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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, March 1, 2013

The room in which the ladies sat was backwards" : A Room of Charlotte’s Own

During the recent thread I started about allusions to Fanny Hill in Jane Austen’s writing, it was suggested that Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s Unbecoming Conjunctions is sensationalistic, that it seeks out the most outrageous  readings of Jane Austen’s writing, without a reasoned foundation for same.

I feel just the opposite, I believe she toned down her claims a great deal from what they could have been, and (as Diane Reynolds has pointed out repeatedly) she also cautiously clothed a lot of her arguments in just enough jargon  to make it harder for her points about sex to be understood by the lay reader.  I will always consider JHS a brave pioneer, who took the heat for opening a door that had been forever held tightly shut in Austen studies. She made it possible for me, specifically, to face a less onerous burden of proof in presenting my more forceful arguments about JA’s sexual innuendoes.

Here is a great example. I was just browsing in her discussion of P&P, specifically Charlotte‘s marriage to Mr. Collins, and JHS’s excellent discussion and close reading of same led me to realize something pretty significant in the text of the novel, that fits perfectly with my prior interpretations of Charlotte’s concealed character.

JHS disagrees with Ruth Perry’s claim that Charlotte does not feel sexual disgust toward Mr. Collins, when Perry writes that “the physical repugnance that we in the present century feel at the idea of sleeping with Mr. Collins is entirely absent in JA’s treatment of the matter…There is not the slightest whiff of sexual disgust about the matter; not from Charlotte, not from Elizabeth, not from the narrator.”

JHS claims “that Charlotte does indeed experience disgust…shutting down at least three avenues of perception: touch…sound…and sight.” As to the “out of sight” part, JHS quotes and analyzes the following passage from the novel:

“The room in which the ladies sat was backwards. Elizabeth had at first rather wondered that Charlotte should not prefer the dining-parlour for common use; it was a better sized room, and had a more pleasant aspect; but she soon saw that her friend had an excellent reason for what she did, for Mr. Collins would undoubtedly have been much less in his own apartment, had they sat in one equally lively; and she gave Charlotte credit for the arrangement.”

What I realized for the first time today, rereading that passage with JHS analysis in mind, was that that passage is actually a mini-masterpiece of witty wordplay, where the parsonage functions as a metaphor for Charlotte’s body, and the dining parlour stands for…well, the part of a woman’s body that a husband would be most interested in, while Charlotte’s smaller sitting room (use your imagination) would not. We’re being told, in code, that Charlotte most definitely is not interested in letting Collins make “common use” of her in the former, now that the wedding night has passed.

More significant than that, I also realized that the idea of ladies sitting in a “backwards” room is also a coded reference to Charlotte's sexual preference! I..e, it’s not just that Mr. Collins disgusts Charlotte, it’s that Charlotte is just not that into hanging out in the dining parlour with any man, because her sexual preference is “backwards” from the norm—hence Lizzy’s puzzlement, because  Lizzy is not consciously aware of Charlotte's lesbianism!:

What a clever way to suggest Charlotte’s lesbianism, i.e., that she sits in a “backwards”, smaller room where her husband is not interested in going, but where her close female friend would be welcome to visit her in private!

And, not entirely fancifully, I wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought of this post of mine, in light of her having famously written that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction' in her famous book, A Room Of One’s Own. Woolf actually briefly discussed Pride  & Prejudice in that book, as well as JA’s not having enjoyed that luxury as a writer, and then wrote a sentence that oddly reminded me of Charlotte Lucas at Hunsford: "In the first place, to have a room of her own..was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble"

Could it be that, at least subconsciously, Virginia Woolf was inspired to the pregnant metaphor of a room of one’s own by the above quoted  description of Charlotte Lucas’s room of her own, which she managed to achieve by her own wits and  resourcefulness?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

SmartSexyJane said...

Jane expresses disgust about Collins on at least two or three occasions on Charlotte's behalf. Charlotte merely says that she's not romantic about marriage. Charlotte later puts Jane's mind at slightly greater ease by explaining all the ways that she is in control of her marital situation.

What woman reader can deny that the mind goes directly to the idea of the bride submitting to having her vagina penetrated by the groom's penis whenever thoughts of the wedding night are conjured? The reaction of disgust is automatic! How detached those women readers must be that claim a reaction of disgust is absent simply because it's not spelled out!

I think you may be on to something. Charlotte could be "backward" and just as practical about that inconvenient fact as she is about having to have sex with a man she is not attracted to.