Twenty five years ago, the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick started a brushfire in Austenian literary critical circles, with her article in Critical Inquiry (clearly deliberately) provocatively titled “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”. In it, Sedgwick essentially suggested that a pervasive, autoerotic and incestuous homoerotic aura hovers subliminally over the Dashwood sisters in S&S.
That relatively small scholarly brushfire, which ignited not long before the rise of Austenmania, was far exceeded by the firestorm raised 5 years later by Terry Castle’s review of Le Faye’s 1995 edition of JA’s letters in the Times Literary Supplement. In that latter piece, addressing a Janeite citizenry which had just mushroomed in size due to a slew of excellent Austen film adaptations, Castle expressed publicly, to the horror of many, her perception of homoerotic intimations that hovered over the real life relationship between JA and sister Cassandra.
What I find odd today--- with perfect 20:20 hindsight, of course---is how strikingly resonant Castle’s review was with Kosofsky’s article in suggesting sexual subtexts, with sisterly implications in, respectively, JA’s fiction and JA’s real life; and yet……neither Castle nor any of the many commenters on her review, ever mentioned that earlier article, even though I imagine many of them—especially Castle —had surely read, or knew about, it.
But that curious silence 20 years ago about resonance between Sedgwick and Castle is not my topic today, only an ironic prelude. Rather I want to take notice of one other, highly ironic similarity between those two (still occasionally noted) lightning rods of modern Austenian scholarly controversy. To wit--I believe both of these courageous outside-the-box thinkers about non-normative sexuality in Austen were spot-on in identifying a very important issue which had never previously received due attention. And yet, each was, in my opinion, “a little mistaken”, in failing to see a better, and even more radical, explanation for the mysterious sexual subtext they had each so insightfully spotted.
As regards Castle’s reflections on Jane Austen’s real life sexuality, I’ve previously suggested on a number of occasions that Jane’s relationships with lifelong close friend and decade-long housemate, Martha Lloyd, and with Anne Sharp, former governess at Godmersham, rather than her ties with Cassandra, were the ones which were most likely to have included a more than platonic component. And the rest of this post will suggest that what Sedgwick was so perceptively picking up on in S&S was not merely Marianne’s persistently uncontrolled sexual impulsiveness, and Elinor’s unconsciously erotic gaze on her sister, but was also--- or even primarily--- about what I see as one of two large and related secrets hidden in plain sight in S&S----Marianne’s concealed pregnancy—concealed most amazingly of all from Elinor!
This will of course ring a loud bell for those who follow my Austen heresies. I’ve previously suggested that Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy (which I first identified in early 2005) is not the only one hidden in Jane Austen’s novels – I first half-seriously suggested back in 2002, in Janeites, that Marianne may have been pregnant, and I have on a couple of occasions since then briefly revisited that idea. But I had never previously sleuthed out, in detail, as I did with Jane Fairfax, the chronology and textual details of Marianne’s pregnancy. Nor did I ever figure out, to any satisfying degree, how Marianne’s pregnancy ends—indeed, my best guess a few years ago was that it might have ended in a miscarriage at Cleveland, when Marianne almost dies of a mysterious fever. I did also entertain the possibility that Mrs. Palmer’s newborn baby son (officially announced in Chapter 36, but first hinted at by Charlotte and her mother Mrs. Jennings as early as Chapter 19) might be Marianne’s, but I was never able to sleuth out a convincing chronology for the 9 month term leading up to parturition (is there no other commonly used one-word synonym-verb for “giving birth”?)
Last week, I came back to this topic because of the second large secret in S&S which I’ve hinted at twice, above, and which I’ll explicitly reveal at the end of this post. And, as has been the case repeatedly during the long arc of my research, my revisiting resulted in deeper insight into what had previously been too murky for me to fit the pieces of the plot puzzle together. I therefore wish to go on record now as claiming that in the shadow story of S&S, Marianne Dashwood does indeed bring her baby to full term during that visit to London, and then (just as Jane Fairfax secretly gives her baby to the Westons), she gives her baby (boy)….to the Palmers!
And that’s where Sedgwick’s article comes into the picture for me. As I’ve noted in past posts, Sedgwick’s article was topheavy with a great deal of indecipherable litcrit jargon, so much so that it made it very easy for professional Austen scholars and amateur Janeites alike to toss the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak—the “baby” I say should be kept being Sedgwick’s brilliant choice to use, as her central textual example, the following suggestive passage at the beginning of Chapter 29 of Sense & Sensibility. In this passage, we read about Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, staying as guests in the London residence of Mrs. Jennings, as Elinor is awakened by Marianne’s crying, and then observes her sister at very close quarters:
“Before the house-maid had lit their fire the next day, or the sun gained any power over a cold, gloomy morning in January, Marianne, only half dressed, was kneeling against one of the window-seats for the sake of all the little light she could command from it, and writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her. In this situation, Elinor, roused from sleep by her agitation and sobs, first perceived her; and after observing her for a few moments with silent anxiety, said, in a tone of the most considerate gentleness,
"Marianne, may I ask-?"
"No, Elinor," she replied, "ask nothing; you will soon know all."
The sort of desperate calmness with which this was said, lasted no longer than while she spoke, and was immediately followed by a return of the same excessive affliction. It was some minutes before she could go on with her letter, and the frequent bursts of grief which still obliged her, at intervals, to withhold her pen, were proofs enough of her feeling how more than probable it was that she was writing for the last time to Willoughby.
Elinor paid her every quiet and unobtrusive attention in her power; and she would have tried to sooth and tranquilize her still more, had not Marianne entreated her, with all the eagerness of the most nervous irritability, not to speak to her for the world. In such circumstances, it was better for both that they should not be long together; and the restless state of Marianne's mind not only prevented her from remaining in the room a moment after she was dressed, but requiring at once solitude and continual change of place, made her wander about the house till breakfast time, avoiding the sight of every body.
At breakfast she neither ate, nor attempted to eat any thing; and Elinor's attention was then all employed, not in urging her, not in pitying her, nor in appearing to regard her, but in endeavouring to engage Mrs. Jennings's notice entirely to herself. “
In her article, Sedgwick repeatedly draws parallels between the above passage and various excerpts from an 1881 journal she had unearthed, in which a young woman’s onanistic urges were fairly openly, specifically and guiltily described. But today I suggest a simple yet powerful alternative explanation for those descriptions of Marianne’s sobs, restlessness, and volatility—Marianne is beginning to experience labor pains, and is leading Elinor down the garden path of assuming that Marianne is in a frenzy of grief over being abandoned by Willoughby!
We are reading Elinor’s descriptions of what she sees and hears as she observes Marianne, and Elinor perceives her younger sister through the lens of longstanding, deep-seated judgment on Marianne : she sees her younger sister as selfish, impulsive, arrogant, and out of control. And Marianne, as I said, encourages Elinor’s misconceptions about her, because the alternative would be for Marianne to confess the truth to Elinor, and that is something Marianne apparently is unwilling to do. As we are almost never inside Marianne’s head during the novel, hearing her actual thoughts, we can only speculate about why she would not want her dear sister to know this life-changing fact. While I encourage you to so speculate as to her motivations, for today I will not enter that interpretive domain.
And, in a similar vein, instead of following my usual procedure of providing a detailed multi-page textual analysis of the many bits of narrative and dialog which support my belief that Jane Austen intentionally painted this early (in her publication career) portrait of Marianne’s concealed pregnancy, followed by a covert baby transfer to the Palmers, I instead will keep things short today. I will simply suggest that those interested in verifying whether my interpretation is valid or not, should start rereading S&S at Chapter 19, as if what I say is there in the text, and then continue up through Chapter 37 (a period of about 2 months, according to Ellen Moody’s chronology), and see if you yourself can piece out the chronology of Marianne’s labor, childbirth, and giving up of her baby to the Palmers. I am telling you there are lots of bread crumbs scattered along the way, which will be visible if you keep my claim firmly in mind.
And now I conclude with my promised revelation of that other large, related secret in S&S that I just noticed for the first time. What prompted me to my above revisiting of Marianne’s pregnancy and giving away of her infant son to the Palmers, was an even more outside-the-box idea about Colonel Brandon and his accounts to Elinor of the tragic tale of the two Eliza Williamses. I.e., I wondered, what if Brandon made up that entire story, lock stock and barrel?
Some Austen scholars have pointed out that the two Elizas tales of woe both partake of pretty much every cliché of the Gothic subgenre of The Fallen Young Woman. And I say they are correct—there is something distinctly out of place and un-Austenesque in Brandon’s pathetic account, when it is lined up alongside the sophisticated nuanced drama of the rest of the novel. So, how wonderfully ironic it would be if Elinor—who prides herself on her cool rationality and common sense---is totally taken in by a wildly melodramatic hair-raiser that would have thrilled and chilled the likes of Isabella Thorpe?!
Or, to be more precise, I’m posing this question to you: what if that story about (as Brandon so melodramatically puts it) the terrible “cruelty, the impolitic cruelty of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other” is a fictionalizing by Brandon of what actually (in the world of the novel, that is) happened between the youthful Brandon and a real life woman he has given the code name “Eliza Williams” to conceal her identity from Elinor—a woman whom he loved so passionately, and also to the daughter born of their forbidden love, whom he has similarly renamed “Eliza Williams”, so as to protect the identity of the daughter as well.
And….to finally land the plane, I am saying that those real life persons from the world of S&S are known to all Janeites as, respectively (“Eliza, Jr.”) Marianne Dashwood and (“Eliza, Sr.”) Marianne’s romantic, passionate, impulsive mother, Mrs. (Henry) Dashwood!!
How many of you have ever played mix and match with the romantic couples in S&S, and have wondered why Brandon does not wind up with, or even consider, the widowed Mrs. Dashwood, who is only a few years older than he is, and who, the narrator makes clear is the original from whom Mother Nature modeled Marianne? I know I have, but I never before took that extra leap to speculating that it actually did occur, albeit, of course, sans the extreme Gothic overlay of sponging houses and early death with which Brandon embellishes the much more mundane reality.
Oh, and…one other rather significant detail that closes the circle on all of the above. The biological father of Marianne’s baby son is NOT Willoughby—it can’t be him, because Marianne’s baby is expected and born nearly 3 months too early for Willoughby to have knocked her up at Allenham!
So I leave you to think about what that would mean in terms of when Marianne gets pregnant, and who the biological father might be OTHER THAN Willoughby, a man who was near Marianne nine months before baby boy was born.
I’d like to think that Sedgwick would have enjoyed my interpretation.
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