For me, the strangest thing about this book is that it was published in 2003. Discovering it by accident in a charity shop, I assumed that it was part of the post-Fifty Shades bonanza for stuffing sex scenes into classic fiction. But then I remembered that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lack of overt passion in Austen’s novels has been a sticking point since her books first hit the shelves. Even Charlotte Brontë found Austen’s writing hard to connect with on these grounds. So instead, remedies are sought and the main solution is fan fiction. Strange to say, but this is actually not the first piece of Austen-inspired erotica that I have ever read however it is by far the silliest.
The premise is that two Austen scholars were staying at an English estate in 1999 and they uncovered a cache of letters by Austen which had been hidden after her death by her sister Cassandra. The letters detail Austen’s battles with her publisher who express their horror at the scandalous content of her novels and demand that the offending scenes be cut out. She was forced to comply but with Pride and Promiscuity, we are finally reading her books as she really wanted them to be read. Ahem.
What makes me laugh about the other reviews is how so many of them seem to have completely missed the joke. ‘Some’ of the scenarios weren’t realistic, bleated one. Another complained that Eckstut hadn’t ‘quite’ captured Austen’s voice. Yes, the scenes are ludicrous and far-fetched. Of course they are. This is a book about sex scenes in Jane Austen. Get a grip! Jane Bennet’s illness at Netherfield is revealed as being due to the trauma at having to fend off the lesbian advances of both of Mr Bingley’s sisters. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood discuss their sexual exploits which include Elinor pleasuring both Edward Ferrars and his horse. Henry and Mary Crawford’s relationship appears to have shades of the Lannisters about it. This book is a pastiche. We are not being asked to take it seriously. To be frank, I found the earnest efforts within Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote infinitely more irksomene since their authors clearly believed them to be credible.
Radio 4’s sitcom Old Harry’s Game has a recurring joke where Jane Austen is revealed to be a foul-mouthed Cockney who is quick with her fists. I could snigger at Pride and Promiscuity in a similar vein. It’s not actually particularly explicit. If you want tasteful imaginings of intimacy between the new Mr and Mrs Darcy, I think you’d be better with Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote. Here they just bonk on the grass while making awkward chit-chat. But even that is a clear play on the sexual tension which is so obvious when they have their unexpected encounter at Pemberley. Yes, it’s sending up the novel rather than something to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean that Eckstut hasn’t picked up on something.
There are definite moments which raised a laugh. I had to admire how Eckstut had pieced together so many of the most memorable phrases from Austen’s personal correspondence and jigsawed it together to produce letters explaining the book’s existence. The imagined scene where Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas) dresses up as Lady Catherine in dominatrix mode and orders her husband around was probably the most successful of the novel. We all knew that there was something very weird in Mr Collins’ servility towards his beloved patroness. The idea of Emma pleasuring herself out of sheer delight at her own wonderfulness also has a ring of truth. The imagined scene of Mr Palmer utterly ignoring his wife’s attempts to dream up fantasy scenarios made me giggle given that a university lecturer once commented in class that it was a real mystery how the two of them ever conceived a child. I also loved the idea that The Watsons had had to be abandoned entirely because it was just pure filth. However. These were isolated moments among a lot of other scenes which were less successful. Ultimately it was not as entertaining a read as I might have hoped.
Despite presenting us with this anarchic re-imagining of the sex lives of Austen’s characters, Eckstut’s writing never feels particularly creative. ITV’s Lost in Austen introduced a version of Wickham who was a true gentleman and who had taken the blame for Georgiana Darcy’s attempt to seduce him to avoid her getting into trouble with her brother. We thought we knew the story, they flipped it on its head – it was hilarious. There are no equivalent moments here. Eckstut has tried to be outlandish here but aside from the Collins episode, her inventions fail to really bite into the text. More pertinently, in her desire to shock, she missed out some of the more obvious pairings. What kind of a relationship were Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele having? How did Lucy end up switching brothers? Then there’s Willoughby who was an accomplished and shameless seducer. Did Isabella Thorpe actually have sex with Frederick Tilney? Weirdest of them all, how did Henry Crawford end up sleeping with Maria Bertram when he was supposedly in love with Fanny Price? What Eckstut – and indeed many Austen readers – seem to have missed is that there are no ‘lost sex scenes’. The sex in Austen has always been there. You just have to pay attention.
I have probably mentioned before about when I first read His Dark Materials at the age of fourteen, how I was startled to hear two of my male friends discussing the sex scene between Will and Lyra. I was certain that no such thing existed. When I reread the book a few years ago, I spotted it straight away. So it is with Jane Austen. In John Mullan’s spectacular What Matters in Jane Austen, he analyses the presence of sex in the novels and the important role of sexual desire across Austen’s works. Helena Kelly’s The Secret Radical takes the topic further, theorising that a key passage in Northanger Abbey represents masturbation, that Harriet Smith in Emma is Miss Bates’ illegitimate child and that Edward Ferrars may be sexually deviant. She also traces out some of the disturbing implications around the sad history of Colonel Brandon’s childhood love Eliza. Through her anti-heroine Mary Crawford, Jane Austen showed that she understood a rude joke about ‘rears and vices’. Her side character Tom Bertram observed that Mrs Grant must lead a ‘dull life’ with the doctor and be in need of a lover. The assumed Prim Jane Austen does not exist.
We know that sex is not overt in Austen but much of the action of the novels depends upon it. If it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife, why is that? Because of male sexual desire; if a man has enough money to support a wife, it is assumed that he will want one. Mr Darcy is drawn to Elizabeth Bennet so strongly that all of his attempts to restrain himself are futile. He proposes even though he believes her to be an entirely unsuitable wife because he desires her. Mr Collins and Mr Elton are both characters described as being ready for marriage – this seems to be an Austen euphemism. Then there are the various husbands across all the books who seem to have blundered into wedlock with wives who they cannot respect because they were fooled by a fair face. Mr Bennet, Mr Palmer, John Knightley, Charles Musgrove – the list goes on. They may bicker, squabble or even ignore each other in public but plentiful offspring appear nonetheless. Even Charlotte Lucas, who manages her household so that she can spend as little time as possible with her husband, is pregnant by the end of Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Promiscuity bases its humour on the assumption that Jane Austen definitely knew nothing about sex, therefore it is comedic to write a book with a version of her being depraved. Since we know that the first point is not true, the joke doesn’t quite work. Rather than ignoring sex, Austen’s novels are often poking fun at the extent to which human behaviour is driven by it. So if Pride and Promiscuity is not entirely successful as a parody, does it work as effective pornography? Well. Here, I have to admit that I am not really the right person to judge. But I think probably not. A fun read but not one I am ever likely to revisit.
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Published by Canongate Books on 2004
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