With the opening of the new version of “Emma,” and all the buzz, negative and positive, about the exposure of a certain part of Knightley’s anatomy in the film, there again is focus on what people think of Austen’s creative force, a single lady in Georgian-era England who wrote about seductions, adultery, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and prostitution.
In the recent Washington Post article, “5 Myths about Jane Austen,” Professor Devoney Looser, who is also the author of “The Making of Jane Austen,” writes about the myth of the sexless Jane, and even the belief, by some, that her writing was sexless. Her brother Henry, in a biographical notice, said his sister was “fearful of giving offense to God.” Charlotte Bronte had the audacity to say that “the Passions are perfectly unknown,” by Austen.
Modernity, in some circles, has not changed this attitude. “The Guardian” speculated that Austen is a model of “sexless greatness,” whose own chastity gives us her wonderful novels.
I agree with Professor Looser in the assessment that this is wrong. Anybody who reads Austen, really reads her work, will see there is not a bit of chastity to be found. Shall we make a list?
- Willoughby seduces, impregnates and abandons a young girl
- Lydia shacks up with Wickham
- Maria wrecks her life over Henry
- Julia elopes with Mr. Yates
- Sleazy and seductive Mary Crawford
- Clandestine Frank and Jane Fairfax
The list goes on. And of course we can’t forget the sexiest man ever create, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has become the iconic male ideal for every woman from 15 to 95.
Many have felt it was curious how a woman like Austen, with supposedly no experience with the opposite sex, could write about such topics. It’s simple. As I writer of historical fiction, I have written extensively about Revolutionary War America. How could a woman like myself, 20th century born, write effectively about 1776? I do research. Jane’s research was the lives of her family and neighbors. She was a keen observer of human nature. She witnessed people’s demeanor and behavior at gatherings, balls and family functions. These people were the fodder for her novels. In one of her letters to her sister Cassandra, she wrote of being able to “spot an adulteress” across the room at a ball, even before the woman was pointed out to her. Did she base Maria Bertram’s character on this woman? I’d say it was possible.
Then there is the latest hypothesis that Austen was gay. In Lucy Worsley’s 2017 bio “Jane Austen at Home,” Worsley writes:
“Was Austen ever with a man? The answer is most certainly not. For a member of the gentry, or pseudo-gentry, a pregnancy outside of marriage would have been world shattering.” Worsley writes that Austen frequently documented sleeping with female friends, and that people were much less worried about relationships between women than they were with male-female relationships.
My take: What does it matter? Those of us that know and love Jane Austen know many aspects of her life were not easy. All of us deserve a world that is private; that we do not have to share outside our personal sphere. That applies to Austen as well. Whatever she did, whoever she was with, I hope it brought her joy. And the bottom line is it’s nobody’s business. Her immense legacy is her ability to render characters that live on 200+ years after their creation, and the happiness her stories have brought many generations. The rest is not relevant to anyone but gossip mongers.
Bottom line was Austen was a human being. Sexless Jane? How dare they?