Sex in Jane Austen’s Novels


People sometimes think or say that
there’s no sex in Jane Austen and indeed sometimes TV and film adapters feel the
need to put it in, but it’s there actually. Reading between the lines, it’s
really clear in Pride and Prejudice that Lydia Bennet has been off for over a
month, and she’s only just 16, living in an apartment in London with a
well-known rake and she’s been living with him. And she comes back to Longbourn
full of fondness for him and it is a picture of, a kind of sexual infatucatuion, a teenage sexual infatuation. And we’re to think of this when we sometimes
are invited to read between the lines of what is going on, or what has gone on in
Jane Austen’s novels. In Sense and Sensibility, for instance, there’s the
both kind of chilling and hilarious sketch of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs.
Palmer and Mr. Palmer has, because he has, Elinor realizes, this odd prejudice in
favour of attractive young women, he’s married an idiot. And of course he’s with
her forever, if he’s a gentleman. There’s no divorce, I mean, I often think
liberal divorce laws may have been good for society, but they were a
disaster for the English novel because you’ve got to make these
decisions forever and you make them on the basis sometimes of not knowing the
other person very well at all and Mr. Palmer has married Mrs. Palmer and
clearly they have a happy married life in one way. She’s pregnant actually in
the first part of Sense and Sensibility, but as she sort of enjoys saying ‘you
can’t get rid of me now’. Mr. Bennett – why has he
such a fool as Mrs. Bennet? Why has such a witty and intelligent man married her? Well,
he married her when she was young, we’re later told and attractive and if you’re
a gentleman, the only way you get to sleep with the woman you fancy is by
marrying her. Even Mr. Darcy’s famously disastrous
first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet has, I think we’re supposed to infer, sexual
passion behind it. He says ‘you must allow me to tell you how ardently I
admire and love you’. ‘Ardently’. And then he goes on to tell her
all the reasons why it’s a bad idea that that he should marry her, but he’s got to
marry her, he’s got to have her. You know, I mean he can only get her by marrying her even
though the marriage is, from his haughty point of view, very unwise. So I think you
feel the sexual passion in his blundering approach. So sexual desire is
there. You’re expected to understand it’s there. It’s there even, actually,
funnily enough in that probably the most famous sentence that Jane Austen
ever wrote: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in
possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. And people don’t, kind of,
always pick up on that last part of it. ‘In want of’, needs a wife, but ‘wants’ a wife.
They want a wife because, if you’re Mr. Bingley, the only way you can have a sex
life is by getting married. Mr. Elton in Emma, the ghastly, smooth-talking Mr.
Elton who is living alone and not much liking it, we’re told by the novel. He
wants a wife because, of course he wants the status and perhaps he wants
children, I doubt it with Mr. Elton, but he wants a sex life and Jane Austen
expects her readers to understand that without actually having to be explicit
about it.

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