- Jane Austen and the Sex-Positive Novel
Introducing Alice Chandler's "'A Pair of Fine Eyes': Jane Austen's Treatment of Sex," first published in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 7, No.1 (special number: "Jane Austen"), spring 1975, pp. 88-103.
At a time when most scholars of the English novel were determined to treat the marriage plot in moral and metaphysical terms, presenting it as the form's primary vehicle either for character development or for the analysis and repair of social division, Alice Chandler floated a modest, or maybe immodest, proposal. She reminded readers that all those marriages that conclude Austen's novels also consummate stories of sexual attraction.
Other critical accounts from this era—Wayne Booth's, for example—were heavily invested in a notion of the Austenian plot as the vehicle of a wayward heroine's moral education. That investment produced the "Girl Being Taught a Lesson" school of Austen criticism that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would identify in 1991: readings that extracted from the works the spectacle of a girl receiving punishment and which often, as Sedgwick noted, positioned Austen herself as another erring female in need of some knuckle-rapping. More than a decade and a half before "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," Chandler anticipated, though in a more tentative idiom, Sedgwick's challenge to the repressive hypothesis that had come to govern this strand of Austen criticism. "Jane Austen's books treat many…serious themes…[,] art and nature, feeling and reason, freedom and order, the individual and society," Chandler wrote, conceding some ground to prevailing critical convention, and then continued, "[i]t is precisely because all these issues…are dramatized in her novels through the incidents of wooing and wedding that we cannot leave sex out" (89). In the wake of Chandler's effort to redress the critical balance, the sex-positive dimensions of an oeuvre that numerous earlier commentators had presented as a "palace of prudery" (93) became more conspicuous. [End Page 33]
So did the rhetorical sophistication that enabled Austen to register her carnal knowledge. Austen's verbal dexterity enabled her to speak in polite company about the topics that female writers were supposed to avoid and all the while retain a kind of plausible deniability. Chandler exhibited to her readers an Austen who, in order to dramatize "the subtleties of sexual relationship that lie behind the surface of convention and restraint" (102) made highly efficient use of "covert implication" (89): of in-jokes and witticisms hinging on double entendres, for instance, as well as of allusions to the then-not-yet-bowdlerized plays of Shakespeare. Far from being conceived as a site of repression and silence, the body is in this essay presented as crucial to Austen's project. Chandler thus asked her readers to notice, for instance, all the noticing of pubescent female physicality that goes on in Mansfield Park (1814) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). ("Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained in so much countenance!—and your figure—Nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle": thus the comically cringe-worthy passage in Mansfield Park in which Edmund Bertram ventriloquizes on his father's behalf his fresh appreciation of their poor relation's newly womanly body .) When a twenty-first-century historicist critic like Jill Heydt-Stevenson proposes that the body, not the mind, is the ground of love for heroines like Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, and when she reconstructs in support of this proposition Austen's borrowings from the racy jokes found in late-eighteenth-century ladies' magazines, she follows in Chandler's footsteps.
Putting sex back into Austen novels, "'A Pair of Fine Eyes'" opened up possibilities for reading that by 1975 a reception tradition centered on a Gentle Jane had nearly closed down. This for me is the prime reason for assigning Chandler's essay landmark status in the history of Austen criticism. Chandler called time on the patronizing of Austen as sexual innocent or prude. The result was an essay that educates us (still) about the sexual politics of criticism, as well as about sex in fiction.
The portrait of...