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

Were Jane Austen's characters autistic? · 27 June 07

Dear Harriet,

There’s a new book out by Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer who explains the behavior of a group of characters in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (from Mr Collins to Mr Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy) as depictions of personalties who function at various levels on the autistic spectrum: So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice (June 2007; Jessica Kingsley Publishers; $19.95; paperback; 978-1-84310-499-5).

My first reaction to the way the book is described by its publisher and the first on-line publisher weekly reviews is this is anachronism and medicalization of reality gone wild. We have someone reaching back to characters conceived more than 200 years ago and labelling them autistic as form of explanation. A character in a novel or play is not a real person but can be defined as a imagined presence shaped by a plot and themes within the social discouse of its age. A character is a kind of psychological pretend game, device or strategy: the author puts on a mask in accordance with recognizable types in the fiction of the time and develops this thematically in accordance with a conventional plot-design. Jane Austen did not think her favored characters ill; as D. W. Harding in his “Regulated Hatred” was the first to show in modern secular language, rather Austen revealed much of social behavior to be insensitive, cruel, outrageous. She shows that the way her characters end up is a function of their social identity to others (rank, how much money they have, sex) more than their moral or ethical sensibility or ability to network. And of course luck and a helpful romantic courtship plot-design.

The use of the term is an imposition and a confusing one. Where does it come from? For a start, Bottomer is a speech pathologist: the very term shows how she has been trained to regard language—as signs of illness. It may be a case of to a person with a hammer (and theories about that hammer which make it all important) many things look like a nail—or it may be that she genuinely analyses aspects of Austen’s characters which many in our society are taught to be (and are by training and disposition) uncomfortable with.

More broadly, sickness is in the eye of the beholder, and that which we label sickness is something that deviates from the norm. In our era today socializing is more than a demand or requirement, it is presented as essential to continual normality, and since increasingly the way to get jobs when you are outside cliques is break in through socializing, medicalizing terms are put into places where people want to create sympathy for a perceived behavior which they want to change or “correct” or help (find extra flexibility for) in some way.

I object to the use of the term autistic for Austen’s character because it’s a kind of absurd parody of something happening perpetually in our society today. Medicalizing terms may create sympathy by those who don’t suffer, lead to insurance companies paying for doctors, pharmacology, programs with trained people, that may help, but I’ve thought the effect of identifying oneself as a sick person more than offsets the advantage. Cannot we have help without stigmatizing ourselves this way? Unscrupulous drug companies (and which aren’t) take advantage of this medicalization of social and other distress.

Nonetheless, perhaps seeing Austen’s characters against the scrim of the prejudices of our society would highlight why so many people who participate in Austen mania (become fervent Janeties) do so through movies and sequels, not the books themselves, and they misread the books and dislike a good deal in them and especially MP and its heroine.

Because the label or name for a condition didn’t exist, doesn’t mean the condition or state didn’t. The question is whether putting a label on a character or type of personality doesn’t frame that character of type of personality adversely. Jane Austen seems indeed to see people who are very good at socializing and great networkers as corrupt and hollow people, e.g. Frank Churchill (amiable in the French sense says Mr Knightley but not in the English) and Mr Elliot. So Ms Bottomer’s book could have this value: it brings out why Austen presents Darcy as deeply sympathetic in an unknown way to Elizabeth. Elizabeth misjudged him because she couldn’t seen beyond his pride. Austen does not sympathize with Mrs Bennet except insofar as she wants to marry her daughters off; her heart goes partly out to Mr Bennet as unable to control his obstinate wife and the daughter he had by her (Lydia) who is most like her in stupidity, insensitivity and (from being educated by her) immorality. There was no need in Austen’s mind to make Darcy into an overtly sentimental sensitive type the way Colin Firth plays him at the end of P&P.

People who are highly intelligent really think and thus feel differently than other people. It used to be said (before 1880 when Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir reframed his aunt’s books as sentimental rather than satiric) that Austen’s books were for an elite taste. They did not sell widely before 1880, and the new mania which began in 195 and is resurging again is a direct result of movie adaptations, the socializing function of JASNA, misreadings and sequels—as well as the heritage and tourist industry which takes her as an icon of conservatism and upper class Englishness. If Ms. Bottomer’s book turns Austen’s characters into people who need socializing (or speech pathologists like Ms Bottomer) and we read it against the grain, we could use it to show how Austen argues what is needed for happiness (and is not about to happen alas) is a new truer and more humane (accurate) understanding of how social life really functions for people; we would be using this woman’s book in ways she may not have intended. (For all I know this author buys into the new norms for human beings which demand intense continous socialization as what makes for our very inner identities.)

So my second reaction is to send away for it from Interlibrary Loan to read it for myself.

D. W. Harding was the first critic to talk in modern and concrete terms (Oliphant took a similar view to his but used 19th century terms; G. H. Lewes saw her vision but he remained in generalities as was the habit unfortunately in the 19th century) and he changed criticism of Austen by presenting her in an intelligent humane light which took into account how her books make statements about social life seriously and critically (adversely). He was not a literary critic by training but a social psychologist and beyond his famous “Regulated Hatred” and other essays on Austen’s work (about her use of caricature and depictions of family life), he wrote a book called Social Psychology and Individual Values. I cannot recommend this book by Harding too strongly. Harding suggests (this in the 1940s) what we need in psychology and psychiatry too is a different way (more honest about the difficulties and pain) of regarding social life and of talking about it. In his other work he suggests that barring that, we could read Jane Austen. She solaces the intelligent for whom the illegitimate and oppressive demands and manipulations of local communities do not exactly provide health and happiness. In Pilgrimage Dorothy Richardson as Miriam Henderson puts it wryly: ‘Society is no boon to those not sociable’.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Here is a description of the book from Ms Bottomer’s publisher. It seems characteristic of the publisher to trivialize the issue by calling Austen’s characters “quirky.”

    Pride and Autism?

    New Book Offers a Novel Take on Austen’s Quirky Characters

    “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.”

    Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice has captivated readers for centuries. Her ability to create such fascinating characters has provided endless fodder for scholars and ensured a lasting popularity for her work. But Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer’s new book, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (June 2007; Jessica Kingsley Publishers; $19.95; paperback; 978-1-84310-499-5) shines a new and controversial light on Jane Austen and her quirky creations. Bottomer brings a unique perspective to the analysis of the book as well as Austen’s personal life.

    “Autism was first labeled as such in 1943,” Bottomer points out. “The formal recognition of the condition may not have existed in Austen’s lifetime but people with it certainly did.” A speech language pathologist specializing in work with students with autism, Bottomer is adept at recognizing the cues. Taking Austen’s text, Bottomer draws a clear connection between eight of the characters—from Mr. Collins to Mrs. Bennet—and autistic tendencies. Bottomer explains the behavioral descriptions of those characters and how they clearly depict persons who function at various levels on the autistic spectrum.

    Mr. Darcy is one such character who is analyzed in detail. Often thought of as arrogant, Fitzwilliam Darcy could have simply been misunderstood. While reading Pride and Prejudice, many women grow to love Mr. Darcy, just as Elizabeth does, though his demeanor was not something to be desired. Most readers believe his attitude was proud and arrogant, but Bottomer argues he was simply autistic. His awkward and questionable conduct at the public ball—refusing to dance and wanting to discuss books with Lizzy—are just a few examples of how Bottomer believes Mr. Darcy coped with his disorder. She questions why a “person of intelligence with so many abilities will also have unexpected areas of weakness involving seemingly ‘simple’ thingsā€¦ How can a man who is capable of managing a great estate be so awkward when approaching women at a dance?” Perhaps Mr. Darcy’s actions were simply a manifestation of high-functioning autism.

    Bottomer further speculates that Austen was able to write such vivid descriptions of persons with autism because she was writing about what she observed from her own family, friends and neighbors. This bold statement suggests that perhaps Austen herself had a family member who was autistic and was simply writing about something very familiar to her.

    Whether or not you are an avid Janeite or know someone on the autistic spectrum, So Odd a Mixture will provide a fresh perspective to understanding Jane Austen’s characters and the historical reality of autism.

    Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer is a speech language pathologist with 30 years’ experience and a unique dual knowledge of both Austen and the autistic spectrum. She is employed by the North Vancouver School District, and is a member of and guest speaker at the Jane Austen Society of North America.
    Elinor    Jun 27, 8:05am    #
  2. From Wompo:

    “Is it then the latest fashion to diagnose characters as autistic or variants thereof – the current PMLA includes an article diagnosing Henry Higgins out of Shaw’s Pygmalion as illustrating traits of Asperger’s disease (a high-functioning form of autism). Isn’t any credit given to a playwright’s sense of theatrical presence/conflict, etc?
    Elinor    Jun 27, 1:56pm    #
  3. Laura Kennelly:

    “Ellen, I agree about the hammer and the nail. Lawsy me—if everyone who doesn’t blab everything about anything to anybody is autistic, well—is this the logical extension of the culture of celebrities? Clearly that must have been Grendel’s problem too—and then he “acted out.

    Elinor    Jun 27, 1:56pm    #
  4. As the mother of an autistic child, I’ve got to say this is the most ridiculous premise I’ve ever heard! I sure wouldn’t want to be taking my son to THAT speech pathologist, who clearly doesn’t know what on earth she’s talking about—Barbara Crooker”
    Elinor    Jun 27, 1:57pm    #
  5. From Wompo:

    When I told my friends on Wompo about this book and my blog, I ended:

    “As the personal is political (the way we label people and ourselves often determines the way we behave towards them and see ourselves), I’ve labelled this posting OT & POL both."


    thanks for this post, particularly the comments about the personal is political—written below—and medicalization gone wild—written below. i imagine it would be possible to use medical diagnostics to reduce the human being to machine via autopsy, or in certain contexts, vivisection. but then i’m having a pretty morbid day.

    thanks again for the post below.

    best, heidi”
    Elinor    Jun 27, 1:59pm    #
  6. From Wompo:

    “My older brother is autistic. I too protest. Grrr.

    Elinor    Jun 27, 9:56pm    #
  7. Nick Hay sent me a good article on the increase of “childhood depression” and quoted some relevant passages, all of which connects to Bottomer’s book:

    Times_ online has an insightful article on depression. I point to it because at its core is a desperately needed critique of false and oppressive ideas about “normal” social life.


    The article purports to have evidence that instances of childhood depression are increasing. This may be the result of looking for something people didn’t look for before; the label medicalizes but if this is the only way (by calling something a sickness) human beings can got to notice an increase in say misery and reasons for it, I suppose we must be glad and hope that perhaps behavioral demands may be changed.

    Here is one version of the central argument:

    “In recent months experts have cited various possible reasons for an increase in depression: huge pressure from exams; the embedded drink culture; fragmentation of the traditional family unit; a materialistic society that seems to value looks, wealth, thinness and clothes above happiness; and pushy parents who expect too much of their offspring and cram their every waking hour with “improving” activities.”

    The quotations from the young people are telling, e.g.,

    “”There is a lot of emphasis in youth culture on having a great time, partying, everything being ‘wicked’,” she says. “It sounds like a very liberal, anything-goes culture but it’s not. You are expected to conform and to have that ‘great time’, or you’re nowhere.

    Some show the catch-22 situation of medicalizing though. If you seek help, you may be stigmatized, e.g.,

    “Nancy Wilson, from Kent, says that when her daughter Catherine started to show signs of depression at primary school, a teacher friend urged her not to consult a psychiatrist. “It will go on her record and she’ll be stuck with it for life,” she said.”

    Doubtless, paranoid or overreaction in the mother, but in a society where increasingly the clique nature of groups (especially when it comes to getting a good or middle class job, harder and harder) excludes more fiercely, any evidence that may be found against the young people trying to enter this or that threshold for practical reasons may really hurt him or her when tenuous opportunities know. (What does that say about our human communities?)

    Worth reading and a sign of protest against the fierce demands we “socialize.” I sent away from Interlibrary loan for the book by the woman who labels Jane Austen’s character autistic, but she is a sign of our times. Really one might say the heroines who causes the most disquiet in Austen (Fanny Price) are autistic (not strong you see). Elinor Dashwood is a female type of Darcy, and many of the favored heroes and heroines of great literature too.

    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:20am    #
  8. Nick also wrote:

    “I read your blog about the book analysing Austen’s characters as autistic. Apart from all your brilliant analysis as to the problems of treating fictional characters in this way (and of course it instantly struck me that Plantagenet Palliser is a more likely subject for this treatment than Darcy surely? – brilliant mathematician/cold fish/shoe obsession) with which I wholly agree, another problem is what it says to those with autism – a devastating illness. A sort of depressive parallel came up at the last depression group I attended, when someone said they didn’t necessarily find it helpful to be told of famous people (like Churchill) who suffered from depression because it could make them feel even more useless about lack of achievement. I pointed out that if you were Churchill and could take yourself to a lovely country mansion and do literally nothing all day (the servants attending to that) recovery might well be easier. But I saw what they meant. I am a bit ambivalent because I do see how programmes (like a Stephen Fry one recently) which interview ‘famous’ people with depression do work against stigmatisation and can also work against feelings of complete isolation.

    But there is a problem of holding them up as examples – “if they can do it why can’t you”?. It seems that presenting Darcy as autistic is unlikely to be of any real help to those with autism and might well appear belittling and patronising. These are difficult and dangerous waters, but I do think this side of the question should be considered.

    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:25am    #
  9. From Juliet Youngren on Austen-l:

    “But why call them ‘autistic’? Why not call them simplyh ‘unsocial’? Why make it into a medical condition instead of a personal choice? That is the question I would like to ask of Bottomer. So much of JA’s work centers around the choices people make that it seems positively perverse to take choices away from them.

    Juliet Youngren”

    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:27am    #
  10. From Austen-l, Carrol Cox,

    "Juliet A. Youngren” wrote:

    “But why call them ‘autistic’? Why not call them simplyh ‘unsocial’? Why make it into a medical condition instead of a personal choice? That is the question I would like to ask of Bottomer. So much of JA’s work centers around the choices people make that it seems positively perverse to take choices away from them.

    Indeed—even if it could be shown (say) (a) that Austen knew one or more persons who (b) left enough of a record that (200 years later), they could be diagnosed as autistic, and© if it then could be shown that Austen’s characterization of P, Q, or R in her novels was based on those (now diagnosed as) autistic persons, it STILL would tell us nothing about the novels to see any character as autistic. This is for a number of reasons.

    One you mention: the role of choice in Austen’s novels. And, incidentally, in the novel as a form, even when the novelist does not believe in choice, e.g., Dreiser, Sister Carrie. But also, it is not quite correct to say autism even existed in Austen’s England, for autism is in part a social relation, not just a neurological condition, a social relation requiring that the autistic person be explicitly identified as autistic. So even someone in England 1810 with the neurological condition which we now call autism would not be an autistic person in the full sense. The whole thing is impossibly anachronistic.

    Incidentally, “medical condition” is a misleading label even for medical conditions today. AIDS, for example, is not the same illness in 2007 that it was in 1985. An illness is also a social relation as well as a mechanical condition of the body.

    Carrol Cox”
    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:29am    #
  11. From Janeites, Elissa Schiff:

    “Ellen and All,

    What you write are exceptionally insightful comments on Austen’s characters and on the societal expectations & zeitgeistthat govern social interactions in any given era and social milieu. You also, by implication, alert us to the danger of attributing either “normative/normal” or “pathologic” to particular personality types. For example, using the social psychology criteria in vogue in the U.S. today, Col. Brandon [far more than Darcy—but then again, he had less money] would be branded as truly autistic and/or with borderline” personality, whereas the extremely sociable man recently arrested and accused of brutally murdering his 9-month pregnant wife in front of their 2-year-old child had, until, this latest, brutal event, been seen as a very personable guy with a bit of a temper. In any school nursery or elementary school in North America, Western Europe, and Australia, shyness is viewed as a negative personality trait to be ‘worked at’ and ‘overcome’; volubility is always viewed positively—as an indication of potential leadership. Yet in some Eastern cultures, the reverse is often true.

    To get this back to the world of Austen’s creations, I think her coupling of the voluble Marianne and the shy, private Brandon are a perfect example of 18th Century European search for Rationalism and the ‘Golden Mean.’

    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:31am    #
  12. From Janeites, Jeannie Lugo:

    “And I object to the use of the term for another reason—that I believe the proper diagnosis for a very highly functioning autistic person is ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’, which is more marked by social awkwardness rather than by the more severe actions and behaviors of the autistic person.

    The ugly truth is that a person in Austen’s time who truly suffered from autism would have been sent away, or quietly drowned or exposed. And if autism is caused, as many people believe, by modern chemicals or immunizations, then the diagnosis of autism in Austen’s characters is truly anachronistic!

    And I agree with your rant above, Ellen. Why is it not permissible to be merely shy?—no, instead, we must have Asperger’s. Why cannot one be a buffoon like Mr. Collins?, or an uneducated shrill harpy like Mrs. Bennet?—no, we must have some medically diagnosable problem that, ALAS!, if only they had lived in our time, they could have received treatment and medication, and become president, rather than suffer under Austen’s biting wit and scorn!

    Having ‘syndromes’ where there are none erases the need for human beings to overcome their initial impulses (Darcy’s hanging back at dances and not talking to anyone he doesn’t know), and become part of the larger society. Austen is very much about pointing fingers at those who, because of their own personal failings, refuse to behave appropriately. And considering her own behavior near the end of her life, she would consider giving in to bodily suffering a weakness to be overcome, not a reason to succumb to martyrdom (which it appears she sometimes thought
    her mother was doign) or fish after sympathy.

    Jeannie Lugo”
    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:32am    #
  13. From Janeites, Julia Park:

    “Funny you should mention the autism. I was just talking with my 23-year-old daughter who is in an acting academy in Manhattan and she said her professor was just telling the class that a percentage of them were certainly autistic. But he said that the scale of autism had become so wide, what can be pegged as autism nowadays has broadened so that at its mildest form, you can be ‘socially awkward’ and be considered autistic. Criminey. Then aren’t we all? And that would certainly explain Mr. Darcy.

    Julia Park”
    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:33am    #
  14. I want also to disagree with Juliet and Carrol insofar as their postings suggest the behavior of a real person or one of Austen’s characters is strongly a matter of personal choice. They make it sound as if we are far more in control of our personalities and circumstances than either Austen or Dreiser presented. What we do is not self-willed in any unqualified or isolated way.

    From Alexander Pope, the first of the four Moral Epistles. Moral Essay I: to Richard Cobham, Of the Characters of Mankind:

    Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
    Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds?
    On human Actions reason though you can,
    It may be Reason, but it is not Man;
    His Principle of action once explore,
    That instant ‘tis his Principle no more.
    Like following life through creatures you dissect,
    Ye lose it in the moment you detect.
    Yet more; the diff’rence is as great between
    The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
    All Manners take a tincture from our own;
    Or come discolour’d, through our Passions shown;
    Or Fancy’s beam enlarges, multiplies,
    Contracts, inverts, and gives ten thousand dyes.
    Nor will Life’s stream for Observation stay,
    It hurries all too fast to mark the way:
    In vain sedate reflections we would make
    When half our knoweldge we must snatch, not take.
    Oft in the Passions’ wild rotation tost,
    Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:
    Tir’d, not determin’d to the last we yeild,
    And what comes then is master of the field,
    As the last image of that troubled heap,
    When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep
    (Tho’ past the recollection of the thought)
    Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:
    Something as dim to our internal view,
    Is thus, perhaps the cause of most we do … (1731-35)

    I also add how environment and education are central themes in Austen. She thinks these of the utmost importance in developing someone’s character.

    By-the-way perhaps Bottomer might label Austen "Aspergers." Surely a clear case (joke alert).

    Elinor    Jun 28, 7:45am    #
  15. I think the supposition is completely ridiculous. I suppose that it merits enquiry seeing as Austen had a brother who had a mental disorder; however, I do not believe that any of her characters were meant to be autistic but of course anyone could read this into some of them and make a case for it.
    Sarah    Jun 28, 10:19am    #
  16. In response to Sarah’s posting,

    Lest someone think I meant to impugn anyone who is autistic or shy or who does not like social life, is not comfortable in it (for good reasons), I want to say I didn’t.

    Indeed I think that the merit of Bottomer’s book may be to highlight why Austen’s books are not at the heart of the mania but the ill-understood movies adapted from them and the mostly unconnected (by reason of theme and outlook) sequels.

    Elinor    Jun 28, 1:41pm    #
  17. The difference between relating this to autism and simply allowing someone to be shy or awkward, is, I think, a function of the degree to which we see the human as mechanism and the degree to which we see the human as something irreducibly more.

    As some have pointed out here, the medicalization of our social relations seems to assume that to some degree we are simply machines, meant to function in a certain socially determined way, that must be fixed if we go wrong. This is the problem with the word “syndrome”. It doesn’t describe a curable condition. It describes a set of symptoms. Thus anything that a society finds unacceptable can be labeled a syndrome and acquire the appearnace of an undsiputable medically endorsed undesirablility. The problem is that we don’t all agree on what constitutes undesirability. I have plenty of friends that are shy. I’m not. Would I like to “fix” them at times, probably, when I don’t think about what I’m doing.

    The problem is most of them don’t want to be fixed, and maybe they shouldn’t be, since it might not be a “fix” at all. the issue of choice vs. mechanism is, I think, one of the least resolved of the critical debates in the study of literature, a debate that came together for me in a very interesting paper by Alan Liu at NASSR in Montreal about emergence theory. Freudian psychoanalysis, emergence theory, Deleuzian mechanicalism, medicalism, all have value, but I doubt their claims to explain choice. If one believes in choice, plain simple, irreducable choice, then there is always something better explained by ethics (ala Levinas) than mechanics.
    Steve H    Jun 28, 4:33pm    #
  18. From a member of ECW:

    “A friend of my housemates, a well-educated, professional, 26-year-old woman who is Muslim and from an Arab country in the Middle East, LOVES Austen books and movies. Like the folks you mention, she doesn’t distinguish between source and adaptation, and doesn’t interpret the books as satires. She has read all the novels, owns 3 different P&P film/tv movies, and put my housemate through a 6-hour viewing of the Ehle/Firth one.

    She also doesn’t date, never has, and is adamant about “saving herself” for the man she will choose to marry when she finds him. She dresses like any secular American woman, but she will not share a residence with any man and hates it when her roommate’s boyfriend walks around their apartment shirtless on his way to the bathroom. (I find a strange irony in the fact that Colin Firth can parade on her TV screen in his soaking costume, but that’s different.)

    I’ve always wondered if Jane Austen offers this woman a world in which her own values are the norm (unlike in contemporary New York) and it isn’t assumed (like in the media) that women who have those values aren’t assertive or don’t insist on picking their own husbands, out of love. I know that Egyptian TV recently had a soap opera in which a woman tried to stop her husband from committing polygamy, which makes her assertive in comparison to the American “multiple wives” on our TV show Big Love.

    So I’m curious what evidence there is, overall, for Jane Austen offering virtual empathy to women in traditionalist Muslim and other extremely patriarchal societies with extramarital sex taboos? Anybody done research on this?
    Elinor    Jun 30, 12:01am    #
  19. You ask a good question: what “for Jane Austen offering virtual empathy to women in traditionalist Muslim and other extremely patriarchal societies with extramarital sex taboos?” I was going to say I don’t know but I just thought of Reading Lolita in Teheran which could have been equally called Reading Jane Austen in Teheran as the fourth chapter is about reading Jane Austen with her Iranian young women students. Nafisi used it intelligently. She turned the opening statement of P&P into a parody of Sharia: it is a truth universally acknowledged an old man in possession of a good income must be in want of a nine year old wife. As I recall her pupils did find much to identity with in Pride and Prejudice but I don’t recall details of their lives individually or what they saw individually.

    An intelligent book on “chick-lit”, Suzanne Ferriss’s and Mallory Young’s Chick-Lite; The New Women’s Fiction suggests that Austen is read as presenting a world which is like many women’s today: such women feel they are relatively powerless, seek husbands, want an ideal kind protective man, i.e., the Mark Darcy Helen Fielding conjured up. It includes essays on black and Spanish women’s literature but nothing as far as I can see on Islamic women.

    The idea that the picture of 18th century society we get from Austen (much less the movies and sequels) is anything like the real world at the time is ludicrous. It’s a tiny sliver of society presented in a self-censored way. Lafler’s book on the life of Anne Oldfield gives us a much more probable account of a woman’s life (including the pressure to have sex, need for a man,difficulty of getting paid or having access to an income undoubtably earned by you).

    Elinor    Jun 30, 12:08am    #
  20. The individual from ECW replied:

    “That sounds like a good read. Thanks for the recommendation.

    One thing I’m curious about is whether Austen’s condemnation of arranged and loveless marriage (i.e., Charlotte Collins’s) is read as radically supportive by women in societies where arranged marriage is still acceptable—like my friend’s.”
    Elinor    Jun 30, 6:41am    #
  21. I can answer that from Reading Lolita in Teheran: Yes. One of the young women is coerced into marrying someone she doesn’t care for at all, and Nasifi and the girls find solace and validation for their sense of violation, the destruction of a life, and as long at least as we know the girl flat misery (as I recall he is also domineering and has the right to beat her) from Austen.

    Perhaps I should make a separate blog about Part 4 of Nafisi’s book from my notes on that part of the reading and discussion.

    If you have the time, Nafisi’s book is well worth the reading. You could read just the opener (enough to see the situation) and then skip to part four too.

    Elinor    Jun 30, 6:43am    #
  22. From Austen-l, a member of the Edmonton Jane Austen society:

    “BTW I read and greatly appreciated Ellen’s blog response to Bottomer’s thesis.

    For several years, Bottomer has written to JASNA convenors offering to speak on her topic. Our group chose not to invite her for reasons ardent Austen fans and parents of children in the autism spectrum will understand. Bottomer’s view appears simplistic, and no doubt affected by her own autistic tendencies to see autism everywhere.

    However, in yesterday’s post Ellen takes what Darcy says about himself at face value. Just because he says in Chapter 58

    “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child, I was taught what was right; but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing—to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient
    were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

    This doesn’t mean his analysis of himself was totally correct. Good people are often unduly severe upon themselves. I’ve always thought that Darcy was beating himself up here. Maybe Elizabeth opened his eyes but that doesn’t mean he was as bad as he believes he was. Certainly Mrs Reynolds wouldn’t agree with Darcy’s statements of self-loathing.

    I’ve always thought that Darcy acted like a jerk at the beginning of P&P because he’d just come to Netherfield from clearing up the situation in Ramsgate. Having just seen his sister cruelly taken advantage of, he was feeling at best rather jaded or out of place. He’d have still been upset about Wickham. He was certainly in no mood to look to form new social relationships. Would he have such a friend as Bingley if he was generally such a stick-in-the-mud? And Bingley seems surprised by Darcy’s behaviour at that first dance (chapter 3). That indicates to me that Darcy was not acting in his normal way.

    Anyway, probably everyone has some autistic symptoms or tendencies. It’s only when those characteristic behaviours are out of balance with the rest of the person that they are problems. Just as you can view a behaviour as either stubborn or as determined, you might view a behaviour as autistic or find another – more positive – interpretation for it, particularly if the person functions well in general. And the same sharp, perseverating focus on minutia that characterises Asperger’s Syndrome is what has given us dedicated research into microbes, medicine and rocket science. As Hamlet says, “for there is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

    Elinor    Jun 30, 7:59am    #
  23. I thank Beatrice for her comments, especially this one:

    ”For several years, Bottomer has written to JASNA convenors offering to speak on her topic. Our group chose not to invite her for reasons ardent Austen fans and parents of children in the autism spectrum will understand. Bottomer’s view appears simplistic, and no doubt affected by her own autistic tendencies to see autism everywhere.”

    As I wrote on my blog, I don’t mean to impugn anyone who is socially awkward or has been diagnosed/labelled as autistic. I really do think illness is in the eyes of the beholder and that we medicalize many mental troubles and social difficulties in order to get round the social arrangements we would otherwise have to confront, criticize, change. The above statement could function to impugn Bottomer and autism.

    I see calling Darcy “a jerk” and providing him with a psychological background before he shows up the way you do as reading too much into the novel for which we have no text. He is after all an arisocratic and his place in the niche of the novel is extremely important in understanding his behavior throughout. There’s a real problem nowadays because people read back simply from Colin Firth’s performance into the novel—without taking into account the whole new point of view of the movie, i.e., it is a melodrama with an oedipal point of view; it's strongly sentimental and egalitarian.

    Elinor    Jun 30, 8:02am    #
  24. From Austen-l, Carrol Cox:

    “On the general topic of ‘medical’ diagnoses of characters from literatuare, there is a superb book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, by Jonathan Shay (M.D., Ph.D.*), that is well worth reading, and also suggests a more nuanced response to the question of autism in a novel. That discussion has tended to revolve around the simple yes/no response to “Is Darcy autistic?” But that is a silly question for several reasons, among which is the fact that Autism did not exist until 1912, just as no one (as far as I can tell from the OED) suffered from tuberculosis before 1860.

    Illnesses, physical or “mental,” are social entities. No one, for example, ever dies of apoplexy today—and if one of us has an apoplectic fit it is no danger to our health but merely an indication that someone thinks we are over-reacting. Similarly, there were no homosexuals or heterosexuals before the late 19fth c. So Darcy was not a case of autism. Achilles was not a case of PTSD. But that is not the point. Does autism AS A METAPHOR illuminate the reading of P&P? Does Darcy’s behavior, AS A METAPHOR, that is as a perspective (see K. Burke on this) illuminate autism and the 21st-century responses to autism? And one can explore these questions without getting all in a tizzy.

    Elinor    Jul 1, 6:16am    #
  25. I think Carrol makes a good point. In my blog I do say that Bottomer’s book could be insightful: that’s been overlooked in our dialogue here, for example:

    “Nonetheless, perhaps seeing Austen’s characters against the scrim of the prejudices of our society would highlight why so many people who participate in Austen mania (become fervent Janeties) do so through movies and sequels, not the books themselves, and they misread the books and dislike a good deal in them and especially MP and its heroine.”

    Again and again people argue over some of Austen’s characters with great resentment and dislike; they do not care for their self-containment, social awkwardnesses and dislike of social life. The changes made in the conception of Darcy in the 1995 P&P are responses of the film-makers to what they intuitively feel a mass audience either will not understand or sympathize with.

    Austen also has her passionate defenders. I wrote that Austen tends to see people for whom socializing is centrally important and who are great networkers as corrupt and hollow people, e.g. Frank Churchill (amiable in the French sense says Mr Knightley but not in the English) and Mr Elliot. Bottomer's book could show (read against the grain perhaps) how Austen argues what is needed for happiness (and is not about to happen alas) is a new truer and more humane (accurate) understanding of how social life really functions for people.

    I also wrote:

    “Because the label or name for a condition didn’t exist, doesn’t mean the condition or state didn’t.”

    My objection was that the medicalizing term could frame the characters in a way that stigmatizes them.

    There’s another good book which looks at real authors in modern terms: William B. Ober: Boswell’s Clap and Other Essays; Medical Analyses of Literary Men’s Afflictions.

    At the close of my blog I said I sent away for Bottomer’s book and hope to gain insight from it.

    Elinor    Jul 1, 6:28am    #

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