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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jane Austen & SEX

In Austen L today, Nancy Mayer disagreed with an interpretation of mine, and said that HER Jane Austen "wasn't that into salacious subjects. That she could be bawdy is evidenced by Mrs. Jennings. No intelligent female who grew up in a parsonage could be ignorant about the many ways in which men and women could sin. She also read French novels . We do not know exactly what else she read though some have offered suggestions of enough books to equal EveryMan's library or the Great Books courses. However, we do know that she had access to more books than most gently bred ladies could claim, That doesn't mean she was salacious. Just because I don't think Austen wasn't salacious or obsessed with sex, doesn't mean I consider her just sweet tea drinking Aunt Jane. The two are not always linked."

I responded as follows:

Nancy, while I completely disagree with your opinions, I believe I understand your position perfectly well. However, over the years and our countless online exchanges on this delicate topic of Jane Austen and sex, you have repeatedly shown that you make the same unjustified assumptions about my position, and that you don't really understand mine. I know you do this in good faith, and with no ill intent whatsoever, and I imagine that you speak for many who read my comments about this topic. So I will make this post just about clarifying the essence of my position about Jane Austen& sex, to the best of my ability, so that there will be no further confusion between us.

I have _never_ said, or suggested, that Jane Austen was "salacious" or "obsessed with sex". That is your characterization. What I have said, repeatedly, however, is that the thematic core of her shadow stories is female _sexuality_--i.e., Jane Austen was deeply appalled that female sexuality was handled by society in the following very important ways:

1. single gentlewomen were under constant threat of sexual predation, particularly when women were denied the kind of sexual education that would enable them to recognize predators, but also to recognize their own vulnerability to a man who would manipulate her so as to use her heart to get to her body;

2. married gentlewomen ran a perpetual gauntlet of serial pregnancy and childbirth;

3. cynical marriage customs, practices, and laws that exerted enormous pressure on gentlewomen to marry without love, in desperate search of a secure home where they would at least not be subject to predation or living in poverty;

4. there was a grotesquely hypocritical and one-sided gender double standard vis a vis sexual behavior, where a woman's sexual reputation was incredibly fragile, subject to permanent ruin at the drop of a petticoat, while a man's was made of Teflon, always winked away;

5. the literary reputation of a male author (like Shakespeare) who frequently indulged in veiled sexual innuendo was not in any way damaged thereby, whereas when a woman author (like Jane Austen) who frequently indulged in veiled sexual innuendo, raised all sorts of horrified eyebrows;

6. where alternative sexualities such as gay or lesbian orientations were treated barbarically with a primitive Taliban-like ferocity; and

The female body was, therefore, the battleground of a war of the sexes that, from the female point of view, was not very "merry" at all, because women were forced to fight it with both hands tied behind their backs!

Therefore, I claim that Jane Austen, in embedding an enormous quantity of subliminal sexual content in her novels, was demonstrating her acute feminist consciousness, and also her extraordinarily witty and profound sense of humor. Because a crucial part of her message was _also_ a meta-message---i.e., that the first act in the direction toward leveling the playing field was to assert the right of women to engage in sexual wittiness--to write sexually suggestive material like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cleland, or Sheridan--which was both serious and funny at the same time, and not be treated as a pariah for it.

For JA to have written a dull, solemn sermon bewailing all of the above six great wrongs I outlined above would have been utterly contrary to JA's own witty, clever, profound, metaphorically rich play of mind. She was a jokester and a punster by nature, but she also was a crusader, in her own subliminal way.

So, for example, having Jane Fairfax say "It must be born(e) some time or other, and it may as well be now", with the double entendre of "borne" with "born", is the masterful production of a genius of deliberately ambiguous and tactful expression. JA would never be so obvious or vulgar, as to be explicit in pointing to Jane's imminent childbirth.

And having Mary Crawford wink about "rears and vices" is not about salaciousness--Mary is JA's mouthpiece, where JA went to the very edge of what she could get away with, in terms of exposing male hypocrisy about sexuality. Mary is not just making a random joke about anal sex in the British Navy, she is giving Fanny a hint that Fanny does not take--which is to warn Fanny that Henry's interest in William Price's promotion has its "price", and that is the _sexual_ price that William, a man from the lower social class, must pay to Henry, a man of privilege, in order to advance in the Navy.

And the following are a few examples of posts at my blog where I explore the intricacies of JA's sexual innuendoes, and show them to be intensely thematic and intellectually challenging, as well as very witty and funny:

There is no salaciousness or obsession in any of this--this is JA the Audenesque social observer, objectively depicting the enormous and pervasive influence of sex on every aspect of life in her superficially and hypocritically prim world.

I hope that helps to clarify why I write so often about Jane Austen's sexual innuendoes.

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Thank you for illuminating on the sexuality in Jane Austen's works, which I believe is central to her masterfully subtle novels. It seems people would love to think Austen could not be privy to the realities of sex since she was not married, which is itself a great irony. As an artist in the most delicate sense and a spinster with a heart for romance and reality, she absorbed every implication of sexuality in ways most conventionally comfortable people do not. She understood, perhaps better because she wasn't buffered by social mores, the many drives and repercussions played out in human sexuality. It is too common for readers to gloss over the passions resounding beneath the ironies and precisions of her novels. Her stories resonate because they mirror real life, which necessarily required her to explore the many variations of human sexuality. Thanks again for your work.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous, thank you for your generous praise, which is all the more satisfying because it is so nunanced and detailed---you and I are indeed on the same page about Jane Austen and sex in her writing.

Please browse through my blog and let me know what your reactions are to some of my other posts as well.

I'd also be happy to correspond further with you in email---mine is, if you would, too.

Cheers, ARNIE

Andrew Shields said...

As I mentioned in my first comment on one of your posts, I came across your blog when a student found it in respond to my question about Lucy Steele's negative presentation in S&S. In the same course, another student drew my attention to this passage at the end of Chapter 6 of S&S (which I have not found in any of your posts, though I might well have missed it with an admittedly somewhat cursory search):

On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.

This term, I was becoming increasingly fascinated by Austen's irony as a matter not of saying one thing and meaning its opposite (the strict definition of irony) but as a matter of saying one thing in a deadpan way as a way of making fun of things. So the straightforward reading here (what I call the "eagerness of mind" reading, going back to the introduction of Elinor near the end of chapter 1) is that the characters are being silly when they spend ten minutes on a trivial issue.

But a bit of "coolness of judgment" (another phrase from Elinor's introduction) points toward the possibility of taking the issue of resemblance seriously. To spell this out with my students, I used an expression from "Ulysses": "Paternity is a legal fiction." And since it is, and since legitimacy is an issue in S&S both explicitly (Eliza) and implicitly (marriage as a legal way to establish legitimacy and provide a foundation for inheritance law), this passage points toward the concerns you address in this post. Where there's so much concern for legitimacy, there will be a lot of concern about sex, after all, about its regulation, and about the terms of its regulation (including a critique of those terms).

Unknown said...

I found the following regarding buggery in the British Navy suggesting that it was commonplace and that during Jane's writing years, hanging for sodomy was also:

More pertinent to our subject is Arthur Gilbert’s “Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,” Journal of Social History, 1976. Gilbert suggests there’s some basis to the belief that the Royal Navy’s traditions consisted of “rum, sodomy, and the lash” (a witticism often misattributed to Winston Churchill). While conceding that “it is impossible to judge the incidence of buggery in the military,” he goes on to quote one British officer as follows: “I have been stationed, as you know, in two or three ships….On the D—, homosexuality was rife, and one could see with his own eyes how it was going on between officers. I have been told that in some services (the Austrian and French, for instance), nobody ever remarks about it, taking such a thing as a natural proceeding: that may be so or not; but in any case, nobody was ‘shocked’ on board either the A— or the B—. There were half a dozen ties that we knew about.…To my knowledge, sodomy is a regular thing on ships that go on long cruises.”

Still, Gilbert suggests, common is one thing, brazen is another. British naval buggery, however prevalent, was necessarily discreet: Sodomy was officially considered a grave offense, and punishment was harsh. Buggery “comyttid with mankynde or beaste” was first made a capital crime by Henry VIII in 1533; naval buggery was specifically made a hanging offense in 1627. In 1806 there were more hangings in England for sodomy than for murder. Punishment could be brutal even if you escaped the noose. A sailor convicted in 1757 of raping a boy received 500 lashes; in 1762 two seamen received 1,000 lashes each for consensual sex. That was an extreme case, but average lash counts for morals offenses were often double those for mutiny and desertion. Officers weren’t exempt: Capt. Henry Allen of the sloop Rattler was executed for sodomy in 1797, and Lieutenant William Berry was hanged in 1807 for buggering a boy. Conclusion: Whatever may have gone on beneath the poop deck, sex with boys at sea was never openly tolerated in the Royal Navy, let alone made a fixture of the officers’ mess.