community" at the top of the page (or on the community's user info page). If you do want to join one, a friend of mine has a wonderful (though not terribly active) one for Northanger Abbey called "Only_a_novel".
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

November 2019


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow