Modern readers who love Jane Austen are eager to find ways to acquit her of being a woman of the long 18th century. Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. Click here for the first in the series.
The “subversive laughter” of the title refers to Heydt-Stevenson’s thesis that Austen’s novels, so genteel on the surface, are actually full of humorous sexual imagery which she included not only for its own sake but to subversively undermine the patriarchy.
That is my restatement of her thesis. In her own words, as stated in an article in Nineteenth-Century Literature: "Specifically, Austen's bawdy irreverence becomes part of a radical critique of courtship as she closes the gap between fallen women and proper ladies, critiques sensibility's ideological sentimentalization of prostitution, and undermines patriarchal modes of seeing."
Heydt-Stevenson finds many examples of sexual double entendre in Austen. I won't dispute her about Mary Crawford’s “rears and vices,” which sure looks like a sodomy joke, although it bewilders me that Austen would do that, but apparently even when Austen uses words like “make” and "known" and “tumble," she is hinting at sexual intercourse. (By the way, this post is not exactly g-rated)...
But what about context? What about taking your intended audience into consideration? When readers of Austen’s time consulted a cookbook and read, “Take a loin of mutton that has been well hung,” did they always snicker? When we hear the phrase “happy ending” used in relation to a fairy tale, it means that the prince is marrying Snow White. When we hear the phrase used in relation to a massage parlor called “The Garden of Eden,” it means something else.
We think of the past as a time when female sexuality was repressed, or it was denied that women had sexual urges at all (with some exceptions, as we see in the 1825 satirical print below which includes a visual double entrendre for "muff.")
According to Heydt-Stevenson, Austen sees courtship as just another word for sexual barter. Austen "exposes the patriarchal/heterosexual world of conventional courtship as a dangerous, violent, and even life-threatening arena for both men and women," in fact. And here you thought you were reading a novel with a happy ending.
To recap: the assertion that Austen was subverting the patriarchy hangs on the first assertion that Austen's novels are filled with double entendres, and I am not convinced by the first assertion. I don’t think it’s beyond dispute, anyway.
Having laid out Heydt-Stevenson's thesis, let's move on to compare her interpretation of the amber cross and gold chain in Mansfield Park with the interpretation put forward in Jane Austen: the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Elsewhere, I've written about Kelly's assertion that the cross gifted to Fanny by her brother and the chain given to her by Edmund represent the Codrington plantations, owned by the Church of England. (Austen uses "chain" to distinguish Edmund's gift from the Crawfords' "necklace." What other word could she have used? "Chain" is the word for the thing people hang crosses around their necks with.) Kelly argues that although Austen tells us Fanny unequivocally loves William and Edmund and she loves her gifts, we, the reader, should be thinking of the hypocrisy of the church, the sins of empire, and the misery of enslaved persons.
Did Austen intend to blend Fanny's tender feelings of affection with the horrors of chattel slavery? Is Austen using the cross and chain as Madonna has irreverently used the crucifix--for its shock value?
And finally, what is the message? By wearing the cross and chain, is Fanny complicit in slavery, or is she protesting it?
Instead of a slavery connection, the cross and the necklace have sexual implications for Heydt-Stevenson (naturally). The amber with which the cross is made is smooth and sensual. In the episode when Fanny consults Mary about her attire for the upcoming ball, Austen lets us know that Fanny is uneasy when Mary offers to give her a necklace. She feels something is not quite right. Fanny reluctantly takes the gift but discovers that Henry’s necklace is too big to fit through the ring of William’s cross.
Well, that was too easy, right? That’s nothing! Wait until you read Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812) and get to the part about Lord Colombre “ejaculating over one of Miss Nugent’s gloves.”
Mary later confesses that Henry put her up to it: "It was his own doing entirely, his own thought. I am ashamed to say that it had never entered my head, but I was delighted to act on his proposal for both your sakes.”
The Crawfords were duplicitous because they knew that Fanny's delicacy would prohibit her from receiving a gift from a man. As culpable as they are however, Heydt-Stevenson's description of the episode makes me want to defend them! In her hyperbolic interpretation, Mary's references to Fanny's "lovely throat" are "sly violence," she's a "bawd," (meaning she's grooming Fanny), she "objectifies" Fanny "sexually," Fanny is a "purchasable item," "Henry's chain [necklace, actually] becomes a painfully obvious signifier of entrapment," etc., etc.
And is Mansfield Park the only novel which has used the material object of a cross and a chain for narrative purposes? I found another example, a 1811 sentimental short story translated from the French. A long-lost son finds his mother and he gives her a cross and chain, a gift from his wife which was intended for his sister, who he discovers has died. Everybody cries.
Okay, so does this mean that the sister was a sexual object or indifferent to slavery? Or the wife? Or the mother? But nobody is pestering deep meanings out of Marcellus, or the Old Cottager because few authors apart from Austen get this kind of hyper-focus.
The only symbolic use I can see made by Austen is that she contrasts the ornate design of Mary and Henry's necklace (those fancy city folks!) to the "plain gold chain, perfectly simple and neat," which suits her tastes better. "This is the only ornament I have ever had a desire to possess," says Fanny and oh yeah, it should remind us of slavery. The fancy necklace versus plain gold chain symbolism supports Austen's narrative. Dr. Kelly's analogy of slavery undermines what is going on in the narrative, while Heydt-Stevenson injects a overly sinister tone in an passage which Austen handles with her usual restraint. As usual, when things get too emotional, Austen starts laughing at her heroine. When she is talking to Edmund in the East Room after he gifts her with the chain (emphasis added): "Upon such expressions of affection Fanny could have lived an hour without saying another word; but Edmund, after waiting a moment, obliged her to bring down her mind from its heavenly flight by saying, “But what is it that you want to consult me about?” It was about the necklace, which she was now most earnestly longing to return..."
If popular songs of the last century could use lyrics like "My baby's got me locked up in chains" then surely it was possible that a writer of 200 years ago might use the word "chain" in reference to jewelry without drawing down the assumption that it's a covert protest of chattel slavery or a reference to the commodification of female sexuality.
Certainly the word "chain" as a noun and a verb has been used for millennia when discussing slavery, but there are other kinds of chains.
As well, I concede that in Austen's time, it was not uncommon to speak of love in terms of slavery. Mary Crawford blithely speaks of her brother glorying in his chains. Actually, references of this sort go back centuries before Austen came along.
Problematic: "So tighter! Pull them tighter! 'Til I feel that sweet pain. 'Cause these chains of love keep me from going insane."
Yes, there was plenty of bawdy humour around, especially in Georgian times, but Austen was a lady. Ladies didn't make coarse jokes in public. Nor did Austen take as bleak a view of the relations between the sexes as Heydt-Stevenson ascribes to her. I will not crawl over everything I object to in Heydt-Stevenson's book, but I am going to do a deep dive on two other arguments from Unbecoming Conjunctions in future.
Chains, well, I can't break away from these chains
I can't run around / Cause I'm not free
Whoa, oh, these chains of love Won't let me be, yeah
Heydt-Stevenson lays out her theories in “‘Slipping into the Ha-Ha’: Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 55, no. 3 (2000): 309–39 and in her book, Jane Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. United Kingdom, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016.
The sexualized interpretation of putting a chain through the ring of the cross originated in an article by Alice Chandler: "However, no one to my knowledge has pointed out that the rakish Henry Crawford's chain is too big to fit through the hole in Fanny's cross but that her beloved Edmund's chain slips through quite nicely." Chandler, A. (1975). "A pair of fine eyes": Jane Austen's treatment of sex. Studies in the Novel, 7(1), 88.
Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. United States, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.