Jill Heydt-Stevenson. Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. New York and Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005. ISBN: 1403964106. Price: US$75.[Record]

  • Tim Fulford

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  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

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: 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 …