In 1995 Warren Roberts quietly inaugurated a new era in Austen studies. His Jane Austen and the French Revolution (London: Athlone Press), full of beautifully-judged contextualized readings of the role of politics and war in Austen’s novels, precipitated many subsequent examinations of the passing allusions, quiet asides and brief references by which Austen located her stories in the culture, and the controversies, of her times. While Roberts offered an example of New Historicist scholarship to follow, Marilyn Butler more explicitly argued that Austen, far from writing self-contained romantic miniatures, engaged with the intellectual debates of the day, including the arguments of feminists (Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988)).
Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s illuminating study continues the revolution begun by Roberts and Butler. Of the two, it more closely emulates Roberts in that it is less concerned with Austen’s attitude to a war of ideas—intellectual arguments—and more occupied with the ways in which popular culture (whether the literary culture of newspaper report, magazine article and comic song or the material culture of consumer goods) appears in the novels. Like Roberts, she uncovers a host of oblique references and allusions to incidents, items and texts, each of which mobilises a group of social nuances and meanings that would have been instantly recognisable to a Regency audience but that are forgotten now.
What is new about Heydt-Stevenson’s work, and not just new but controversial enough to bring about ad feminam attacks from the Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, Brian Southam (himself, ironically enough, a historicist scholar dedicated to tracing Austen’s cultural references and to reconstituting the context in which her novels made meaning) is sex. Jill Heydt-Stevenson is the first scholar to show in detail that there is such a thing as Jane Austen’s bawdy. She illuminates Austen’s sly and knowing references to what Shakespeare called, in a risqué pun that Austen, it seems, would have relished, ‘country matters’.
To those of us less outraged than the Jane Austen Society by the notion that Austen could have put double entendres into her characters’ mouths, Heydt-Stevenson’s work is invaluable insofar as it not only explains exactly what the characters are referring to, but also illuminates the novels in the process. At best Heydt-Stevenson’s analysis brilliantly reconstitutes lost layers of meaning, enriching our understanding of how particular characters are being presented at specific moments. Perhaps the most telling example is her discussion of Mr Woodhouse’s allusion, in Emma, to David Garrick’s riddle about venereal disease, a graphic riddle that in the guise of humour broaches such subjects as the belief that a cure for syphilis was to have intercourse with a virgin, female or male. Heydt-Stevenson shows first that Emma’s and Harriet’s familiarity with the riddle tells us much about women’s private reading habits:
This vicious riddle exists both inside and outside Emma: Austen transcribes only one verse, but a contemporary audience with a better memory than Mr. Woodhouse's would have known it as well. Further, the young women have written it out entirely on their ‘second page,’ having copied it from the Elegant Extracts (79), another joke on Austen's part, given that the Extracts were a most conservative publication (the rest of its title gives the flavor: ‘Being a Copious Selection of Instructive, Moral, and Entertaining passages, from the Most Eminent Prose Writers’). Given that they are in the habit of perusing improper charades, Emma's and Harriet's possession and reading of ‘Kitty’ is not anomalous: Emma ‘could perceive’ that Elton was ‘most earnestly careful that nothing ungallant, nothing that did not breathe a compliment to the sex should pass his lips. They owed him their two or three politest puzzles’ (70, emphasis added). Emma implies here that Elton may have heard ungallant puzzles when the convivial glass was passed round, but she and Harriet, like Wollstonecraft's females ‘shut up together,’ have collected material that is less polite than what the clergyman is willing to offer. That such riddles existed and were circulated is substantiated by one publication, which tries to redeem the genre's reputation. Riddles Charades, and Conundrums, the greater part of which have never been published. With a preface on the antiquity of riddles exclaims that
Enough has certainly been said to defend this species of writing from contempt, which, notwithstanding the laugh that may be raised against it, is still cherished by the lively and the young. None can dispute that riddles are at least an innocent amusement and, when tolerably well chosen, they prove an exercise of ingenuity, and must have a tendency to teach the mind to compare and judge. It has perhaps been owing to the trash commonly disseminated under the name of enigmas, that they have fallen into disrepute. An attempt has been made in the following selection, to rescue them from the reproach of barbarism and puerility. (v-vi)
Because the riddle in Emma exists on a vulnerable border between the acceptable and the illicit, it highlights the novel's subversive content and also collapses the gulf between the sexual underworld of Austen's time and Highbury's respectable world. (162-63)
Heydt-Stevenson also demonstrates that the riddle’s terms reappear in the novel’s imagery: such things as heat, cold, Cupid and chimneys become charged with outré meanings by their association with the riddle. As a consequence, the novel acquires dark undertones to do with sexual desire and its possible consequences that deepen and make more menacing its ostensibly flirtatious presentation of romantic infatuation and its dangers.
Equally impressive is Heydt-Stevenson’s introductory meditation on what it means to discover that Austen incorporated sexual jokes and bawdy allusions in her fiction. Here Heydt-Stevenson is clear-minded and decisive: Austen, she declares, ‘is not trying to be “one of the boys” in using shocking diction; rather, she manipulates male “genderlect” for subversive feminist purposes’ (27). Austen is not aping the lingo of a flash Regency buck: many of her sexual puns, it turns out, reveal the moral crassness and ungoverned desires of the character who utters them—Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. But Heydt-Stevenson also shows that in breaching the repressive limits that conservative men imposed, if they could, on women’s discourse, Austen was by no means a-typical of female writers at this time, whether overtly sexualised like Mary Robinson or witty intellectuals like Elizabeth Inchbald. Heydt-Stevenson effectively dispels the older feminist reading of Austen as a conservative, one who, like Hannah More, was co-opted by male moralists to, in Mary Poovey’s words, ‘correct the dangerous excesses of female feeling’ (quoted 60). ‘I do not think,’ Heydt-Stevenson replies, ‘that Austen concentrates on correcting rather than “liberating this anarchic energy” (Poovey 98). First of all, the multiple instances of bawdy humour do release unruly forces; and second, as the book demonstrates, when a woman cannot read the conventional signs of male sexual advances, liberation such as that which Marianne strives for is impossible. I want to stress that Austen promulgates an open and liberal (and so, ironic) “conduct book” of female sexuality’ (60-1).
Most readers of this timely, engaging reassessment of Austen and of Romantic women’s authorship, will be persuaded by this view of the novelist. Heydt-Stevenson’s intricate tracings of Austen’s webs of allusion and reference change our view of her art and of women’s writing in the period. However loudly the Jane Austen Society wail at the destruction of the assumption that ‘Jane’ was too innocent and too proper to mention sex, there will be no going back from this. Heydt-Stevenson has, to use what we can now call an Austenesque allusion, caught her in flagrante delicto.
Tim Fulford is Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England. He is the author of several books on Romanticism, including, most recently Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830 (Oxford UP, 2006).