On Jane Austen, love, and instant erections

Pardon me, gentle reader, for the coarseness of the title, but the coarseness isn’t mine. I am merely quoting Andrew Davies, who dramatised the phenomenally successful mid-90s BBC production of Pride and Prejudice :

“Pride and Prejudice is all about sex and money, about young people with pumping hormones,” explained Davies, who has cornered the market in TV and film adaptations of classic novels. “Darcy is supposed to marry this sickly aristocrat, but as soon as he sees keen-witted, rosy-cheeked Elizabeth Bennet panting from a walk, he gets an instant erection.”

I have not seen the adaptation, and so will refrain from commenting on it. But, despite being only a relatively recent convert to Austen, and yet to count myself a fully paid-up Janeite; and despite Mr Davies having no doubt lived with this novel for far longer than I have; it seems to me that his assertion that Pride and Prejudice is “all about sex and money” (my italics) could do with some scrutiny. For if this is indeed what Pride and Prejudice is all about, my own reading of the novel is quite considerably wide of the mark.

That Austen was keenly aware of the significance of money and of the social status it confers is a commonplace observation. And yes, Austen was also keenly aware of, and depicted (albeit with the utmost delicacy), sexual attraction. One may say that this delicacy on her part was dictated by the conventions of her times – conventions that didn’t allow her to write of, amongst other things, instant erections; and that, indeed, if she could, she would, but she couldn’t, so she didn’t. And further, that had she had the good fortune to live in our own less squeamish times, when talk of “instant erections” raises not even the most conservative of eyebrows, she would eagerly have ventured into areas that had in her own time been closed to her. For, as we all know, Austen was, like all others whom we see fit to admire, modern: and so far in advance is modernity in all respects from what had come before, there can surely be no greater praise than that.

An enterprising publisher is even now making available works from the past as their writers – unimpeachably modern  as they were in outlook – would no doubt have wished to write them, and would have done  if only they could. In these re-writes, Catherine Morland is introduced by Henry Tilney to “a whole new world of eroticism … where sex knows no boundaries”; the mutual passion of Holmes and Watson is at long last realised; and what Mr Rochester says to Jane Eyre about his own instant erection, dear reader, I blush even to acknowledge.

The idea behind these re-writes, I must admit, I find quite funny – but that’s only because I retain still an immature, schoolboy sense of humour. I don’t know, though, that I find the idea so funny as to want to read these re-writes: the joke would wear out pretty damn quick, I imagine. But I doubt the publishers are being serious. I doubt also whether Martin Amis is being entirely serious when he writes:

These days, true, I wouldn’t have minded a rather more detailed conclusion–say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, aquitting (sic) himself uncommonly well.

At least, I hope he isn’t being serious: I’d hate to imagine the man who declared war against cliché endorsing the clichéd perception that physical representation of sex can adequately represent the reality of love. For, pace Andrew Davies, Pride and Prejudice is not all about sex and money: central to the novel is the theme of love. Sex and money, yes, are present; and yes, these things are important. But when Elizabeth asks Darcy towards the end of the novel why he had admired her, he does not reply – and nor would he have replied even if the conventions of the time had allowed it – that he loves her for her body, and that he finds her “hot”: he replies: “For the liveliness of your mind”. He loves her for her personality; he loves her for being for the person she is. And if we in our enlightened modern times find this merely soppy; if we feel that there can be nothing beyond the physical, and that love can be nothing more than instant erections; then, it seems to me, Jane Austen, living though she did in her benighted times, was wiser by far than our modern selves.

25 responses to this post.

  1. hey, loved it – have shared on fb, trust it’s okay?


  2. Posted by alan on November 29, 2013 at 9:57 am

    To represent it crudely, the approaches to human nature that you seem to see in the the literature that you describe here seem to be a kind of escapism to me.
    On the one hand you have religious or romantic conceptions of human nature with their notions of love, and on the other you have a ‘man as animal and nothing else’ view of human nature.
    It seems to me that all these ways of looking at ourselves are ways of avoiding our complexity, and frankly we really haven’t a clue what we are about. One response to this is irony, but not the only one.
    To give Jane Austen credit (I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice) she seems to be fully capable of describing the ignorance of her characters about their motives, and perhaps she was also aware of her own ignorance.


    • Human nature – for want of a better term – is indeed infinitely complex. And I have no idea myself how to negotiate this complexity. This is one of the many reasons why I am not a novelist.

      Austen was, again as you say, very accomplished at depicting something of this infinite complexity. This is why it seems to me that seeing the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy in terms of an “instant erection” is reductive and grossly inadequate.

      I don’t know that I am seeing human nature either in religious or in romantic terms. I am objecting merely to the reduction in seeing it in purely empirical terms. It is true that I see more in what Elizabeth & Darcy feel for each other than the physical raging merely of hormones; but this is not to explain the complexity of being human, but, rather, to deepen the mystery. For there is no answer that I – or, I think, anyone else – know of to the question “What is there beyond the physical?”

      I am, in short, objecting to a reduced view of humanity; but I am not proposing any alternative view of my own, as I do not have the depth of vision required to do so convincingly.


  3. And this very day, another article appears in the arts pages of a national newspaper insisting that Pride and Prejudice is “all about sex”:

    Although a succession of adaptations has given the book a reputation for bonnets, minuets and genteel behaviour, the book is all about sex


  4. We must destroy what others love.

    Is Davies’ interpretation supported by the text at all? I thought Darcy fell for Elizabeth only once he got to know her – because she was the most, almost only, interesting woman he had ever met.

    No need to answer my question – I know the answer.

    The Little Professor had a good post about an “erotic” Jane Eyre. She has a side specialty in neo-Victorian literature, so she had a scholarly obligation. As bad or worse than you would expect is the verdict, but we all knew that. Burstein has good fun ripping it apart.


    • You mean you want people to back up their assertions with supporting argument? How very quaint!

      But who needs arguments when you can be modern instead? And being modern means, of course, reducing everything to its most basic, physical elements, and insisting that anyone who thinks there can be anything more is merely a sentimentalist. And of course, the likes of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë have to be enlisted on the side of us moderns, and so, they have to be presented as precursors of chick-lit, as writers who were only prevented from writing steamy sex scenes by the benighted standards of their time.

      Thanks for the reference to the Little Professor blog. These two posts – here and here – I thought were excellent, and really skewers some prevailing concepts.

      What’s annoying … is that it flattens out the nuances of the quite overt eroticism in Jane Eyre…


      PS interesting to see that The Little Professor is no great fan of Andrew Davies’ adaptations.


  5. Why does everything I read of Martin Amis makes the man seem like a total tit?


    • I did try reading some of his stuff ack in the early 90s, when he was very much in vogue, but I never could finish any f his novels, I’m afraid. As for the things he comes out with (such as this), I can’t say I’m generally too impressed.


  6. Posted by Carolyn on December 1, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    I suppose if you interpret ‘love’ widely enough, this novel has love as its central theme, but I think more central to it is what goes towards making that love. You mention ‘liveliness of your mind’, but there is also the difference between appearance and worth (Elizabeth is bowled over originally by Wickham, because of his liveliness of behaviour), character as opposed to personality, respect (Mr Collins is not immoral, but he still doesn’t have value as a husband, being snobbish and vapid), seeing beyond the obvious, which take both Elizabeth and Darcy quite some time to do. And in this novel (and in many others since) family connections have to be overcome or ignored, in a way that I don’t really think is quite realistic in most marriages. Though Austen didn’t try and put people of totally different class and education together and pretend they have the same values. She shows a couple looking past their differences to find what they have in common.


    • I don’t think one should ever define “love” too narrowly: it is a vast subject, and Austen knew it. She explores, as you say, various – though by no means all – aspects of this subject. But what she doesn’t do is to reduce it.

      In our times, it seems to me that either we sentimentalise the subject of love (I have read of various couples getting married in the sort of costume used in Austen adaptations, as it is considered somehow more “romantic”); or we go the other way, and insist on seeing it purely in terms of sexual desire, driven by hormones – i.e. we see it purely in physical terms. Both are reductions. What I see in Austen is quite different to either of these: she can see love in its social context – in that she can see how it is affected by such worldly considerations as money, family connections, etc.; and yet, she gives it its full due as something that transcends the mere working of our hormones. To see Austen’s presentation of love in the terms Andrew Davies does in the interview cited (I can’t speak for the adaptation) seems to me a grotesque reduction of a rather wise and mature novel.


  7. The sort of reductionism you are describing is like the people who muck up a discussion by insisting “the” question is…. whatever. They mean the question is the one they care about and that there are no other questions worth considering. If Jane Eyre is only about sex (somewhat disguised because the author either didn’t understand or was self censoring due to conventions), then why bother to read it? Sex is fine but I expect more than that in a classic novel, like maybe some insight into a complex world.


    • Indeed. To see everything merely in its most basic physical terms seems to me a depressingly reductive view of humanity. It is not a view Austen ever took, and to ascribe such a perspective to her seems to me quite perverse.


  8. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on December 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    I can’t accept that these views about the book r reductive because they are ‘modern.’ They are so because they are reaching cheap conclusions. Many modern writers try as much as those who wrote well before them to grapple with the same matter. How successful they are is always a debate.

    Surely the use of sex, as it would or could have functioned as a way of telling the story in this era would only be valuable if it brought further insight into character, inter-relationships, plot or anything else.

    To think that sexualising in itself is ‘modern’ and ‘revealing’ is absurd. Sex can bring many things with it, but all these facets of emotion, impulse, consequence, also have to be thoroughly and sincerely explored for a work to be interesting…..


    • I have no doubt that many modern writers deal seriously with the theme of love without reducing it merely to a physical activity. However, there is most certainly a modern tendency to see everything purely in its most basic physical terms, and to insist that there can be nothing, in any aspect of life, that may be considered to be beyond the physical. In keeping with this, love is seen as nothing more than sexual desire. I believe this is reductive, and, unless you can show me examples of this sort of thing from literatures of past generations, it seems to me also a modern phenomenon.

      So no, these views aren’t reductive because they’re modern: but they are reductive, and, yes, I think they are modern. Or at least, I find these views very prevalent in our modern age.


      • Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on December 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm

        You haven’t understood what I meant. I am saying that there are many attempts in modern writing that try to explore beyond the physical. I accept we live in a time where physicality in society is becoming overprized, but I am saying that this does not, or maybe should not, deter writers from looking with more depth and sense of challenge/exploration.

        Im saying it may be a direction in a wider society to reduce to the physical, but not at all in many good modern writers. I don’t believe good writers of any time would wish to do that. Also, sexuality is not entirely devoid of depth. Writing about sex/sexuality can be very fine and can be a liberation that earlier writers like Austen didn’t enjoy. Unfortunately most misuse,abuse or debase this freedom.

        I have to believe there will always be people who can transcend the ruinous present and still be capable of producing engaging writing.

      • You haven’t understood what I meant.

        Oh dear! Sorry about that!

        The transfer of a thought from one mind to another is such a tricky business, don’t you think? Generally, it involves two processes: firstly, the thinker to express the thought, usually in speech or, as in this instance, in writing; and secondly, another person to interpret that speech or writing. Imprecisions are bound to creep into both processes, but if both parties take care, something close enough to the original thought may be communicated. I too have often felt that a thought I have been attempting to communicate has not been successfully communicated; and in such circumstances, I tend to focus on the former process rather than on the latter – if only because I have at least some measure of control on the former. You appear in this instance to think that the problem is entirely with the latter process. Well, perhaps: let us not argue over that. All I can assure you is that if I have indeed misunderstood you, the misunderstanding was not deliberate.

        But let us move on to your points. It’s perhaps best if I tried to summarise what I take to be your points in my own words; that way, if I have indeed misunderstood you, you may correct me.

        1. Although there is a particular emphasis in modern times purely on the physical (with the implication that everything in our lives is capable of being understood purely in terms of the physical), the focus on the physical is by no means universal, as there are many modern authors whose exploration of areas of human relationships and psychologies go beyond this.

        2. Explorations that see human life in more than physical terms are deeper, and more challenging.

        3. In no time should good writers see human life exclusively in physical terms.

        4. Although there is more to human relationships than sexuality, sexuality itself is not a trivial matter, and is a suitable subject for a serious novelist to explore.

        5. Exploring these issues can be liberating; it is a freedom Austen did not enjoy.

        6. There will always be writers who can transcend the limited mores of their times.

        I think I agree with most of these points. I’ll perhaps quibble about Point 3, as Tom in his comments above has cited major writers who did indeed see human relationships purely in physical terms. However, given my own temperament, such writers have little to say to me. And on Point Number 5, I would argue that Austen did indeed depict sexuality, and did so very well; and that she did not do so explicitly seems to me more a consequence of her own aesthetics than anything else: I don’t think she would have been more explicit even if she had the freedom to be so.

        So, on the whole, we appear to be in agreement. What I don’t understand is what there is in any of these points that contradicts anything in my initial post.

  9. Himadri, how familiar are you with Roman poetry?


    • I’ve read the Aeneid in translations by Fitzgerald and by Fagles, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Penguin Classics version translated by Raeburn. I suppose you’re now going to give me examples from Roman poetry of love seen purely as a physical phenomenon … So bang goes my theory that it is specifically modern! But when I look back on past literatures, I really cannot think of any writer who depicted love in such reductive terms. Not even Flaubert: Frédéric’s love for Madame Arnoux in L’Education Sentimentale is presented as his one redeeming feature.


    • Well, I don’t have to give examples, but they would include most of the canonical Roman poets.

      Why did you reach for Flaubert when Lost Illusions and Thérèse Raquin are available? Or the snickering, smutty Maupassant?


      • Because, I suppose, I have always regarded Flaubert as the ultimate cynic – the man who thought everything in life was futile save for his recording of that futility.

        Thérèse Raquin was a sort of early noir novel, and very good it is too. But I also remember the love of the blacksmith (what’s his name again?) for Gervaise in L’Assommoir.

        As for Roman poetry, I can’t say i detected too much cynicism in the most famous love story of all in Latin literature – that between Dido and Aeneas in the 4th book of the Aeneid.

        But fair enough – I am prepared to concede the point that seeing human emotions purely in physical terms existed amongst certain writers of the past also. But it does seem to me particularly prevalent in our times. And to see Austen in such terms – simply to confer upon her the dubious distinction of being “modern” – seems to me to be taking a very immature view of a very mature writer.

      • Virgil is likely the only major poet I would omit from my examples. No, Lucretius, too.

        Horace and Ovid at their smuttiest were not cynical. A new concept has been introduced to the argument. The Romans were frankly decadent.

        Now, the literature of the English Restoration – one decadent period leads to another – that might be a good place to look for cynicism tangled up with the lust. Very possible, as in Rochester’s libertine poetry or all of those great Restoration sex comedies, which were certainly cynical about marriage.

        Austen is responding to and maybe even combating this kind of cynicism. That is an interesting way to approach her, kind of as an 18th century writer, a novelist of the Enlightenment.

        To the disorderly and the libertines, Austen is the enemy. Thus the need to claim her for their own side.

      • Ah – now that’s an interesting approach to Austen – an Enlightenment reaction to easy reductionism! I hadn’t considered her in that light before. I’ll need to think about this a bit more, but that does make a lot of sense.

        I’m afraid I am of a temperament that I feel diminished reading a work that presents a reductionist view of mankind. If human beings really are like this, I feel like saying, then what’s the point even of writing about them? Whether this reductionism is a modern phenomenon, or whether it has existed also at times in the past, enlisting Austen, of all writers, into the reductionists’ cause does seem a grotesque misunderstanding of her work.

        Flaubert remains an enigma in this respect. He is arguably the most cynical of them all, but I can’t help feeling there was a broad Romantic streak in him.

      • This may throw some new light on the Mozart-da Ponte operas as well…

  10. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on December 12, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    All that was, or may have been at issue was the modern precept of love or inter-relationships as being essentially of physical status: I think this a cultural phenomena in a society but does not have to be taken in the same way by a writer who can observe, express or evaluate the trend without in any way succumbing to it.

    I just felt you were implying that ‘modern’ writers do this to the detrement of what they produce….and I don’t think that happens with good writers.

    But yes, ur right of course, its just something to talk and think about…I wasn’t arguing as such, merely feebly attempting to make my point.


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