- Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deirde Le Faye
Oxford, 621 pp, £30.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 19 811764 7
It is impossible for the lover of Jane Austen – and lover is the operative word here – to have anything but mixed feelings about Austen’s older sister Cassandra. On one hand, we owe to Cassandra the only surviving (if bad) portraits of Austen other than silhouettes: the famous, somewhat lopsided sketch of 1801, in which the novelist’s mouth is awkwardly pursed and her eyes, gazing in different directions, look like small, astigmatic raisins; and an equally inept watercolour back-view from 1804, in which nothing of Austen can be seen – Cassandra giving her all to the rendering of the complicated dress and bonnet – except the nape of a neck, the exposed back of one hand, and a tentative, slipper-clad foot. Crude they may be, yet without these sisterly gleanings we would know next to nothing of Austen’s face or figure or how she held herself in space: dead at 42 in 1817, she is part of that last, infinitely poignant, generation of human beings who lived and died before photography.
On the other hand, one can only deplore Cassandra’s high-handed actions after Austen’s death; these included burning great quantities of her sister’s letters and censoring others by snipping pieces out of them. The vast majority of these letters were written to Cassandra herself. Though Austen wrote from time to time to other members of the large Austen clan – her three brothers and their wives, various favourite nieces and nephews – Cassandra was the person around whom her life revolved, and she wrote regularly to her whenever they were separated. (Spinsters both, the two Austen sisters lived together all their adult lives – first at Steventon and Bath with their parents, then after their father’s death in 1805, with their mother and a female friend at Chawton in Hampshire.) At her own death in 1845, Cassandra bequeathed the scant batch of letters she had saved from the flames to her grand-niece, Lady Knatchbull, whose son, Lord Brabourne, had them published – like precious relics – in 1884. A number of other letters have surfaced since then; the great Austen scholar, R.W. Chapman, issued the first modern edition of the correspondence in 1932. Still, only 161 Austen letters are known to exist today, and many only in Cassandra-mangled form.
Deirdre Le Faye, editor of the excellent new revised Oxford edition of the letters, defends Cassandra somewhat backhandedly, suggesting that her weeding-out and censorship ‘shows itself more in the complete destruction of letters rather than in the excision of individual sentences; the “portions cut out” usually only amount to a very few words, and from the context it would seem that the subject concerned was physical ailment.’ Le Faye speculates that Cassandra, not wishing to cause embarrassment or ill-feeling, destroyed letters in which Austen wrote too freely or satirically about other family members. But for the reader of Austen’s fiction, hungry for a sense of the author’s inner life, Cassandra’s depredations can only seem like older-sister arrogance of the most mortifying sort: a jealous winnowing down of her brilliant younger sister’s personality in the name of a dubious decorum.
What was their relationship like? In a telling family memoir from 1867, James Edward Austen-Leigh, Austen’s nephew, described it thus:
Their sisterly affection for each other could scarcely be exceeded. Perhaps it began on Jane’s side with a feeling of deference natural to a loving child towards a kind elder sister. Something of this feeling always remained; and even in the maturity of her powers, and in the enjoyment of increasing success, she would still speak of Cassandra as of one wiser and better than herself. In childhood, when the elder was sent to the school of a Mrs Latournelle in the Forbury at Reading, the younger went with her, not because she was thought old enough to profit much by the instruction there imparted, but because she would have been miserable without her sister; her mother observing that ‘if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.’ This attachment was never interrupted or weakened. They lived in the same home, and shared the same bedroom, till separated by death.
Cassandra was ‘colder and calmer’, wrote Austen-Leigh; the family said that ‘Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under her command, but that Jane had the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.’ When Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, some readers thought Austen had modelled the characters of the Dashwood sisters – the sober Elinor and the sprightly Marianne – on her sister and herself. Austen-Leigh demurred, but only in order to pay tribute to the novelist’s superior moral insight. ‘Cassandra’s character might indeed represent the sense of Elinor, but Jane’s had little in common with the sensibility of Marianne. The young woman who, before the age of twenty, could so clearly discern the failings of Marianne Dashwood, could hardly have been subject to them herself.’ The entire family seems to have shared his not-so-secret preference for Jane over Cassandra: another Austen nephew, Henry, of whom Austen had been particularly fond in his teens, told a cousin after Austen’s death that whenever he visited the house at Chawton – where Cassandra and Mrs Austen lived on for some years – ‘he could not help expecting to feel particularly happy ... and never till he got there, could he fully realise to himself how all its peculiar pleasures were gone.’
Perhaps because of the ambivalence Cassandra inevitably inspires – implicit in everything everyone says about her is the unspoken question, why did Jane have to be the one to die? – biographers and critics have tended to downplay her centrality in Austen’s life. Even the sympathetic Chapman sought to depersonalise the sororal relationship: defending the surviving Jane-Cassandra letters against charges of being ‘trifling’ in subject and style, he asserted that the sisters’ purpose in writing to one another was to exchange information not only ‘between themselves, but between two branches of a large family. There are indications that these letters and others like them were read by, and to, a number of people. Even if this had not been so, it would not have been consonant with the sisters’ temperament, or with their way of life, to exchange letters of sentiment or disquisition.’ Le Faye suggests we consider Austen’s letters to Cassandra ‘the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters’ – ‘hasty and elliptical’, full of family news, but little more.
It is certainly true that the surviving letters contain their share of trivia. Whole passages can go by as a blur of names and now meaningless events:
Yesterday I introduced James to Mrs Inman; – in the evening John Bridges returned from Goodnestone – and this morn before we had left the Breakfast Table we had a visit from Mr Whitfield, whose object I imagine was principally to thank my Eldest Brother for his assistance. Poor Man! – he has now a little intermission of his excessive solicitude on his wife’s account, as she is rather better. James does duty at Godmersham today. – The Knatchbulls had intended coming here next week, but the Rentday makes it impossible for them to be received & I do not think there will be any spare time afterwards. They return into Somersetshire by way of Sussex & Hants, & are to be at Fareham – & perhaps may be in Southampton, on which possibility I said all I thought right – & if they are in the place, Mrs K. has promised to call in Castle Square; – it will be about the end of July.
Elsewhere we learn more than we want to know, perhaps, about the incessant visits of various collateral family members, the meals eaten and cups of tea drunk, whether fires have been necessary in the sitting-room, the muddy state of nearby roads and similar minutiae.
And yet reading through the correspondence in 1995 – especially in the light of recent historical findings about the psychic complexity of female-female relationships in late 18th and early 19th-century Britain (the recently rediscovered diaries of Austen’s lesbian contemporary, Anne Lister, are an example) – one is struck not so much by the letters’ hastiness or triviality as by the passionate nature of the sibling bond they commemorate. Sororal or pseudo-sororal attachments are arguably the most immediately gratifying human connections in Austen’s imaginative universe. It is a curious yet arresting phenomenon in the novels that so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister. At the end of Northanger Abbey, while the heroine Catherine Morland is clearly delighted to marry the entertaining Henry Tilney, the most intense part of her joy seems to derive from the fact that in doing so she also becomes ‘sister’ to his sister Eleanor, whose subtle approbation she has sought – and glowingly received – throughout the novel. But even Austen’s heroes are often more like sisters than lovers in the conventional sense. The soft-mannered Henry, for example, takes a feminine interest in fabrics, and ‘comforts’ his female relations with his knowledge of muslins and chintzes; and he is repeatedly contrasted with his father, General Tilney – a far more domineering and stereotypically masculine type.
Reading Austen’s letters to Cassandra, one cannot help but sense the primitive adhesiveness – and underlying eros – of the sister-sister bond. The first surviving letter dates from 1796, when Austen was 20 and Cassandra 23. From the start the tone is rhetorical, literary (not like a phone call at all), and one of whimsical yet fierce attachment. Austen wants more than anything to make her older sister laugh. As in her novels, she uses first lines flirtatiously, like comic bait, to catch Cassandra in webs of mock-heroic invention. From 1801: ‘Expect a most agreeable letter, for not being overburdened with subject – (having nothing at all to say) – I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end.’ ‘This will be a quick return for yours, my dear Cassandra,’ she begins a missive from 1813, ‘I doubt its’ having much else to recommend it, but there is no saying, it may turn out to be a very long, delightful Letter.’ ‘Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the Breakfast, Dining. Sitting room, beginning with all my might.’ And again, from 1814: ‘Do not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you. I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.’
Once Cassandra is ensnared, Austen holds her fast with in-jokes and sisterly games of style, complete with loveable misspellings. For all the family gossip they impart, Austen’s letters remain intensely scripted: full of parodic references to shared reading and the cherished (or maligned) books of female adolescence. ‘So much for Mrs Piozzi,’ Austen concludes after a passage of ludicrous Miss Bates-like ramblings on the salutary effects of the Bath waters, ‘I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her stile, but I beleive I shall not.’ She parodies Pope’s comic catalogues (‘In a few hours You will be transported to Manydown – & then for Candour & Comfort & Coffee & Cribbage’), Johnsonian lapidary pronouncement (‘I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently meant, elegantly written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it’), the effusions of Mrs Radclyffe (‘the shades of Evening are descending & I resume my interesting Narrative’) and the twee Caledonian jests of Sir Walter Scott (‘I do not write for such dull elves!’). Elsewhere she announces: ‘I am going to write nothing but short Sentences.’ The result – rather more uncannily – is like proto-Gertrude Stein:
There shall be two full stops in every Line. Layton and Shear’s is Bedford House. We mean to get there before breakfast if it’s possible. For we feel more & more how much we have to do. And how little time. This house looks very nice. It seems like Sloane St moved here. I believe Henry is just rid of Sloane St – Fanny does not come, but I have Edward seated by me beginning a letter, which looks natural.
One can imagine the pleasure-addiction such writing engendered. For the reader, like Cassandra, is seduced by the constant foolery:
I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.
What dreadful Hot weather we have! – It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance.
So much for that subject; I now come to another, of a very different nature, as other subjects are very apt to be.
Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?
And what of these important nothings? It is frequently said of Austen’s letters that they ‘illuminate’ the world of her fiction. This is certainly the case, though to say so is hardly to say very much. Sometimes, it is true, Austen comments directly on work in progress – in particular, on the earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. (In a famous letter written just after the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813, she tells Cassandra that she is ‘vain enough’ over her book, but thinks it ‘rather too light & bright & sparkling; – it wants shade.’) But what advocates of Austen’s correspondence usually mean is that the letters deal in a general way with the same topics explored in the fiction: marriages and family life, parties and balls, domestic entertainments and the now-antiquated courtship rituals of the early 19th-century provincial English gentry.
Yet with Cassandra in mind, one wants to put a finer point on it. Both Austen and Cassandra received marriage proposals at different points in their lives; Cassandra was in fact engaged to be married in 1797, only to have her fiancé die of a fever in the West Indies. Austen received at least two proposals in her youth, both of which she turned down. Biographers have made much of a mysterious ‘gentleman’ at Lyme Regis in 1804-5 who, according to Austen’s niece Caroline (who heard about it from Cassandra), had ‘seemed greatly attracted by my Aunt Jane ... I can only say that the impression left on Aunt Cassandra was that he had fallen in love with her sister, and was quite in earnest. Soon afterwards they heard of his death.’ Whatever one makes of the story (and Austen’s own part in it goes unrecorded) neither she nor Cassandra showed much real inclination for matrimony later in life. One can’t help but feel that both found greater comfort and pleasure – more of that ‘heartfelt felicity’ that Emma Woodhouse finds with Mr Knightley, or Elizabeth Bennet with the handsome Darcy – in remaining with one another.
The letters from Austen that Cassandra allowed to survive testify to such a primordial bond. Virginia Woolf observed of Austen’s fiction that ‘it is where the power of the man has to be conveyed that her novels are always at their weakest.’ Perhaps this is because men are inevitably inferior to sisters. Even more so than in the fiction, Austen displays a remorseless eye in the letters for male fatuousness. It is as if she were at once trying to reassure Cassandra – no one is good enough for me but you – and inviting her complicitous laughter. Men are fools and imaginists and know nothing of the droll, shared cynicism of intelligent women. Thus of one admitted suitor, gone out of Hampshire to practise law in London, she writes sardonically in 1798:
It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.
‘Your unfortunate sister was betrayed last Thursday into a situation of the utmost cruelty,’ Austen begins another letter from 1801; ‘I arrived at Ashe Park before the Party from Deane, and was shut up in the drawing-room with Mr Holder alone for ten minutes.’ A flirtation with the silly, would-be alluring Mr Evelyn is endured for the sake of his shiny new phaeton: ‘There is now something like an engagement between us & the Phaeton, which to confess my frailty I have a great desire to go out in; – whether it will come to anything must remain with him. – I really beleive he is very harmless people do not seem afraid of him here, and he gets Groundsel for his birds & all that.’ The comically appended ‘all that’, with its sly echo of an appropriate line from The Rape of the Lock (‘Snuff, or the Fan, supply each Pause of Chat, / With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that’), is Popean indeed in its brisk satiric dismissal.
When Austen encounters, rarely, a man who disturbs her sexual self-possession, her protestations of dislike are liable to become spinsterish and strident. The handsome, unfriendly Henry Wigram ‘is about 5 or 6 & 20, not ill-looking & not agreeable. – He is certainly no addition. – A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent ... I cannot imagine how a Man can have the impudence to come into a Family party for three days, where he is quite a stranger, unless he knows himself to be agreeable on undoubted authority.’ But for the most part she retains her levity – to the point of joking with Cassandra about various possible (impossible) matches. One James Digweed, she teases her sister, ‘must be in love with you, from his anxiety to have you go to the Faversham Balls, & likewise from his supposing that the two Elms fell from their greif at your absence.’ ‘Was it not a galant idea?’ she asks. ‘It never occurred to me before, but I dare say it was so.’ She imagines herself married to certain literary men of the day. After reading of the death of the poet Crabbe’s wife, she writes: ‘Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any.’ And elsewhere, listing some favourite comic fantasies – which include having her portrait painted for the Royal Academy – she announces she will marry ‘young Mr D’arblay’, the adolescent son of Fanny Burney.
If men are ultimately insignificant, women, by contrast, are a source of unending sisterly preoccupation. Austen’s physical descriptions of women – their faces, voices, hair, clothing, comportment at balls and in sitting-rooms – are funny, complex, often poignant, and as exquisitely drawn as any in her fiction. Yet they inevitably reveal, too, what can only be called a kind of homophilic fascination. Unlike men, women have bodies – to be scrutinised and discussed, admired or found wanting. Thus Mrs Powlett, seen at a dance in 1801, ‘was at once expensively & nakedly dressed; – we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace & her muslin.’ Of a Mrs and Miss Holder: ‘it is the fashion to think them both very detestable,’ but ‘their gowns look so white & so nice I cannot utterly abhor them.’ ‘Miss looked very handsome,’ she says of another plausible young lady, ‘but I prefer her little, smiling, flirting Sister Julia.’ ‘I admire the Sagacity & Taste of Charlotte Williams,’ the novelist writes approvingly in 1813; ‘those large dark eyes always judge well. I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her.’
At times the sexuality of women’s bodies elicits oddly visceral effects: ‘I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys & thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter & thought her a queer animal with a white neck.’ ‘I had the comfort of finding out the other evening who all the fat girls with short noses were that disturbed me at the 1st H. Ball. They all prove to be Miss Atkinsons of Enham.’ ‘I have a very good eye at an Adultress,’ she boasts in 1801, after seeing a well-known demirep at the Pump Room in Bath, ‘for tho’ repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first.’ Even unseen women can be arousing; witness the peculiarly proprietorial fantasy inspired by the news that an Austen family friend is to marry a Miss Lewis at Clifton. ‘I would wish Miss Lewis to be of a silent turn & rather ignorant, but naturally intelligent & wishing to learn; – fond of cold veal pies, green tea in the afternoon, & a green window blind at night.’ It is as if Austen were first conjuring the woman up, then projecting herself, shamanistically, into the role of tutor-husband.
Yet two female bodies are even more insistently ‘present’ in the letters – Austen’s and Cassandra’s own. The extraordinary number of passages in the letters devoted to clothing, for example – on her trips to London and Bath Austen often bought fabric, pieces of trim and other items to be used in the making or refurbishing of her own or her sister’s dresses – bespeak the close terms of physical intimacy on which she and Cassandra lived and the intense psychic ‘mirroring’ that went on between them. A passage like the following, in which Austen’s wish to have Cassandra ‘see’ a gown being made up for her in Bath – and by implication the body that will wear it – is so fantastically detailed as to border on the compulsive:
It is to be a round Gown, with a Jacket, & a Frock front, like Cath: Bigg’s to open at the sides. – The Jacket is all in one with the body, & comes as far as the pocketholes; – about a half a quarter of a yard deep I suppose all the way round, cut off straight at the comers, with a broad hem. – No fullness appears either in the Body or the flap; – the back is quite plain, in this form; – – and the sides equally so. – The front is sloped round to the bosom & drawn in – & there is to be a frill of the same to put on occasionally when all one’s hand kercheifs are dirty – which frill must fall back. – She is to put two breadths & a half in the tail, & no Gores; – Gores not being so much worn as they were; – there is nothing new in the sleeves, – they are to be plain, with a fullness of the same falling down & gathered up underneath, just like some of Marthas – or perhaps a little longer. – Low in the back behind, & a belt of the same. – I can think of nothing more tho’ I am afraid of not being particular enough.
Such passages remind us strikingly of how important a role clothes have played in the subliminal fetish-life of women – how much time women spend looking at one another, dressing one another and engaging in elaborate and mutually pleasurable ‘grooming behaviour’. Austen and Cassandra were hardly exempt: indeed, the conventions of early 19th-century female sociability and body-intimacy may have provided the necessary screen behind which both women acted out unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives.
But the desire to be seen and imaginatively embraced – to be held in Cassandra’s mind’s-eye – is everywhere in Austen’s letters. ‘Ownbody’ references (to borrow a term from the sociologist Erving Goffmann) are frequent in her correspondence and carry a powerful existential charge. She constantly invites her sister to think about her – about her precise location in space, or about the various physical sensations that either soothe or discomfit her. ‘I am in the Yellow room – very literally –,’ she tells Cassandra on arriving at their brother’s estate in Kent, ‘for I am writing in it at this moment.’ ‘How do you do to day?’ reads a somewhat plaintive missive from Bath; ‘I hope you improve in sleeping – I think you must, because I fall off; – I have been awake ever since 5 & sooner, I fancy I had too much cloathes over my stomach; I thought I should by the feel of them before I went to bed, but I had not courage to alter them.’ Far from being trifling, such details bring to life the phenomenology of the novelist’s emotional life. Cassandra was indeed the person she slept with, we realise with a start, and without her sister’s comfortable warmth, slumber itself was altered.
In their own way the letters to Cassandra may ultimately say more of Austen’s fiction – the inner sensual content of the works – than other seemingly more relevant or better-known pieces of Austeniana. Besides the Cassandra letters, the new Oxford edition includes two famous shorter correspondences: a series of letters Austen wrote to her novel-writing niece, Anna Austen, in 1814 (Anna had sent some chapters-in-progress to her aunt for criticism) and a set from 1817 to her niece, Fanny Knight, who was debating over several marriage proposals. The former correspondence contains a number of much-quoted pieces of authorial advice (‘3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’) and displays all of Austen’s characteristic humour and taste: ‘Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of Dissipation”. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; – it is such thorough novel slang – and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.’ Yet the flippancy sometimes borders on condescension and was perhaps not entirely helpful: Anna ended up burning the work in question after developing a painful creative block.
As for the letters to Fanny, though one might expect them to shed light on the novelist’s powers of empathy (Fanny’s predicament is one that occurs often in Austen’s fiction) they make for rather unpleasant reading. Were one wanting to make the vulgar case for Austen’s homoeroticism, here would be the place to look: the tone is giddy, sentimental and disturbingly schoolgirlish for a 42-year-old woman. Austen was in fatuated with Fanny and slips often into embarrassing coquetries: You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such letters, such entertaining letters as you have lately sent! – Such a description of your queer little heart! ... I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.’ As a love adviser she is dithery and contradictory – sometimes fearing the hold Fanny has over men (‘Mr J.W. frightens me. – He will have you’), at other times breathlessly suggesting new lovers for her. She is rather like her own Emma Woodhouse, who, in an excess of displaced amorosity in Emma, persuades her dim-witted little protégée, Harriet Smith, quite wrongly, that three different men are in love with her – with comically disastrous results.
What one ends up realising is that more than anyone else Cassandra provided the essential ballast in Austen’s life – was the caretaker of her mind and body, and guarantor of her imaginative freedom. (‘Aunt Cassandra nursed me so beautifully!’ Austen wrote to Fanny near the end of her life. ‘I have always loved Cassandra, for her fine dark eyes & sweet temper.’) It is always surprising to realise that Jane Austen had a mother, who indeed outlived her: when she is mentioned, rarely, in the letters, it is only as a kind of background presence – someone there, but half-forgotten. (The ailing Mrs Austen is recorded as saying to a grandson some years after Austen’s death: ‘Ah, my dear, you find me just where you left me – on the sofa. I sometimes think that God Almighty must have forgotten me; but I daresay He will come for me in His own good time.’) Cassandra, one might say, was her real mother. And to the degree that Austen’s fictions are works of depth and beauty and passionate feeling – among the supreme humane inventions of the English language – one suspects in turn it is because she loved and was loved by Cassandra.
Can we forgive Cassandra her jealousy? Reading the last, wrenching letters in the new Oxford collection – those written by Cassandra herself to their nieces after Austen’s agonising death from Bright’s disease in 1817 – there is nothing for it but to do so. Cassandra sat by her sister’s bedside all of the long final evening and night, at one point supporting Austen’s dying head, which was ‘almost off the bed’, in her lap for six hours. ‘Fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs J. A. for two hours & a half when I took it again & in about one hour more she breathed her last.’ ‘I have lost a treasure,’ she wrote to Fanny Knight a few days later, ‘such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. – She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’ She had a ring made up with a lock of Austen’s hair set in it – she wore it for the rest of her life – and dreamed of meeting her again: ‘I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it. If I think of her less as on Earth, God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting Heaven & never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there.’ If such prayers are ever answered, one can only hope that she did.
Vol. 17 No. 16 · 24 August 1995
There has been a spate of reports in the British press saying that in my essay about Jane Austen’s letters (LRB, 3 August) I made the claim that Jane Austen ‘may have been gay’ or may have had a ‘lesbian relationship’ with her sister Cassandra.
My comments have been grotesquely, indeed almost comically, distorted. Nowhere in my essay did I state that Jane Austen was a lesbian – certainly not in the modern clinical sense of the word – or that she had sex of some sort with her sister. As a number of Austen scholars and biographers consulted about the matter have pointed out, there is no evidence suggesting that Jane Austen had sexual relations of any sort with anyone, let alone with her sister Cassandra.
I stand by what I did say in the piece, however: that Austen’s relationship with Cassandra was unquestionably the most important emotional relationship of her life, that she lived with her sister on terms of considerable physical intimacy, and that the relationship – I believe – had its unconscious homoerotic dimensions. I am amazed, frankly, that in 1995 this should be considered so controversial and inflammatory a statement. Social historians have been writing for the past twenty years about the profoundly homosocial nature of middle and upper-class English cultural life in the 18th and 19th centuries: the sexes were highly segregated, and powerful emotional (and sometimes physical) ties between persons of the same sex were both common in the period and often expressed in highly romantic or passionate terms. Unmarried women, especially siblings, frequently shared a bed – as Austen and Cassandra did for all of their adult lives. I have been accused of ‘not realising’ that such physical intimacy between women was in fact ‘normal’ or ‘common’ in the period, when that was precisely part of my point. The culture at large reinforced – far more than our own culture does today – same-sex intimacy of all kinds. To point to a ‘homoerotic’ dimension in the Austen/Cassandra relationship is in one sense simply to state a truth about the lives of many English women in the early 19th century: that their closest affectional ties were with female relatives and friends rather than with men.
Elaborating on this fundamental point, I suggested that specific elements in Austen’s letters (the many satires on men and marriage) and in her novels (the compelling emotional importance given to sororal and quasi-sororal relations) indicate that she and Cassandra lived out a particularly intense version of the sister-bond. Once again, I did not say that I thought Austen necessarily acted out such feelings in any explicitly sexual way – only that I believe such feelings were there. I take it as a psychological given, obviously, that parental and sibling attachments have an erotic dimension – indeed provide the basic models for all of our subsequent affective attachments. Surely literary critics writing in the London Review are still allowed to speculate about such things.
Sadly, the hysterical reaction on the part of a number of press commentators – that I have somehow ‘polluted the shrine’ by daring to reflect along these lines about Austen’s emotional life – seems grounded in the most banal (and morally bankrupt) anti-homosexual sentiment. The question of Austen’s ‘sexual orientation’ is not the real issue here. No one – including the most well-informed Austen scholar – will ever be able to make more than an educated guess about that. What is disconcerting about the press reaction to my review is that so many people, apparently, still consider the mere suggestion that someone like Austen might have had homosexual feelings such an appalling slur that any hope for a sensitive debate on the matter becomes impossible. It is neither a crime nor a sin to love – in whatever way one is able – a person of one’s own sex.
In her review of Deirdre Le Faye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters Terry Castle says: ‘It is a curious yet arresting phenomenon in the novels that so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister.’ What is really curious and arresting, however, is that such a statement should be made – and made not as a casual obiter dictum but as evidence for a theory that Austen was primarily attracted to her own sex – when it is demonstrably false.
The only example Castle gives is that of Catherine Moreland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Many readers would find Henry’s charm and sparkle quite sufficient reason for Catherine to want to marry him, even if the prospect of Eleanor as a sister-in-law was an added bonus. But let that pass. There are only seven other final happy marriages in the novels – the five principal ones plus Jane Bennet and John Bingley and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. Of the seven men involved, three – Colonel Brandon, Mr Knightley and Edward Ferrars – have no sisters at all. John Bingley and Edmund Bertram have two each, but both pairs of sisters are unremittingly hostile to the women their brothers marry and definitely play no part at all in their achieved marital happiness. Wentworth’s sister, the wife of Admiral Croft, is a genial lady, well disposed to all, but there is no particular affection between her and Anne Elliot. Which leaves Darcy and Georgiana. While it is clear that Elizabeth is going to guide and inspire her husband’s unformed, motherless young sister, and will enjoy doing so, the prospect is dealt with in a paragraph and it would be ludicrous to regard it as a significant factor in the marriage.
Throughout the letters, as in the novels, when she is ridiculing defects of character, mind and body, Jane Austen is admirably evenhanded in her choice of male and female victims.
Terry Castle must have a gruesome imagination. He states in his lurid review of Jane Austen’s Letters that ‘implicit in everything everyone says about Cassandra is the unspoken question: why did Jane have to be the one to die?’ I am compelled to point out that not everybody, myself for one, shares this view.
I also take issue with his drip-drip implication that Jane and her sister shared some sort of incestuous relationship. From his evidence Austen cannot remotely be said to ‘flirt’ with Cassandra in the first line of her letters to her; or, if that is her aim, she does not manage very well. He also observes in what may be a typical masculine fashion that Austen’s remorseless eye for male fatuousness was ‘as if she were at once trying to reassure Cassandra – no one is good enough for me but you’. May I assure him one can observe (or read) men’s foolishness without having an ulterior motive.
It gets worse. Mr Castle uses those evocative words ‘spinsterish’ and ‘strident’ to describe Austen’s reaction to men who disturb her sexual self-possession. To back this up he kindly repeats her description of one Henry Wigram: ‘about 5 or 6 and 20, not ill-looking and not agreeable. – He is certainly no addition. – A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent.’ Strident? This strikes me as impressively restrained. Nor does it bear the hallmarks (tell me if I am missing the clues) of being written by an unmarried woman.
The reviewer goes on to speculate that Austen’s physical descriptions of women reveal ‘a kind of homophilic fascination’ and that Austen’s and Cassandra’s bodies are ‘insistently present’ in her letters. He cites Austen’s detailed description of a gown being made up for her in Bath. Has he never read a fashion magazine? This is a subject women (and men) will dwell happily on for hours in far more detail; but presumably Mr Castle would consider them acting out ‘homoerotic imperatives’.
I cannot finish without questioning one other observation – that Austen continually wants Cassandra to think about ‘her precise location in space’. This is hardly borne out by Austen’s remark that she is writing ‘in the Yellow room – very literally’. One art of letter-writing is surely vivid description. How much more vivid a correspondent could there be than the novelist Austen, with her eye for detail and her playful imagination?
Arts Reporter, the Independent
We wonder what Ms Macdonald would have written had she been alert to the fact that Terry Castle is a woman.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995
Professor Castle takes the British media too seriously. What she calls their ‘hysterical reaction’ (Letters, 24 August) was simply journalists earning their keep in hyping up a story. I was interviewed by four or five and can testify that they were their usual hard-nosed selves.
As to Cassandra’s feelings for Jane, we have the surviving letters to go on and we must make of them what we can. Professor Castle finds Jane writing to Cassandra ‘flirtatiously’, Cassandra being ‘seduced’ by the ‘constant foolery’ of the letters. Guided by accounts of ‘the psychic complexity of female-female relationships in late 18th and early 19th-century Britain’, Professor Castle is able to identify in the letters ‘a kind of homophilic fascination’ in Jane Austen’s ‘physical descriptions of women’, ‘the sexuality of women’s bodies’ eliciting ‘oddly visceral effects’. In her letters to Fanny Knight, Professor Castle suggests, one could look for evidence to support ‘the vulgar case for Austen’s homoeroticism’.
Discussions of Jane Austen’s sexuality are notable for their rarity, largely, one suspects, because they have so little to do with the way we read the novels. The yield from Professor Castle is meagre and curiously unconvincing: ‘that so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister’; and that ‘the heroes are often more like sisters than lovers in the conventional sense.’ One hunts for examples. Professor Castle produces Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. And the rest?
On the matter of sexuality, too, Professor Castle must be judged on the evidence produced and its handling. Her major exhibit is an extract of twenty lines from a letter Jane wrote to Cassandra in May 1801 describing a new gown, a description Professor Castle calls ‘so fantastically detailed as to border on the compulsive’. ‘Such passages remind us strikingly of how important a role clothes have played in the subliminal fetish-life of women.’ Professor Castle’s paragraph of commentary concludes by connecting the gown description to the two women’s acting out of ‘unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives’. And, in the next paragraph, the discussion is extended, referring back to the gown description, with the idea of Jane’s ‘desire to be seen and imaginatively embraced’ by Cassandra.
Whether or not we like this line of argument, it has to be taken seriously. But there’s something missing, the sentence before, a sentence which tumbles the entire edifice of Professor Castle’s speculation. For, in introducing the description of the gown, Jane tells Cassandra a signal circumstantial fact: ‘Mrs Mussell [her dressmaker] has got my Gown, & I will endeavour to explain what her intentions are.’ The ‘compulsive’ diagnosis, and all that follows from the discovering of that first neurotic trait, collapses before our eyes. For Jane Austen’s description of the gown is an accurate and detailed explanation of Mrs Mussell’s ‘intentions’: the outcome of discussions with Jane, using Mrs Mussell’s professional knowledge about what can best be done with these particular materials. Far from being ‘compulsive’, all this is what any woman would meet with today, as Jane Austen did in Bath, two hundred years ago, in submitting her ideas to the judgment of a dressmaker.
This part of the letter, packed with information, is written from one amateur dressmaker to another, for that is what the Austen sisters were, except on special occasions, such as this, when one or other of them could afford to splash out on a real dressmaker’s gown, or, in this case, possibly, be treated to one, by Mrs Leigh-Perrot, the well-to-do Aunt at whose smart address (No 1 Paragon) Jane and her mother were then staying. Hence her concluding sentence, about fearing she has not been ‘particular enough’. Jane wanted to tell Cassandra what was fashionable about her gown as well as what was practicable; and she continues the letter to its end, nine lines later, with an account of what is in fashion in Bath by way of ‘Bonnets’ (both ‘straw’ and ‘Cambric Muslin’) and ‘Cloaks’ of ‘Black gauze’. Pursuing her case, Professor Castle could have quoted these lines, too, as evidence of Jane Austen’s ‘compulsive’ bent, as further evidence of the sisters’ ‘subliminal fetish-life’. But we know different.
Professor Castle complains that, in the press, her ‘comments have been grotesquely, indeed almost comically, distorted’. We could reply, on behalf of Jane Austen, that this passage from her letter has been treated to no less distortion – equally grotesque, equally comic – at the hands of Professor Castle.
Jane Austen Society
Shame on the London Review for deliberately provoking a controversy over Terry Castle’s review of the new edition of Jane Austen’s letters (LRB, 3 August). The mischief created by your eye-catching rubric ‘Was Jane Austen Gay?’ was compounded in your 24 August issue by your publication of Marianne Macdonald’s letter in which she erroneously assumed that Castle must be a man. Obviously knowing that Ms Macdonald was making an embarrassing mistake, you nevertheless chose to publish her letter, apparently because it offered the smug opportunity to humiliate her on the spot, whilst also allowing a dig at the Independent for employing such an ‘unalert’ Arts Reporter.
I am flattered you thought my letter on Terry Castle’s absurd review of Jane Austen’s Letters worthy of publication, even though you wondered at the end what I would have written had I been ‘alert to the fact that Terry Castle is a woman’. A fair enough point, had not your own press release on the subject described Ms Castle as a man.
Arts Reporter, the Independent
Would Ms Macdonald like to take another look at the press release?
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995
I expect much of the outcry against Terry Castle’s essay on Jane Austen (LRB, 3 August) was the result of the headline ‘Was Jane Austen Gay?’, a question I don’t think Terry Castle either asked or answered. Your readers ought perhaps to be made aware that the author of a review in your pages – or in those of your competitor the Times Literary Supplement – is not usually consulted by whoever writes the headline under which it appears. I have reviewed for both of you, and I know.
‘Sister-Sister’ was the heading under which Terry Castle’s review appeared. The author of a piece is never responsible for the magazine’s cover-line.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 17 No. 19 · 5 October 1995
‘Is she queer? – Is she prudish?’ These are not quotations from contenders in the brouhaha over Jane Austen’s sexuality. They are questions the rakish Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park asks as he wonders about the nerdiest of all heroines, Fanny Price. The erotic charm that makes other women in that novel yield one after another to Henry’s desire fails to make a dent on this mousy and withdrawn girl. Stymied, Henry wonders whether pathology or propriety accounts for her indifference to his allure. Is something wrong with her (is she odd, out of sorts, cold, and thus abnormally resistant to normal heterosexual seduction)? Or is something wrong with him (are his multiple and serial flirtations immoral, thus deserving the censure this unusually but not abnormally upright young lady levels against them)?
Since everyone cares about Jane Austen, and since Woolf was right in opining that people resent slurs on her genius as though they were insults offered to the chastity of their maiden aunts, I hope the public will forgive me for protracting the debate long enough, I hope, to clarify it. Henry Crawford’s sense that Fanny is queer or prudish also describes two contending traditions of Austenian reception that have prevailed since the mid-19th century, and that have clashed here over the past several weeks. Those adhering to the elegiac tradition are pleased to believe Austen gives us a reassuringly orthodox world perfectly sufficient to its own forms and rituals, where nothing too out of the ordinary ever occurs. Pressing fantasies about the wholesome serenity of Regency England into the service of nostalgic yearnings after intelligibility, such readers typically place Austen before the advent of such ills as industrialisation, world war, dubiety, and all of modernity’s (other) unseemly progeny: feminism, homosexuality, masturbation. In her novels, men are obviously gentlemen, women are obviously ladies, and the desires of gentlemen and ladies for each other are obviously complementary, mutually fulfilling, and above all inevitable.
Now, like most Austenians (Castle included, I dare say), I am incalculably indebted to B.C. Southam’s scholarship, and he is free to enjoy Austen as he wishes (Letters, 7 September). But when he asserts, ‘Discussions of Jane Austen’s sexuality are notable for their rarity, largely, one suspects, because they have so little to do with the way we read the novels,’ he is flying in the face of another, anti-normative tradition, much of which he himself has diligently compiled in his Critical Heritage volumes. Austen has been suspected of sexual abnormality for a good long time, though this abnormality has been given different content at different times. Charlotte Brontë is perhaps the first and most famous to link the perfection of Austen’s novels – her attention to ‘the surface of the lives of genteel English people’ – to a reprehensible sexual chilliness, to a lack of interest in ‘what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through’. Although Lionel Trilling attributed the ‘feral’ animosity of Twain and R. W. Garrod to ‘man’s panic fear at a fictional world in which the masculine principle, although represented as admirable and necessary, is prescribed and controlled by a female mind’, his explanation misrepresents such animosity as a conflict between the sexes, when it is really a conflict about sexuality. At least, it is not because she is a woman with a woman’s point of view that Garrod, Lawrence and Brontë deplore her, but because she is a woman who does not particularly privilege the representation of sexual passion with men in her fiction (Garrod takes particular umbrage at Austen’s quip, ‘Admiral Stanhope is a gentlemanlike man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long’). Thus Lawrence decried ‘this old maid’ for typifying ‘the sharp knowing in apartness’; and George Sampson complained: ‘In her world there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but just the make-believe mating of dolls … Jane Austen is abnormal … because [her characters] have no sex at all.’
But perhaps people won’t be satisfied until they see the 1-word. Once a discourse of psychosexual pathology was ready at hand, Austen’s ‘abnormality’ was perceived not as frigidity, or as hostility towards men, but as lesbianism tout court. Marvin Mudrick explicitly states that Emma Woodhouse – a heroine like Austen herself in her fear of commitment, her coldness, her need to dominate – is ‘in love’ with Harriet Smith. In stating as much, Mudrick himself acknowledges the work of Edmund Wilson, whose ‘A Long Talk about Jane Austen’ (1944) argued that Emma’s off-stage lesbianism is that ‘something outside the picture which is never made explicit in the story but which has to be recognised by the reader before it is possible for him to appreciate the book’. Nor does Wilson’s blissfully cogent and uncensorious essay baulk before the subject of sisterly passion, effortlessly agreeing with many that the most passionate relationship in Austen’s novels is between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and implying that Austen’s own deep intimacy with Cassandra was its model.
If these are not ‘discussions of sexuality’ which bear critically on our readings of Austen’s novels, what are they, chopped liver? Castle’s views are neither singular nor ephemeral. One of the biggest open secrets of the literate world, after all, is that Austen is a cult author for many gays and lesbians, and an unwillingness to acknowledge this would seem to confirm Castle’s sense that she has polluted some shrine. But like it or not (I do), not only her detractors but also her admirers have suspected that the heteronormative ‘passions’ were, in Charlotte Brontë’s words, ‘entirely unknown’ to Austen not because she was such a good girl, but because in some secret, perhaps not fully definable way, she was so bad.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, might provide Brian Southam and the Jane Austen Society with an example of sister-sister ‘marriage’. In that novel, Willoughby, whom Marianne near-fatally loves, is a walking lightning-bolt of specious glamour – not mad, nor wholly bad, but weak, corrupt and dangerous to know. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, whom Elinor and Marianne eventually marry (one apiece), are decent, solid, stolid, safe and unreconstructably dull. These men embody extremes. Between them no happy medium is to be found, no equivalent to Mr Darcy, say, as glittering as the one, as upright as the others.
Perhaps the gap is not filled by a man because Elinor and Marianne fill it. Marianne, for all her extravagant and vulnerable sensibility, is not without sense. Elinor, sensible to the point of self-punishment sometimes, is alive with reined-in sensibility. The sisters present a romantic and Platonic image as the complementary halves of a single whole, true twain, concordant one. Theirs, for all the strains brought to bear on it by themselves and their claustrophobic circumstances, is a marriage of true minds – platonic as well as Platonic, nothing at all to do with the masked or unconscious homoeroticism that might be induced by the warmth of the sisterly shared bed of Terry Castle’s imagining – far more intimate, inward and passionate than any other described by the novel, a marriage to which no impediment could or should be admitted were it not that in Austen’s world a single woman may best survive, if she’s lucky, by giving herself in marriage to that single man in possession of a good fortune who must be in want of a wife. At the end of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is judged to be in want of a husband and, in short order, married off to one – by her own sister; by her own author.
Vol. 17 No. 20 · 19 October 1995
Claudia Johnson (Letters, 5 October) defines two strains of Austen criticism. She argues convincingly for Terry Castle’s anti-normative Austen but does less than justice to what she calls – unfairly, I think – the elegiac reading In my review of Charlotte Smith’s poems (LRB, 21 September) I suggested that Austen’s houses, emblems of England, were created in reaction to the pro-revolutionary Smith’s crumbling English architecture. Austen’s houses need improvement but not demolition or (until Persuasion) a change of ownership, and she knows that this is a point of view that needs to be argued for, not taken for granted. Surely readers can acknowledge the strongly Tory and Christian element in Austen without being pushed into the Austen Heritage Park, nostalgic for a serene past where nothing out of the ordinary happens.
J. Woolley (Letters, 5 October) does not clarify the current debate. She – or he – is lyrical on the marriage of true minds of Elinor and Marianne, ‘a single whole, true twain, concordant one’, but says that this is ‘nothing at all to do with the masked or unconscious homoeroticism that might be induced by the warmth of the sisterly shared bed of Terry Castle’s imagining’. Woolley seems not to have read Castle’s letter of 24 August, where she defines what she means by homoeroticism. The warm bed Marianne shares with Elinor and leaves to write her last miserable letter to Willoughby is of Austen’s imagining, not Castle’s. As with Shakespeare, to whom she’s best compared, there can be no definitive Austen. In all the novels there’s plenty to tug against traditional constructions of class and gender. Nevertheless, the traditional constructions are vividly there.
University of Reading
Claudia Johnson’s polemical-critical-rhapsodic letter made one point at least quite clear: where Jane Austen is concerned, she doesn’t like those who adhere to what she calls the ‘elegiac tradition’. These unspecified sinners, attached to ‘fantasies about the wholesome serenity of Regency England’, divorce Austen artificially from the modern world; the world of ‘industrialisation, world war, dubiety … feminism, homosexuality, masturbation’. But surely one can deplore critics who like their Austen nice and tidy without taking quite such an iron broom to the opposition. To exclude a priori any approach which doesn’t foreground one or more of the concerns listed seems a bit tidy-minded in itself. Paradoxically, Johnson’s application of contemporary analytical categories to Austen’s life and work undermines her apparent commitment to the transgressive, polyvalent and fluid: for how could the same categories apply to Austen and to ourselves if not by virtue of an unchanging, trans-historical human nature?
Vol. 17 No. 21 · 2 November 1995
Claudia Johnson (Letters, 5 October) fails to address my concern, which was not with Jane Austen’s sexuality as such, but with Terry Castle’s misrepresentation of the evidence she produced in support of an extravagant argument in the sexual area. Of that, Professor Johnson has nothing to say. As to the contents of my Critical Heritage volumes, they make my point: discussions of Jane Austen’s sexuality are one thing, our reading of the novels another. Professor Johnson takes a scattering of items and quotes them against me. But Charlotte Brontë, few example, on Emma tells us much about Charlotte Brontë, almost nothing about Emma. Her comments belong to the history of reader reception, the documentation gathered in my two volumes. Professor Johnson tells us that Jane Austen ‘is a cult figure for many gays and lesbians’, an observation of historical value which should find its place in my next Critical Heritage volume, on the modern period. Indeed, each generation and culture of readers will construct its own author. This is precisely why there is a pressing need for more Julia Kavanaghs, critics who stand above passing fashions. Professor Johnson will recall my discussion of Kavanagh’s chapter on Jane Austen in English Women of Letters (1862), also in the 1811-1870 Critical Heritage volume, with these closing lines:
Mrs Kavanagh was successful in writing critically at a popular level without any undue concession to popular taste. She resisted, as many other critics failed to do, pressures of the time, such as the demand for a literature of inspiration or piety, and a particular requirement of the 1860s and 1870s, a literature fit for home reading, obedient to current standards of decency, good-taste and politeness.
Fanny Price may or may not be ‘the nerdiest of all heroines’ as Claudia Johnson says, but Fanny refuses to enter into the marriage games that the men have set up for her. She says no. No to Sir Thomas when he says she has an obligation to marry Henry Crawford, and no again to Edmund when he (rather more mutedly) suggests much the same thing. This takes some distinctly unnerdish pluck, and parallel the earlier occasion when she says no to the hateful Aunt Norris over joining in the acting. On each occasion she is accused of being ungrateful.
University College London
Nothing in Jane Austen’s novels or letters leads me to conclude that she was gay, or that she harboured homoerotic feelings for her sister (though great love, certainly). However, were I to reach that conclusion, I would not view her as a polluted icon; rather it would be a matter of considerable interest. But then gender politics is emotionally charged terrain. In arguing against a gay reading of Austen, one is vulnerable to caricature: as someone keen on preserving the straight status quo, or in a state of prejudicial denial. But many admirers of an artist’s work are interested merely in the truth about that artist’s life and personality. Ms Castle and Ms Johnson express themselves with the air of going bravely against the fashionable current, daring to say the unorthodox truth. But perhaps the opposite is true – it is, after all, currently fashionable to see love between men, or love between women, as invariably or latently erotic, even though we know that love between members of the same sex does exist in uneroticised form. This would not be less interesting, though perhaps less arresting
Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995
The case for the importance of female bonding in Jane Austen’s novels could have been made far better if Terry Castle (LRB, 3 August) had only looked at the right kind of evidence – not descriptions of dresses, which were ironic, for heaven’s sake. I would like to offer this as a dictum: that admirers of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights or Gone With the Wind fall in love with Mr Rochester or Heathcliff or Rhett Butler; but admirers of Pride and Prejudice fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet. The focus is on the heroine, just as in Rebecca, or My Cousin Rachel the erogenous focus is on the heroine. The reader falls in love with the dashing Rebecca or the silken and treacherous Rachel, not with the heroes who are (like Jane Austen’s heroes) really rather dull. Two very different species of book. Jane Austen certainly had a highly-developed narcissism, if nothing more.
Elizabeth Bennet never finds Darcy attractive until she has met his sister (a female version of him perhaps?) and never wants to marry at all until both her closest women friends, Charlotte Lucas and her sister Jane, are married or engaged and so taken from her. The conclusion of the book spends longer telling us about the ‘love’ which grew up between Elizabeth and Georgiana, her sister-in-law, than it does describing Elizabeth’s happiness with Darcy. The 1980 TV production was so right in having Elizabeth played by the light and bright and sparkling Elizabeth Garvie, while Darcy was portrayed (apparently) by a shop-window dummy. He should be.
Loraine Fletcher (Letters, 19 October) is quite right to slap my wrist. My unclarifying contribution to the current debate was written as a passing remark, not a proof-armoured essay. Truly, ‘the warm bed Marianne shares with Elinor and leaves to write her last miserable letter to Willoughby is of Aasten’s imagining, not Castle’s’; but what could be happening in that bed can only be approached as among the range of possibilities invoked by Castle’s imagining, not Austen’s, which remains (as far as I can tell) silent on the subject. I have absolutely nothing against Castle’s definition of homoeroticism and how it may find its first model in the physicalities of family affection. This seems to me plain enough sense. My ‘nothing at all to do with’ may have been too strong – yet even if we somehow knew for sure that the relationship between Cassandra and Jane Austen did have what Castle calls ‘its unconscious homoerotic dimensions’, and therefore could bring our knowledge to bear on Elinor and Marianne, the question would be whether our understanding of the fictional as against the real-life sisters was altered by it. Very little, I’d guess; perhaps not at all.
Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995
Now that the homoerotic aspects of Jane Austen’s novels have been explored exhaustively in your columns, is it possible that Terry Castle could be persuaded to cast her penetrating gaze on The Archers? For your many overseas readers it should perhaps be explained that this is an ‘everyday story of country folk’ that has gone out on BBC radio for many years and has acquired successive generations of addicts whose week is incomplete without their daily fix (with a quintuple dose on Sundays). In recent times, however, there has crept into the storyline an increasing element of the kind of ‘women’s interest’ popular in certain tabloids. The male characters are being steadily extruded or, what is worse, perverted, so that the listeners are treated to the audio-picture of some horny-handed son of the soil hurrying anxiously to the village pub so as to be in time to catch a glimpse of the landlord’s new baby. Or of two tractor-drivers (Ruth and Debbie) discussing details of a forthcoming ploughing match. Each episode formerly ended with a juicy murder, or the revelation of a bit of skulduggery in order to keep the listener on tenterhooks; now it’s a rash on Shula’s baby’s bottom. Come on, Terry!
Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995
I find it amazing that nobody who heard Edward Copeland’s paper at the annual Jane Austen Society of North America Conference at Lake Louise, Canada in 1993 has brought to Terry Castle’s attention that Jane and Cassandra Austen each had her own bed. There is no concrete evidence that the sisters shared a bed. Copeland clearly establishes from the records of Ring Brothers of Basingstoke, a home furnishings store, that when Jane was 19 and Cassandra 22, in 1794, ‘Austen’s father … bought two special made-to-order matching beds’ for the Austen sisters. Castle’s claim that ‘Cassandra was indeed the person’ Jane slept with is not so clearly evident as she would have your readers believe. I would think that Jane Austen’s explicit description of Martha Lloyd sharing her bed in 1799 would have been more useful to Castle’s argument.
University of Alberta, Edmonton
Julia Gasper’s version of the importance of female bonding in Pride and Prejudice (Letters, 16 November) doesn’t quite convince – or is meant for irony. 1. ‘Elizabeth Bennet never finds Darcy attractive until she has met his sister (a female version of him perhaps?).’ Rather she is all the more attracted to Darcy for having met Georgiana. The two of them are exemplary: explicitly, of how an elder brother should care for his younger sister; implicitly, of how a husband should care for his wife and – remembering that Darcy père is dead – of how a father should care for his daughter. They embody, albeit rather solemnly, an ideal of family life that Elizabeth from her own unsatisfactory experience knows only too well deserves to be cherished, and will cherish herself with the aerating intelligence of her laughter.
2. She ‘never wants to marry at all until both her closest women friends, Charlotte Lucas and her sister Jane, are married or engaged and so taken away from her’. Oh yes she does. Exploring the grounds and then the house at Pemberley – before meeting Darcy there, let alone Georgiana – she finds herself having to fight off regret for the chance of marriage she thinks she’s aborted. In walking around Pemberley, she’s walked deep inside Darcy’s mind (an elegant borrowing of one of Gothic fiction’s most familiar tropes) and found there a man worthy of rather more than just the respect she already knows she cannot rightly grudge him. Esteem, gratitude and affection will soon be in train. This entire episode takes place after Charlotte Lucas’s ‘loss’ to Mr Collins, but during Jane Bennet’s lengthening harsh exile from any hope of marriage to Mr Bingley.
3. For that matter, it may be that, despite Elizabeth’s loudly-bruited dislike of him, she is attracted to Mr Darcy from almost the novel’s beginning. She is a young woman with a very keen sense of propriety and yet, on only the slightest acquaintance with Mr Wickham, allows herself to become intimate with him in joint vilification of Darcy. She cannot keep away from the subject. Perhaps talking about Darcy like this, almost obsessively, is her way of expressing her attraction to him – so much at odds with her dislike – while leaving it unadmitted. If so, then the question must be what the nature of the attraction is, and why it should have to be expressed so very indirectly.
4. ‘The conclusion of the book spends longer telling us about the “love” which grew up between Elizabeth and Georgiana than it does describing Elizabeth’s happiness with Darcy.’ After two marriage proposals from him and the shift of feeling in her that has led from violent rejection of the first proposal to wholehearted acceptance of the second, I should think their love for each other sufficiently attested. However, what the aghast Georgiana observes in her sister-in-law and brother is a wife confident enough to tease her husband, and a husband trusting enough of his wife to let himself be teased; here is their happiness in action, as Austen herself makes pretty clear. I am entranced by the notion of a sister/brother/sister-in-law ménage à trois, with Elizabeth at the apex of its triangle, swinging (I presume unconsciously, à la Terry Castle) both ways – but damned if I believe it.