Ask Janeites about their favorite author’s political and social views, and you’ll often hear arguments that boil down to this: Jane Austen agrees with me. Whether I’m a militant conservative, or a radical feminist, or a family-values Christian, or a religious skeptic, or a laissez-faire capitalist, or a democratic socialist, or an anti-imperialist, or a moderate progressive, or some combination of the above, Jane Austen was squarely in my camp.
The latest person to take this Austenian Rorschach test is the British actor Turlough Convery, a regular on the TV adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death. The third and final season of Sanditon, which aired in the U.S. earlier this year and is currently screening in Britain, gives Convery’s character, Arthur Parker, a sweetly tentative same-sex romance. And Convery is certain that Austen approves.
“A person like Arthur . . . those people existed at all times, they existed, so Jane Austen would have known, would have connected, would have seen people like this,” Convery told an interviewer earlier this month (scroll down for a video clip). “So I believe deep down that Arthur would have been written exactly like this if Jane Austen was around now.
“She was a rule-breaker, she was someone who just went, ‘No, I’m not going to accept that it has to be a certain way,’ ” Convery continued. “She gave women a voice at a time whenever women weren’t allowed to have a voice, and I think if that doesn’t speak to who she would be now and who she’d be writing about and the characters like Arthur that she’d be writing about, then I think we’re misconstruing history.”
To me, all this seems both terribly well-meaning and deeply silly. Yes, of course gay people have always existed, but Jane Austen’s novels and letters contain no explicit (or even, I would argue, implicit) mention of that fact,* let alone any endorsement of non-hetero sexualities. Yes, of course Austen was an artistic innovator, but her personal life was hardly unconventional: Calling her a “rule-breaker” seems like a stretch. And given that Austen wrote solely about the members of a rather privileged social stratum, casting her as a champion of the marginalized seems like another.
Meanwhile, to suggest that early nineteenth-century England was a place where “women weren’t allowed to have a voice” is, well, to misconstrue history: Certainly women of Austen’s time had limited political and economic rights, but any number of them found their voice in the writing of fiction, poetry, drama, and assorted genres of non-fiction. Why, there’s a whole research library dedicated to this stuff!
What about Convery’s confident assertion that “Arthur would have been written exactly like this if Jane Austen was around now”? Let us first note that Arthur wasn't written exactly like this when Jane Austen was around: In the few surviving pages of Sanditon, he is described as a stout, gluttonous, and lazy hypochondriac, but his sexuality goes unmentioned. And if Austen were around now, she might be many things, but the one thing she definitely wouldn’t be is Jane Austen, since Jane Austen was the product of a specific historical, cultural, and artistic moment. Drawing conclusions about what this time-traveling Austen would be writing if she weren’t a figment of our twenty-first-century imaginations seems to me to be an impossible task.
Convery’s hymn of praise to the assumed inclusiveness of a non-existent modern Austen tells us plenty about his own values—which, to be clear, I share!--and nothing at all about Austen. Except that, apparently, she agrees with him.
* On second thought, let me amend that: There are two passages in Austen that can plausibly be interpreted as allusions to gay sex: The "sharade" on the name of James I's favorite Robert Carr, in the "History of England," and Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" joke in Mansfield Park. As historians have argued, however, gay sex isn't the same thing as a gay identity.