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Jill Heydt-Stevenson, Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, $69.95, 288 pages, ISBN 1403964106)


Peter Knox-Shaw, Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, £45.00, 288 pages, ISBN 0521843464)—Chloé Beccaria, Université de Provence



Austenian criticism has been taking a new turn. Since Marilyn Butler proclaimed Jane Austen as anti-Jacobin in her now famous study Jane Austen and the War of Ideas [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975], the vision of the novelist’s works has evolved. While Mary Poovey in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen [Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984] saw her as a “proper lady” who tried to reconcile women’s desire with conventions, Claudia Johnson declared her a proto-feminist in Jane Austen. Women, Politics and the Novel [Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988]. There are still commentators to find evidence of Jane Austen’s conservatism, yet today’s trend in Austenian criticism is to emphasize her progressivism. Such is Jill Heydt-Stevenson and Peter Knox-Shaw’s avowed aim in their books, respectively Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History and Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. Although the topics of their works are widely different, both authors attempt to demonstrate that Jane Austen is anything but conservative. Peter Knox-Shaw focuses on Jane Austen’s cultural background, showing how she belongs to the Enlightenment, thus clearly opposing Marilyn Butler’s analysis. On the other hand, Jill Heydt-Stenvenson scans the text of Austen’s novels in search of instances of bawdy humour and references to sexuality. Both authors use similar methods, first presenting what is at stake in their study and defining the main concepts. Then they consider Jane Austen’s novels one after the other, emphasizing a different theme for each of the six completed novels. The authors mainly follow the usual and acknowledged chronological order, separating the Steventon novels (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) from the Chawton novels (Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion). Peter Knox-Shaw also evokes Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel. Each of the two studies offers a useful index and an extensive bibliography, which is the sign of their authors’ intimate knowledge of Austenian criticism and of the novelist’s cultural background. Jill Heydt-Stevenson and Peter Knox-Shaw greatly contribute to a new reading of the novels highlighting the lost meanings which were obvious for Jane Austen’s contemporaries. In other words they go back to the past to shed a new light on today’s reading of her works. This could sound paradoxical but is highly effective.


In Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History, Jill Heydt-Stevenson searches the text of Jane Austen’s novels for any reference to the body and in particular to what she defines as bawdy, thus using a very effective play on words. Anticipating criticism, in her introduction Heydt-Stevenson wonders if Jane Austen really “meant that” (“did Jane Austen really mean that?” is the title of her introduction), implying that such a “proper lady” as Jane Austen was considered to be could hardly imply any ribald pun in her very conventional though witty books. The purpose of Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions is to give evidence of Jane Austen’s handling of eroticism, showing that she did mean that. Yet Jill Heydt-Stevenson does not emphasize this aspect of the novels simply to be provocative, she also tries to analyze in what sense these ribald allusions are, for Austen, a way to state her opinion about the society she lives in:


Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History shows how Austen humour, her exploration of the body’s expression of social constructions, and her presentation of women’s histories through the everyday objects they handle all encourage a reassessment of cultural expectations, Romantic-era assumptions, and the history of the novel as it provides coordinates for a journey into territory largely unexplored. [27]


Jill Heydt-Stevenson succeeds in building up an unconventional reading of Jane Austen’s six novels, paying attention to what appeared as minor details until now, highlighting one specific topic for each novel.


In her first chapter, the critic focuses on jewels and miniatures in Sense and Sensibility, showing how they play a complex role, both asserting and blurring the identity of the person who wears them. When Edward Ferrars appears at Barton Cottage with a ring containing hair, he both offers information to the world, as people will see that he is related one way or another to a lady, but he also withholds information about this lady as surmises are made concerning her identity. He also denies information about himself as he wears Lucy Steele’s ring but loves another. Jewels are thus used to diminish what Heydt-Stevenson calls “a stable sense of identity” [30]. They are also meant to support an ideological point, as the emphasis laid on these objects, which depict a habit of the time, also conveys the idea that love and matrimony are linked to consumerism. Jane Austen in this novel writes about what is clandestine, clandestine keepsakes but also clandestine words and humour. Indeed Jill Heydt-Stevenson draws the reader’s attention to a series of double entendre. For instance, she suggests a new interpretation of the meeting between Marianne and Willoughby, which is generally described as romantic. Giving precise references to various dictionaries that were published at the time, she shows that a certain number of terms (such as “tumbling,” “spraining one’s ancle” [sic], or “rider”) had licentious meanings. She therefore suggests that one would have known from the start, in Austen’s times, that Willoughby was not to be relied on.


Jill Heydt-Stevenson draws our attention to movement in Pride and Prejudice, concluding that as the novel is characterized by its incessant motion, it cannot depict, as some critics argue, an idyllic society at the height of perfection. The role of Lydia Bennet, Elizabeth’s younger sister, is emphasized as her character is defined by the energy she releases. She is seen as a centripetal force introducing disorder into the system. What Jill Heydt-Stenvenson suggests is that instead of appearing as a counter example, Lydia is seen as the victim of a society which imposes marriage as the only outcome possible for a woman. She is not the opposite of such characters as Elizabeth or Charlotte Lucas, but a young woman who finds a different way to solve the same problem.


Another theme that is dealt with here is cross-dressing. Jill Heydt-Stevenson mentions one instance of a man dressed up as a woman in Pride and Prejudice and shows that it is representative of Jane Austen’s game on what would now be called borderline experiences. Heydt-Stevenson pinpoints a symbolical example of cross-dressing in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney, who has just met Catherine, acts as a lady should act. The critic means to show that Jane Austen’s characters and novels are not what they appear to be: Henry is not the conventional hero that some critics say he is, neither is Mansfield Park a novel only about ordination and piety. Mansfield Park is often considered to be the most serious and also the most unamusing of Jane Austen’s novels. Jill Heydt-Stevenson aims at showing that this is only partly true, searching the text for all instances of bawdy humour. She analyzes the choice of name (Fanny Price) in this new light and reveals jokes about sodomy. Such sexual innuendoes are also to be found in Emma in the use of phrases such as “getting one’s hair cut” implying sexual intercourse, referring to Frank Churchill’s attitude when he goes to London. The critic also makes the most of the reference to the verse “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid,” analyzing its double meaning but also suggesting that the influence of this popular poem pervades the whole novel.


Jill Heydt-Stevenson concludes her brilliant study with Persuasion from which she took the phrase “unbecoming conjunctions” which she defines as follows: “when two ideas or images or people, set side by side, reveal unforeseen similarities” [25]. According to Heydt-Stevenson, such configurations characterize Austen’s last completed novel in the form of unbecoming pairs. She reveals that drawing parallels between the thin Anne Elliot and the bulky Mrs. Musgrove, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Clay, or more obviously between Captain Wentworth and Mr. Elliot is fruitful, not only to highlight the discrepancies between the characters but also to find common points between them.


One may be doubtful when reading the introduction and learning about her contention that Jane Austen jokes about sodomy or prostitution, however Jill Heydt-Stevenson is convincing and absorbing as she unveils cryptic allusions but also shows that they are part of a specific vision of the world depicted in Jane Austen’s entire works.


Peter Knox-Shaw’s starting point is this:


With an irony she herself would have enjoyed, the old and long-standing icon of a writer untouched by events has been broken up only to make way for the portrait of a misty-eyed reactionary. Over the last decades the idea that Austen was bent on reviling the French Revolution and all its works has stuck, and since the position has never been systematically challenged, even her fervent defenders have been saddled with the sense that she is a figure out of key with her time, while for others she appears as the arch party-pooper, darting withering looks at each fresh trend and cult. [3]


The critic’s aim is clearly stated: he will challenge what he considers to be a misconception. To Peter Knox-Shaw, not only was Jane Austen steeped in the ideological debates of her time, but she also took sides. Far from being a conservative she supported the ideas developed during the period of the Enlightenment. In a long introduction, the critic sums up the philosophical ideas that were at stake at the time and the various influences that Jane Austen could have undergone. He emphasizes the paramount role played by her numerous brothers in building up her identity, as much as that of the many books he argues she must have read. In Pride and Prejudice, he notes echoes to the theorists of the picturesque, showing that they were wrongly considered to be reactionary and that some of their ideas could even be related to Mary Wollstonecraft’s plea in favour of women. From Richard Payne Knight Jane Austen took the idea that courtship is ridden with tension, conveyed in the novel through the juxtaposition of clashing attitudes, and Peter Knox-Shaw shows that Pride and Prejudice does not end in perfect harmony when Elizabeth and Darcy marry, as Marilyn Butler argues, but that tension lasts even after their wedding.


The presence of implicit allusions to the picturesque in Pride and Prejudice shows that Jane Austen was influenced by the legacy of eighteenth-century ideas, which, as Peter Knox-Shaw tries to demonstrate, is obvious in the three Steventon novels. According to Knox-Shaw, one can perceive the influence of liberal historians in Northanger Abbey, in which Jane Austen implies that history is “the meeting-point of opposing influences” [128]. He also claims that Jane Austen had read all the great philosophers of the Enlightenment and if she has long been considered to be an anti-Jacobin, it is because her works have been opposed to those by Godwin. Unlike previous critics, Peter Knox-Shaw endeavours to draw parallels between the two authors in order to show that they indeed had common points, thus stating Jane Austen’s progressivism.


The second part of Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (“Engaging with the new age”) deals with the Chawton novels and shows that if Jane Austen was influenced by the eighteenth-century legacy, she also took part in the ideological debate of her time. Peter Knox-Shaw focuses on such themes as religion and slavery and on how Mansfield Park was misread due to a misinterpretation of Jane Austen’s religious beliefs. He opposes the notion that she became an evangelical at the end of her life and states: “far from being a didactic work, offering pictures of perfection, Mansfield Park is merciless in exposing the weaknesses of its hero and heroine” [173]. The critic argues that, in the last three novels (Emma, Persuasion and Sanditon) Jane Austen works on old genres, giving them new momentum as she asserts progressive ideas, affirming for instance the strength of women while warning us that rank has inherently limiting effects.


Peter Knox-Shaw’s demonstration is very convincing. He pedagogically describes the general philosophical background to Jane Austen’s work and above all, he gives historical justification to her progressivism while other critics only assert it. Jane Austen and the Enlightenment is very well informed, as is Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History, and if they both contribute to Austenian criticism, they also clearly state what we already knew but like being reiterated: Jane Austen was not just an old maid.

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