We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

L'écriture-femme: Jane Austen and Sophie Cottin · 8 July 05

My dear Fanny,

Last week I read Sophie Cottin’s Elisabeth, ou Les exilés de Sibérie (1806), and I’ve just finished the first of three volumes of Cottin’s Malvina (1801). Malvina bears an uncanny resemblance to Jane Austen’s Emma (1814). Jeremy Northam who played Mr Knightley in the 1995 Miramax Emma could easily play M. Prior in a film adaptation of Malvina; he’s also a partial stand-in for the sexier aspects of Cottin’s Sir Edmond Seymour, though (possibly), Alessandro Nivola from Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park would be more adequate to the part. I can’t begin to cite all the intricate specific permutations and parallels.

More generally—and perhaps importantly—there is a strong lesbian undercurrent in Malvina: reading Emma against Malvina brings out the source or terrain for Terry Castle’s now infamous essay arguing for lesbianism in Austen’s novels and what we know of her life. I saw this in the 1995 Miramax version of Emma. The mood of Malvina is repeated much more brilliantly and with accomplishment by Chantal Thomas in her Adieux à la Reine. So maybe Austen’s Catherine Morland does love Elinor Tilney more than Henry, and the pairs of sisters in S&S, P&P, and coming sisters-in-law (Elizabeth and Georgiana Darcy, Anne Elliot and Mrs Crofts) are more important than the male pairs. Mrs Weston is to Emma as Elinor/Cassandra was to Jane/Marianne.

Cottin’s Elisabeth was compounded of Heidi, Joan of Arc, & the travelling heroine, Jeanne Deans of Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothian.

I have to reread Suzanne Juhasz’s Reading from the Heart: Women, Literature and the Search for Love and this time to the end; so too Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination, this time carefully.

In this subgenre of novels do we have an exploration of female sexuality, not as imposed by man but as really experienced by women? What is l’écriture-femme? I have to go beyond Beatrice Didier and maybe reread her and also for the first time read Kathleen Raine. Oh dear oh dear.

I need to have a control and read modern lesbian novels (say Laurie King’s Night-Work) as well as older contemporary ones of Austen’s generation (particularly minor English ones, like Mary Brunton’s Discipline) and the masochistic aesthetic ones I so love (by Valerie Martin, Susan Hill, A. S. Byatt, Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler).

Film adaptations are very helpful as they make visible through their Writ large mode and the psychological baggage that accompanies actors who appear in more than one part what are these characteristics.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


commenting closed for this article