Magazine article Newsweek

Beyond Sense and Sensibility

Magazine article Newsweek

Beyond Sense and Sensibility

Article excerpt

IT GIVES US GREAT PLEASURE TO KNOW that the Chilham Ball was so agreeable & that you danced four dances with Mr. Kemble," wrote Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, in 1801. "Desirable, however, as the latter circumstance was, I cannot help wondering at its taking place--why did you dance four dances with so stupid a man?" Austen's witty, sociable letters have long delighted her fans, and scholars have pored over them for clues to a private life about which little is known. But last week Austen's amiable correspondence prompted a burst of speculation and debate that would have given her the vapors. Never mind that we're talking about the author of some of the most discreet, if biting, novels in English, including "Pride and Prejudice." The London Review of Books put the question bluntly: WAS JANE AUSTEN GAY?

Fashionable though similar questions have become in literary criticism, nobody seems to have wondered about Austen until Terry Castle, professor of English at Stanford, lit the fuse. Reviewing "Jane Austen's Letters," a new edition compiled by Deirdre Le Faye, Castle analyzes Austen's relationship with Cassandra. The two were devoted; neither married, and they shared a home and a bed until Jane's death at 42. At the time there was nothing unusual about such a close same-sex relationship, but Castle suggests that its very normality functioned as a "necessary screen" for the sisters' "unconscious" homoeroticism. Cassandra destroyed many of the letters. Those that remain are about as racy as a gooseberry pie, but in Jane's descriptions of dressmaking, or of ladies' bare shoulders at a party, Castle discerns a "kind of homophilic fascination" with women. …

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