Today’s guest is the wonderful Janet Mullany, who I know from our Avon/HarperCollins days! Welcome Janet!
What Jane Austen taught me about erotic writing
Thanks so much for inviting me to guest blog, Jess. I’m thrilled to be here and have this opportunity to talk about a writer who’s influenced us all.
Tomorrow, December 16, is Jane Austen’s birthday. She was born in 1775 in Steventon, Hants., the youngest of a gentry family of bright overachievers, and died in 1817, leaving a legacy of six published novels, plus some fragments and letters. During her lifetime she published anonymously, but after her death her family started the Austen branding that has expanded today into movies, merchandise, and sequels, and that has branded her the queen or patron saint or something of Regency romance.
I think Austen the merciless satirist would be laughing her ass off.
So what does she have to tell us about writing erotic historicals? More than you might think. First, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Austen herself was not the sheltered spinster her family decided she should be. After Jane’s death, her sister burned and censored her letters, and it’s absolutely delightful when you find something mean, knowing, or snarky that Cassandra overlooked. The elegance, grand houses, and manners are there in the novels, but Austen invites you, if you choose, to look beneath the surface. They represent a yearning toward order in a world that is unkind and chaotic (particularly for women), ravaged by war, commerce, and slavery.
She is surprisingly explicit about money—surprising for us, that is. She and her heroines have an eye for real estate as well as the bulge in a gentleman’s breeches that represents his billfold. And about sex? It’s there, and—brace yourself—particularly in Mansfield Park. (I’m not talking about Pride & Prejudice because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel—Lizzie and Darcy and his rigid ten thousand a year throbbing away for three volumes). In Mansfield Park the sexy, witty, fearless characters are not the hero and heroine (bless their hearts, Edmund is staid, Fanny is wimpy, they’re both ridiculously longwinded, and eeew, they’re cousins), but the fascinating, seductive brother and sister duo Henry and Mary Crawford, neighbors who shake up the Bertram household. A household, by the way, already on shaky moral ground, with wealth originating in Antigua (i.e. sugar plantations worked by slaves), and almost certainly the title of the book refers to William Murray, Lord Mansfield, whose rulings as Lord Chief Justice brought about the end of the slave trade. Fanny has been adopted by her aunt Lady Bertram, to live at Mansfield Park, giving her a chance to rise above her own family’s poverty.
But I digress. You have to love a character who swans into the room at the first rehearsal of a play with the words: What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?
OMG. Breeches buttons hit the ceiling.
Oh that Mary Crawford. She gets even more risqué—or does she?—later on: Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Uh, okay, she’s talking about the Navy. Rear Admirals, Vice Admirals. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat. OMG, she knows exactly what she’s talking about. Possibly.
Other than (maybe, maybe not) Mary “Dirty Mouth” Crawford, Mansfield Park is unusual among Austen’s books in its multiple points of view and the characters’ physical awareness, of each other and of their surroundings, and I think that awareness of what’s going on inside and out is what makes erotic writing work. The book is full of references to space, horizons, the landscape improvements of Repton and others that open up vistas; and their movements around the house are like the stage entrances and exits of the naughty play, Lovers’ Vows, which they put on. There’s an extraordinary scene, elaborately choreographed, involving a locked gate, when the Bertrams, Fanny, and the Crawfords visit the estate of Miss Bertram’s fiance. When Fanny visits her family in Portsmouth you almost expect her to whip out a tape measure, so shocked is she by the humble dimensions of the room. And it’s there you get this amazing piece of writing, where inanimate objects represent Fanny’s state of mind:
She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy…
There is some daringly close physical contact and a description of desire that, unusual for Austen, does not include a gentleman’s country seat or income:
…Maria, still feeling her hand pressed to Henry Crawford’s heart, and caring little for anything else.
And this passage, my favorite from the book and possibly the closest to erotic writing without the sex, describing Fanny’s awareness of Henry Crawford as he reads aloud:
… she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it—and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.
Now, that is sexy.
Mansfield Park is a difficult and confusing book, but I’d certainly recommend Patricia Roczema’s 1999 movie, which, although it beats you over the head with the slavery issue, is clever and beautifully acted, and has the sexiest Crawfords you could wish for.
Do you have a favorite classic that speaks to you? Tell us!
Janet Mullany writes mostly sexy historicals as well as books that do terrible things to Jane Austen. She drinks a lot of tea. Find her online at:
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