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Jane Austen’s “Spicy Allusions”

“...‘unbecoming conjunction’, a term Austen uses to describe what happens when two ideas or images or people, set side by side, reveal unforeseen similarities… Austen’s conjunctions allow for the simultaneous apprehension of paradoxical responses when she presents courtship as comic and moving, as erotic and ridiculous, as satisfying and disturbing” (25).

In Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History (2005), academic Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s analysis traces Jane Austen’s bawdy humour from the author’s juvenilia (Austen’s works written in her youth) through her six complete novels. While Helene Kelly focusses on many large social justice issues in Austen’s novels, Heydt-Stevenson dives into gender roles and representations, and all that comes with them: marriage, rape, courtship, fashion, crossdressing, etc.

Hanging sign that reads "The Pump Room" a popular Jane Austen plan in Bath, UK.

Particularly interesting is Heydt-Stevenson’s reading of Lydia’s role in Pride and Prejudice (1813). She points out that there are a number of ways to consider Lydia: she is both a woman free from social expectations and bound to them, a fallen woman who also receives validation in the eyes of her mother for marrying. In Lydia, Austen points out “that an empty ritual [marriage] that could guarantee neither happiness nor fortune is better than scandal, than prostitution, than destitution” (97). Considering ‘fallen women’ in other works by Austen, this duplicitous lens can begin to be seen as simultaneously upholding and challenging women who break established gender expectations.

What I found most interesting in Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions are Heydt-Stevenson’s explanations of the bawdy turns of phrases of the 18th and 19th centuries. While some may seem obvious—the emphasis on Fanny and Mary’s riding in Mansfield Park (1814) or Thorpe’s “well-hung” gig in Northanger Abbey (1817)—others were historical turns of phrases that have all but lost their connotation. The explanations in Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions are well researched, and convincing, for example when explaining the double entendre of mending pens (Pride and Prejudice), getting one’s chimney swept (Emma), and spraining ankles (Sense and Sensibility).

“Any one instance of the bawdy language Austen uses could be dismissed; however, the context and multiplicity of these references provide a substantial body of evidence for its deliberate presence and significance” (55).

To best read Austen is to understand the references of her day, which include the terminology with which she would have been familiar. Heydt-Stevenson does address that the writing world was predictably predominantly male when Austen was writing, yet she makes the case that using bawdy language was not to establish herself among male authors or that she did not have female literary examples. Heydt-Stevenson concludes that Austen is using the male dominated double entendre in a feminist approach that subverts expectations.

“Austen’s comedies of the flesh may sometimes shock, but they shock because she wanted them to, as she exposes a multitude of worlds, some of them unsavoury indeed, within the well-known worlds of courtship and marriage” (209).

I readily admit that Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions is much more academically dense than Jane Austen Secret Radical (2016), but it is not impenetrable. While the book is heavily sourced throughout, it is the primary sources that will add value to the Janeite reader. I for one found the references to The Lady's Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction fascinating! It is because of this I see myself coming back to Heydt-Stevenson’s chapters every time I re-read an Austen novel.

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