This essay argues first that we understand fictional characters as covertly “famous”: that is, known (via the distribution of print or other mass media) to cohorts of people far larger than the usual scale of human acquaintance. Second, it claims that there is an erotic component to this secret fame, one that reaches an unlikely pinnacle of self-aware power in Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion. I argue that the novel’s love plot derives much of its power from the way it allegorizes its media condition: because the heroine’s desire for her suitor resembles an ambition to become visible to her many readers, and because the suitor’s desire for her resembles those readers’ ambition to reach into the fictional universe, an identification with either side of this love plot involves readers in an eroticized apprehension of our mass status. The interpretation aims to put Austen in a line of literary pioneers of impersonal eroticism, and to reorient our thinking about nineteenth-century literature’s relation to population-thinking. Where powerful recent work has shown the extent to which the nineteenth century understood the human aggregate in terms of biopolitical anxieties around rampant sexuality and (over)-reproduction of the species, this essay highlights other ways numbers, crowds, and masses signify erotically in the period’s literature: as intensifiers of sexual feeling, as objects of vibrating excitement in their own right, as calls to solidarity and belonging that radiate with erotic energies only tangentially, if at all, related to conjugality and the reproduction of the species.


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pp. 53-75
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