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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Jane Austen's Constant Subliminal Sexual Subtext

In Janeites, Elissa Schiff wrote:  Now, let me immediately say that I DO NOT find intense sexuality to be the prevailing energy of JA's fiction, although sensuality, sexual attraction, etc.. are certainly central themes woven throughout her fiction.

Nancy Mayer replied: Most romances --Boy meets girl,  etc -- usually has sexual tension, sexual attraction, and some degree of sensuality. However, romances range from "sweet and clean" to those that are rated R. I do not think Jane Austen wrote R rated fiction.

Diane Reynolds chimed in: I think we’re all agreed that Austen is not R rated. She’s more like those old Hitchcock films—Vertigo, North by Northwest, where what is suggested is much steamier than what is shown. Censorship in both cases.

Nancy: Why censorship? Why not taste and preferences? Not every one wants to read or write about orgasms and vaginas.

Diane: In Hitchcock’s case definitely overt censorship; in Austen’s pleasing the family. 


Nancy, relax --- may I suggest, dear lady, that you do protest too much. If you do not see, or choose to see, the sexual subtext, that’s your right, but to each his or her own.  😉

Just to be clear on my own position:

I do believe that Jane Austen meant to repeatedly depict Anne Elliot’s internal experience of sexual arousal; and I also believe that JA did something similar in depicting Catherine Morland’s dark and stormy gothic night in her room at the Abbey, when she learned to love “a hyacinth”, whereupon Henry suggest she may one day learn to love a rose. She also subtly shows us Elizabeth Bennet’s less powerful sexual charge as she gazes at Pemberley, its exterior, its contents, and its master. And she suggests Fanny’s sexual panic in the Sotherton gardens.

But even I do not claim that there is any depiction, whether overt or covert, of sex between characters in Austen’s novels. Although…I have at times wondered whether the tete-a-tetes which occur very early in S&S (between John and Fanny Dashwood), P&P (between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet), and Emma (between Knightley and Mrs. Weston)_…. https://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2014/12/mr-bennet-mrs-bennets-tete-tete-at.html  …might be post-coital. There’s a relaxed intimate quality to these three conversations about the heroine, which would fit perfectly with two mature adults lying in each other’s arms. Of course, it makes us gag to think of the vile John and Fanny in the sack, but it makes sense – part of her power over him would certainly have been sexual – the same, for that matter, with Lucy and Robert (and Lucy and Edward). And that there was a sexual charge between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is as much as explicitly stated in P&P – and we can see Mr. Bennet’s teasing withholding of the secret of his having visited Netherfield as foreplay, designed to temporarily cure Mrs. Bennet’s headache just long enough for some magic to be rekindled between them again –even if she was definitely not wanting to get pregnant again!

But even though there is no depiction or description of an actual sexual act in her fiction, there is nonetheless a near constant subliminal aura of winking at sex in the characters’ (and the narrator’s) words, via sexual innuendo—this is exactly the same as in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve demonstrated in many instances JA’s deployment of the same sexual puns as Shakespeare’s  -- e.g., the repartee about pens and writing letters at Netherfield and about practicing and playing piano at Rosings, comes straight from similar repartee in The Taming of the Shrew & Romeo and Juliet, among other plays.

In other words, Austen’s characters often speak, in polite code, about sex – and this is perfectly normal, although Jane Austen could never have gotten away with it and still gotten published if it were explicit. And, anyway, implication is also subtle, as opposed to heavy handed (so to speak).

But I agree with Elissa so far as saying that this constant winking and hinting at sex is not intense, it takes its proper place in a narrative about real life, which is that it’s always there in the background, but almost never (except in the above-cited, rare internal arousal scenes) takes precedence over other feelings and motives in a given scene.

Speaking about sex in elegant, witty, punny code that preteen children would never understand, and only some teens would either, is PG-13 at most, and therefore perfectly acceptable for a lady observing the rules of polite decorum.

Cheers, ARNIE

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