Consternation gripped readers all over the nation this week, as they pondered the insultingly direct question mooted on the front page of the current London Review Of Books: Was Jane Austen Gay? The LRB has shown signs of skittishness in the past (like its former editor Karl Miller's crush on Fiona Pitt-Kethley) but this is something else. For the magazine further hints that Ms Austen's sapphic intimacies extended to her elder sister Cassandra.
Lesbian incest is a subject that doesn't exactly spring off the pages of Sense and Sensibility, and the author of the LRB piece, Terry Castle, has his work cut out in making a case. Some details from Jane Austen's life seem at least relevant to his hypothesis: she and Cassandra lived together all their grown-up lives; both received proposals of marriage but turned them down; for the majority of their lives they shared a bedroom and generally a bed. Beyond that, it's all supposition.
Mr Castle, it turns out, has been re-reading the collected Jane Austen letters and has decided they're full of tamped-down longings: "Reading Austen's letters to Cassandra," he writes, "one cannot help but sense the primitive adhesiveness - and underlying eros - of the sister-sister bond". He sees Jane as deploying a "flirtatious" tone of voice at the start of many letters, to "ensnare" her sibling (but isn't that what all good correspondents do?). What kind of flirty stuff was it? Oh, you know the sort of thing - "I will not say your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive". "One can imagine the pleasure-addiction such writing engendered," comments Mr Castle, clearly a man from the George Steiner School of Comic Appreciation.
Castle also finds Ms Austen giving her lesbian self away in her endless preoccupation with the physical appearance of women. Her descriptions, writes Mr Castle, throatily, "inevitably reveal ... what can only be called a kind of homophilic fascination". Thus, when Jane and Cassandra wrote to each other about clothes, they were implicitly fingering the bodies within them, luxuriating in physical intimacy by making a fetish out of fabric. Castle quotes, as a kind of clincher, a long passage in which Jane Austen describes a gown she is having made, itemising every frill and flap. It's a description, says Castle, "so fantastically detailed as to border on the compulsive". Or is it? At the end of its breathless inventory of pockets, hems, gores and kerchiefs, Austen concludes: "I can think of nothing more - tho' I am afraid of not being particular enough". If the idiotic Mr Castle cannot see the twinkle in Ms Austen's eye as she parodies her own sex's supposed obsession in trivia, I suspect the rest of us can.
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