Sense and Sensibility: Jane Austen and the Masturbing Girl" and Réage's The Story of O

The following represents a substantial revision of something I sent to C18-l. I have altered my perspective and now see much value in Sedgwick's "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" (published in Critical Inquiry, 17 [1991], pp. 818 - 837). I put my critique on line for those who would like to know what Sedgwick argued in the context of a sympathetic critique.

To C18-l

March 7, 1998

Re: Eva Sedgwick, Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Pauline Réage's The Story of O

In response to John O'Neil (who said he had hear Sedgwick give the paper as a lecture):

Whatever may have been the tone or text of Eva Sedgwick's oral presentation of "JA and the Masturbating Girl," she means us to take her reading of S&S as about repressed sexuality very seriously. She is skilfull in her presentation of her analogous texts, and writes in such a way as to make it clear she is bringing together these texts so as to make points about sex, masturbation, and, sexual identity. One purpose of the paper is bring forward evidence of homoeroticism in Austen. Another is to point out to us truths about the sexuality of Austen's texts which go unspoken and which we do not usually come across.

I imagine that in a gathering of real people she would read her text slightly tongue-in-cheek; it would be the smart armor to don and would disarm everyone. The larger goal of Sedgwick's papers is to undercover the naive didactic tendency which undergirds a good deal of sympathetic Austen criticism. She writes that her analogies offer

"a useful model for the chains of reader-relations constructed by the punishing, girl-centered moral pedagogy and erotics of Austen's novels more generally. Austen criticism is notable mostly not just for its timidity and banality but for its unresting exaction of the spectacle of a Girl Bring Taught a Lesson--for the vengefulness it vents on the heroines whom it purports to love, and whom, perhaps, it does. Thus Tony Tanner, the ultimate normal and normalizing reader of Austen, structures sentence after sentence: 'Emma ... has to be tutored. ... into correct vision and responsible speech. Anne Elliot has to move, painfully, from an excessive prudence.' Some Jane Austen heroines _have to learn their true 'duties.' They all have to find their proper homes (p 33). Catherine "quite literally is in danger of perverting reality, and one of the things she has to learn is to break out of quotations (p 45); she has to be disabused of her naive and foolish Gothic expectations ... [Sedgwick gives more examples, then writes] A lot of Austen criticism sounds hilariously like the leering school-prospectuses of overness-manifestoes brandished like so many birch rods in Victorian sadomasochistic pornography." Then she goes on to quote Jane Nardin at length as yet another example of "the birch rod."
Like Sedgwick, I find nothing more tiresome or maudlin -- and ultimately irritating -- than the presentation of Austen heroines as role models for me to learn how to live; I find nothing more sentimental and over-psychologized all the talk of mothers and parents, the rationalizing away of Austen's real malice and bitchery in her letters by recourse to "normalizing" psychology which turns the characters into emotional people. But Sedgwick is proposing that we simply substitute for this pro-establishment (let's-support the-authority-figures-of-our-world-and-Austen's), her idea that Austen's art is a form of masturbation. Early in the essay she collapses distinctions between art and masturbations by talking of "unstable dichotomies" between art and masturbation" (p 820). As in the above passage she covers covers all chinks by phrases which are the equivalent of "perhaps, it does."

She is quite serious that her records of psychological masochism and physical masturbation are equivalents of what we find in Austen, and proposes them as a way of getting away from Tanner and other sentimental psychologizers who are "impoverished" in their approach (p 836). If she wants to argue that Austen is subversive and teaches us to be subversive, surely there are other areas in Austen's novels where more than this personal neurotic-wrought subversion operates -- ones which have more general applicability and more social criticism which is active. Think of the blighting of Anne Elliot's existence by the values such a one as Lady Russell exemplifies as well as the analysis of Lady Russell's blindness and selfishness. I loathe being an agent of the state as a teacher, but I don't see that arguing the other option of masturbation is going to stop the structure of society from carrying on regardless of what I may or may not think. .

One should also note here that Sedgwick herself although she's smart enough to avoid words like "taught," "one has to learn," uses Austen to teach us something. Another serious aim of the essay is to convince us that sexual identity in Austen's novels is unstable--because she, Eva Sedgwick, wants to believe this. To her Austen is a "homosocially embedded woman" and we must get beyond words like "hetero" and "homo" to understand her texts. We must. I use the "we must," but she means it. There is also some very skilfull name-calling of critics themselves as people with birch-rods. She may be bored silly by the usual history of the novel of course.

I certainly do agree with Sedgwick that Sense and Sensibility is is a powerful, original, and daring novel about sexual passion (for its time); we have two repressed, powerless and writhing young woman. I place the novel in the tradition of French novels of the time (some of them equally twisted) as well as the sentimental novels of Charlotte Smith and Ann Radcliffe.

It's really Sedgwick's procedure that I question -- not her conclusions, though I do see them as narrow.

For a start, she ignores the nature of her texts. From an infinite number of texts she chooses to align Sense and Sensiblity with an unpublished manuscript from 1881 because in these the language of repression recalls the language of Austen's novel. There is, though, still an enormous differrence between what is in Austen's novel and what we find in these manuscripts. It is to treat them as the same thing and to value Austen's text insofar as she repeats what we find in the 1881 manuscript. This is destructive of serious art; this is to deny it exists. I would concede that many critics who want to argue for some subversive meaning they favor will quote a third-rate didactic novel of Austen's period, take a passage from it which reminds them of Austen's and then apply its meaning to Austen's book. But then the only different is Sedgwick has chosen a different third-rate text.

I could just as easily apply the meaning of The Story of O. Indeed the twisted masochism of the heroine can be likened to Fanny Price's circuitous attempts at gaining some modicum of control through creating interdependency and gratitude.

The key for me is that Sedgwick does not care about Austen's novel. She tells us after her citation of Foucault early in her paper that

"The identity of the masturbator was only one of the sexual identifies subsumed, erased, or overridden in this triumph of the heterosexist home-herteo calculus. But I want to argue here that the status of the masturbator among these many identities was uniquely formative" (p 826).

Sedgwick is interested in Austen's Sense and Sensibility insofar as Austen will bolster her argument for the "status of the masturbator as uniquely formative." Marianne is the open masturbator, and Elinor is the secret or symbolic and hidden one, and we read Austen to see how they are punished for their sins.

There's a curious prurient excitement in Sedgwick's essay. She herself seems excited to discover that by having aligned Austen's novel with a private document about two neurotic women she has been put on the stand by Austen's fans and scholars. She says the non- academic reader sees her work on Austen as "an index of depravity" in the academy and calls those who find themselves "in the righteously exciting vicinity of the masturbating girl (her?) evidence of their "happiness" to "fulminate" against her. She presents the press response to her as "gleeful" and proceeds to quote a piece by Jane Brody on masturbation because Brody sought to "reassure" her readers they needn't masturbate to "have perfectly normal lives as adults." I agree this is hilarious but do not think it rates turning Austen into an anti-Jane Brody work.

The difference between Austen and the two manuscripts would be that the novel has respect and will attract attention. We might ask if O had had prestige, would Sedgwick have written about O in the same way? I doubt it -- for she is also concerned to shatter the icon.

I think she is right to see that Austen is worshipped in part out of sexual repression, and that she is right when she shows S&S to be a text about sexual renunciation and its griefs. I think The Story of O a central text for women: it explicates the sources of female masochism as well as making the female reader dread her urges. There's a great book on it: Jessica Benjamin's the Bondage of Love. Now we can align S&S with what Benjamin has to say.

However, this is not to say the texts -- The Story of O, private manuscripts from 1881 and Austen's Sense and Sensibility -- are equivalent which is what Sedgwick seems to claim.

Why do I argue this: Sedgwick's methodology leads her to ignore or take literary quality as indifferent. But there is a difference between the shallow facility of an Eliza Haywood, the hectic emotionalism of private manuscripts of a girl's masturbation, and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. The art counts.

Ellen Moody

RE: Eva Sedgwick and The Story of O

I have written two postings, both of which argued that however hard to define there is such a thing as literary value which centers on moral and aesthetic superiority. Nonetheless literary value is important, even central to literary studies.

Just on my argument with Sedgwick: what I was getting at was:

  • a flawed methodology. My argument is that The Story of O is closer to Austen than these scattered pieces from some 1880's manuscript was partly ironic.
  • How can she improve it? She can contextualize Austen's texts with texts by women with a closely analogous plot-design and characters. I have now done this in my "Jane Austen Among French Women"
  • Several of the implications of such a methodology, only one of which is the indifference to literary values. Another objection is that the argument from analogy itself when the analogy is too bare (leaves out too much detail) cannot stand up to scientific or reasonable scrutiny because you cannot disprove her contentions.
  • What she was arguing for: She is the "muse of masturbation?'" Yes, that's a disarming joke. Is her purpose to get the reader to accept masturbation in public? To bring it out of the closet and air it before us? If so, what good does she propose to do in society? She may do some by working against shaming people about the real hidden structures of their lives. But surely, she'd have more effect in this direction were she to be more direct and omit Jane Austen's novel altogether. It's a distraction from her cultural purpose.

Ellen Moody

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