Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 20 2020 02:00PM

Fifty-second in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


It’s no secret that Jane Austen held a jaundiced view of the frequent childbearing that so often accompanied marriage in her era. But the letter she began writing to her niece Fanny Knight exactly 203 years ago today (#151 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) contains one of her few suggestions for how to solve this problem.


“Good Mrs Deedes!” Austen wrote, referring to Fanny’s maternal aunt, who had recently given birth to a daughter, her eighteenth child in twenty-four years. “I hope she will get the better of this Marianne, & then I wd recommend to her & Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.”


Austen’s Regency contemporaries were far less sexually reticent than their Victorian successors, but it’s still a bit startling to eavesdrop on Austen discussing sex so openly in a letter to an unmarried female relative. (Although, as a twenty-four-year-old with ten younger siblings, Fanny was presumably already well aware of how babies are made.) More striking, however, is what Austen’s acerbic recommendation to the Deedes family tells us about herself.


Austen almost certainly died a virgin, and although some of the relationships in her novels carry a sexual charge, her stories end before the strong friendships and mutual attraction of her heroes and heroines move into the bedroom. As a writer and as a woman, she never wrestled with the question of what role sex should play in a mature and happy marriage, or with the cost of giving it up.


Married at nineteen, Sophia Deedes – the older sister of Elizabeth Bridges Austen, wife of Austen’s brother Edward – was forty-four when Austen prescribed her “simple regimen of separate rooms.” Were the Deedeses a happy couple whose prolific childbearing grew out of mutual passion? Or did Sophia count ceiling tiles while doing her conjugal duty for England? We’ll never know.


But surely Jane Austen must have realized that not every woman, no matter how exhausted by childbearing, would prefer the safety of sexual abstinence to the risks and rewards of a physical relationship with her husband. Perhaps the limitations of Austen’s own experience, or her characteristic preference for head over heart, or her understandable anxiety about the health of her female friends and relatives, made her less than sensitive to the true complexity of the issue.


In any case, the Deedeses apparently didn’t adopt Austen’s prescription: Their nineteenth and final child was born the following year.


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