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

Disquieting Patterns in Austen's Novels · 13 January 09

Dear Friends,

Back from a rejuvenating time in a very cold UK this past week. I shall have much to tell of: meetings & dinners with friends, museum exhibits and museums themselves; a UK production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, a remarkable concert performance by the soprano, Patricia Rozario, at the Wigmore Hall; the conference papers, the UK as we experienced it. The books we read, movies we watched he in his ipod, me on my laptop. The new Landmark Trust place we stayed at (7, St Michael’s Street, Oxford, a lovely Edwardian 2 floor apartment carved out of the Steward’s house next door to the Oxford Union Debating Hall and Library), and the one we thought we knew, 43 Cloth Fair (where the first and a long-term tenant was John Betjeman).

First though, I thought I’d share the proposal for a paper to be given at the upcoming JASNA in October 2009 (Philadelphia), where the topic was to be siblings. Mine was rejected as was a friend’s, on the same grounds: they were both said to be insufficiently narrowly about brothers and sisters in Austen: the clause: “we were only able to select the proposals that strictly related to our theme of Jane Austen’s fictional brothers and sisters” appeared in both rejection letters (exactly the same wording). “Our theme” gives away one source of the rejection: my thesis was not acceptable, probably too taboo, too iconoclastic.

To be fair, I did range outside siblings to make general remarks about patterns in Austen’s novels, partly because I understood I had to fill 45 minutes in front of a group of (mostly) women, many not academic, instead of 20 minutes as a member of a 3 or 4 person panel (the model for all but one conference I’d been to). At JASNA, the lecturer is made into a teacher to whose class individuals are asked to sign up. I didn’t want just to have filler. I wanted plenty of rich content.


Disquieting Patterns in Austen’s Novels

A proposal for a paper to be given at JASNA 2009

As the JASNA description of the conference theme suggests, Jane Austen uses intense sibling bonds centrally and in multiple ways simultaneously. In so doing, she provides a rich terrain in which to explore family life. As several books and recent essays have shown, though, this terrain has some distinct peculiarities. Specifically, in Austen’s novels, quasi-incestuous unions and displacements of incestuous unions constitute love bonds between heterosexual couples. Further, supportive, destructive, or ambivalent, intense bonds and rivalry between sisters and brothers are often more important to her stories than the sheerly erotic attachments. Glenda Hudson and Susan Morgan have taken the view that these relationships reinforce established and traditional familial groups and norms in a time of revolutionary upheaval, radical new ideas, and are “positive and therapeutic” (7, 9); by contrast, Claudia Johnson, R.F. Brissenden, and Avrom Fleishman have seen in these patterns evidence of neurosis, unsettling moral ironies and unreality or escapism in Austen.

I propose to occupy a middle ground between these two kinds of positions. I see Austen’s life as like that of Dorothy Wordsworth and other Romantic or regency era relatively poor or unmarried women who had no opportunity to travel much or mix freely with men and women outside their class and family and were therefore able to form close and congenial bonds only with family members and a very few women. While Austen profited from her bonds with her brothers and Cassandra, she also suffered from the intensity of these bonds and her isolation from any others. While in the novels, the quasi-incestuous patterns eventually bring some forms of happiness to many of the principals in Austen’s novels, on the way there, her central heroines and heroes experience intense emotional pain because they are experiencing a tabooed or forbidden love, must hide their love before a destructive rival, or identify strongly with a sibling who gives them much pain. I will argue that the endings of the book while important are often quick, truncated, so much pulling a curtain down at a propitious moment, in order to provide the gleam of security and hope of an experience of congenial companionship. What I want to show is that one source of the power of Austen’s novels comes from book-long experiences of mortification, humiliation, recognition, and sexual anxiety and jealousy which result from painful secrets which ideally good characters feel they must keep hidden.

I will do this by examining the intersection of three recurring plot-designs, character relationships, and jokes and hidden memories in Austen’s fiction. I will begin with plot-design. In six out of the seven finished (or nearly finished) novels and one late fragment (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, Lady Susan, and Sanditon), we find a young woman who loves a young man and must hide the love lest she be humiliated, castigated or ejected from where she lives: this is the case with Elinor Dashwood, Jane Bennet (after Bingley deserts), Fanny Price, Jane Fairfax, Anne Eliot, Frederica Susanna Vernon, and seems to have been intended in the story of Clara Brereton. We don’t know what Clara was to endure, but all the heroines watch the young man flirt or fall in love with someone else (in one case her mother) and be presented as engaged or about to be engaged to someone else (Jane is told by Caroline Bingley that if family hopes are fulfilled Bingley will soon be engaged Georgiana Darcy).

The motif of forbidden or hidden love in female characters is a common one in pre-20th century fiction, but not so obsessively. And in four of the novels, the top males are similarly afflicted. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars fears Colonel Brandon and Elinor have some kind of understanding; Brandon has had to stand by and watch his brother marry and then abuse a beloved sister-cousin, Eliza Brandon; he must now stand by and watch Marianne flirt with Willoughby and, after he knows that Willoughby has seduced and abandoned the pregnant Eliza Williams, accept that Marianne has become engaged to Willoughby. In Emma, Mr Knightley similarly watches Emma (he thinks) falling in love with Frank Churchill, whom Mr Knightley sees as a reprehensible shallow man; he knows Frank is the partner the Westons, his best friends, want Emma to marry and is the norm, the marriage people expect. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth rightly fears the power of Lady Russell and other of Anne’s relatives and Mr William Elliot’s charms will lead to Anne Elliot to marry him. We may surmise that in The Watsons, there was to be a similar rivalry between the rich Lord Osborne and his former tutor, Mr Howard, now a clergyman, over Emma Watson.

All this resembles what Freud describes as the return of the repressed, and is disquieting. Q.D. Leavis has not been alone in demonstrating that Austen’s novels are made up of permutations of the same story and type characters, where we find repeat incidences; what she did not emphasize is how much pain is involved in most of them, and how they involve status and sexual loss. Most societies, ours among these, have taught people to feel horror at the idea, and Austen’s characters’ secret love relationships to one another are often quasi-incestuous. Upon asking Emma to dance with him, Emma says “We are not so much brother and sister, you know” (3:2, 328), but they are, and that’s why Mr Knightley is awkward. When we find quasi-incest in Radcliffe’s Italian and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s not presented in scenes where the character must stand by and watch the beloved taken over by someone else with everyone’s approval or at least acquiescence.

Here is but a sample of what we have in Austen: in Sense and Sensibility Edward Ferrars’s sister is married to Elinor’s brother; Brandon’s cousin married his brother and he loves Marianne partly out of painful recognition of her similarity to Eliza Williams; in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are brought up as brother and sister, and he is a displacement or equivalent of her love for William; in Persuasion, Charles Musgrave has taken Mary Elliot as a substitute for her sister, Anne, who refused him, and Mary has not forgotten this. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet hopes Mr Collins will marry one of his cousins; Darcy finds himself having to make his connection to his rival-brother Wickham when they marry sisters.

Intense love of a sister and rivalry with a brother influences what happens in the heterosexual couplings of Austen’s novels. The expected marital happiness of Austen’s heroines is also dependent upon continuing or beginning a life-long close relationship with a sister or sister-in-law. While often this may be deeply comforting one (Catherine Morland with Eleanor Tilney who is somewhat older than she, Fanny with her younger sister, Susan Price), such loving relationships often cause much pain: not just from recognition and identification (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet), but from dread of an abrasive amoral nature (Mary Crawford, Isabella Thorpe), betrayal (Lucy Steele, Penelope Watson), or jealous malice and spite (Lydia Bennet, Mary Musgrove). The most powerful sister pairs in fact show an ambivalent relationship between women (e.g, Maria and Julia Bertram), including the important heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. I do not think the final sentence in Sense and Sensibility is a flippant or unmeaning irony. Robert Ferrars hates his older brother, Edward, and succeeds in displacing him; Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney are powerless before their brothers’ (respectively) irresponsible and callous behavior because Tom and Frederick are heirs-at-law.

I come to hidden memories and jokes. It’s sometimes difficult for readers to accept that someone can cope with searing memories through burlesque, parody, and self-reflexive laughter; but so it is, and especially in satire. The first, demonstrably there and, with the exceptions of Northanger Abbey and Sanditon, found in all the novels will demonstrates that Jane Austen consciously puts hidden personal memories in her books: she plants “the important Tuesdays” in all her novels, sometimes more than one. It is a day of mortification and distress for the heroine. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen tells us Willoughby snubbed Marianne on a Tuesday, Elinor met Mrs Ferrars and was humiliated by her on a Tuesday. In Pride and Prejudice the Netherfield Ball occurred on a Tuesday. In Emma the Coles’ party where Jane Fairfax becomes so upset and Emma is led to begin the rumor that Jane is in love with her best friend’s husband and he with her; Frank Churchill had to leave Highbury on a Tuesday. In Mansfield Park Fanny was sent to Portsmouth on a Tuesday. The projected night at the theatre (which never comes off) in Persuasion was a coming Tuesday. The Watsons opens on a Tuesday (Oct 13th), the day of an assembly, and Lady Susan is finally exposed on a Tuesday. I will discuss the resemblance between these Tuesdays and how they may connect to Austen’s life.

Austen is not so insistent in her use of a nervous joke about the letter “F” which in Sense and Sensiblity Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings find “productive of countless jokes” due to “its [established] character as the wittiest letter in the alphabet” (1:12, 14; 1:18, 86; 1:21, 107). Since Austen presents Mrs Jennings as someone whom everyone in the novel supposedly justifiably deems imperceptive (like Miss Bates and Lady Bertram), we are led not to credit Mrs Jennings’s idea that there is much in an F. But there is. Not only is Elinor in love with a man whose name begins with a “F,” so too is Elizabeth Bennet (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Anne Elliot (Frederick Wentworth who we are told by Austen’s brother Charles, was a portrait of him), Jane Fairfax (Frank Churchill); Isabella Thorpe (she attempts a hidden relationship with Frederick Tilney while she is engaged to James Morland). Four of the famous novels have a Frank or Frederick; in Sense and Sensiblity we are told it’s the key to the heroine’s dreams.

I am one of those people who have argued that the recent spate of romantic film biographies of Austen which depict her as having lived an unfulfilled life because she never married or had children are wrong, sexist, and present a fundamental misunderstanding of the sources of writing. Jane Austen partly chose to spend her life reading and writing. She shows in her letters that she finds marriage as then experienced by women a burden she didn’t want:

“Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to “so long a walk; she must come in her “Donkey Carriage.”–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th…” (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817)

She had three sisters-in-laws constantly pregnant all of whom died young in childbirth. She longed to be able to travel more, and not have to wait around for a brother to be with her. She bitterly regretted her lack of money, writhed at dying young. She grieved so badly over not being able to finish Persuasion properly she was unable to hide this from her family. I see Austen’s life as that of a woman who decided not to marry because in her circumstances, it would have been an imprisoning and frustrating life which would have precluded the fulfilling one as a professional writer that she finally lived. Nonetheless, like many of us, Jane Austen also longed for an ideal love and congenial companionship, and (not part of this paper but necessary to say) felt outrage at how she saw people treat one another, and she expressed herself in her novels by using her feelings about her family members. It was then the kind of secret Austen’s Mr Knightley suggests is just the sort of thing everyone at the time knows but no one says aloud—or, we can add, writes down.


I’m ambivalent about this rejection. I did want to go to a JASNA at long last, and meet Diana Birchall there, and all the friends I’ve made on Austen-l and Janeites who show up regularly. The admiral said he would not come to a conference based on such a woman-centered conservative cult figure, one filled with fans where people dress up in costumes and live out complacent fantasies. So I would for once try to go alone, unless Yvette (who also loves Austen’s novels) accompanied me, which she said she might, and that would have been wonderful as I saw at the East Central session where I gave my paper, she fits in beautifully in such groups. GMU would have paid a substantial part of my expenses if I gave a paper. And my friend, Tom, said he’d come and hear me speak.

On the other hand, it is very expensive, it seems to be built on an “immersion” ceaseless socializing model which might be too much to take, might just have too many of the sorts of fans the Admiral is not the only person to feel very uncomfortable around. Worse, this year for the first time, most unluckily, the East Central meeting was the same weekend so I would have to miss out on that, an inexpensive, friendly low-power meeting of people I really have grown to be friends with. And now my best friend would not be there. Maybe most important, to do the paper would get in the way of trying to write that The Austen Movies book this summer. It’d be another excuse—like the Clary paper could be and in part is, unless I keep it in bounds somewhat.

And last, and not least, I now can disseminate it here. I would have anyway. I will put it in my An Austen Miscellany. I doubt I’d have tried to write a paper, but perhaps I will eventually, and leave this as a general outline of thoughts towards a paper I’d like to write and send to a journal.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Hi, Ellen,

    I just read your post on the 18th century list about not getting your Austen paper accepted for the JASNA conference. I’m quite surprised (and probably spoiled from (almost) always having each paper accepted at EC/ASECS).

    It’s a good idea to go ahead and put your thoughts on the blog. Lots more people will be able to benefit from them than would attend the conference.

    Thinking of you—supportively, Erlis
    Elinor    Jan 13, 10:52am    #
  2. To another friend, Thank you very much for the kind thoughts. I think they rejected it out of hand. The wording was exactly the same as another's and many people have not yet heard. Small groups of provincial Janeites repeatedly control what is said at JASNA.

    Dear Erlis, You are kindness itself. The people who choose the set of papers each time are small groups of local Janeites, often as many non-scholars as scholars, and the tendency is ideological conservativism.

    I have one consolation: I will not now miss you probably. For the first time the EC meeting is at the same time as JASNA. I didn't know that when I sent in the proposal. We would certainly have missed our get-together. And that would be a real loss.

    Dear Diane, As I got a generally phrased letter with exactly the same paragraph as another friend, I assume my proposal was rejected out of hand. Nothing disquieting allowed :). So yours is probably not lost in the shuffle. You are in the running,
    Elinor    Jan 13, 10:58am    #
  3. From a friend:

    “There’s no question that JASNA is an ideologically conservative group, but, alas, they’re the only JA show in town for those of us here in the US, right?”

    To which I replied:

    “You can give Austen papers at the ASECS and BSECS; also at small meetings of 18th century groups; at the Romantics meetings and women studies type (there’s a big conference on 18th and 19th century women). They would welcome US people at Chawton.”
    Elinor    Jan 13, 11:42am    #
  4. When you said, “I see Austen’s life as like that of Dorothy Wordsworth and other Romantic or regency era relatively poor or unmarried women who had no opportunity to travel much or mix freely with men and women outside their class and family and were therefore able to form close and congenial bonds only with family members and a very few women.” it made me think of what my own life would be like if my social contacts had been limited to siblings, perhaps cousins, members of my parents’ church. I would never have been able to go away to school; such was not a possibility for girls. There is no way I could have met my husband, much less than the friends I have met through the internet. When I think of the complaints of how the internet has changed our lives, I have to think it has largely been for the better. Now people without access to the internet, or choose not to have access to it (as my father) are almost dooming themselves to lives of isolation, especially if they are not socially outgoing.

    Still here on the sunny Big Island…
    Jill Spriggs    Jan 13, 10:11pm    #
  5. Dearest Jill,

    In truth, while we in western society are fortunate enough to be able to move outside our families, to a large extent we are still limited by the milieus we can reach through them. I have thought again and again of how impoverished was my life before the Internet which has multiplied my social contacts tenfold.

    Austen remains relevant and alive for us today, and even more (it might seem paradoxically) in older societies with traditional mores because she (and her contemporaries) had a genuine education and yet lived within narrow restrictions. Is this not what say a Muslim girl in Egypt knows, an Indian girl who must marry and for whom her marriage is partly arranged. Yvette and I had our little joke that since she has been having a hard time finding a job, perhaps the solution is a young man of fortune moving into the neighborhood, but alas, Mr Moody would not visit him; she says she understands why Jane clung to the callow Frank. How many circumstances and feelings are still shared.

    We can go beyond intersex sibling relationships. Young genteel women with little dowries, Austen’s milieu were particularly subject to separation from men outside their families (to keep them virginal), kept to some extent from parents and feel back comfortably as brothers and sisters. It is therefore no surprize we find quasi-incestuous patterns among them in the later 18th and early 19th century. Jobs first spread for such women after mid-19th century. Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Charles and Mary Lamb &c&c

    On top of that for Austen, she was so intelligent and also (I think somewhat like Dickinson) kept herself somewhat apart. She was never in a milieu with her equals or people of her artistic kinds of insights. All of this is at the heart of her continuing intense cult.

    Elinor    Jan 15, 9:21am    #
  6. From Elissa on Janeites:

    “Ellen has presented us with a wealth of material and ideas in her posting … ”
    Elinor    Jan 15, 12:31pm    #
  7. Mark on Janeites:

    “Dear Ellen,

    Just read your post on brother-sister relationships on Janeites and then found my way to your Web site …

    I am writing because I read your posting on “disquieting patterns” and for the first time in many a year I called my own 150-page-long chapter on MP up onto the screen and reread what it was that I had had to say about those same “disquieting patterns.”

    I am going to take the liberty of [sending these] pages …”
    Elinor    Jan 15, 12:32pm    #
  8. Your speaking of the limited opportunities for women with small dowries reminds me of something you said to me long ago; the modern equivalent of a woman’s dowry is her education. If your parents are prosperous enough (or go into debt enough) to send you to a prestigious school, opportunities for high profile jobs and hence, potentially high profile spouses, increase exponentially. Without the doors opened by the expensive educations, what are the chances of a comfortable life?
    Jill Spriggs    Jan 15, 7:42pm    #
  9. From another friend:

    “It never occurred to me before that literary societies would employ political “gatekeeping,” but since most other groups do this, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. And, I recall now that I resigned from the board of a charity because they kept rejecting my really good ideas as “too novel” and voted to “stay with our tried and true.” It can be most frustrating, but don’t take it personally.

    Then, there is the reality that people often do have an agenda or point of view either to push or to maintain in the forefront. They do not want to admit “new blood” into the sphere of power or to permit new ideas to have a fair hearing. Ironically, these people in power, who often profess to be quite liberal in political slant, are most reactionary, even fascistic, when a new person enters their sphere with discordant ideas or interpretations. So again, I would not take any of this personally.

    That said, I would comment that 45 minutes is an awfully long time to speak. Yet the subject matter is so rich and allusive that a paper discussing just one or two aspects of the sibling-incest leit motif in depth might present the kind of pin-point focus that strengthens an argument. From what I have read of your paper, you really present in precis enough material for an entire book. In short – and please forgive me for offering editorial advice that was not asked for Ellen – narrow it down. Submit three or four or even five different papers to different groups rather than this one multifaceted essay. I do have an additional grammatical stylistic comment – but do not want to appear critical. Let me know when you are up to hearing it!”
    Elinor    Jan 15, 7:49pm    #
  10. From Judy:

    “Sorry that your proposal for JASNA was rejected, but, as you say, on the plus side it will give you more time to write that Austen movies book at last.:)”
    Elinor    Jan 16, 11:48am    #
  11. Dear Mark,

    I just read and skimmed your half chapter on MP. I don’t remember when Roger Sales came out with his book on MP as a regency romance, but your thesis reminds me of his outlook. I love the book and I’m fond of Fanny too, and think it is a severely ethical one, but find this does not preclude reading it in the Trilling-Tanner fashion, as seeking quiet, deep order, peace. It is to me a beautiful book.
    You set the book in a thoroughly historical context with the radical spirits of the age.

    I hope my paper provoked memories for you of a past time you can look back at and find valuable.

    Elinor    Jan 16, 11:05pm    #
  12. On the gatekeeping aspect:

    I take your point that what I sent was flawed. It was. I just couldn’t get myself to work really hard on it and what I sent was the product of a couple of hour’s cogitation. I was ambivalent about JASNA and doubted they’d accept anything I’d write that was iconclastic at all and that’s what I wanted to write. That’s the truth of it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I’m neither a successful career high-powered academic nor a fan. The thought of meeting Diana, of taking Yvette and maybe some of the experience sounded at least something I should try, but I wasn’t sure. It is VERY expensive. They take the most expensive hotels and don’t try to cut costs—the fans like that. Hotels which do tours and balls and stuff like this. I didn’t know if I wanted to hold forth for 45 minutes as a teacher.

    Yes it contains several twenty minute papers.

    Elinor    Jan 16, 11:39pm    #
  13. From my friend, Kathy:

    “I’m glad you’re back. And that you had a good time in England. I read your blog on Jane Austen with interest and am sorry your paper git rejected. The proposal probably offended someone: as you say, there are some very conservative Austen fans. Some of them would rather be making bonnets.”
    Elinor    Jan 16, 11:43pm    #

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