Jane Austen’s sexual kinks
It was a remarkable bit of theater—convincing the world she was a prim lady novelist. Only into the the 20th century did readers begin to notice there was some weird things going on in the work of Jane Austen. The poet W.H. Auden writes in 1937:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
Readers do still believe she’d written amusing, sexless romances. Virginia Woolf knew better, calling Austen “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface.”
There’s an exterior—then you dive in.
Like humorous banter that, on reflection, feels rather lurid. Elizabeth Bennett walks up to Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. “I am afraid you do not like your pen,” she says. “Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
She moves to grab his . . . pen?
“Thank you — but I always mend my own,” he replies.
The speech in Austen novels is often saucy and strange. In Persuasion, Lady Russell is chatting about curtains, recalling some she’s seen—“the handsomest and best hung of any in Bath…”
What could she be thinking of?
In a scholarly study of the sexual kinks in Austen’s work, Jill Heydt-Stevenson notes the “erotically charged allusions, puns, and double entendres throughout her novels” — those many reminders she wasn’t too ladylike.
There’s shockers, like that famous line in Mansfield Park (1814), thrown into Mary Crawford’s discussion of the British Navy.
Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat . . .
Did a female in a Jane Austen novel just refer to men having anal sex?
Many tried to deny it, but scholars tracked down the naval careers of Austen’s brothers, who’d overseen trials for sodomy. We had to realize that Jane is listening to the details, and writes them into her novel.
Suddenly, we’re noticing other curious lines, Heydt-Stevenson adds, like a man in Mansfield Park noting of another he “could mount him without the slightest inconvenience to himself…”
To leave that ‘lady’ stuff behind was the great project of the day.
The feminist Mary Wollstonecraft published her treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. A few years later, Austen produces a whirlwind of female heroines who hop right over the gender boundaries.
“I hate to hear you talking so,” as Elizabeth Bennett says to Mr. Darcy, “as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures.”
As women angle in savage movements for moneyed marriages, you begin to marvel at Austen’s unsentimental view of humans, really, trying desperately to evade poverty in a highly class-conscious world, and covering over the ugly decisions with romantic fictions.
Part of her project is to look at life squarely in the face. It’s a theme present from her juvenilia on. (A critic describes Austen’s youthful heroines: “Several get drunk, others steal, one commits suicide, and one is a mass murderer.”)
As an adult writer, she studies the world, taking in details at every level of sexual existence. In a study of venereal disease in Austen’s novels, Marie E. McAllister shows how it’s a subtext of Sense and Sensibility. The girl Eliza who was Colonel Brandon’s love had fallen into a “life of sin,” and dies of what’s called “consumption.” It was a polite way of saying ‘syphilis’.
Then in Emma, Mr. Woodhouse recites the first line of a poem.
Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid
Kindled a flame I still deplore
As scholars discovered when the full version of the poem was found, the ‘flame’ proves to be venereal disease. Such clues suggest the secrets that everyone lives with. They’re barely mentioned not because they’re unimportant, but because they’re very important.
As heterosexuality seems diseased, queerness is being born.
And Austen was essentially a ‘queer’ writer. Even for her to choose the genre of comedy, as Heydt-Stevenson discusses, was to work in a genre widely seen as male. Wit was seen as the domain of men!—and there she was, doing it better than anyone.
Austen plots are founded in intense gender trouble. They usually begin from a dilemma. What to do in a world without a male heir? The plot becomes: the daughters, especially the elder daughter, takes on male features.
In a study of this theme, Zsófia Anna Tóth notes that elder daughters develop in masculinity. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is operating as the head of the family—without seeming too manly.
But the weirdness intensfies, leading to Emma, an elder daughter who becomes, as Tóth writes, an “androgynous, asexual entity, who does not consider herself to be female in the traditional sense.”
Women are shaking off the passivity and looking around at men as sexual objects.
The prompt for the female to be really sexual, to embrace lustiness and vigor, is prominent in Austen’s plotting. Fanny in Mansfield Park is the danger zone. Her pallid complexion telegraphs the then-current talk of “virgin’s disease” in a woman whose social isolation has caused her to wilt.
Over the course of the novel—she blooms.
Austen’s women are sexing up, and develop roving eyes. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby has a “manly beauty” which draws the eye of both mother and daughter. And there’s the stunner George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, who “had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address…”
All the ladies are getting a little thirsty. He was “the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned…”
If men tend to be beautiful, oddly, Austen women are often handsome. Jane Bennett is “the only handsome girl in the room,” as Mr. Darcy says. Elisabeth he finds “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
A rather curious thing for a man to say?
Is that a lesbian subplot?
In a 2013 paper, “‘Where She Could Not Follow’ — The Lesbian Subplot in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park,” Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka really threw me for a loop. I had not seen it—and yet it’s there.
“I like to hear her talk. She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her.”
In the novel, three characters, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram both admire the newcomer Mary Crawford. It does seem that he is going to get further with Mary, as the narrator says his admiration “might lead him to where Fanny could not follow.”
But is that true? In a sexual theater which ensues, they’re to put on a play, and Mary has a love scene with Edmund and wants to rehearse for it. She asks Fanny to help her “rehearse it with me, that I may fancy you him, and get on by degrees. You have a look of his sometimes.”
I see. Fanny plays Edmund’s part, “with looks and voice so truly feminine, as to be no very good picture of a man.” The interaction of the two women does begin to seem, as Mentxaka writes, “a highly charged erotic scene,” as Fanny attempts to play the male role.
Edmund comes upon them, and interrupts, taking over the male role, as Fanny feels dejected suddenly: “Her spirits sank under the flow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both to have any comfort in having been sought by either.”
Austen is essentially a queer writer.
And she uses the word ‘queer’, as the scholar Jane White notes, for the unusual, in-between states she cultivates, like with Fanny.
Frustrated at Fanny’s indifference to him, Henry Crawford asks: “What is her character? — Is she solemn? — Is she queer? — Is she prudish?”
In this context, ‘solemn’ seems to mean ‘depressive’, which would be read as masculine, for women were to be light and bubbly, without a thought in their pretty little heads. The suitor is puzzled by a woman who’s indifferent to him, and ranges over all the things she could be.
Emma’s avoidance of marriage and cultivation of female friends starts to look a little suspicious. Then, in Persuasion, Anne Elliot is queerest of all—breaking away from the sex-gender system completely. Edward Kozaczka notices that when Anne sits at the piano, she is oddly self-pleasuring.
She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation.
Kozaczka writes: “Anne is not queer in the sense that she experiences same-sex desire but rather because she gives pleasure to herself . . .” Even when shut out of the marriage market, Anne remains feeling, open, changing.
In the plot, Anne had a teenage enthusiasm for Wentworth, but her family put a stop to it. She becomes in her resulting solitude a bit autoerotic and a bit masochistic. When Wentworth re-appears, she decides that she wants him—regardless of social permission.
She studies him. She sees him, suddenly, not as a role or placeholder, but as a man. “Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it…”
And Anne becomes the basis of a new kind of woman who can see as things are, as men are, without being blindered by a culture that, they realize, is simmering in secrets, and never cared about anybody.
Austen’s own sexuality is difficult to locate.
She had a few male suitors, and once accepted a proposal of marriage—the next morning, turning him down. She was close to her sister, which may have provided a template for the men she liked. As Terry Castle noted in 1996, “even Austen’s heroes are often more like sisters than lovers . . .”
There’s an eye for male beauty throughout her novels. “Sexuality is, in fact, at the heart of all of Austen’s major works, and male sexuality in particular,” notes Meaghan Malone in a study of Austen’s female gaze.
There is also the clear tracks of a lesbian consciousness. I wonder if Austen made a project of becoming everything.
As the world became her.