PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.33, NO.1 (Winter 2012)

Sex, Money, and Power

Susan Allen Ford


Susan Allen Ford (email: is Editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line.


two Hundred Years ago, in the last days of November, Jane Austen wrote to Martha Lloyd, who was away from home, caring for a dying friend.  She begins, on 29 November 1812, with a comic expression of gratitude for a letter received:  “you have obliged me to eat humble-pie indeed; . . . & though it is in general much pleasanter to reproach than to be grateful, I do not mind it now.”  She recognizes in particular the time that Martha doesn’t have for writing “in such an arduous, busy, useful office as you fill at present,” and she praises her character as well as her labors:  “You are made for doing good. . . . The mental Physic which you have been lately applying bears a stamp beyond all common Charity.”


This power of doing good surges through the letter:  Martha’s “kind intentions” extend to their maidservant Sally and her mother, who will receive a Grey Woollen cloak and some Calico; a present for their poor neighbor Miss Benn is also designed—perhaps “something of the Shawl kind to wear over her Shoulders within doors in very cold weather.”  In addition to executing or suggesting these gifts on Martha’s behalf, Jane Austen mentions her own satisfaction in the power of giving:  “We are just beginning to be engaged in another Christmas Duty, & next to eating Turkies, a very pleasant one, laying out Edward’s money for the poor; & the Sum that passes through our hands this year is considerable, as Mrs Knight left £20 to the Parish.”


The rest of the letter is devoted to other, different kinds of power—most of them related to money or sex.  Austen invokes the power of gender and of succession:  her brother Edward “& his Harem” (two daughters and a niece) have left after a visit, during which, incidentally, Edward appropriated the largest available bedroom; there is also news that Edward’s name has been changed from Austen to Knight in accordance with his inheritance of the Godmersham and Chawton estates.  Ending the day’s letter-writing, Austen considers social power as exerted upon a young, newly-married woman, speculating that Martha’s society in Berkshire must be “now passing your Judgments . . . on Mrs John Butler; & ‘is she pretty? or is she not?’ is the knotty question.”  But Austen’s understanding of power is more complex than simple female subjection to the social gaze:  “Happy Woman! to stand the gaze of a neighbourhood as the Bride of such a pink-faced, simple young Man!—”  It’s the young Man, pink-faced and simple, who materializes before our judging eyes through the power of Jane Austen’s language.


Sandwiched between these trivial instances is the most significant piece of news that Jane Austen has to communicate.  The simplicity of the initial declarative statement—and the one that follows—defines the importance of the information:


P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.


Following that stark statement is a more complex analysis—a contest between the power of the author and the power of the publisher, probably inflected by the gender of the author as well as of a sister unwilling to be troublesome:


I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.—Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be welcome to me.—The Money is to be paid at the end of the twelvemonth.


Despite her complicated feelings about the Money, there’s no humility here.  We’re left in this letter with an awareness of the different operations—and the different meanings—of sex, money, and power in Jane Austen’s daily world.


This year’s Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, treating the theme of “Sex, Money, and Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction” and coordinated by Nili Olay and Jerry Vetowich, brought almost eight hundred Janeites to Brooklyn to taste the pleasures of the Big Apple.  Among those pleasures—in a program organized by Kerri Spennicchia—were presentations by the writers included in this issue, all testifying to the lure of sex, money, and power in Austen’s world and in her fiction.  Daniel James Cole’s plenary address examines these forces in the fashions of the period.  Marilyn Francus provides a chart of incomes drawn from the novels, a companion piece to her essay appearing in Persuasions 34.  A. Marie Sprayberry considers the intersections of sex, money, and power in terms of Austen’s attitude toward the Prince Regent while Jeffrey A. Nigro and William Phillips, Susan Allen Ford, and Sarah Emsley chart her relationship to other writers and their works (Mme. de Staël, contemporary gothic novelists, Edith Wharton, respectively).


The Miscellany provides other fascinations (often revealing those ubiquitous forces of money, sex, and power).  Allison Thompson explains what “dancing at St. James’s” would involve—and why Darcy would not be interested!  Leo Rockas considers Jane Austen’s development as a writer (from “The Three Sisters” to Pride and Prejudice); Pauline Beard and Patricia M. Ard explore the uses Austen makes of her reading (Columella) and of her understanding of the larger world (represented by America).  Clyde Ray examines the idea of prudence in Sense and Sensibility.  And in essays on Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice by Raffaella Antinucci and on a Jane Austen Festival in small town Louisiana by Corrie Keisel, we learn about the transforming power of contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen.  Finally Deborah Barnum’s bibliographies for 2008 and 2011 bring up to date the project begun by the late Barry Roth.


I began with Jane Austen’s letter of 29-30 November 1812 and its concern with varieties of power—most immediately with the power of giving.  This issue of Persuasions On-Line is the product of that kind of power:  the gift of the authors whose work is represented here; the gift of the members of the Editorial Board (listed on the title page), who spent many hours through the year reading and responding to submissions; the gift of JASNA’s President Iris Lutz, who has provided strong support for the organization’s journals; and of course the gift of JASNA’s web manager Carol Moss, whose efforts not only make Persuasions On-Line possible but whose works go “beyond all common Charity.”



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