When I posted yesterday about the eerie, dreadful resonance between the recent prison sentence handed down on courageous female musicians in Russia….
…and the prison sentence handed down on courageous journalists in Jane Austen's England, it did not occur to me that _another_ news item would cross my monitor within a day, which would carry an even _more_ horrid, dreadful resonance to the patriarchal abuses that Jane Austen covertly satirized in her novels. But it seems that in 2012, we live in an era when pretty much the only thing that unites the men doing bad things in the world today (and men do seem to account for pretty much all of it) is their hatred and abuse of women. Religious extremist men, whether they be Christian, Moslem or Jew, who all want to blow each other up, nonetheless seem to agree on _one_ thing, which is that women need to be suppressed, and then God’s order will be restored, and everything will be happy ever after—until the next war, that is.
And speaking of magical thinking, here are the key excerpts from the article I just read….
…that made me shake my head in horror:
“Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri who is running against Sen. Claire McCaskill, justified his opposition to abortion rights even in case of rape with a claim that victims of “legitimate rape” have unnamed biological defenses that prevent pregnancy. “First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” …. In a tweet, McCaskill said she was “stunned” by Akin’s comments. … As a state legislator, Akin voted in 1991 for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband,” according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch….”
Now, what, you might ask, have Todd Akin’s primitive opinions about female reproduction to do with Jane Austen?
Well, think about the most famous hypochondriac in English literature, Mr. Woodhouse, of course the father of the heroine in _Emma_, with his implicit faith in the “thin gruel” and other cures prescribed to him by Mr. Perry the Apothecary---and his Satanic love of a “great fire” during the heat of summer.
As I first learned in early 2005, and have been doing my best to spread the word since then, Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson, in a 1999 article, blew the roof clear off of Austen scholarly studies of sexual themes in Jane Austen’s writing, by convincingly demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the stanzas of Garrick’s Riddle, which Mr. Woodhouse just _cannot_ remember in Chapter 9, of _Emma_, are actually a thinly veiled, sharp-as-nails satire of the medieval belief held by more than a few Englishmen during Jane Austen’s lifetime, that men with advanced syphilis could be cured if they had sex with virgins!
Perhaps you think I am putting you on, because this is too absurd to be true? Well, if you can’t put your hands on her 1991 article, or on p. 161 of her followup 2005 book “Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions” where this brilliant interpretation is updated, then have a look at the wonderful 2010 dissertation by Melanie Osborn….
….in which Osborn amplifies on Heydt-Stevenson’s discoveries and makes the case trebly more convincing still.
And now I think you probably already see the sickening resonance between the “medical” theories of 18th century England about the cure for syphilis, and the “medical” theories of Todd Akin about pregnancy after rape---both of which ascribe a supernatural power to virginal or chaste women---i.e., it seems that raping a virgin can cure a man of syphilis, and, on the other side of this perverse coin, raping a woman who does not enjoy it even one teensy bit cannot result in a pregnancy. Taken together, they might almost sound like they provide mutual corroboration, until you realize that they are both completely absurd—and what is even worse, arising out of male fear, ignorance and misogyny!
As I contemplate the truly horrid and horrible absurdity of all of this, I am reminded of the chilling line spoken in the movie Time After Time by Jack the Ripper, sitting in a hotel room in late Sixties San Francisco, opening the naïve, idealistic eyes of his old friend H.G. Wells about the future of humankind:
“90 years ago I was a freak. Today I'm an amateur.”
Other than to change “90 years” to “2 centuries”, that’s _exactly_ what Mr. Woodhouse would say if he heard Todd Akin’s opinions about the female reproductive system. At least no English law was ever enacted exonerating men from having sex with virgins to cure syphilis---but if Todd Akin and his odious ilk had their way, similarly crazy male ideas about women’s bodies would have the force of federal law.
And if Jane Austen were to travel to 2012 in a time machine and hear Mr. Akin’s opinions, she’d nod sadly and remind us that, yes, Henry Tilney’s rant, in Northanger Abbey, about Englishmen being Christians….
…is a satire, because what Jane Austen saw in her world two centuries ago, and what anyone with eyes can see in the likes of Todd Akin (or the Taliban) in 2012, is that those women who would allow the likes of Todd Akin or the Taliban the right to regulate what happens to women’s bodies, are greater fools even than Mr. Woodhouse.
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