Body Politic

By Professor Mary Evans

Professor Mary Evans is the Centennial Professor at LSE’s Gender Institute.

Isabel Bishop, illustration from 'Pride and Prejudice' (Dutton, 1976)

Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), Scene from Pride and Prejudice: “The examination of all the letters…” (1976)

There has been a considerable amount of reaction – almost all of it condemnatory – to the Twitter attack on Caroline Creado – Perez, the woman who was the major force behind the campaign to put the face of Jane Austen on UK banknotes. The specific attack on Creado-Perez has already been defined as a criminal offence.

So that seems to suggest that there is, at least in public, a widespread reaction to the idea that it is acceptable to attempt to control the behaviour of women through sexual violence. But the story does not stop there because on 29th July a woman literary critic , Frances Wilson, wrote a deeply critical attack in the Daily Mail on Jane Austen, arguing that, amongst other things, she was ‘obsessed with money’.

Now that is a very interesting suggestion, not least because it is published in a newspaper that on the whole takes a rather positive view of those making money and an extremely negative one of anyone not involved in that process. Many readers of Jane Austen would have some difficulty in recognising the account of her work which is given by Wilson, but what we might find most problematic about the Wilson account is the absence of any suggestion that Austen was deeply critical of greed and avarice. Every one of her novels has characters who can think of nothing but making the late eighteenth century equivalent of a fast buck and Austen is comprehensively and systematically critical of them all. Readers might recognise  Iain Duncan-Smith, for example, as the reincarnation of Mrs John Dashwood of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a woman who is determined to talk her husband out of any kind of material support for his needy relatives.

This diversion into Austen’s novels is made here because what unites the Wilson attack with that of the writer on  Twitter is  the assumption that the politics held by women, and the expression by  women of their political views ( be it in campaigning in the twenty first century or writing fiction in the late eighteenth ) can be justifiably attacked, derided and made nonsense of, by any kind of assertion or threat that writers care to make. Creado-Perez led a powerful, widely reported campaign to challenge the disappearance of women on English currency, Austen wrote about the vulnerability of women in an age with no effective provision for the poor. In both cases what these women were doing was treated with a complete lack of respect.

It is that lack of respect for women, and the work of women, which makes these cases so particularly troubling. I want to suggest here that it is the idea that the female body includes a mind capable of critical thought about social relations which retains the power to disturb and threaten. In one sense it is remarkable that Jane Austen, a woman writer who is (entirely wrongly in my view) sometimes seen as the patron saint of the English gentry should be able to arouse such passion. The costume drama/Mr Darcy in the duck pond interpretation of Jane Austen, should, it might be supposed,  bring out hordes of zealots in favour of the author of these fantasies of secure patriarchy.

Instead, a furious person  writes threats of sexual assault and a young woman has her work, of the  recuperation of a female presence in a public space, rapidly transformed into a matter of  the most brutal sexuality. The question then remains for us of what is the connection between the threat of rape and Jane Austen… a question which has been largely absent from literary criticism. We have to ask, therefore,  what is so powerfully worrying about the mere picture of a women on a banknote . We also have to ask about  the extent to which our culture has become so literal in its understanding of sexuality, and the male and female body, that the sight of a woman’s face can trigger ideas about physical, sexual relationships of dominance and control. It is as if a picture of Austen (or any other woman)  has become so absolutely connected to questions of sexuality that anyone with a fragile sense of sexuality (not to mention reality) can only react through sexuality ..and a sexuality which of course invokes the most vicious form of sexual control.

The Austen affair perhaps suggests that the ‘sexualisation’ of our culture about which there is so much discussion has had , amongst other possible effects, the production of a new DNA which cannot see a body – or even a female face in a bonnet – without thinking, literally, of sex. Not sex in the terms of the charged and complex ways of which Austen wrote but sex in the most limited and proscriptive terms. Amongst those limiting terms, most crucially, is the recognition that women have minds as well as bodies.