I know, I know…we like to think she was. We like to think ‘maiden aunt’ and ‘unacquainted with the facts of life’ and all that Victorian ‘virgin on a pedestal’ guff.
But let’s, for a moment, consider the facts of her life.
She had a brother who was in some way mentally disabled. Theories about his disabilities abound–there’s some evidence on display at Austen’s former home at Chawton to suggest that he was deaf and dumb and that she, at least, knew sign language so that she could communicate with him. Other references to him may indicate that he was also epileptic.
But whatever the full scale of his challenges, he was deemed by their parents to be unacceptable, an embarrassment and although he was occasionally allowed to visit the family, he was eventually just ‘disappeared’. And the trauma or distress this caused his siblings was dismissed and never referred to.
Austen’s sister-in-law and cousin was a French emigree, Eliza de Feuillide–a widow whose husband had been guillotined in 1794 amidst the upheaval and devastation of of the French Revolution. So that event, to Austen, though she makes no reference to it in her books, would not have been a faraway event, but a personal one. It wasn’t remote and it wasn’t rumour, but a terrible episode of which she had heard many first-hand accounts and which indelibly marked the life of one she loved.
Consider too events in her books. For there’s nothing coy here.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet nearly ruins the entire Bennet family by cohabiting with Wickham, without initially any intention of marriage. The family’s respectability and therefore the other daughters marital chances are only rescued by Darcy’s forcing Wickham to marry the ‘stupid’ Lydia. So–here we have premarital sex and cohabitation without the benefit of a trip up the aisle exposed.
Then in Sense and Sensibility, there’s Colonel Brandon’s ward–impregnated by Willoughby and then abandoned. So here Austen’s dealing with the fate of unwed mothers in her society. And it’s not an enviable fate, is it?
One of the subthemes of Emma is an examination of the adult fates of illegitimate offspring in the form of Harriet Smith.
Mansfield Park? Where shall we start? In that work we have licentiousness on show in the form of a flirting, unfaithful wife, a seducer…And Fanny Price’s own mother was cast off by her family for marrying so far beneath her.
Persuasion? Mrs. Clay ends up as the mistress of Mr. Elliot, that same Mr. Elliot who had been courting Anne Elliot and whom her family and friends had been bent on persuading her to marry. So, no illusions to be found in that work either.
Austen may not write sex or love scenes into her novels, but she clearly illustrates the results of such things within the pages of her works. She knew the facts of life. She was a country girl with all the joys of spring on show in every field and pasture every, er, spring. And at other times…
She was a clergyman’s daughter–her father would have been expected to be the moral force of his parish and it would have been impossible for her not to be aware of the moral lapses found therein. It was, after all, a very small village–there’s no such thing as privacy in such a place.
So let’s respect the pragmatism and wisdom of her observations and treat her with the adult respect and discussion she deserves, rather than imposing upon her the lavender kid glove simpering of a later generation. Yes?