Dear friends and readers,
This blog derives its suggestion that Jane Austen was possibly a lesbian spinster from a section on spinsterhood in Emma Donoghue’s book on lesbianism in women, Passions Between Women and my reading of Jane Austen’s letters up to Letter 39 — when there occurs the 4 year hiatus and probably a cache of missing letters. I know Terry Castle’s theory that Jane and Cassandra might have been incestuous lovers was stamped out with intense fury, ooking at Austen’s life from Donoghue’s perspective, from 1801 Jane fits into a discernible pattern outlines as typically and recognizably (at the time) a lesbian spinster life and attitudes of mind.
I must first give a larger outline of Donoghue’s book into which her section on spinsterhood in the 18th century fits. Donoghue proposes to write a book about lesbian women and women who chose not to marry as well as bisexual women. She says the criteria uses for homosexual men is different that what one must use for women and her first chapter is a superb outline of why. Basically what emerges is even if lesbianism has not been a savagely punished crime, it has been erased; when it is brought up it’s treated with intense hostility, scorn, not believed in. It’s very hard to find evidence, and the first clear stories emerge in the 18th century. She wants to go beyond all the stories where doubt can be injected and the moralists and normalizers and just men do this repeatedly wherever possible.
What Donoghue shows is that the earliest records of lesbianism are intertwined with myths about women’s sexual organs where the persistent idea is the lesbian woman has a distorted one such that hers are a form of phallus. I can see how the threat of “adult” as a label is making it hard for me even to discuss this. Well it’s all so sordid. The stories reek with animosity and lurid glee. Otherwise you have to go to these enormous collections of tales and stories and ferret out sly details. Read against the grain.
And until the 18th century and beyond this idea that the woman lesbian is someone with equipment in her like that of a man (a smaller phallus) re-erupts. Men cannot believe that one can have sex or want it without a phallus. What these are are stories of female hermaphrodites.
The 18th century brings us the first relatively open frank depictions of sex. Clarissa is a landmark in this, and so too we have the first depictions of lesbianism. These are most often stories of cross-dressing women and begin in chapbooks and plays of the later 17th century. What permits this is really the rise of secularism The influence of religion on all this is usually omitted lest someone get offended, but it is central. No surprise that most of these are now larded with moral warning lessons and scorn and dislike, but nonetheless for the first time telling of female desires for other women and women finding sexual pleasure with other women. Two early texts Donoghue discusses are: by Henry Fielding, who as magistrate came across much transgression. A long (in effect) novella on Mary Hamilton called The Female Husband and a novella by John Cleland on another women who passed as a man and married other women, The True History of Catherine Vizzani.
When Donoghue moves to a long section on breeches’ parts in plays, she reveals telling patterns which make it hard for the reader to see what women are enjoying: what is written down repeatedly in response to breeches’ parts are how men enjoy them, men are titillated, without any reference to what women may have felt while they watched. Cross-dressing roles are described as tantalizing men, as men being roused by lesbianism. Again no reference to women. When masquerades are described, we learn of the dangers of heterosexual abduction they pose to women, not about how women characteristically went in male outfits.
The military biographies (of women soldiers) are hampered by this male outlook: the woman is usually married, and the challenge is for her to pass as a male, imitate male heterosexual behavior, and satires on duels ensue. This usually omits the obvious sexuality of the role – usually only treated in pornographic or erotic books. She’s assertive but we miss what went on sexually.
Romantic friendships among women necessarily take us to the woman’s point of view at long last, but here one is confronted by a demand that we have diary entries explicitly saying the women had sex or the equivalent of DNA evidence. I like how she begins with Katherine Philips — I wrote my first published paper on the “matchless Orinda” and makes an important distinction that for women sexual experience does not have to include penetration genital sex. That’s crucial in discussing how women’s books are permeated with sex say in the 18th century too.
Class gets in the way. Upper and middle class women handle themselves far more discreetly and performatively but if sincerity, tenderness, depth of feeling, generosity, commitment are what’s emphasized, that does not mean the physical self is forgotten.
But Donoghue moves beyond these and she demonstrates that poetry and prose by women usually seen simply as writings of sentimental/sympathetic female friendship as instead rooted in a physical relationship, is that the writing suddenly comes alive in ways not seen before If we do not demand sex be “penetrative intercourse” only with nothing approaching that counting, but look at so to speak all the gestures of foreplay, physical playfulness and whimsy, the signs of caresses, the poetry becomes not (as it usually seems) somehow coy, embarrassing, but rather simply openly playful.
She goes over poems by Anne Killigrew, Elizabeth Singer Rowe (who she reminds us was very popular with women readers) and (I admit to my surprise) Anne Kingsmill Finch. I’ve read Finch’s “the white mouses petition to Lamira the Right Honble the Lady Ann Tufton now Countess of Salisbury (to whom the deeply felt often reprinted “A Noctural Reverie” is dedicated) and never considered it as a lesbian poem. But yes it’s about a mouse that has the run of her beloved’s body.
I sue to war Lamira’s fetters
And live the envy of my betters
When I receive her soft caresse
And creeping near her lovely tresses
Their glossy brown from my reflection
Shall gain more lustre and prefection
And to her bosom if admitted
My color there will be so fitted
That no distinction cou’d discover
My Station to a jealous Lover.
The poem when visualized could be matter for one of the French erotic encounters between women and little animals, except then the mouse scampers merrily about, and watches out for male suitors. And it is at this point the book veers towards describing a pattern of behavior and outlook like that I have found in Austen’s letters — and life: 18th century spinsterhood, a way of life for which no recognition as a valid choice was given and hence no name.
Donoghue takes us through a group of treatises published in the later 17th and early 18th century and typical women’s poems to show sharp critiques — “blistering attacks” Donoghue calls them — of marriage: Mary Astell to Mary Chudleigh. The women dramatists of the 1690s with their fierce tragedies have heroines who marry but keep another women with them – rather like Holtby and Britain had one husband between them (belong to one of them, but also a front).
These sorts of poems gradually died out; it became unacceptable to write this way. At the same time the relentless interpretation of women who didn’t marry as not having done so
because no one asked them was stepped up. Any women saying she didn’t marry because she didn’t want to was scoffed at. Critiques were sour grapes.
But private letters continue and there we find the world and attitudes of an Austen. A woman who lives among women, who has special tight relationships with them (beyond Cassandra, especially Martha Lloyd). These sorts of letters arise in great numbers as works of art in the later 17th century when it seems (as George Eliot suggested) the first modern feminists are to be found. And they are saved, printed, and now exist in modern editions. Among these, we find Catherine Trotter’s letters which show intense physical and emotional passion for her friend such that it feels uncomfortable because she is not allowed to be franker about what she’s after or wants. Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill come to mind too. A little later it’s really striking the parallels between attitudes professed by Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot and Jane Austen. Epistolary novels mirroring such relationships appear (Lennox’s Euphemia is a 1790s example). Novels also now have ladies who run do-good institutions where they find husbands for other women, not themselves (Millenium Hall). The Bath group of women emerges — and that dread word, bluestocking begins to spread for the first time.
And what do we find in Austen: not just the same mockery of marriage and married people, but a rather daring send-up and compassion for continually pregnant women combined with intense affection for a specific woman, Martha Lloyd, and those times she spends with her and a narrow circle of women friends happiness. I take it the immense we see her experience over leaving her home and moving to Bath comes from leaving the privacy of her home, of her space, where unobserved and unpressured she could write on (what she wanted to do most) and remain among these women friends. Forced out, she would be driven, pressured to be constructed as someone looking for a man, which we see she does not do from around the later 1790s to the first arrival in Bath (when the letters cease for 4 years). It is striking how when she goes to dances starting in the later 1790s, she does not go performatively. She is not on the hunt; she is there looking askance at those who are. We hear nothing in the letters of this or that eligible male seriously; instead we hear parodic accounts applied to herself. I see this as a sort of instinctive cover-up and mockery.
I take the silent four years to include some kind of emotional crack-up, which like other families in this era I’ve come across (e.g., earlier, Anne Finch’s) was hidden. When she emerges from silence, it’s not a coincidence that her father has died. A new pattern of life must be found, one far away from Bath eventually, where she can return to living not so much in a fishbowl and by the time of Chawton spend all her hours writing. Not that she did not write in the interim: this is the time of The Watsons, Lady Susan, the attempt to publish Northanger Abbey as Susan, and revisions of the three novels from Steventon years, and new brief drafts and fragments towards Mansfield Park (begun I think in the later 1790s after Jane witnessed the painful flirtation of Eliza with Henry and James) and Emma (begun I agree with others in 1801-2).
Women openly not wanting to marry were attacked with fierce enmity; indeed we don’t hear of it except in fiction and then they are stigmatized (see above). A odd brilliant version of the type is Charlotte Lucas — married because she had to not at all because she wanted to. What did it matter who was in her bed or her partner as she wanted none of them anyway. And I think about D. W. Harding’s theory that Austen’s fiction arose out of her need to find some place desperately to express herself however muted and framed through ironies and conventional plot-designs.
Donoghue’s book would regard Castle’s later “clarification” as a retreat — Castle has retreated to say she was misunderstood, never meant that Jane and Cassandra had an overt sexual relationship or Austen with anyone else. But she did, that’s why she made a big deal about them sharing a bed, and that’s where she came to grief. She had not read the letters carefully enough. In them is evidence Jane and Cassandra had separate beds.. The point is they were experiencing lesbian spinsterhood (let’s call it): throughout her book Donoghue’s very purpose is to put the sex back. To day that the denial of sexual experience is to deny the woman their full reality.
She writes it’s “crucial” to “distinguish between the dominant ideology’s explanation of romantic friendship that it was sexless, morally elevating and no threat to male power” and “the reality of such bonds between women.” The better poems Donoghue quotes (by Behn, by Finch) do show strong sexual experience; the plays do, and (I’ve read these) letters of Catherine Trotter. Donoghue says the definition of sexual experience which demands genital penetration is a narrow male one, and once we allow for a full range of sexual fulfillments, we have entered the realm of women’s sexuality (which for heterosexuals includes pregnancy, breast-feeding.
I grant that in Austen’s case the one place I find intense passion is for Martha Lloyd and further grant there seems nothing sexual there, but remember that Cassandra destroyed the majority of the letters. I’d say her motives are both: she does not like the men on offer and did not want to marry, preferred not to, especially wanted no burdens of large numbers of children. Given the small number of people as intelligent as herself that she could meet, she met few people she could be attracted to. When young it was Tom Lefroy; later she bonded closely with Martha Lloyd who came to live with Jane, Cassandra and their mother (see her letter to Martha Lloyd).
Donoghue goes further: she suggests that the pattern was recognized and either deliberately ignored, or overtly denied (she’s a sour old maid, she didn’t marry because she couldn’t “catch” a husband, had no dowry, is a “bluestocking” — soon to be treated with harsh derision). The word “lesbian” was not used until much later — 1890s — as homosexual did not emerge until then. You find the word “tribade” in the later 17th century; sapphist was sort of understood. The slang of the day was “tom” – can you imagine Elizabeth Carter called a “tom”? the sexual terms were demeaning, undermining — like “Molly for men.
For the record, I’m not sure what was her relationship with Cassandra. That Cassandra was inferior to Austen intellectually (hers was an ordinary kind of mind, a more than a little rigid and obtuse) does not matter so much when it comes to a sexual physical relationship. Miss Austen Regrets is daring at the close of the movie when it suggests that Cassandra has not wanted Jane to marry at all, and kept her to herself, and we see Imogen Poots as Fanny watch Gretta Scacchi as Cassandra give Olivia Wiliams as Jane a very sensual rub-down (through a door). The film-makers are hinting there was physical release between the two. In 1801 we see in the letters a drawing together, with some of the old strains conflicts beginning to fade as Cassandra begins to see how much they will be fringe people and realizes to rigidly uphold the establishment gives her no advantage, works in fact to marginalize her. The scolding has ceased.
Consider how important are the sisters-in law in P&P, S&S (blood sisters), Mrs Weston and Emma, Persuasion and even NA (Eleanor Tilney a central relationship).
What we lack is what happened between them and to Austen, what her perception of experience and actual experiences were for four years. I now think perhaps there was a crack up for a while.
It’s hard to get a book or essay published about this — nowadays the attack (fierce) on Castle is remembered. But more: the general run of books now makes Austen into someone who loved and never married (boo hoo – that’s Spence’s concoction which is pro-family view at the same time) or makes her into a pollyanna (biographies of her for young people that win awards stress how she loved children — it’s ludicrous, she didn’t hate them, but she didn’t want any of her own). So the views I’m suggesting either do not appear or are expressed discreetly or really not at all. What happened to my book contract for JA and Bath is the publisher did not like the direction I was going in even then – and it was much milder than what I’d say today.