As we begin to read Unbecoming Conjunctions this week, I think it’s worthwhile to take stock of the importance of Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s [I will refer to her as JHS to save a lot of typing!] work for Jane Austen studies, during the decade since she first exploded onto the scene with her long article “Slipping into the
Ha-Ha”, which JHS vastly expanded and extended into what eventually became the book Unbecoming Conjunctions.
Although most Janeites who know about JHS’s theories and discoveries think she was the first Austen scholar to talk about JA’s sexual subtext, that is
actually not the case, as I found out as I conducted more and more research into the corners of the literature about JA’s writing. There were a handful of prescient outliers and dissidents who, even as early as the 70’s, were noticing that there was more sexual suggestion in JA’s writing than just Mary Crawford’s very broad wink at the admiralty.
However, those articles surfaced briefly, and then vanished without a trace, leaving no lasting impact on Austen studies. Therefore, that she was not the
first in no way diminishes the huge (and from my point of view 100% positive impact) that JHS’s article and book have had on the direction of Austen studies.
Although I personally did not hear about her “Ha-Ha” article till early 2005 when I started reading the critical literature as part of my intensive research on
JA’s subtexts, I quickly realized that her article, published 4-5 years earlier, had the potential to blow the door that led to JA’s sexual innuendoes clear off
its hinges, particularly with her description of the tertiary syphilis subtext of Garrick's riddle, which Mr. Woodhouse partially remembers.
Looking in the archives of Janeites, I see that the ever vigilant Nancy was the first to alert the group to JHS’s article in 2001:
Believe it or not, at that time, JHS herself was a member of this Janeites group, because her one and only post to the group occurred in March 2001, not long after Nancy’s:
However, her article did not get mentioned again for 4 years, till I took note of it in Feb. 2005:
By the time I read her article, I had recently realized that the shadow stories fragments I had been detecting in various of JA’s novels since July 2002 were all
of a piece, and were reflective of a pervasive strategy on JA’s part, and JHS’s article was like a shot of adrenalin for me on two key points. First, it completely validated my perception of numerous sexual innuendoes that I had spotted haphazardly throughout JA’s novels, but expanded my awareness much further.
JHS’s Garrick Riddle analysis made me realize that JA was also a serious literary scholar in her own right, a writer capable of extraordinary depth of allusion and erudition, all masked by JA’s typical satirical ironic gloss. Around that same time, I happened upon Jocelyn Harris’s incredible groundbreaking work, Jane Austen’s Art of Memory, written in 1986, which opened my eyes to the full depth and breadth of JA’s allusions.
But JHS’s analysis of Garrick’s Riddle (combined with Colleen Sheehan’s 2000 article persuasively arguing for a second secret answer to the “woman” charade
in Chapter 9 of Emma) was also the catalyst to my realization that the overt puzzles and riddles of Emma were “Rosetta Stones” that were meant to be decoded,
as they would lead to the center of JA’s mysteries and shadow stories. JHS and Sheehan’s work jointly propelled me into an extensive study of all those puzzles, and that study in turn has led me directly to the center of the shadow story not only of Emma, but of each of JA’s other novels as well. I therefore cannot exaggerate
the debt I owe to JHS’s work for the inspiration it gave me at a crucial early point in my research.
Turning to JHS’s introduction, which has already begun to be discussed, I have a couple of specific comments. JHS's opinions regarding Boswell's anecdote about Samuel Johnson are, to my mind, spot-on, most of all because in a book about Jane Austen, the guiding principle as to the appropriate critical point of view as to the
material covered should be JA's own attitude toward the subject matter. In regard to the Boswell anecdote that JHS describes on P. 12, and the discussion that follows regarding the Lady’s Monthly Museum, I am 100% certain that JA herself would have shared JHS's restrained, intelligent, yet quietly courageously irreverent,
perspective, on notions of contemporary propriety in JA’s era.
I am sure that JA was polite and self-controlled enough to have kept her countenance in the presence of all manner of foolishness (just read her letters!), but, had she
been present in that room with Boswell, Johnson and their gang listening to Johnson hold court, I am certain she'd have been stifling gales of laughter from witnessing
the piquant blend of priggishness, hypocrisy, narcissism and self-importance exhibited by Johnson, as reported by Boswell, when he became flustered when people
tittered at his unconscious sexual pun. Johnson, instead of just joining in the harmless laughter of his audience, failed to recognize they were all laughing with him, and so, by his clumsy defensive reaction, actually caused everyone to laugh AT him. Truly a Mr. Collinsworthy performance.
So for JHS to politely join in a bit of that ego-deflating laughter, and to encourage her readers to, so to speak, chill out and enjoy JA’s wicked wit for the next 400 pages,
is, I think, 1000% in the spirit of JA herself. If anything, I think JA would have been appalled had someone come along and written a book about JA’s sexual innuendoes
without coming to the work with a lively and playful sense of humor. Luckily for all of us, JHS knows how to laugh and think clearly at the same time.
Actually, the principal complaint I have about Unbecoming Conjunctions is not that it goes too far in its claims, but that it is actually too cautious in its claims. I would be
willing to bet that there were several points at which JHS would have gone further in her claims, but she was restrained, either by her editor/publisher, or by considerations
of the likely reactions to her book from the academic literary critical community, but she will obviously speak for herself in that regard. And I don’t blame her if that was
so, as the message that JA’s novels are filled from one end to the other with sexual innuendoes of great variety and sophistication, which are not there for prurient l
aughter, but are thematic in many important ways, is one that will take a long time to filter down and come to be accepted.
But the saving grace of JHS’s caution, even where she did not, in my opinion, go far enough in her explicit claims, is that JHS has demonstrated, to me, an excellent nose
for the kind of allusion that JA herself would deploy in writing her sexual innuendoes. The Johnson anecdote recalled by Boswell, and the playful 1806 magazine piece
described on ppg 13-14, are prototypical, they are two out of dozens of examples throughout JHS’s book, where she has zeroed in on precisely the sorts of contemporary
sources which my own research has shown to have been front and center on JA’s radar screen as she composed her novels. They provided the grist for JA’s wicked satirical mill, as she ground them up and sprinkled them, like fairy dust, on her novels.
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