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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Kissing in Jane Austen! Oh, my!

The mainstream media are convinced that Jane Austen’s work is a giant No Sex Zone.

Nothing seems to shake this perception, no matter how often you point out that there are two illegitimate children in Sense and Sensibility, a living-in-sin elopement in Pride and Prejudice, a home-wrecking adultery in Mansfield Park, and a kept-woman situation in Persuasion.

Nope, nope, nope: Austen is all tremulous glances and virgins in frilly white dresses, and those nutty Janeites can’t handle racier stuff. “For Jane Austen purists, the sight of two characters sharing a kiss in a screen adaptation is enough to set hackles rising,” insists the Telegraph.

Hence the excessive fascination aroused by a recent speech by Austen scholar John Mullan at the annual Hay-on-Wye literary festival. (I note that two years ago, British novelist Howard Jacobson also talked about Jane Austen and sex at the Hay Festival. Apparently, this topic is inexhaustibly fascinating for British literary types.)

Mullan offered the not exactly startling conclusion that, in Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax may have been canoodling shortly before Emma finds them together in Miss Bates’ apartment, where Frank has allegedly been mending Mrs. Bates’ spectacles.

“I think they have been at it, in a Regency sort of way,” Mullan said. “I put it to you they’ve been snogging.”

Mullan, who should know better, also repeats the Austen-fans-don’t-like-kissing canard, and the Telegraph’s story cites as examples of Janeite purism objections to the kisses at the end of the 1995 Amanda Root Persuasion and the 2005 Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice.

In neither instance, though, did Janeites object to the kiss per se: we objected to the public nature of the kiss in Persuasion (in the Regency, even long-married couples didn’t snog on the street), and to the saccharine nature of the dialogue in P&P (“Mrs. Darcy. . . Mrs. Darcy . . .”)

Kisses are no problem. It’s historical inaccuracy and bad writing that really raise Janeite hackles.


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