By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 6 2020 01:00PM
Jane Austen has been used and abused in so many different ways by now, pressed into service to sell everything from perfume to romance novels to white supremacy, that you’d think nothing could surprise us Janeites.
And yet I did find it a bit of a shock to learn about a recent Australian sexual harassment suit in which Austen was invoked – to defend the harasser.
Back in 2015-16, a solicitor named Owen Hughes, the principal of a small law firm in the Australian state of New South Wales, subjected a paralegal named Catherine Hill to an onslaught of unwanted advances.
He sent her frequent emails – some of them in “poor French,” according to a legal ruling -- professing his love and suggesting romance. In the office, he stood in her doorway, refusing to move until she supplied him with hugs. And on a business trip, he twice entered her bedroom – once surprising her as she returned from a shower wrapped only in a towel, and once waiting on her mattress, clad in an undershirt and boxer shorts. (On that occasion, he declined to leave until she gave him – yes – a hug.) To top it all off, he threatened to undermine her professional training if she reported his bad behavior.
Eventually, the poor woman quit and sued, winning $170,000 in damages last year. Her sleazeball boss appealed, losing his case late last month in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel.
His defense? His behavior couldn’t be sexual harassment because it wasn’t sexual; it consisted merely of honorable requests for love and affection, just like Mr. Darcy’s advances to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. (Yes, the harasser literally compared himself to Mr. Darcy.)
The judges in the case were, understandably, incredulous at this argument. “I reject the submission of Senior Counsel for the Appellant that these were the actions of a Mr. Darcy,” appeals court Justice Nye Perram wrote in rejecting Hughes’ appeal. “The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be.”
Although I’m delighted to see a wronged woman winning her day in court, I have to quibble slightly with Justice Perram’s formulation, which betrays a narrow understanding of the works of Our Author.
It’s certainly true that Hughes is no Mr. Darcy, but what about Mr. Collins, who initially refuses to accept that Elizabeth’s no means no? Or Mr. Elton with Emma: “her hand seized -- her attention demanded”? Or Henry Crawford, intent on making “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” regardless of Fanny's preferences in the matter?
Jane Austen knew this type of man. The facts of Hughes’ creepy coerciveness aren’t actually all that far from an Austen novel. Hughes' mistake came in identifying himself with the hero.