"Improper and Dangerous Distinctions": Female Relationships and Erotic Domination in 'Emma.' (Jane Austen)

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She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for. It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object.

Intimacy between Miss Fairfax and me is quite out of the question. -Jane Austen Emma

Austen critic LeRoy W. Smith asserts that, "contrary to the traditional view, Austen does not avoid the subject of sex in her fiction," that, in fact, "she is well aware of sexuality's powerful role in human behaviour."(1) Similarly; in Sex and Sensibility, Jean H. Hagstrum warns readers of Jane Austen against allowing the author's "considerable modesty" to obscure "the real passion that seethes beneath the controlled and witty surfaces" of her novels.(2) He points out that "anyone so seemingly cool and rational has of course invited speculation about what is being kept out of sight" (p. 269). The critical debate over Austen's novel Emma may be seen as a case in point. For years, critics of Emma have been circling around the apparently disconcerting issue of the protagonist's sexuality. Claudia Johnson finds that "(determining the common denominator in much Emma criticism requires no particular cleverness. Emma offends the sexual sensibilities of many of her critics. Transparently misogynist, sometimes even homophobic, subtexts often bob to the surface of the criticism about her."(3) Johnson cites Edmund Wilson's ominous allusions and Marvin Mudrick's dark hints (p. 123) about Emma's infatuations with and preference for other women as examples of the unease aroused by this particular Austen heroine. In examining these critical responses, she concludes that much of the discomfort generated by the novel results from the fact that Emma "is not sexually submissive to and contingent upon men" (p. 123), and that she "assumes her own entitlement to independence and power--power not only over her own destiny, but, what is harder to tolerate, power over the destinies of others--and in so doing she poaches on what is felt to be male turf' (p. 125).

Certainly Emma's adoption of the masculine role and the implications of her usurpation of social power are contentious issues. But it is the doggedly recurrent (yet inevitably dismissed) suggestion of Emma's possible lesbianism that seems to arouse the most critical discomfort. It becomes clear upon examining Smith's and Hagstrum's readings of Austen that the passions "seething" beneath her "controlled and witty surfaces" are seen to be exclusively heterosexual passions. Hagstrum finds no evidence in Austen's works of the "perverse" lesbian sensuality that he briefly examines in other eighteenth-century novels,(4) and which he refers to as "morbidities" or "irregularities." Smith states that Austen "controls her use [of sex] to fit her settings, avoid offence and keep attention where she feels it belongs. One wonders if it is not Austen's critics who are determined to keep attention where they feel it belongs."(5) Although several recent analyses have posited a more sexually radical Austen,(6) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's characterization of the bulk of Austen scholarship as critically timid seems largely justified.(7) For the most part, approaches to Austen conform with "the vast preponderance of scholarship and teaching ... even among liberal academics [which] does simply neither ask nor know. At the most expansive, there is a series of dismissals of such questions."(8) Accordingly, while Christine St. Peter challenges readers of Austen to "discover previously unremarked aspects in her treatment of women's relations,"(9) her response to the suggestion that Emma's sexual orientation is homosexual rather than heterosexual is emphatically and contemptuously dismissive:

In my rejection of a narrowly defined marital love I do not intend to

introduce here a parallel error of discovering in Austen the

crypto-lesbian. I know well that in our post-Freudian critical world any

mention of intimacy between women conjures up an image of sexual

bonding. …