BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

Whose Whip Is It Anyway?

Disciplining Love: Austen and the Modern Man
By Michael Kramp.
Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007.
xvi + 202 pages.
Hardcover. $37.95.

Reviewed by Nora Nachumi.

What does it mean to love somebody? According to Michael Kramp, a better question to pose when reading Jane Austen’s novels is: what does it mean to not love another? In Disciplining Love: Austen and the Modern Man, Kramp argues that most of Austen’s male protagonists regulate their desires to help “justify and maintain hegemonic structures that support modern patriarchy.” Kramp’s thesis probably will annoy those who appreciate the novels as tales of romance. It will, however, reassure those who have always felt slightly uneasy about the whiff of incest that hangs over the union of Fanny and Edmund or the specter of pedophilia that accompanies Knightley’s joking confession that he fell in love with Emma when she was thirteen years old.

Kramp draws on the work of several theorists, including Gilles Deleuz and Félix Guattari, who provide him with a definition of love. According to Kramp, “love destroys the singularity and security of the individual and compels each lover to embrace the diversity and complexity in both the self and the other.” Such love, however, undermines man’s ability to “maintain authority in the domestic realm” and thus to “act politically, as he could not be a social man without the sexual subjectivity generated by his hegemonic maintenance of the home.” To be an effective member of his civic community, and of his nation, the modern man thus had to regulate his desires. Enter The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault, to which Kramp’s thesis is profoundly indebted. Quoting Foucault, Kramp asserts that, “at the close of the eighteenth century, sex and its regulation became ‘a concern of the state ... sex became a matter that required the social body as a whole, and virtually all of its individuals to place themselves under surveillance.’” Kramp applies this statement to Austen’s novels. They do not, he asserts, advocate a specific model of maleness; instead, they “expose a social anxiety about masculinity and a social response to this anxiety.” Nevertheless, the result is that they reflect the prevailing desire that “marriage be cleansed of the messiness of sex and desire.” Ultimately, Kramp argues, Austen’s novels “teach us how heterosexual men can solidify their involvement in the modern national community by dismissing the role of the lover in favor of a disciplined social/sexual subjectivity.”

Overall, Kramp’s analysis of Austen’s work is insightful and rather convincing. Writing of Henry Tilney (a character who even die-hard romantics would have trouble regarding as an ardent lover), Kramp demonstrates that the hero’s “devotion to reason ... inhibits his ability to participate in desubjectifying love relations.” Colonel Brandon and Willoughby are characters who learn that they must “avoid amorous emotions” to ensure domestic felicity; neither can “exist as an unchecked man of sensibility.” In Pride and Prejudice, men of trade like Bingley and Mr. Gardiner represent the future.They may not be legendary romantic lovers, like Darcy, but, unlike Darcy, neither hails from a waning aristocratic tradition. As an aristocrat, Edmund Bertram’s inability to handle the “excitement of modern women” (i.e. Mary Crawford) and his marriage to Fanny signal a rejection of amorous desire in favor of a union that ensures the “biological and cultural reproduction of the English aristocracy.” Knightley is more flexible in the sense that his rejection of the destabilizing emotions of erotic love leaves him free to “fuse traditional and modern features of hegemonic masculinity.” Only Wentworth, of all Austen’s heroes, experiences the giddy sense of destabilization that accompanies Deluzian love, and he, Kramp remarks, can only serve the English nation by leaving it for a life on the high seas. His ability to embrace the “diversity of his masculinity” allows him to “live a nomadic existence with this wife, pursuing potentially revolutionary desires.” Thus Kramp throws a bone (or Persuasion) to those who read Austen for the romance.

This concession calls attention to one of the problems with the otherwise intriguing thesis of Disciplining Men: simply put, Kramp makes his argument by noting that two of Austen’s six heroes are exceptions to the rule. Another issue is that he takes Austen’s early material too seriously (as a girl was Austen really concerned with the “nation’s anxiety about its young male citizens?”) Nevertheless, Disciplining Men is important because it addresses a topic that requires addressing. Its consideration of the various discourses concerning masculinity that occurred during the 1790s is informative and it does a good job illustrating moments where those discourses surface in Austen’s novels. Disciplining Men may annoy those who read Austen’s novels for the romance, but its ability to do so suggests that Kramp is making an argument that is well worth considering.

Nora Nachumi is an associate professor in the Department of English of Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University. Her most recent article on Austen, “A Spy in the House of Austen: Literary Critics, Lay Readers and the Reception of Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park,” is included in Performing the “Everyday”: The Culture of Genre in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Alden Cavenaugh (Newark: University of Delaware Pre s s , 2007).

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page