Prim and Proper? Dr. Easton’s Lecture Explores Sexuality in Austen’s Novels

Dr. Celia Easton’s lecture entitled “Who Needs Vampires? Jane Austen’s Wit is Biting Enough” took place in the Fireside Lounge on Wednesday 2/22. The talk was largely meant to debunk Austen’s reputation as a prim and proper romance writer out of touch with the real world. While this reputation was created for Austen by her family after her death, Easton’s lecture focused on who Austen was before “a veil of prissiness” was thrown over her—an author who understood sexuality and knew how to use it in her books in order to make socially relevant points.

Dr. Easton stressed the point that “if you fell in love with Austen at 12, you didn’t really understand her.” Because although it is possible to read Austen as many do—for an innocent romance in which the heroine always ends up married—to read for the love story only is to overlook the fact that Austen is only partly interested in romance. The preoccupation with marriage in most of her novels reflects a much more practical sentiment: that for middle-class women, finding a husband is one of the only ways to survive.

The earliest example of a woman desperate for economic security in Austen’s writing is in Lady Susan, written when Austen was 20. The title character, a widow with a teenage daughter to support, purposefully uses her sexuality in order to get ahead. Because Lady Susan is written in epistolary format, Austen is able to show her readers that Lady Susan’s actions are deliberate—she is not an innocent lady who gets her way because she is sexy without knowing it; rather, she understands how to influence men and continuously does so in order to help herself, unabashed that this is often at the expense of others. Lady Susan’s duplicity and her understanding “the tendency of men’s reason to slip beneath their breeches” shows that Austen is not only not a prim and proper woman with no idea what sex is, but rather that she is aware of the power of sex and the fact that women must use their sexual appeal in order to preserve their livelihoods. Although the reader does not like Lady Susan, Austen frames her actions so we see that her selfishness and seduction of men are born out of necessity.

The rest of Dr. Easton’s lecture traced the “Lady Susan type” throughout many of Austen’s six full-length novels. Although Austen does not use the “Lady Susan type” for any of her other main characters, there is always a secondary character who acts like Lady Susan, using her sexuality as a means to pull herself out of a desperate financial situation. Although these characters are largely unlikeable, they usually end up like Lady Susan: unpunished in the end. Dr. Easton stressed this lack of punishment as another way to show that Austen understood the realities of the world around her—in Austen “people don’t always get their just desserts…stupid people may very well prevail.”

Far from the image of Austen as a prissy lady with no knowledge of sex, Austen’s was willing and able to portray her world as it was—with women using their sexuality to get ahead and men using women’s desire to get ahead to seduce and leave them. While romance is present, too, the heroine often only unites with her love because these breaches of sexual conduct have been uncovered and overcome.

The title of the lecture was meant to highlight not only the recent mash-ups of Austen novels with fantasy thrillers (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example), but also to undercut the common belief that one should read Austen only when one desires an innocent romantic story in which the heroines always end up happy. Dr. Easton pointed out that if readers desire “shock, surprise, passion, and cutting satire,” they need look no further than Austen.

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