April 2013 meeting: Love, Lust and Desire in the novels of Jane Austen

Our April 2013 meeting was the third in our discussion of emotions in Jane Austen’s novels, with the topic being love, lust and desire. We are having fun ranging across the novels looking at them from these very specific perspectives – and of course this meeting’s topic was particularly, hmm, exciting.

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 o...

Elizabeth tells her father what Mr Darcy has done for Lydia, 1833 engraving (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We didn’t spend a lot of time on definitions, but one member provided the Shorter Oxford English dictionary‘s definition of lust as being “animal desire for sexual indulgence, lascivious passion”. Another member said that her dictionary defined lust pretty synonymously with “desire”, while another said that her dictionary also defined “lust” as a craving for other things such as money and power. Contrary to popular opinion, which tends to pigeon-hole Jane Austen as the proverbial maiden aunt, we found plenty of examples of all these types of “lusts” in the novels.

Perhaps surprisingly, the novel we started our discussion with was Mansfield Park, with one member sharing John Wiltshire‘s theory (from his book Jane Austen and the body) that Fanny’s desire drives the novel. He argues that because of Fanny’s powerlessness she is unable to express her true feelings, and so Austen expresses Fanny’s feelings through her body, via a process called somatisation. Fanny’s headaches and blushing signal her love and desire for Edmund. Wiltshire says that Fanny blushes 20 times in the novel!

We then discussed the suggestion that “lust” was more evident in the first three published novels – Pride and prejudice, Sense and sensibility and Mansfield Park. Some argued that there is clear evidence of passion or lust in Persuasion.

Members argued that Mr Darcy’s (Pride and prejudice) statement “in vain have I struggled…” in his first proposal and Captain Wentworth’s (Persuasion) “You pierce my soul” in his letter to Anne Elliot are clear evidence of desire and romantic love, if not lust. We noted that Austen’s used of words like “agitation” (Anne Elliott) and “fever” (Emma) convey passionate feelings in her characters.

It was suggested that there are only two really lustful women in Jane Austen – Lydia Bennet and Maria Bertram. We discussed Lucy Steele in this regarded but decided that she used her sex appeal to get married, recognising the “value” of her virginity, while Lydia gave in to her “lust” before marriage and Maria Bertram (then Rushforth) outside of marriage.

We thought that Willoughby and Wickham were presented as the most lustful men, at least in the negative sense of the word. Both are described by Austen in terms of “dissipation”. And we talked about the “older” heroes, Mr Knightley and Colonel Brandon and the fact that they expressed their desire/lust through “watching”

A member presented Ruth Perry’s idea, presented in a paper titled “Sleeping with Mr Collins” (Persuasions No. 22, 2000), that Pride and prejudice “occupies an intermediate position” regarding sex and marriage. She argues that Charlotte Lucas represents the accepted view that women marry unappealing men for security thereby “prostituting” themselves in a way that later eras would find unacceptable, while Elizabeth Bennet is an example of “the newer nineteenth century sort of heroine” who wants to love and admire the man she marries. Perry argues that Jane Austen herself clearly understood this in her acceptance and then refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal. He was a decent young man, who offered place and fortune, but she did not love him.

In terms of non-sexually driven lust, a member suggested that all sorts of lusts are evident in the novels, such as:

  • Mrs John Dashwood’s lust for money (Sense and sensibility)
  • Mrs Ferrars’ lust for influence (Sense and sensibility)
  • Emma’s lust for power and popularity (Emma)
  • Lucy Steele’s lust for money (Sense and sensibility)
  • Maria Bertram’s lust for freedom (Mansfield Park)
  • Mrs Elton’s lust for position (Emma)
  • Mary Musgrove’s lust for status (Persuasion)
  • General Tilney’s lust for money (Northanger Abbey)
  • Isabella Thorpe’s lust for money (Northanger Abbey)

Business

Our next two meetings will be:

  • May 18: Jane Austen’s letters No. 1-28
  • June 15: Envy/Jealousy in Jane Austen’s novels

The meeting ended with the sharing of quotes which, as usual, surprised and intrigued us.

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