Persuasions #5, 1983                                                                                                                                            Pages 18-19







Jack Smith

Copyright, 1983, Los Angeles Times, reprinted with permission.


There are no “Wows!” in Jane Austen, I observed recently in reflecting on the current revival of interest in the English novelist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the flowering of Jane Austen Societies in England and America.

By “Wows!” I meant the graphic, explicit, audible sex scenes after which the dewy heroine, gratified and spent, cries or murmurs “Wow!” or otherwise expresses her astonishment and applauds her lover. (These are scattered liberally through contemporary novels, especially those written by women; sometimes it is the man who says “Wow!”) “Such a scene,” I said, “would have been inconceivable to Jane Austen.”

* * *

“Is it true that there are no ‘wows’ in J. A.?” asks Donald Greene, professor of English literature at USC and a Jane Austen scholar. I am respectful of Greene’s credentials, having heard him lecture before the Jane Austen Society at the Huntington Library last December on her birthday.

The fact is,” he assures me, “that illicit sex plays an important role in at least five of her six major novels. There must be as large a total of it as in the complete works of Charles Dickens, with their insipid heroes and heroines.” He refers us to Pride and Prejudice.

“What finally brings Elizabeth and Darcy together is Elizabeth’s 15-year-old sister, Lydia, running away with the professional seducer Wickham (who had earlier very nearly made a similar conquest of Darcy’s teen-aged sister, who had the additional attraction of 30,000 pounds).

In Sense and Sensibility, the hero, Colonel Brandon, was prevented at the last minute from running away with his sister-in-law (whose husband ‘had no regard for her; his pleasures were not what they ought to have been’ – a pretty clear suggestion of homosexuality).

“The sister-in-law then became promiscuous,” Green continues, “and produced an illegitimate daughter, who, as still another teen-ager, fell prey to the seducer Willoughby, and, in turn, produced still another illegitimate child.

The climax of Mansfield Park comes when the attractive and unscrupulous Henry Crawford runs off with Maria Bertram, recently married to the dull Mr. Rushworth, precipitating a nasty divorce.

Need I go on to mention the mysterious illegitimacy of Harriet Smith in Emma, and Mr. Elliot’s long liaison with his mistress in Persuasion?”

I had pointed out that in Jane’s time eligible ladies and gentlemen had no singles bars to meet in and were obliged to meet in church or at tea to pursue what appeared to be her main theme – getting properly married.

“As you say,” Greene writes, “there were no singles bars …. But even that lack didn’t seem to keep adultery from flourishing quite as successfully as it does now. After all, it was the time of the Regency, with the Prince Regent (later George IV) flaunting his pack of high-placed mistresses – whom Jane Austen in her letters keeps careful track of – and long separated from his wife, Princess Caroline, who led an equally raffish life on the Continent.

Their divorce case, though it took place after J. A.’s death, was one of the greatest scandals in the already pretty scandalous history of the royal family. It is ironic that the prince was a great admirer of J. A.’s novels – maybe he saw more in them than modern readers do. J. A. was on Caroline’s side in the great debate between them, and it was with some reluctance that, at his request, she dedicated Emma to him ….”

I have no quarrel with the professor’s thesis. Even though I have not read all the novels, I do suspect that the forms of Regency society were merely a screen for adulteries, fornications, seductions, illegitimacies and occasional acts of incest, and that Miss Austen, as alert, curious and perceptive as she was, would not have missed a trick.

Greene notes that she wrote, at the age of 25: “I am proud to say that I have a very good eye for an adulteress ….”

When my wife and I were travelling in England by train, she was enchanted by the Prince Regent’s fantastic pleasure palace in Brighton, including the room designed for his one true love, the beautiful Mary Fitzherbert. On the way to Bath she read a paperback biography of that rascal, and, like Jane Austen, she rather sympathized with the adulterous Caroline – pawn of a political marriage.

When I said there weren’t any “Wows!” in Jane Austen, I didn’t mean there wasn’t any sex. As Greene points out, her pages are almost as saturated with sex as those of today’s liberated female novelists; but of necessity, given the hypocrisy of the times, it is implicit, offstage; we do not hear the cries, murmurs and wows of the bedchamber, but only the resulting gossip.

* * *

Meanwhile, Terri Evens of Thousand Oaks agrees with me that social custom in Austen’s time gave the sexes few opportunities for what I call the “cute meet,” but she points out that Austen did make use of another convention of American movie makers – “that is, if a man and woman hate each other at first sight, they are sure to fall in love ….”

She recalls that Elizabeth and Darcy first meet at a ball, and Elizabeth overhears Darcy’s answer when a friend tries to persuade him to dance with her.

Darcy sneers: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men ….”

Put that in the vernacular of the 1940’s and what do you have? Spencer Tracy saying, “That scarecrow? You got to be kidding.” But you know that Katharine Hepburn, like Elizabeth, will get her man.

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