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  • "Everything is Going to Sixes and Sevens": Governing the Female Body (Politic) in Jane Austen's Catharine, Or the Bower (1792)
  • John C. Leffel

Female modesty is the last barrier of civilized society.

—John Bowles, Remarks on Modern Female Manners (London, 1802)

Recent scholarly interest in Jane Austen's juvenilia has helped to dispel the persistent myth of a prim and proper, unsexed and ahistorical author by recovering aspects of Austen's sexually charged humor, aggressive wit, and investment in the history and politics of her time that earlier readers and critics—starting with her own family—had rendered opaque (see esp. Auerbach; Doody; Leffel; and Heydt-Stevenson, "Pleasure"). Of particular interest in this regard is Austen's unfinished novel Catharine, or the Bower (1792), 1 a work in which, as Brian Southam notes, "burlesque is intermingled with [Austen's] first experiments in realistic social comedy and more flexible narrative forms" (246). Such a blending—one that Austen's niece, Caroline, had disparaged as a formal and stylistic "betweenit[y]" (qtd. in Le Faye 276) 2 —allows, I argue alternatively, for the powerful authorial exploration of social and political concerns that reflect the tumultuous era in which the novel was written (see also Johnson, "The Kingdom" 51; Heydt-Stevenson, Unbecoming Conjunctions, 170-75 ; Tuite 49-55; and Waldron 19). In Catharine, Austen employs pointed cultural references and suggestive literary allusions to upend repressive discourses that sought to regulate young women's bodies and minds and inhibit their sexuality. A focus on the novel's allusions and intertexts, as well as on the figure of the titular bower, reveals Austen's critique of her culture's myopic [End Page 131] investment in young women's sexual chastity (or "virtue") by foregrounding how this fixation actually serves to exploit the very women it seeks to protect. Austen's pointed allusions and dynamic social comedy break down barriers and expose a repressive social system—one that is epitomized through the characters of Mrs. Percival (a sermon-toting guardian with a neurotic fear of sexuality) and, to a lesser extent, Edward Stanley (an eccentric, handsome cousin with a seductive disregard for propriety). In demonstrating how conduct literature and regulatory discourses can produce and maintain misogynistic economies, Austen assails the notion that women's sexuality, if not strictly contained and policed, constituted a revolutionary threat that could potentially, to quote the novel's hyperbolic Mrs. Percival, set the kingdom at "sixes and sevens" (204). By so doing, Austen's oft-neglected early novel satirically deflates the widely held conservative argument 3 —espoused by commentators such as James Fordyce and Hannah More—that strict governance of the female sexual body equates with proper governance of the state.

"It is not merely the name of an Arbour, which charms me"

The novel's opening paragraphs establish a disturbing atmosphere of repression, loss, victimization, and compensatory response. Having been orphaned as a young child, the novel's heroine, Catharine or "Kitty," is raised by her "Maiden Aunt" Mrs. Percival (186). Though her intentions are good, Mrs. Percival's thoughts and actions are dominated by an obsessive concern with her young charge's virtue. Following the advice of moralizing authors like James Fordyce, who encouraged parents to dissect young daughters' deportment "with particular solicitude" (Fordyce 157), Mrs. Percival "watch[es] over [Kitty's] conduct with so scrutinizing a severity, as to make it very doubtful to many people, and to Catharine amongst the rest, whether she loved her or not" (186). Fearful that even the slightest contact with young men will lead to her ward's ruin, Kitty's aunt refuses to let her socialize in the neighborhood and prevents her from visiting young male relations. And in a misguided attempt to regulate her niece's character and conduct, she plies Kitty with sermons, conduct books, and conservative fiction.

Blessed with "a fund of vivacity and good humour" (186), however, Kitty is able to brush off her aunt's suspicions, refusing to let them "damp[en]" (186) her "remarkably open and unreserved" (189) disposition by seeking constant refuge in "a fine shady Bower" (187), built with the aid of beloved childhood companions, Cecilia and Mary Wynne, and invested with...


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