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Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions—Subversive Language, Embodied History

Monday, March 5, 2007 - 06:29
Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Language, Embodied History. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. x + 275pp. 11 Illustrations. $65.00. (ISBN 1-4039-6410-6).

Reviewed by
Anne K. Mellor
University of California, Los Angeles

This is a book that will forever change the way we read Jane Austen's fiction. In a series of compelling and well-documented analyses, Jillian Heydt-Stevenson shows us that Austen's work is replete with sexual jokes, bawdy humor, double-entendres, erotic puns. Moreover, she persuasively argues that for Jane Austen, the mind cannot be separated from the body: sense and sensibility, consciousness and physical sensations, thought and feeling, are inextricably fused. Heydt-Stevenson here puts paid once and for all to the misconceived notion that Austen was too "respectable" to explore the functioning of the human body in all its unruly sexuality. She further links Austen's use of bawdy language to her overriding concerns with the economics of marriage, the commodification of the female body, the advent of a consumer culture, and the role of language in mediating between "nature" and "fashion."

Readers of Pride and Prejudice will not be surprised to learn that Lydia is motivated primarily by sexual desire. But not everyone will be aware that Jane Austen explicitly signaled to her readers that Lydia had been deflowered by Wickham before she eloped with him. As Lydia puts it in her goodbye letter to Mrs. Foster, "I wish you would tell Sally to mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown." Austen is equally bawdy when Caroline Bingley is trying to seduce Darcy. Using a "powerful metonymy of phallic power and feminine submission," Caroline offers to be serviceable to Darcy: "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well." In response, Darcy "wittily invokes autoeroticism"—"Thank you—but I always mend my own."

Equally illuminating is Heydt-Stevenson's deft analysis of the role played by the salacious riddle, "Kitty, a fair but frozen maid," in Emma (an earlier version of this interpretation appeared in Nineteenth Century Literature). Unpacking and solving this riddle, which depends on the folk belief that syphilis could be cured by intercourse with a virgin, she shows that the novel, like the riddle, is fundamentally engaged with questions of male impotence, venereal disease, and the commodification of women. In Emma, a woman too easily becomes the sexual possession of a man—the penniless Jane Fairfax is likened to a slave, and even Emma is finally but a "notch" in the larger estate of Donwell Abbey.

I do not have space here to rehearse the myriad dirty jokes, sexual innuendoes, and bawdy stories that Heydt-Stevenson so brilliantly unearths in Austen's novels, from the "under hung" William Walter Elliot to the "well hung" but homoerotically inclined Charles Thorpe to the "best hung" Captain Frederick Wentworth. One section deserves special mention, however. As Heydt-Stevenson persuasively argues, the linguistic landscape of Sense and Sensibility makes it "sound" like Marianne had sex with Willoughby, thus giving her no choice but to marry the only respectable man who would still have her. And Colonel Brandon, having learned at first hand how easily innocent, impetuous, warm-hearted women (the two Elizas) can be seduced and abandoned, is probably well aware that his wife is not a virgin. Indeed Marianne's very vulnerability may be part of her attraction for him.

Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions does much more than unpack Austen's bawdy humor, although that is a revelation in itself. This book also explores Austen's profound awareness of the ways in which the human body is always already mediated by semiotic codes, and in particular the language of fashion. Here Heydt-Stevenson draws powerful attention both to the role of commodified and erotically charged objects (lockets, hair, "slit" muslin) and of gendered cross-dressing in Austen's fiction. Her account of Henry Tilney's appropriation both of patriarchal privilege and of the "feminine" discourse of dressmaking uncovers a particularly subtle version of the male fashioning of the female body in Austen's day. Such appropriations are significantly accompanied in Austen's fiction by forms of violence, as Heydt-Stevenson acutely argues, violence ranging from aggressive harassment to rape, kidnapping and brutal mob-control. The presence of numerous "fallen women" in Austen's fiction thus signals not so much her moral disapprobation as her sensitive awareness of the vulnerability of the female body to male economic and psychological control.

For those who resolutely contend that Jane Austen was far too "proper" to think such sexually charged thoughts and her publishers far too "respectable" to publish them, Heydt-Stevenson offers documentary rebuttal. Her discussions of the widely circulated, entirely respectable marriage manual, Aristotle's Master-piece, with its extensive advice on various sexual practices and positions, and of the numerous dirty jokes, salacious riddles, sexual puns and erotic stories published in the bourgeois Ladies Monthly Magazine prove that the women of Austen's class and circle were entirely aware of the natural functions of the human (and animal) body, and quite accustomed to discussing them among themselves.

This is that rare academic book—beautifully written, cogently argued—that enables one to see a familiar literary landscape in a new and richer way. Anyone interested in Jane Austen's fiction must read Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions.