Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753-1835

By Carman, Colin | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753-1835


Carman, Colin, Studies in Romanticism


David Sigler. Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753-1835. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015. Pp. 279. $110.cloth/34.95 paper.

Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism has as its central thesis the idea that nineteenth-century writers such as Jane Austen, Joanna Southcott, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Dacre, and Percy Bysshe Shelley recognized the determining role that erotic enjoyment played in the formation of gender roles and sexuality. Bracingly novel, Sexual Enjoyment yields important insights about what sexual difference meant in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and engages a somewhat marginalized strand of Romanticist scholarship that interrogates the literature of the period in gay-positive ways. David Sigler is certainly not the first writer to point out that, in 1805, Coleridge coined the term "psycho-analytical," but he is the first to use a strictly Lacanian analytic to interpret prose works (especially Pride and Prejudice) that are only rarely read in relation to desire, jouissance, and the unconscious. Given its subtitle (Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753-1835), Sexual Enjoyment pursues the prehistory of psychoanalysis in the age of Romanticism for two reasons: first, this was the historical period in which the two-sex regime--what Sigler calls "a two-sex system for gender"--was rapidly rigidifying and, second, matters of sexual difference and one's access, especially a woman's access, to erotic enjoyment posed a significant problem for an array of British writers (156).

For the purpose of his study, Sigler has dramatically simplified the meaning of jouissance, which he takes to mean "enjoyment" but admits is a "notorious sticking point for translators" (10). Truth be told, it's an even thornier matter for Lacanian thinkers who dispute the meaning of the word and, as Richard C. Sha has indicated elsewhere, question whether it is truly "a cause or an effect," and "merely sensuous or cognitive or some combination of the two" (41). Regardless, the premise of Sigler's first chapter is not that eighteenth-century writers like Matthew Lewis and William Kenrick are forerunners of Freud and Lacan, but rather that the concept of an elusive part of the human mind unavoidably arose in texts interested in the ungovernable, or what Sigler terms "subjective phenomena outside of anyone's deliberate control, such as dreams, desire, and the sublime," all "freshly fascinating to writers and the public" (25). Thus the gender debates of the 1790s in England cannot be disjoined from a growing interest in the unconscious as a repository for those repressed desires unrealizable in the public sphere. Kenrick's The Whole Duty of Woman: or a Guide to the Female Sex (published in 1753 and reprinted sixteen times by 1831) cast a long shadow over ideological contestations of what it meant to be a "lady" in the eighteenth century. Being a woman, for Kenrick, demanded the renunciation of sexual enjoyment in the interests of social respectability. The notebooks of William Blake, and the oxymoronic nature of a phrase like "gratified desire" therein, also bear traces of this anxiety about female agency.

More surprising than Blake is the inclusion of Jane Austen since Austen was, by no stretch of the imagination, an erotic writer. Sigler's praise for Percy Shelley as "arguably the nineteenth century's most daring literary thinker of sexuality" can hardly be applied to the author of Pride and Prejudice, and yet Sigler's original approach to the Elizabeth Bennet/Fitzwilliam Darcy romance is the book's standout essay (183). His interpretation turns on the role of the unaccountable: Elizabeth's demand that Darcy account for his attraction to her, her bafflement that Bingley unaccountably has lost interest in her sister Jane, and her disappointment in her friend Charlotte Lucas's pragmatism in the marriage market. The unaccountable, however, represents a deeper division, a splitting of the subject and the cause of marital strife, traceable to Milton's first usage of the word "unaccountable" in his The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce of 1643. …

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