Experts Weigh In on “Sexless Jane”

Experts Weigh In on “Sexless Jane”

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?

  1. Willoughby seduces, impregnates and abandons a young girl
  2. Lydia shacks up with Wickham
  3. Maria wrecks her life over Henry
  4. Julia elopes with Mr. Yates
  5. Sleazy and seductive Mary Crawford
  6. 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?


13 Responses to Experts Weigh In on “Sexless Jane”

  1. Great post! She most certainly was a human being! I too haven’t gotten to see Emma either but I would love to.

  2. Thank you for sharing this interesting post, I was not that excited about the newest Emma movie before (as there are already several really good ones) but now I am less so. It does odd people don’t think there is any reference to see in Jane Austen since as you said there are so many scandals to provide examples in her works even if she doesn’t get into graphic detail on the page.

    • I haven’t seen the new Emma movie yet. I was going to go this week and then came the Coronavirus. It’s now on Amazon Prime, so I will catch it there. Some say they didn’t like this Emma; that she was overly arrogant and rude, much more so than Austen would have intended, or then other film versions of Emma. I will see! Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Opinions about Austen do swing back and forth like a pendulum. No one is ever going to agree completely about her or her work. I hope, in another 200 years, society will still be reading and debating Austen. Yes, her privacy is her business. Thank you for pointing that out. I doubt I will watch the new Emma movie. I don’t look forward to seeing that much of Mr. Knightly. Nope… I can do without that.

    • I don’t like gratuitous nudity, no matter what film it’s in. If it doesn’t somehow add to the story, it’s just plain tacky. Haven’t seen the movie yet; I will probably watch it just to satisfy my curiosity. And I agree; I hope many generations in the future will be reading Jane Austen!!

  4. I agree with you completely 🙂 I can’t imagine anyone reading Austen and not realizing that her work addresses all aspects of human nature. That’s what makes it so amazing. It’s ludicrous to think she’d leave such a big part of human interaction and motivation out of her work or know little about it in life. As you say, though, I am happy to let her private life be her private life.

  5. And what about Lady Susan? Austen wrote about sinful conduct but it was never written as acceptable conduct. Although she did not go into graphic detail, she could still write about good and bad without violating her Bible-trained conscience. The adjectives Darcy used in regard to Wickham in his letter to Elizabeth described just how wicked the man really was. She wrote in such a way that she got the point across without being crass. Jane Austen was so subtle that Bronte missed the point. Thank you for an interesting post. 🙂

    • That’s true!! I always forget about Lady Susan, since I read it so long ago. I’ve read that some believe Austen based the character of Lady Susan on the mother of one of her friends. And as for Charlotte Bronte, I agree she didn’t get Austen. Bronte had a political agenda for her writing; that was to let people know about the suffering of the indigent and the poor. Austen had no such agenda. She wished to depict all people’s natures, good and bad, rich and poor. Many other writers didn’t get this, such as Mark Twain. But she is still popular than both of them, all these centuries later. That seems to say it all!!

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