George Justice, Editor

Toothpick Cases and the “Unheterosexual”

Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style

By D. A. Miller.
Princeton University Press, 2003. 108 pages.
Cloth. $19.95.

Reviewed by Devoney Looser.

Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style is one of those rare books that can be judged by its cover—or at least by its dust jacket. The front boasts an elegant, understated photo of a gold and enamel toothpick case, circa 1780, surrounded in equally large type by the names of Austen (on top) and Miller (underneath). The back flap sports the author’s bust in black silhouette. Both images come into focus in Miller’s brief but heady foray into the branch of study that might be called “queer Austen.”

By dubbing this work “queer Austen,” I do not mean to give readers the idea that Miller is joining the “Was Jane Austen Gay?” fray inaugurated by the London Review of Books’ editors some years ago. Miller is interested in “queering” Austen—that is, in showing her to be outside the mainstream—in both a more expansive and a specifically sexualized sense. In particular, Miller puts interesting question marks around how we read Austen’s narration and several of her characters.

The quotation on the book’s back cover makes sense of his thesis:

Austen’s subject is a marriage culture that is total, excepting no one from its dominion, and needing to be propagated always and everywhere as the condition of its being produced at all. Her project is to establish, in this boundless imperium, a kind of extra-territoriality. I call such extra-territoriality, or more precisely, the daring presumption of it: her style. –D. A. Miller

It is in identifying this “extra-territoriality” that the book lends itself to what might be called “queer studies.” (Miller does not designate his own work with this label.) His reading of Austen’s works deals with what is outside or marginal textually and sexually. In his intricate and elegant readings, he uses the language of poststructuralism and deconstruction, which may daunt some readers. Nevertheless, Miller’s prose is unusually clear and rich. If you grimace at the use of a word like “dialectical,” then this book, with the slow, careful interpretations it produces and the painstaking reading it requires, may not be for you. But even readers skeptical of his approach who are looking for style and substance will find much to reward their effort in this clever, provocative, and often brilliant book.

Like by the toothpick case that adorns its cover, the book focuses on small (very small) details in order to draw grand conclusions. Some of these conclusions are more persuasive than others. I am half persuaded by the section on Sense and Sensibility’s Robert Ferrars, largely the subject of “Secret Love,” the first of the book’s three chapters. (It is Robert’s endless shopping for a toothpick case, overseen by observant Elinor Dashwood, that has prompted the book’s cover art.) Miller’s argument is that Austen ridicules Ferrars, who “might almost be a gay man,” because of his ostentatious style and his obviously ignoring Elinor, while she waits and waits for him to complete his transaction in the shop. Miller dubs Robert not gay but “unheterosexual.” Later, Miller connects Robert’s authority and self-assuredness, and his interest in light, bright, and sparkling jewels, with the Absolute Style of the novel’s narrator, referred to throughout as Austen Style. It is a leap but a convincing one. At times, however, I found myself unwilling to follow Miller’s lead, especially in his associative readings. For instance, he likens the toothpick to Robert’s “other little prick” in making sense of his aggressively overlooking Elinor.

The second chapter, “No One is Alone,” considers Austen’s narration and the position of the “old maid” through Roland Barthes’ theories of the narrative neuter. Miller identifies the “fictive old maid and the real old maid who has written them,” demonstrating that Austen’s narration goes to great lengths to appear godlike and without gender, rather than to point up the “social hell” of her status as old maid. Miller perhaps overstates the way in which Austen personally experienced the “social hell” of the old maid in her own life, as there is plenty of evidence (which he does not cite) of her finding some pleasure in the role. Austen critic Deborah Kaplan, for one, argues that spinsterhood may have become Austen’s deliberate, positive choice. She may well have been growing into a happy and single middle age, rather than a stereotypically embittered, melancholy, and self-negating spinsterhood, as Miller implies. But no matter. Miller’s musings on Austen, gender, sexuality, and narration are as original as he would have us understand her to be and will provide a great deal for future readers and critics to argue over.

The third chapter, “Broken Art,” takes on Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon. Again, miniscule matters are writ large in making sense of Austen Style (which Miller identifies with “absolute impersonality”). In his reading of Emma, it is the repetition of the line “Emma could not forgive her” and a riff on the name Emma in Austen’s oeuvre. In Persuasion, he considers Anne and Mrs. Smith as doubles and the “false step” of Austen Style in writing of old maids. In Sanditon, he furthers that argument, with interesting bits on words that begin with “H” and cognates of “ill” (juxtaposed to the ill Jane Austen), which he describes as faults of style and “Anti-Style” by turns. The book ends, not with an afterword, but with an “afterimage,” Robert Beck’s “Untitled” (2000), in which a woman barely emerges from the drawing’s low horizon, with the word “person” centered in small type across the top of the piece.

Those readers tired of studies of Austen that concentrate on social history—I don’t count myself among them—will find Miller’s book a breath of fresh air. His work provides “an implicit polemic with a historicist tradition.” Instead, he counts himself among those interested in demonstrating “the originality of her literary achievement as such.” I find a great deal to admire in Miller’s achievement but believe it would have been a greater one had he grappled more fully with the nuances of the historical realities of the “old maid.” So, too, he might have considered those male and female predecessors and contemporaries of Austen’s whose recovery continues to help us to place her achievements more accurately within literary history. But this would have produced a much different book—one more like a sedan chair than a toothpick case. And it is on the toothpick case (and “the bit of ivory that is the toothpick”) and its like that he would have us focus.

Devoney Looser is an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History and editor of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism as well as a Life Member of JASNA.

JASNA News v.20, no. 2, Summer 2004, p. 16

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