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Bingeing on Austen

In June, not only did I do my annual Great Austen Re-read (Northanger Abbey to Persuasion in submission order - I always wonder how annoyed the publishers who kept NA unpublished for over ten years were, when, after she bought it back she acknowledged receipt with a "by-the-by, I am the author of Pride & Prejudice & co.") but I also read two commentaries on the books and their socio-historical setting and two biographies of Jane Austen, and I'm currently reading a book of essays on Austen by people like Somerset Maugham, Kindsley Amis, Martin Amis, Fay Weldon et al.

(BTW, as a Cabin Pressure fan, I'm always amused that Fay Weldon wrote a short story in which Martin is married to Martha and they have a son called Jolyon.)

But there is an issue from my reading that I want to share here.

In a commentary on Mansfield Park - which contains probably the most surprising joke in the books when Mary Crawford says, "Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat," - (having read so many books, I'm not a hundred percent sure which it was from) the author posed the question: Was Thomas Bertram the Younger supposed to be gay?

Jane Austen was certainly aware of homosexuality: in some of her Juvenalia she makes reference to the homosexuality of James I & VI.

While illegal, and though the law was in some ways harsher than the later prison sentences and hard labour, with pillory time and even the death penalty, attitudes to homosexuality in Georgian England did not quite reach the way it was treated in Victorian law and society, or in the 1940s and 1950s for that matter. While sodomy/buggery was punishable by death, you had to prove intercourse or (as a lesser offence) attempted intercourse per anum or with an animal. Consequently, unlike the 1885 amendment where all homosexual contact could be prosecuted as "gross indecency", it was harder to prove and prosecute. As with the "Free Blacks" there was an 18thC London subculture of "Mollies", Molly Houses (gay brothels), cross-dressing etc. Even at court, in the early 18th century, Lord Hervey was nicknamed "Lord Fanny" for his effeminacy and known homosexual liaisons - provoking the saying that there were three sexes - men, women and Herveys.

On reason acting and the theatre were not considered quite respectable, was that together with the slightly looser sexual morality, male actors with their sometimes elaborate stage costumes and make-up had something of a reputation as "Mollies".

This obviously bears on how Miss Jane's first readers may have seen the passion for a home theatre in Tom Bertram and his friend "if friendship it might be called" (MP; Chapter XIII) the Hon. John Yates.

More than that, even in the wrap-up of the future of each character, Jane Austen does not tell us that Tom Bertram ever married (which suggests that eventually Edmund and Fanny became Sir Edmund and Lady Bertram). By his own words, Tom does not enjoy dancing - the only socially acceptable physical contact between unmarried young people - the only girls and women he ever mentions are the various sisters of his friends So-and-So and Such-a-one, whome he is always visiting for house parties (and seaside trips, which had something of a laisez-faire reputation when undertaken by single young men) rather than formal dances, Assembly Rooms &co.

While, admittedly, he is a minor character, he never seems to be all that interested in or "taken by" any young woman at all.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2015 03:05 am (UTC)
Interesting. Haven't read MP in a while but I'll keep it in mind next time.

Jul. 21st, 2015 08:21 pm (UTC)
Heh. I'm unusual, I know, in LIKING MP - and Fanny. :)

Whether it's a valid reading is anyone's guess, but I did think it was interesting. I'd be interested in hearing your opinions if you do re-read.
Jul. 18th, 2015 11:15 am (UTC)
I really *really* must re-read Mansfield Park. I haven't in so long (still bearing in mind your excellent suggestion to re-read the whole of Austen from my 'recovery' bed post-op! *g*). I had seen that Mary Crawford quote mentioned in various places, not least as general proof of the awesomeness of Austen *g*, but hadn't heard the Thomas Bertram angle before - how fascinating. Yes, really *must* re-read! It does cast another, very interesting light on the meaning of the play (and why Thomas Bertram senior might disapprove).
Jul. 21st, 2015 08:30 pm (UTC)
Yes, the good little Parson's daughter and old-maid was not a stick-in-the-mud -- or an innocent. ;)

I LIKE MP - though I'm aware than most Austen fans would count it way down their lists.

I think the thing with the play is, there was a BIG difference between "private theatricals" of kids, with adult help/involvement/supervision (like those in the Austen family home) and a group of young adults, with insufficient adult supervision forming a "theatre" and acting "out of place". Let alone chosing a play such as "Lovers Vows" with its lovers and fallen women - and therefore throwing off the proprieties of "gentility", whether that be the licentiousness of Maria/Henry, or the idea that men in the theatre were more gender fluid and fluid in sexuality than they "ought" to be.

It's almost impossible, I think, for us to truly understand the "turn of the century" mindset of the 1800s - in this novel more than in most of them. Which may be one reason I *like* the novel because I love it when books demand that I read and research around them to get the bigger picture. :D
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


Dee Natsuko

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