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Clara Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon

Monday, April 19, 2004 - 12:33
Clara Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 49.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiii + 242 pp.  Illus.: 4 halftones.  $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-80859-6).

Reviewed by
Devoney Looser
University of Missouri-Columbia

Debates about whether or not Austen is "Romantic" have raged for decades, so it is surprising that Clara Tuite's forceful book is the first to address the subject.  Tuite's argument, that Austen's writings are steeped in some of the ideologies of Romanticism, is certainly accurate.  It should seem odd to label Austen an Augustan or Regency author, either removed from her own day and age or placed in a literary category all her own. Tuite's book might provoke arguments about which ideologies Austen's texts display, but Romantic Austen provides the groundwork on which future scholars who consider the matter will need to build.

Those who expect to see comparison to the "big six" and their relationship to Austen's oeuvre will be either disappointed or surprised. Though there are a handful of references to Wordsworth and Coleridge, the names Shelley, Keats, Byron, and Blake do not appear herein.  The Romantic to whom Tuite repeatedly compares Austen is Edmund Burke; the term she most often associates with both figures is "organicism" (11).  As Tuite puts it, "it is possible to identify Austen with a kind of Burkean position that venerates the country ideal and attempts the 'renovation' of the paternal aristocratic order" as the natural order (170).  Likening Austen to Burke does not tell the whole story for Tuite. What complicates Austen's debt to Burke is "feminocentrism," a feature that shows Austen's "commitment to upward mobility for women" and that makes her a kind of "Tory feminist" (95; 170). Austen manifests a greater liberal and professional investment in writing than does Hannah More or Jane West, according to Tuite; Austen also exhibits a greater sense of the "aesthetic as an autonomous category" (171). Tuite's study explores "the relationship between aristocratic apologia and female social mobility" in Austen's writings (155).

Tuite writes that she means for her title to call up not only Romanticism and the Romantic period but also to signify the "romance" of heterosexual love (17).  Page for page, the Burkean Austen gets more extensive treatment than the feminocentric one. Nevertheless, those sections in which sex and gender take center stage will likely provoke more commentary. These sections might be classed (in an emerging field of study indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and pioneered by Terry Castle, Claudia Johnson, and D. A. Miller, among others) as "Queer Austen" (17).  In her introduction, Tuite includes clever readings of popular uses of Austen, including one of a Museum of London poster, touting an exhibition titled, "Pride & Prejudice: Lesbian and Gay London" (20-1).  She also makes a case for a "queer reading of Austen" by "interrogating heterosexual romance at the level of genre and canonical reproduction" (18).

The project of  "queering" emerges in nearly every chapter.  It does so in the reading of Catharine, or The Bower's Aunt Percival, who is seen as a deviant maiden aunt devoted to closeting her charge in a story of "homosexual panic" (34). Tuite concludes, "the bower is a prepubescent female matrix from which the sexually ambiguous heroine emerges into heterosexuality" (38).  Later sections in the chapter link this reading to interpretations of Austen as "maiden aunt" and show how this relates to her canonicity. Tuite suggestively concludes that Austen's canonicity demonstrates "the ‘rise' of the novel as the rise of the maiden aunt"--the "major social type of literary practitioner from the late eighteenth century" (52).

Another notable emergence of the book's "queering Austen" project occurs in the last chapter, devoted to Sanditon. There, we are told, "childless woman and niece hoarder" Lady Denham "adumbrates the figure of the lesbian vampire" (174).  Denham is so labeled because she "preys on sick young women and bleeds rich young West Indians, not with leeches but with milch-asses, thereby reversing the maternal figure of milking" (174).  Tuite identifies this lesbian vampirism as neo-Gothic, prototypical, and elegant (174-5). Again, Tuite leads us toward a biographical connection. She concludes that Lady Denham is fashioned as "a kind of fantastical alter-ego of Austen" (190).  This is because "Austen's ‘unfinished' novel finishes with the spectacle of a parvenue female who keeps the patrimonial fetishes of aristocratic culture but wishes to pass them down through women" (190).

In the more directly Burkean sections of Romantic Austen, Tuite works in the critical tradition of Marilyn Butler, whom she cites with frequency.  The other critic to whom Tuite is indebted is Clifford Siskin, whose important work on Romantic development and on "the work of writing" buttresses Tuite's arguments in every chapter. Chapter two shows how Sense and Sensibility comes "to be an instantiatory text of British domestic realism …. moved from being unremarkable to being almost the only version of sensibility which was told in English literary history" (58).  It does this, Tuite argues, through its "formal mechanisms" (62), including free indirect discourse and "counter-romance" (68).  Chapter three uses Mansfield Park to show that "Austen's texts themselves participate in the Romantic-period cultural strategy of naturalizing the country, and its local social relations," as did Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (100).  Tuite sees the texts as two sides of the same coin: "If Burke's Reflections offers political history as family romance, Mansfield Park is the family romance as political history" (101).  In this assessment, she is convincing, though I am not as persuaded as she is that Burke (and not Wollstonecraft or Godwin) is the appropriate comparison for Austen.

As the above summaries and quotations illustrate, Romantic Austen is a multi-layered and multi-faceted book that requires and generally rewards patient reading. The book is at its best when it gives readers strong arguments with which to grapple. Tuite's writing ticks may prove frustrating; there were too many uses of words like "instantiate" and "interimplicate" for my taste. Occasionally, the argument is also difficult to discern in her dazzling rhetoric.  Ultimately, however, the book offers up fascinating (if sometimes off-the-wall) interpretations of Austen. Tuite makes polemical statements on the subjects of sexual politics, genre, class, and nation that are sure to spark further and future debates on the character of Austen's relationship to Romanticism and/or the Romantic era.