and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen
Let’s face it, most of us who read Jane Austen are caught between wanting a tiny bit more, a kiss or hand holding, in the physical affection department, and liking the chaste relations between the main couples. The restraint of Austen’s lovers provides an attractive alternative to the blatant and often tasteless sexuality that bombards us daily from all media. After all, much of the allure of reading is the use of one’s imagination. What is hinted at allows the reader to see each book and character for herself. Additionally, for the reader of Austen, much delight originates in her acute perceptions of human folly expressed in language decorous and sharply ironic. As Mr. Bennett says to Lizzie at one point: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” Wickedly astute and deliciously funny, the above quote demonstrates Austen’s ability to dissect human folly in measured phrases, and provides the reader with a bit of guilty pleasure as s/he recognizes herself/himself in the observation. Such follies and the characters who exhibit them provide the substance of the novels. They are well plotted but it is Austen’s characterizations that bring us back again and again to the novels.
Austen wrote only a few works, six completed novels. So what does the devoted reader do once s/he has read and reread those six? Some Austenites eagerly seek out and read the para-literature of sequels and continuations. Additionally these books are read and avidly discussed via on-line lists such as JANE-L. A brief list of the para-literature includes the series of mysteries by Stephanie Barron in which Jane is the main character who solves a variety of mysteries and who is deeply attracted to a romantic figure, though of course nothing graphically sexual happens in these books. In addition the list includes works by T. H. White and Kipling, indicating the breadth of the attraction of Jane Austen’s work. Among virtually hundreds of Austen spin-offs, parodies and sequels, a book like Virtues and Vices (a pornographic retelling of Persuasion from Lady Russell’s point of view) by Grania Beckford comes as no surprise. In today’s reading world, graphic sex is taken for granted. Indeed there are whole lines of romance novels which specialize in spicier versions of the traditional romance where sex is delayed until after marriage.
The para-literature on line includes lists that rank which characters would be best, competent and bad in bed. Such lists are of course arbitrary to their creators and each of us would have our own favorite characters about whom to fantasize. And then there are the films, which allow, while not actual sex, some kissing and handholding. Because movies are visual, graphic, and less cerebral than novels, we accept the physicality of the films, indeed, secretly relishing it. All this thinking about Austen and sex and the physical relationships in her novels is by way of introducing yet another bit of para-literature, this work purporting to expose the lost sex scenes of Jane Austen.
The book borrows the convention of a found manuscript in which the author purports to have discovered lost scenes. In this case the papers were found in a book secreted in a wall in a country house in Hertfordshire while Eckstut was visiting friends there. The persona of the book is presented as a bumbling, amateur Austen scholar, a collector of "authentic Austenian costumes" [p. viii]. Family finances forced her into "finding work as a literary agent" [p. viii]. So far Eckstut is playing lightly with the conventions of the romance novel heroine. The Introduction is a letter from "the most conservative of all modern Austen scholars," Elfrida Drummond, to whom Eckstut has submitted the found pages. After months of "in-depth textual examination; analyses of paper and ink used in the manuscripts; careful studies of the handwriting, dates, and other evidence that could be brought to bear," Drummond pronounces them genuine [p. 3]. The writings are then arranged in the order of the books’ publications.
In the Pride and Prejudice section, Eckstut creates the correspondence between Jane and Thomas Egerton complaining about the changes he demands. She requires him to remove her name from the title page and assign Pride and Prejudice to "A lady" [p. 8]. We learn in the letter to Cassandra that the title has been changed too, from Pride and Promiscuity to Pride and Prejudice. Collected in this section are three scenes. One involves Jane’s stay at Netherfield where Bingley’s sisters test her "maidenliness." The second concerns Elizabeth and Darcy, but the most successful one, because it seems to be the one most in touch with the nature of the characters in the novel, involves Charlotte and Mr. Collins. This scene, which posits Charlotte as a willing dominatrix (abetted and encouraged by Lady Catherine herself) and Mr. Collins as a very happy recipient of whipping and humiliation, works well because readers already know him as a groveling toady. And given Charlotte’s cold understanding of the necessity of marriage, we can easily imagine her enjoying power in whatever form it might come to her. What makes the scene especially delicious is that Lady Catherine sends Charlotte one of her cast off dresses—so condescending—and an old riding crop. Charlotte slips on the dress and immediately takes on Lady Catherine’s imperious character. Mr. Collins grovels and she metes out punishment, and the manuscript asserts: "The pleasure that each reaped in the giving and receiving of punishment cannot be underestimated" [p. 40].
Eckstut goes on to imagine a scene in Sense and Sensibility where Elinor confesses to Marianne that she has had sex with both Edward Ferrars and his horse. In the Mansfield Park section the scene of selecting a play is as slow and heavy as the novel, which shows Eckstut’s sensitivity to the novels themselves. The other selection in this section involves incest between the Crawford siblings, again hinting at things that the novel itself would not bear. In the Emma section, we are shown Emma masturbating and Frank Churchill attempting to seduce Knightly. Northanger Abbey’s scene involves a mysterious wardrobe with a selection of interesting toys, and Persuasion’s is in actuality a prequel scene in a rowboat that purports to be the real reason Ann and Wentworth were separated.
The scenes are well done but not entirely successful because they seem to violate the characters as we know them. Eckstut is skillful at the language of soft-core pornography, but less successful at making the scenes resonate with what we know of the characters. Fantasizing about what kind of sexual encounters the characters might have had does not make the scenes convincing. They remain an interesting exercise in language, though even there they fail from time to time, as when Mrs. Palmer informs her husband she "saved a bundle" [p. 60] by using tallow instead of beeswax candles. The modern turn of phrase screams at the reader, disrupting both the scene and any sense of linguistic verisimilitude that might have added to the scene.
Do we need these purported lost scenes? Do they add to our understanding of the larger body of work? Is the sex important? Or is this just a publishing ploy, cleverly undertaken to ride the current wave of Austen popularity?
there is little in Austen that the modern reader would recognize
as a sex scene, there is enough emotional tension between the men
and women characters to indicate that they understood about sex,
even if Austen did not give us the details. Indeed, the contemporary
readers of Austen enjoy her witty dissections of her society and
human foibles precisely because they do not assault us with violence
and blatant sexuality. The violence of Willoughby’s treatment
of Marianne Dashwood, its callous disregard of her nature, suggests
the type of emotional violence that Reality TV with its faked emotions
cannot hope to deliver. Such shows or formulaic romance novels consumed
by the thousands offer only emotional titillation, but nothing satisfying,
nothing of the depth of understanding of human nature that we expect
from great literature. Formulaic plots and graphic, if also formulaic,
sex scenes are easy outs for writers. What is difficult and lasting
is subtlety with true insight, gifts Austen had in abundance and
which keep us returning to her books for the satisfactions of language
and perception found there.