Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 19-23

Austen’s Sexual Politics



Department of English, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY



Department of English, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA


Jane Austen’s politics is one of those currently fashionable subjects which is better understood in the light of critical history.  Traditionally, the subject was not of critical concern, not so much because politics was often regarded as too mundane a critical approach to high art as because in Austen’s case the topic was at once irrelevant because she was a woman writing about women’s lives.  Politics was a man’s activity.  Therefore, Austen’s fiction had no politics and simultaneously had the politics of the fathers who shaped her actual and fictional worlds.  Austen’s biological father was a conservative.  Her critically favored father was Samuel Johnson.  Ergo, her politics were conservative.

The next critical development was to place her work within the context of her own time.  But what constitutes that significant context?  Is it the French revolution?  The liberal and even radical poetry of Wordsworth and Byron?  Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, or the educational novels of Hannah More?  Who gets to decide?  Until all, or even a few, of us manage to process all of the cultural facets of Austen’s cultural context, our approaches to her work must be limited to those aspects of her world we try to reconstruct it from.  When I chose to write about the novels in relation to the poetry of Austen’s romantic contemporaries and the sexual novels of her eighteenth-century predecessors; when others chose to write about her work in relation to anti-Jacobin novels or to domestic fiction and the economics of industrialization in early nineteenth-century England; we all had a partial, and only a partial, right to do so.1  We all had partial truths to tell.

The political dimension of literary and critical works is now a critical truism.  One consequence of that is accepting that our critical claims to truth may depend upon a self-conscious, perhaps even an explicit, acknowledgement of our own political agenda.  My political agenda about Austen is clear.  From my first readings, before I knew what I was besides being against all authority and the war in Vietnam, Austen’s novels seemed unusual in offering such strong-minded and independent heroines and such desirable depictions of friendship and heterosexual love.  I still think this is why so many college age women love Jane Austen’s novels.  Twenty-five years later what I first admired about Austen’s novels has not changed, though my admiration has increased.  What has changed is my approach, as my own life and public events such as Vietnam, the competitive materialism of the Reagan years, and the intellectual and practical energy generated by the explosion of feminist criticism in the 70s and 80s provided me with a political consciousness and a critical language to try to express what I see, and feel so deeply the power of, in Austen’s work.

In that wonderful phrase from the 60s, to know, and to let others know “where we’re coming from” does not mean to write propaganda, to deny our potential to change our minds, to harden into an atomistic vision.  On the contrary, the intellectual and practical power of that self-consciousness lies in facing the limitations of our own critical authority.  It means to accept the charm as well as the necessity of collaboration.  In Austen’s language it means to accept the power of being persuadable as well as the power of being able to persuade.  Having become somewhat wary of what I see as the historically racist and sexist overtones of the word, brotherhood, I would say that collaborating means to accept that we, men and women, are a sisterhood.

Critics, as I have said, make selections.  At issue in this essay are our own definitions of politics, and whether those definitions do justice to Austen’s.  Traditionally, politics has meant the domain of men and how they use public or state power, with the domestic world of women, a world without public power, understood to be somewhere else – outside it, beneath it, subsumed by it – and certainly mirroring it.  Unlike some fiction written by women, Austen’s novels do not explicitly concern themselves with the world of men, neither fictionally in terms of Mr. Wickham’s life in the militia, Mr. Knightley’s estate management or Captain Wentworth’s shipboard tasks nor actually, in terms of the French Revolution or Burke’s parliament.  They are set in the domestic and social world, where women live and where men, I would stress, live as well.

Are we then reduced to searching for the politics of Austen’s fiction in an act of critical displacement, looking for hints, analogs, signs, of some of the public issues of her day?  This approach traps us into reading the novels as if they offer a vision of a support group, a step removed from the main action, with the world of public power still looming, still pre-eminent, in spite of its temporary invisibility.  Such secondary status is true even if we acknowledge that novels can, and did, function in the political arena, as public voices participating in shaping, supporting, or modifying public ideologies.

Rather than letting the traditional definition of what constitutes the political sphere circumscribe our evaluation of Austen’s achievement, let’s admit that definitions of politics are themselves politically charged.  What is radical about Austen’s fiction, and what we can’t see as long as we define politics as a male activity, is precisely its depiction of familial and sexual relations as a political issue, a matter of the ideology of power.  The novels depict sexuality as political, thereby rejecting traditional definitions both of politics as a matter of public power and of sexuality as a matter of nature.

But to approach Austen’s novels as studies of sexual politics is only half the point.  Many feminist critics still go on to describe the sexual politics of the novels as conservative.2  The compelling political question is whether those politics defend or challenge the inferior position of women in the culture and the primacy of self-assertion as the mode of social and sexual interaction.  Do the patterns Austen creates reflect the culture’s masculine, and conservative, commitment to the vested interests of male domination?  Do they respect competitive relations between women and approve of heterosexual love as a matter of aggression and conquest, through which women learn to accept the superior judgment and power of men?  They do not.  Instead, to steal a line from Ray Carver, they explore what else we might talk about when we talk about love.

Among Austen’s novels the one most dramatically caught in the debate about her politics is Mansfield Park.  Does that memorable brother and sister team, Mary and Henry Crawford, represent Jacobin individualism or the decadent gentry?  Is Mary the brave new woman, frank mannered and strong, or a proselytizer for the old order, redecorated in the latest style?  And what of that tame and triumphant couple, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram?

Mansfield Park imagines love and passion as a friendly relation which has a reciprocity of mutual cooperation, knowledge, and communication – forms of affection that are both more loving and more personal than the codes of romantic love have trained us to expect.  Instead of the pattern of a heroine being suddenly charmed by the advances of a dashing stranger, the novel renders the close connection between Fanny Price’s sisterly and cousinly gratitude for Edmund Bertram’s affection and her transition to romantic love.

It also offers a similar transition for Edmund.  Edmund is kind to Fanny before he is in love with her, and that is how she comes to love him.  Throughout the time of their growing up, Edmund offers a thoughtfulness which has its base in Fanny’s claim to be “properly considered.”3  Among the men of the Bertram family, Tom and Sir Thomas Bertram play out the familiar masculine roles of the patriarch and the young rebel, as Tom learns to be his father’s heir.  However, the child of the future is not Tom but his younger brother, who rejects the patrimony of hierarchical value and control not by dissoluteness but by a warmth of heart which refuses to devalue those whose social value, through class, money or sex, is less than his own.

For all that readers have felt superior to Fanny, her love for Edmund embodies a recovery from acting out the culture’s tyranny in one’s personal life by choosing a marriage or a relationship – or a relation to sex – that is abusive.  Fanny chooses the man who has always been kind.  In terms of conventional romance plots, Fanny chooses not to reform the rake, but to care instead about an erring but loving and lovable person.  Edmund is wrong about many things, errors the novel explains not only through Fanny’s affectionate conclusion that “he was only too good to every body” (425) but through the narrator’s characterization of “Edmund’s too partial regard” (194).  Edmund himself explains his mistakes as seeing in Mary Crawford (and we can say in her brother as well) “the creature[s] of my own imagination” (458) rather than the characters they choose to be. Edmund’s self-deception suggests the novel’s commitment to a vision of gender where all wisdom does not reside with men and all eros does not consist in setting women straight.

Edmund’s mistaken vision of Henry and Mary is not simply a personal flaw in his imagination but is a product of his culture’s ideology of romance.  Love in the patriarchy, with its institutionalized battles between the sexes, has mystery and fear as its bases.  Lovers don’t know each other very well.  Instead, to quote Henry Crawford, whose idea of how to spend his leisure is to engage in the pleasures of this battle, they “worship” (344) someone’s looks while manipulating for and yielding to power.  This is the dynamic Henry envisions with Fanny Price, or John Willoughby with Marianne Dashwood, Louisa Musgrove with Captain Wentworth, and presumably the young Mr. Bennet with Miss Gardiner.

Is Henry Crawford somehow modern or advanced or liberated from social conventions?  Is he sexy?  It is time to recognize both the sadomasochism and the romantic conventionality of Henry’s belief that he can only be satisfied by making “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart” (228) and having her “feel when I go away that she shall never be happy again,” while he escapes “heart-whole” (231).  As Henry says, “her looks say, ‘I will not like you, I am determined not to like you,’ and I say, she shall” (230).  As with his final seduction of Maria Rushworth, Henry “must exert himself to subdue such a proud display of resentment” (468).  In language that speaks more of battlefields than of love, Henry seeks “the glory as well as the felicity, of forcing [Fanny] to love him” (326).

As for Henry’s presumably free-thinking sister, for all her natural talents Mary is almost wholly a creature of her place and class.  Her choice of a man is dictated by her desire for social position and income, hardly an iconoclastic view.  Though Mary is falling in love with Edmund, they are kept apart by the self-created barrier of her internalized acceptance of her culture’s values, including being ashamed to introduce Edmund to her London friends.  She wants his height and beauty known, not his profession.  Edmund doesn’t have enough money or status or fashion to meet her social requirements.  At ease in a man’s world, Mary embraces the battle of the sexes and accepts the regressive and patriarchal definition of love as conquest, both because she has not developed independent views and because, being highly competitive, she considers herself to be one of the rare women who can win at society’s romantic game.

And what of her less fortunate sisters?  As Mary so carelessly says to Henry of his plan to break Fanny’s heart, “I will not have you plunge her deep” (230-31).  Her conversations with Henry mark Mary as one of the boys.  Mary is incapable of granting to a woman Fanny’s serious objection to Henry’s brutal hostility in playing so cavalierly with her cousin’s hearts.  Mary is not capable of finding the treatment of other women an essential ingredient in her judgment of the worth of a man’s worth.  She expects Fanny’s complicity in an hierarchy that supports Henry’s exploits by pretending to disapprove, but secretly feels the “glory” (363) in having captured a man sought after by “dozens and dozens” who now feel “envyings and heart-burnings” (360).

Mary Crawford’s incredulity that Fanny could refuse Henry links her to those mercenary predecessors, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele, and Charlotte Lucas, who are all willing to marry for the sake of an establishment.  So many critics have been fond of saying that Charlotte Lucas, twenty-seven and not beautiful, had no other choice.  But Fanny Price, infinitely more vulnerable, in a less secure position with little power, shows us how much choice a woman may claim.  Refusing Henry has risks, risks rendered in her uncle’s furious reproaches and in her own agonized query: “what was to become of her? “(319).  But Fanny’s anxiety over her future never tempts her to discard responsibility for her life or to seize the cheap solution of marriage without love.

Fanny’s defense of both her own integrity and of other women overturns the usual morality that caring for self and caring for others are mutually exclusive.  Fanny makes the startling assertion that “I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings” (363).  This sisterly value is not shared by any of the characters who embrace traditional patterns of social stability: not by Sir Thomas Bertram who, in spite of his parental qualms about Maria’s happiness, could acquiesce in her marriage because it will bring family prestige; not by Lady Bertram, who has accepted quite literally her dependent and decorative female role, and who tells Fanny that “it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptional offer” (333) of marriage as Mr. Crawford’s; not by Mary, who has taken in the repressive definition of love as a battle, and may the best man win; and not by Henry, who, certain of the privileges of his sex, enjoys his position as men traditionally can.

These characters are powerful, socially blessed, all with substantial prestige and vested interest on their side.  On the other side stands the little creepmouse, without the blessings of status, income, estate, or even flashy natural gifts.  What Fanny does have is a belief in women’s value, her own and other women’s.  Against the united authorities of her culture, Fanny maintains that what the society values is not, and need not be, what she values, that seduction and aggression are not romantic, that women’s hearts need not be made available to men’s demands.  Fanny’s commitment to the principle of women’s rights shows her sisterhood with Austen’s next heroine, Emma Woodhouse.  As Emma so cheerfully asserts, “Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other” (Emma, 474).





1  See Susan Morgan, In The Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and Sisters in Time: Imagining Gender in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989): Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and The War of Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975); Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and The Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of The Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).


2  The most visible example is the discussion of Austen’s work in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in The Attic: The Woman Writer and TheNineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).  See also, among several others, Janet Todd’s reading of Fanny Price as “the patriarchal woman,” Women’s Friendship in Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 271.


3  The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), Mansfield Park, 74.  All further references to Austen’s works are to the volumes in this edition. 


This paper was originally presented at the 1989 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.


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