“Their Passions Were Stronger Than Their Virtue”: Complexity and Dilemma in Austen’s Portrayal of Sexuality
by Katherine Grimm
Throughout the long history of Jane Austen’s novels, many readers have struggled with the hard fact of several characters’ falls, catalyzed by premarital sex, adultery and cohabitation, particularly those portrayed in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. Perhaps most troubling of all is the apparently negative dichotomy the falls and near-falls suggest: Are women in Austen’s novels punished for their sexuality? After all, only the bad girls are portrayed as having sex, while the chaste are rewarded with happy marriages. Ultimately, however, this problematic facet of Austen’s landscape can best be understood in terms of transgressive sexuality as moral choice in which these women choose passion over all higher claims. Paired with the harsh reality of infidelity’s stigma in Austen’s own times, such a decision makes for a life-deciding gamble.
In the concluding chapters of Sense and Sensibility, we hear echoes of the tale of Colonel Brandon’s charge, Eliza, who, born of a fallen mother, falls herself to Willoughby. Yet it seems significant that in Austen’s generous distribution of wealth and happiness to the characters at the end of the novel—both main and peripheral—there is no word on Eliza, although her role in Willoughby’s past does not go overlooked in his resulting disinheritance. In this way, Austen glosses over the hard truth of Eliza’s fate in the romantic and satisfying bustle of her conclusion, suggesting the hopelessness of Eliza and those like her in Austen’s society, which even Austen cannot laugh or romanticize away.
Eliza becomes one of several women who in Pride and Prejudice, Sensibility and Sensibility and Mansfield Parkeither risk “falling” or entirely succumb (in the interest of space one must dismiss other more minor defiant characters, such as Persuasion’s Mrs. Clay). In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet’s danger is genuine when she runs away to live with Mr. Wickham, and only Mr. Darcy’s wealth and obstinacy save her from shameful exile or even prostitution. In a similar though darker vein, Eliza’s own mother is herself a fallen woman doomed by a cruel marriage, leaving Eliza the younger after her death to be raised by Colonel Brandon. Marianne Dashwood, who in some explicit ways parallels these women, escapes unscathed though experiencing passionate love, but Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park is not so fortunate: her heedless love, tinged and corrupted by vanity, lands her in an adulterous affair that ruins her reputation forever. Such a range of fates results from the degree of sexual transgression that occurs, as well as extenuating circumstances.
This fall can be the result of some neglect in upbringing or education—as when Eliza the elder, Colonel Brandon’s first love, is forced into marriage, or when Lydia Bennet is left to her own foolishness, “[F]or the last half year, nay, for a twelvemonth, she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity” (P&P p. 269; vol. 3, ch. 5), during which time Robert M. Polhemus suggests that she falls in love (disastrously) with the very conception of love (45). This lack of proper guidance is at the root of Maria Bertram’s scandal, whose Aunt Norris overindulges her. Additionally, a woman’s sexually transgressive actions can also be an almost senseless act of defiance, as in the case of Eliza the younger, who evidently enjoys a life of some privilege under Colonel Brandon’s care (S&S 196-7; 2,9). But whatever the cause, it is a dangerous business even to speak of these deep-running hurts, as Colonel Brandon highlights as he remarks in uncharacteristically vivid emotion, “Ah! Miss Dashwood—a subject such as this—untouched for fourteen years—it is dangerous to handle it at all!” (S&S 196; 2,9).
The best that can be hoped for in such desperate cases is the “patched-up business” Lady Catherine alludes to in Lydia’s marriage (P&P 338;3,14). At worst, as in the elder Eliza’s case, only a convenient and tragic death can dispatch of her after dwindling to a life of prostitution, allowing the principal characters to move forward, because, after all, as Colonel Brandon relates, “Life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death” (S&S 196; 2,9). Maria’s case is similarly bleak: “[S]he must withdraw…to a retirement and reproach, which could allow no second spring of hope or character” (MP 431;3,17). The loss of virtue—especially accompanied by out-of-wedlock pregnancy, as with both Elizas, is irreversible.
The self-limitations of such heedless passion are evident in Pride and Prejudice, as reported through the eyes of Lizzy Bennet, who remarks, “How strange this is! And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice!” (288;3,7). To declare one’s freedom sexually is to define it and one’s own identity forever. Ultimately, Elizabeth reflects, “[H]ow little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture” (296;3,8). Similarly, Willoughby’s sexual transgressions cost him, as well, when he learns he might have married Marianne and still inherited. Perhaps even more binding than the bonds of marriage, transgressive sexuality forces Austen’s characters into a severely limited role.
It is all the more remarkable, then, that Marianne weathers her impetuous, imprudent first love as well as she does, especially when this love is a man who has already proved himself capable of ruining another woman’s life. She certainly proves herself heedless and headstrong as any Lydia or Maria over the course of her courtship with Willoughby, for in her valuing of unreservedness, she threatens falling into disgrace with her unguarded emotions. First in the promise of the horse from Willoughby and then in his use of her first name (S&S 60;1,12), Elinor’s sense of social decorum admits no doubt of their engagement, further reinforced by Margaret’s story of Willoughby soliciting a lock of hair from Marianne (61;1,12). These actions appear to be accepted social indicators of engagement, particularly when paired with her clandestine letter-writing, but Marianne explains they were never engaged. When asked whether Willoughby had ever spoken of his love, she answers with evident confusion which bespeaks naiveté and carelessness, rather than a willful transgression of the laws of courtship: “Yes—no—never absolutely. It was every day implied, but never professedly declared. Sometimes I thought it had been—but it never was” (177;2,7). It is also of interest, then, that in Marianne’s disappearance with Willoughby to go over his future home no concern over the possibly sexual nature of their relationship is raised. Though their actions do raise the attention of the ruthless gossipers who have just speculated over the possible “natural daughter” of Colonel Brandon (67;1,13), it is highly relevant, as McAllister points out (103), that no one suspects Marianne of sexual mischief in her absence —attesting to the goodness of her character, despite these lapses in judgment. She is defiant of social customs governing courtship and sexuality, but it seems that many of these daring actions are unthinkingly committed rather than acts of deliberate rebellion.
It is clear Marianne is saved from life-wrecking foolishness by “sense,” for her near-fall and providential escape are the result of the almost paradoxical qualities of her character alluded to in the first chapter: “She was sensible and clever; but…every thing but prudent” (S&S 8;1,1). Marianne stops at the very brink of propriety, or, as Perkins argues, “Marianne’s personal rebellion is socially reformist in conception, never revolutionary: she courts disapproval but she shows no readiness to cross (though she may tread) the line that separates the respectable young woman from the outcast” (178). Despite the behavior Marianne later recognizes as “nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others” (S&S 322; 3,10), she is saved from total, irreparable loss by the vital redeeming qualities women like Lydia evidently lack. Marianne abides by her own rules of honor, while there is no evidence Lydia or Maria possess any at all, for “Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion” (118;1,21), and Austen herself seems to sympathize with Marianne, proclaiming, “Like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that are clever and good, Marianne, with excellent abilities, and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid” (190-91;2,9).
Perhaps the difference between those women who nearly fall and those who actually are lost, then, is the force of the family bonds and sisterly love by which they are surrounded. Elizabeth seems to hit on this in her sense of guilt over not being more honest with her family (P&P 264;3,4), believing that telling the truth of Wickham’s character might have prevented Lydia’s elopement, and Marianne seems saved by her eventual emulation of her more proper sister, Elinor. The elder Eliza, however, is betrayed by her very family into marrying a cruel man, while her daughter is left too much alone in the home of a too-trusting old bachelor. The elder Eliza is left in a desperately unhappy marriage and, importantly, finds herself “without a friend to advise or restrain her” (S&S 195;2,9), so that Colonel Brandon sees it as inevitable that she should fall. And all the falls occur in locales far from those whom the women love: Lydia is with friends in Brighton; Maria Bertram Rushworth is bored with her husband in London; Eliza despairs of her cruel husband, and her daughter Eliza is staying with untrustworthy friends.
Hand in hand with this requirement is the necessity of a strong education, for, as one critic suggests, “To make liveliness of mind the primary agent of eroticism is to imagine that love is in the head. Austen does” (Polhemus 32). Intellectual vigor, as well as moral taste, is extremely important to Austen’s understanding of love and virtue, and thus education may play a role in Marianne’s escape. Marianne’s upbringing is different from the fallen women’s, for, as Mrs. Dashwood explains indignantly, “I do not believe…that Mr. Willoughby will be incommoded by the attempts of either of my daughters towards what you call catching him. It is not an employment to which they have been brought up” (S&S 46;1,9). Conversely, though the Bertrams of Mansfield Park are of a higher social distinction, their children’s education is purely a matter of polish, and holds dire consequences for all four children, but particularly rash Maria. Maria and Julia as children brag to their Aunt Norris about the superiority of their education in contrast to Fanny Price’s, saying, “But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant!” (19;1,2). What follows, Austen’s ironic pronouncement that “with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility” (19-20;1,2), foreshadows the painful time when Sir Thomas recognizes that this education lacked the all-important moral education which preserves Fanny: “Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting, that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers” despite the girls receiving “an anxious and expensive education” (430;3,17).
For instance, Lydia’s education, paired with the essentially morally apathetic quality of her buoyant spirits and flighty character, has much to do with her fall, according to Elizabeth. Lydia is assessed by the narrator as possessing a “vacant” mind (P&P 29;1,7) and “has never been taught to think on serious subjects” (269;3,5). Her mind is taken up by concerns of marriage, and the reader receives almost more than she can bear as Lydia blathers on, with hardly a break, for over a page. In a tendency perhaps exacerbated by want of education, Lydia’s life, rather like her mother’s, revolves around marriage. She remarks callously, “Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three and twenty…Lord! How I should like to be married before any of you” (213;2,16). Later, Lydia will remark blithely of Brighton, “That is the place to get husbands” (300;3,9). Seeing this propensity early, Elizabeth, frank in trying to prevent Lydia’s fateful trip to Brighton, speaks of “the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character” (223;2,18), uncorrected by any moral education—or any education serving to distract her from complete self-absorption.
Here, Lydia’s weakness of mind, it might be observed, is not unlike that Willoughby gives a brief hint of in his summary of the younger Eliza. Consider his description of what he calls the “violence of her passion, the weakness of her understanding” (S&S 300;3, 8). Moreland Perkins identifies Eliza as a sort of forerunner for Lydia, observing that the strong sexual impulses and weakness of intellect that define Eliza match up with later descriptions of Lydia (115), and, as with Eliza, prevent her from being helplessly “debauched”—instead, one may imply that she plays an active role in the process. Perkins’s comments reinforce the idea that these women are not purely victims of a cruel system, but willing participants. For instance, Maria is perceived as a victim when “all was lost on the side of character” (MP 419;2,16), but this statement, rephrased, casts some responsibility on her, for “Maria had destroyed her own character” (432;3,17). After all, for many of the women who fall in Austen’s stories, there is at least one similarly placed who stands strong. Though Maria’s wildness brings about her fall from family grace, her sister Julia (though rash) and cousin Fanny persevere. Though Lydia’s headstrong ways push her over the edge of propriety, the other four Bennet girls marry rationally.
Enough of the victims and onto the victimizers. The fate of the two fallen Elizas is comparatively harsh when presented alongside the futures of the men who bring about their downfalls. The man who corrupts the desperate, divorced Eliza is lost to the record of incomplete history Colonel Brandon eventually learns. Of Willoughby, Austen blithely writes in the concluding pages of Sense and Sensibility, “But that he was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on—for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself” (353;3,14). Worse, Wickham may even be considered to win in his sexual transgression, as he seems to rise above its embarrassment, for he receives a substantial dowry and continues to be financially helped (grudgingly) along by Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley for the rest of his life.
Such is particularly disturbing when it is clear the two women do not ultimately deserve their fates, yet in all the descriptions of Colonel Brandon’s domestic felicity, there is no further mention of the young Eliza, whom Colonel Brandon has restored to some degree of safety in a farm out of the way (199; 2,9). No, in the end of Sense and Sensibility, the fallen Eliza and her mother, Colonel Brandon’s first love, have been eclipsed by the beautiful and good Marianne Dashwood Brandon, and Colonel Brandon’s long-deferred happiness, Austen seems to assume, should be enough to console the reader.
So does this despairing attitude encompass all of Austen’s views on transgressive sexuality? Is the exhibition of passion to be punished with exile, and is this punishing the only allusion to sexuality, approved or adulterous, in Austen’s works? The answer is clearly a resounding “no.” Much textual and critical analysis comes together to re-emphasize that Austen is far from a prude, and that her gloomy portrayal of fallen women is less dire than what her contemporary British novel-reading audience might expect. Seeming to sum up the eighteenth-century view, in Mansfield Park, Fanny’s father reads in the paper of Maria’s scandal and comments sagely, “It might be all a lie…but so many fine ladies were going to the devil now-a-days that way, that there was no answering for anybody” (408;3,15), seeming to poke fun at the propensity of novelists to employ fallen-woman plotlines. Austen’s tales of sexually transgressive women may be bleak and cautionary, but her disapproving attitude stems not from a cold distaste for all sexuality, but from a proto-feminist indignation that such women are willing to “sell out,” so to speak, to their families and to themselves.
An important source of clarification is present in Pride and Prejudice’s handling of Lydia. Austen obviously ridicules the preaching attitude some ascribe to her when she puts the usual lamentations in the mouths of vain Mary Bennet and pompous Mr. Collins. Mary sermonizes, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin--that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful,--and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour” (275;3,5). Such is obviously untrue, when one considers Marianne’s myriad of “false steps,” and what is more, it romanticizes female sexual innocence and reputation as the most important characteristic of a woman. Similarly, Mr. Collins unintentionally satirizes traditional consolation writing to Mr. Bennet: “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this….Let me advise you then, my dear Sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence” (282;3,6). Lydia’s death is not preferable to the families of those fallen: Lydia is not thrown off from the family though her frivolity and crassness continue to disgust Elizabeth and Jane and Sir Thomas of Mansfield Park vows that Maria “should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their relative situations admitted” (432;3,17). Maria’s fate is of the half-comic, half-tragic variety Lydia faces when “His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; her’s [sic] lasted a little longer” (P&P 366;3,19), for with Mrs. Norris, “their tempers became their mutual punishment” (MP 432;3,17).
Austen does not take the ludicrously hard-line position some of her sillier characters adopt and instead chooses to forgive a foolish elopement, although she does not glaze over its effects. Lydia is accepted but never applauded for her actions by the more thoughtful of Austen’s characters. Likewise, Maria Bertram Rushworth is cared for by family after her fall rather than being left to fend for herself. Clearly, black and white justice does not prevail in Austen’s literary landscape, for while Lydia’s foolish elopement is discouraged, one elopement, at least, seems to be considered acceptable and even heroic by Austen, for Brandon and Eliza are “within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland [when t]he treachery, or the folly of my cousin’s maid betrayed us” (S&S 194;2,9). An action is not bad of itself—Brandon can consider elopement and Fanny Price can love first without reproach (both of which actions amount to scandal in Austen’s world)—but rather, the motives define the degree to which such behavior is criticized.
And Austen attacks her society’s tendency to punish the woman while putting the man above reproach in her relation of the fates of Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram Rushworth in Mansfield Park. She laments this inequality:
That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offence, is, we know, not one of the barriers, which society gives to virtue. In this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished; but without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter, we may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret… (435;3,17)
Led by serendipity “into the way of happiness” (433;3,17) in his love for Fanny, Crawford loses this opportunity in his adultery with Maria, when “Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward” (434;3,17). Aileen Douglas views Henry Crawford as “a character who knows exactly what he has lost” (157) in choosing adultery with Maria over marriage with Fanny. Maria Bertram’s punishment is much the same, a blend of internal consequences and external forgiveness. Both man and woman, under Austen’s vision, pay a high emotional price for transgression, though the woman may suffer more in the world. Maria sincerely, though selfishly, loves Henry (MP 434;3,17) and had “hoped to marry him, and they continued together…till the disappointment…rendered her temper so bad, and her feelings for him so like hatred, as to make them for awhile each other’s punishment” (431;3,17).
Also important in determining the condemnation of some characters is the presence or lack of feeling in the decision to defy society’s norms. In considering Wickham and Lydia, Park Honan is unequivocal in his assessment. While the transgressive act of living together prior to marriage is itself certainly counterproductive in allowing the characters to grow or improve, more damning is the carelessness of Lydia and Wickham’s actions. Perhaps here is the difference between Honan’s understanding of Willoughby and the Wickhams: “Lydia’s running off with Wickham is condemned implicitly by the author because neither lover is a person of feeling—neither cares” (314). Lydia hardly even favors Wickham before their Brighton trip, according to Kitty, and Wickham merely intends to enjoy a fling in his escape from financial straits. Willoughby, at least, has the decency to be embarrassed, for when he accidentally meets Marianne at a London party, he cannot carry his coldness off without obvious emotional strain. Marianne, agonized, asks why he does not shake hands with her, and “her touch seemed painful to him, and he held her hand only for a moment” (S&S 167;2,6), which Elinor later appraises as “embarrassment which seemed to speak a consciousness of his own misconduct” (169;2,6). It is evident from his later confession that he feels deeply and repents. Unlike Wickham—and like Henry Crawford who is defined by “his selfish vanity” (MP 180;2,2) but given a reason for his corruption, in that he “was ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long” (433;3,17)—Willoughby is, ultimately, a feeling though deeply flawed character, ruined by his lust and concern for money and forced by Austen to live with the bitter knowledge that “had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich” (S&S 352;3,14).
Though Willoughby’s damage is severe, the Eliza story in which he plays a role is not simply a formulaic cautionary tale. Even it contains a degree of complexity that Marie E. McAllister considers “melodramatic, digressive, structurally problematic” (87) and whose “contents exceed its nominal purpose” (88). Eliza belongs, McAllister argues, to a rank of literary characters from her genre and era, all of whom are “fallen” women who contract a popularly romanticized form of consumption which serves as a stand-in for venereal disease within their respective novels (97). Austen’s tale, however, inverts the traditional tale of seducer and seduced by eliminating the aristocratic identity of Eliza’s corruptor, thereby indicating Austen’s sociopolitical purposes in the text (McAllister 99). Thus “Austen’s version blames not a handful of aristocratic libertines but a much larger group, all men who feel themselves entitled to sexual conquest” (McAllister 100) and in addition advocates marriages based on real compatibility, rather than fortune or passion (101). This is far from a case of bad-man-corrupts-good-girl, nor is it a simple matter of a bad girl gone senselessly wild.
One does well here to recall Park Honan’s discussion of “happiness” in Austen’s works, though at first it may seem only tangentially connected with a discussion of transgressive sexuality. While it may be tempting to move along in an understanding of these outcast, rebellious, ruined women by establishing them in contrast to Austen’s virtuous heroines, one must remember Elizabeth’s reflection on the “patched-up” nature of Lydia’s marriage: “But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture” (P&P 296;3,3). Lydia’s weakness almost costs her her honor, identity, and security, and her rescue by Mr. Darcy allows only for a meager chance of happiness. She gives into passion, and she is punished by Austen in an unsatisfying marriage in what seems to some readers like a typical move for the author.
Yet Honan writes of Austen’s novels, “In her novels the words ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’ show that she often associated ‘to be happy’ with sexual fulfillment, so that when Elinor Dashwood enquires about when Edward Ferrars ‘will be at liberty to be happy’ sexual union seems almost explicit” (Honan 252-53). Thus one must remember that though Austen’s heroines reign in passion in order to let virtue shine, ultimately virtuous women in Austen’s fictional universe are not sexless or punished for their sexuality. Though Lydia defies her society’s norms in aggressively pursuing Wickham, her nonconformity brings her no closer to her future husband, for “Lydia is no wiser about herself or her man after sleeping with Wickham” (Honan 309). She attempts a shortcut to the reward Elizabeth, Elinor and the rest must reach through anguish and self-discovery, and she gains little by her cheating maneuver. Though Lydia and the rest may find their society too repressive to follow the mores of their day, others do, ultimately attaining passion—and resulting happiness—within the parameters dictated by virtue.
The actual complexity of Austen’s view toward sexuality is perhaps best argued in light of Susan Morgan’s probing article, “Why There’s No Sex in Jane Austen’s Fiction.” She provides valuable context on the usual role of sexuality in eighteenth-century British fiction, stating bluntly the commonplace presence of rape in Austen’s genre (346). As the novel evolved, novelists faced the challenge of effecting plot when, by starting with a virtuous heroine defined by her virginity, any action must become “an attack on character….[which could] only violate character, violate them by changing their identity” (Morgan 347) and render only two directions possible for writers of novels: “heroines can move from being good to being corrupt or they can stay good” (Morgan 347). This plot formula devalues women’s power for change, because, by defining character development as a matter of virginity (or its loss), men are the necessary agents of change. In summary, Morgan asks, “What did female sexuality mean in British fiction before Austen? It meant male sexual power. And it also meant limited plots” (353).
Compare this harshly limited and redundant literary landscape with Austen’s understanding of “sexuality [as] a part of full humanity, incorporating all aspects of human relationship” (Morgan 351). One may conjecture from Morgan’s point that anything less, driven by passion, is to be frowned upon. Austen challenged static ideas by refusing to take the easy route of portraying the innocence of her heroines in terms of virginity (351). Many overlook that this is a proto-feminist triumph in which “women can grow, can be educated, can mature, without the catalyst of a penis” (Morgan 352). This is not to state that loss of innocence is a negative experience, either, because in Austen’s view, experience is good, and growth necessary.
In this light, the sins of fallen women can be understood well. By Austen’s innovations,
Suddenly, and overwhelmingly, in English fiction, women are expected to have high expectations. They are, in fact, morally required to do so. Failing to believe in their own abilities to make a future, falling back on their own weakness and the external measures of materiality or male admiration, which for Austen is always falling back on old fictional modes of defining heroines, is treated virtually as a crime. Let us not confuse that with prudery. (Morgan 354-55)
Thus, to apply Morgan’s general pronouncements to individual cases within Austen’s work, Maria Bertram Rushworth’s fall is not (or not merely) a traditionally construed failure to obey sexual norms, but instead a sort of laziness or “weakness,” according to Morgan, which allows her to live solely for “male admiration” and material gain, and to throw herself away at the first opportunity, never seeking higher or better. Kenneth L. Moler recognizes in Maria “a woman capable of strong passion, but one whose emotional relationships remain hopelessly self-centered….in sexual and egoistic gratification” (147). In Mansfield Park, Maria compounds errors, for with Mr. Rushworth, she “was well pleased with her conquest” (37;1,4). She is not manipulated, but willfully chooses first to accept Rushworth’s proposal, then to pursue Crawford, then to marry Rushworth, and then once again to pursue Crawford, and until things dissolve into a catastrophic affair at the novel’s close, “Maria felt her triumph” (150;1,17). Such a woman fails to understand sexuality in the holistic sense Austen employs, seeing it merely as a means of satiating desire or of attaining the social prestige marriage may bring. Though the fall may still be usefully understood in traditional moral terms, Lydia’s, Eliza’s and Maria’s betrayal is primarily of self.
On the whole, Austen’s view of sexuality has been long neglected, or worse, oversimplified by critics and readers alike who relegate her to an old-maidish rejection of all things sexual. Conversely, a broader definition of sexuality, ethically understood as an intellectual union rather than a perfunctory character definition, shows Austen’s conflicted attitude to those who transgress these ethical boundaries, demonstrating her sympathy and disdain, her willingness to forgive (to an extent) and the limitations barring a return to polite society imposed by the world around her. Austen’s disapproval comes not from a prim vengefulness against passionate sexuality, but rather as a reprimand against women who carelessly compromise their own moral and intellectual dignity in allowing an illicit affair to define their character.
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