April 10, 2015
Part II: Essay
“Austen,” “Emma,” and Queer Theory
Upon searching EBSCO for queer theory literary publications, I discovered that the keywords “Shakespeare” and “queer” generated one hundred and thirteen results, whereas the keywords “Austen” and “queer” generated only eleven results. As queer theory became popular in the 90’s, Austen had not previously been read in terms of queerness. My chosen works have altered my understanding of the author, Jane Austen, in relationship to her novel, Emma. In exploring Austen’s biographical history, I learned that she may have been homosexual. If one assumes that Jane Austen was in fact a lesbian, while reading Austen’s novels, the reader will interpret the characters from a new perspective. In Emma, for instance, Emma can be read to be homosexual. This new character image can be constructed through greater knowledge of the author’s background in combination with meticulous attention to detail regarding character gender and sexuality. Evidently, reading practices can be shaped by one’s personal history, knowledge, and affiliations with present-day issues. My annotated bibliography works illuminate how authorial identity can manifest itself in novelistic character identity.
Claudia Johnson explores the “incestuously lesbian relationship” that Jane Austen is claimed to have had with her sister. Jane and her sister, Cassandra, lived in the same home and shared the same bedroom until they were separated by death. Terry Castle has commented that their sororal relationship was defined by a “strong degree of eroticism” (Quinn), apparent in their letter correspondence. To further strengthen this claim, Austen’s remained unmarried and apparently “aloof from sexual passion with men” (Johnson); there was no sex in her life (Morgan). Maybe it is not a coincidence that her novels are “all about young girls o’ seventeen…not certain ‘oom they’d like to marry” (Johnson). Although it can be counter-argued that Jane Austen was only thought gay due the advent of queer theory and sexualization of everything, for the purposes of this essay, we will pretend that Austen was in fact a lesbian; this hypothesis will influence how we read and interpret Austen's novelistic characters. Is this connection between author and novel distracting (Quinn)? Does a reader well versed in Austen’s biographical knowledge reduce "her fiction to autobiographical therapy" (Quinn)? Does that reader then author-ise what is or is not in a 'given text' (Quinn) and "re-form the book along more appealing lines" (Quinn)? It appears that Jane Austen writes her homosexuality into Emma. With knowledge of Austen’s background, the reader is more attune to perceiving Emma as a lesbian. Emma can now be read with a masculine identity, behavior, and point of view. John Knightley views Emma as an equivalent male figure: “You and I, Emma, will venture to take the part of the poor husband…” (Korba); Emma seems to know precisely what a man wants in a woman: “I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment” (Korba); and Emma cultivates an ownership of Harriet: “Emma considers Harriet a valuable addition to her privileges” (Korba). Emma is also neither attracted nor attempts to be attractive to men (Korba): “Emma…prefers the company of women…[and that] Emma is in love with [Harriet]: a love unphysical and inadmissible, even perhaps undefinable in such a society” (Haggerty). Emma refuses the idea of a relationship of mutuality, because instead, she must dominate. Emma evidently aligns more so with the sexual politics and power of men. Moreover, Emma’s ability to form and maintain women’s relationships appears noteworthy – particularly in a time when culture interrupted such female friendships. Female friendships tended to be complicated by the discouragement of patriarchal culture and the need to…