Of vices and rears; or why I've stopped reading Jane Austen
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- "OF VICES AND REARS or Why I've Stopped Reading Jane Austen" by Jeremiah Bartram
- May 27 2019
- Word count
- 2619 words
This is an interesting piece of analysis. I'm not a Jane Austen scholar, but I do have a few comments.
Perhaps the reasoning behind the author's take is more evident with additional context, but I really didn't read it this way. The remark was snarky, sure, and subversive. I don't think it's intentionally dismissive of the suffering of homosexuals in Victorian England, and certainly not supportive of that. Going into detail about the horrors of the execution process in what was clearly only supposed to be a one-line comment by Mary would be a little hamfisted, no? Would that add to the joke at all?
The author even says later on, "She is lifting the veil, just a little, on the social hypocrisy of the period. In this, and in her financial independence, she is a liberated woman." That's the purpose; it calls out hypocrisy, implying what it will. If you were to read this joke and realize how hypocritical the ruling class is being, then if anything it would suggest that the way they are treating gays without the power of an officership is unnecessary, even unjust.
Perhaps this would have been clearer if Austen had included references to the cruelty endured by such groups at the time, which I think is the author of this article's real point, but is that reason enough to "stop reading Jane Austen"? No...? She's still providing a subversive commentary here. Criticism of the upper class is, I think, a common theme in her novels. This is just another part of that.
I probably shouldn't even be commenting here since I haven't read Mansfield Park, but I recently got around to Persuasion, and I felt that it was quite clear in its discontent with the traditional power structure in a marriage. I would expect that Austen is never really defending gender roles and the like here, more working in the confines of what was acceptable in Victorian times (tradition) in order to suggest social change. Is she going to state boldly that sodomy should be legalized, accompanied naturally by vivid descriptions of the practice from the courtroom? No, probably not, lest her book be banned or ignored. But she structures her criticism in such a way that the reader would be able to reach that conclusion on their own.
Per "Persuasion: The ‘Unfeudal Tone of the Present Day'," by Claudia L. Johnson, the novel's apparent conservatism in this regard surely only went to facilitate its reception "during a time when all social criticism, particularly that which aimed at the institution of the family in general and the place of women in particular, came to be associated with the radical cause. [...] Austen defended and enlarged a progressive middle ground that had been eaten away by the polarizing polemics born of the 1790s." Revolutions were hot at the time, so openly subversive literature was very skeptically looked upon in England. This approach allowed for progressive ideas to continue to spread in some way, which is better than not spreading at all.
This was another comment that I was confused about. I can only speak to Persuasion, again, but in the context of that novel, the author's statement here is definitely not the full picture. Anne certainly fawns over Wentworth, but it's also made quite clear that he's not necessarily the forward-thinking man he's "supposed" to be, as a rising star in the Navy (i.e. new money, an affront to the Elliots' long-held perception of class). Johnson notes that Wentworth is "ideologically opposed to the way of life Sir Walter represents" but "his steadfastness to the point of inflexibility [about gender roles] actually aligns him with Sir Walter." But the thing here is that his hypocritical conservatism isn't defended in the novel, it's poked at. Anne comments on multiple occasions that Admiral and Lady Croft enjoy a wonderfully harmonious relationship, even traveling together on the Admiral's ship. At one point, Wentworth replies with, "I might not like them the better for that perhaps. Such a number of women and children have no right to be comfortable on board" (1.8). This comment is challenged, though, and Wentworth becomes flustered. The takeaway is that he's far from perfect.
I know this is going to be taken as a very "centrist" perspective, but I don't have a problem with subversion in literature being subtler than I would actually like; it was the reality of the time. Austen could have been much more provocative, sure, and gone on about the suffering of gay men in Victorian prisons, but I don't think that not having done so is sufficient reason to just stop reading her work altogether. "This author doesn't represent literally every single belief I have, so I'm not going to read anything by them anymore." This mindset is incredibly common among left-leaning influencers, and I think it does a disservice to us all. Appreciate a work of literature for what it offers, especially in a historical context; nothing is ever going to be absolutely perfect to you or anyone else.
Somewhat related, i wonder if victorianism was a reaction to the proliferation of newspapers (amd therefore proliferation of exposure to vice/progressivism/suffering and excess of others) and if we are seeing a parallel reaction to internet/social media today? Also maybe the 50s early 60s mccarthyism etc. and tv?