Howard Jacobson: If you think there's no sex in Jane Austen, you're wrong about love, sex and Austen

Can anyone think it makes 'Pride and Prejudice' more sensual to describe Darcy as 'hot, spicy and all man'?


"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a blow job." Ah, the classics! I am alluding, of course, to Clandestine Classics – the new wink-wink imprint for those who don't want to abandon Jane Austen and the Brontës in favour of ebook mumsy-porn altogether, but nonetheless would like them, as it were, made more conformable with contemporary sexual mores. Something along these lines, if I may continue with my own version …

"I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy," Mr Bennet said to his lady when the news that Netherfield Park had been let to a lech with five thousand a year and a big cock first reached the neighbourhood.

"I desire you will do no such thing," returned Mrs Bennet. "Lizzy is not a bit better than the others. I am sure she is not half so compliant as Jane when it comes to unbuttoning a gentleman, and I am of a mind to believe she doesn't swallow."

Want to have a go yourself? It's surprisingly easy. But then soft porn was never anything else. Easy to write, easy to read, easy, you would have thought, to ignore. But apparently not so. The wives and mothers of this once clean country turn out to be as erotically asinine as the fathers and husbands. How come? Search me.

We will no more get to the bottom of why women one would not otherwise call witless are suddenly getting hot under their aprons and business suits about jiggle-balls, given that literature to frot oneself to has been available for centuries, than we will ever understand why children queued all night to buy Harry Potter when not very well-written stories about boy‑magicians are legion, or why anyone would choose to watch Jeremy Clarkson when stroppy blokes who like test-driving fast cars grow on trees.

A wave just breaks sometimes – in music, in fashion, on telly, in books, and everyone is swept away. It's a lemming thing, presumably. There's the wave; let's all drown in it together. Could even be Darwinian: a biological brake to ensure the species never grows too intelligent for its own survival.

I am against milk-and -water porn for the reason I am against insipid imitations of anything. Have the courage of your desires, I say. If you want to read about being beaten to within an inch of your life – or further – then read those writers who take you to within an inch of your life, or further. Pauline Réage's Story of O is a good place to start, then Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, followed by anything by Bataille or de Sade. The latter two will turn your stomach and could put you off sex, never mind sado-masochism, for life – which might be best for you and your family – but all four compel you to stare into the jaws of hell.

Death is where the sexual impulse when it has grown frenzied ends, and if you're not in it to risk that then you're not in it at all. My advice is the same we would give to anyone who would live dangerously: enjoy yourself, but know what you are playing with. And if you're only playing at playing, then you are wasting your life, not living it.

In the end, I can't say I care how a bored lady with little literacy, small courage and no sense of the ridiculous fritters away her hours. But I do care that anyone can read so badly as to think it makes Pride and Prejudice a whit more sensual to describe Darcy as "hot, spicy and all man". Is sex nothing but the accretion of stupidity to sense? Do we value sex so lowly, and language not at all, that we need the stimulus of a deodorant ad before we can register attraction?

Among the reasons for Jane Austen's extraordinary popularity with readers of all types is the heat her lovers generate, the unbearable frustrations they suffer when misunderstandings keep them apart, the rhapsodies of happiness they experience when all barriers to their felicity are removed. And if you say, "Ah, yes, but that's just love without the sex," then you are wrong on every count: wrong about the nature of love, wrong about the nature of sex, and wrong about Jane Austen, who knew as well as anybody the havoc desire wreaks on our affections, our loyalties and our intelligences.

There are few scenes in literature which are at one and the same time so painful and so thrilling, so precarious and, yes, all right, so arousing, as those in Persuasion in which Captain Wentworth lays hands on Anne Elliot for the first time since their estrangement. In one, he relieves her of the burden of a troublesome child, pulling him off her back, unplucking his hands from around her neck – a tactual performance of consideration that leaves her "perfectly speechless", at the mercy of the "most disordered feelings"; in another, seeing that she is tired, he assists her, again wordlessly, into a carriage. If submission to a man's will is your bag, then here it is – "Yes – he had done it. She was in the carriage and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it."

An act of kind and careful authority, but authority no less, rendered in the most subtly distressed prose, every detail of what has just happened lived through as a sensation that can't be limited as to time or significance, no distinction possible between instinctive kindness and physical opportunism on his part, or gratitude and longing on hers, the drama of acute sexual awareness so much more than the sum of the actors' sexual parts.

But ho hum, if it's still brute explicitness you need, here we go … "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and with enormous tits…"

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