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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



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.

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