- "A Pair of Fine Eyes":Jane Austen's Treatment of Sex
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen's novels are about courtship and marriage. But it is a truth almost as universally ignored that they are also very much about sex. As a social force, as an embodiment of value systems, as an index of personal maturity, the role of marriage in Jane Austen's work has been ably and extensively examined. But as the consummation of sexual attraction between a man and a woman and as the reconciliation of "maleness" and "femaleness," her conception of marriage has seldom been discussed.
One reason for the imbalance of emphasis lies in our preconceptions about her personality. Few critics consciously share Marvin Mudrick's view of a Jane Austen armored in impenetrable wit and muslin against the "personally involving aspects of sex" and the "unknown adult commitment of sexual love." But his vision of her as a defensively ironic "genteel spinster" does represent a popular and subtly pervasive stereotype. The phrases he uses about her—"routed by the sexual question," "fogged in bourgeois morality," opposed to "sexual vitality," and in favor of "frigidity as a standard of sexual conduct"—while inaccurate in themselves, serve to suggest the kinds of presuppositions to which Jane Austen has been subject and which have rendered the sexual aspects of her work less visible than they should be.1
A second reason that the sexual element in Jane Austen's fiction has tended to be ignored lies in her art itself. The coolness and deftness of her surface and the interplay of irony and wit have made her novels seem more purely cerebral than they are and have reinforced the presumptions about her temperament. A merciless satirist of false or excessive feeling, she has wrongly been seen as suspicious of all feeling; and her very desire to subsume sex within marriage has somehow made her seem to be endorsing marriage without sex. Because the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction make it almost impossible for the hero and heroine to touch and even, at a certain level of frankness, to speak, [End Page 36] the tendency has been to see the overt levels of plot and dialogue as reflecting her total vision of sex and marriage. And yet her novels are no less subtle and realistic here than in their depiction of any other forms of human relationship.
I shall try in this essay to redress the balance and, particularly in the first portion, to single out and emphasize Jane Austen's handling of physical sexuality. Jane Austen's books treat many other serious themes as well: art and nature, feeling and reason, freedom and order, the individual and society. It is precisely because all these issues come to a focus in marriage and are dramatized in her novels through the incidents of wooing and wedding that we cannot leave sex out. If marriage is the ultimate source of social order and the very soul of the status quo, it achieves this harmony only through the disruptive and disorderly force of sex. The predominant novelist of social stability, Jane Austen is also the chronicler of the sexual selectivity that creates it. As a writer whose books all end with marriages, her problem was not that she failed to recognize the foreplay of attraction and repulsion, of looking and liking, of teasing and touching that can lead to matrimony, but that she could not express her views directly. Her indirections, however, are surprisingly subtle and frank.
In studying Jane Austen's "indirections'' we must be aware of the limited range of explicit statement allowed to a novelist of her generation. Although the easy eighteenth-century conventions of her youth allowed her to read what she later termed the "impassioned and most exceptionable parts of Richardson," and, as we shall see, the more indelicate portions of Shakespeare, even male authors by the turn of the century could no longer speak freely of plackets and bosoms.2 We have only to look at Scott—by all accounts a clubbish man in company—to see how pervasively these taboos affected fiction. For a woman, of course, the...