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From Phyllida's Desk

Seduction and Conversation

The Jane Austen convention (formally known as the JASNA AGM, the Jane Austen Society of North America's annual general meeting) that ended a week ago on Monday was such a mind-blowing experience for me that I had hoped to write up a kind of "what I did last summer (week)" school report. I'd discuss, in chronological order, or more ambitiously, in order of fabulousness, the events of the five days, and devote a paragraph or two of evaluation to each.

Well, that's not happening. Instead, I want to discuss one of the sessions that left me exhilarated and eager to share what I learned. It was about Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, popularly known as Madame de Stael, and Jane Austen, and it was called "The Seductiveness of Conversation."

Madame de Stael (I'm leaving off her umlaut, because diacritics wreak so much digital havoc) is remembered today, if at all, primarily for keeping a salon—that is, bringing together those members of society capable of conducting an intelligent conversation, and then conversing intelligently for an evening. In Stael's time it was a way for a woman to establish herself as an intellectual and an "interesting" person. Although Stael did write and publish, her fame lies more in her personality, her conversation, than in her writing.

Jane Austen, of course, is now considered to be among the top ranks of English novelists, and the dialogue in her novels is some of the wittiest and most intelligent ever written. Her books are satirical, sharply observed portraits of the people that Austen lived among and knew best: country gentry, about as different as one can get from the cosmopolitan high society of Stael's salons in post-revolutionary France and elsewhere in Europe. We know that Austen was appreciated by her large family for her conversation and wit as well as her writing, but the one time she had a chance to meet Stael, she declined.

Why? In the session, conducted by Chicagoans Jeff Nigro, an art historian, and William Phillips, an ESL/EFL instructor, we learned a number of possible reasons, but the real issue seems to be a clash of personalities. Stael's outlook was "sentimental" and "romantic." She married young, for money and position, and there was no love between husband and wife, nor was there expected to be. As soon as she had produced a son, she was free to live apart and take lovers, men chosen for their wit and intellectual appeal, not just physical attributes.

Austen never married, but if she had, it would have been for love. She accepted one offer, out of the desire to help her family financially, but she changed her mind the next day. As a spinster, she lived her entire short life (dead at 41) with her family; after her father's death, that meant her mother and sister. Apart from some unhappy years in Bath, and extended visits to London and friends' and relatives' houses, her life was spent primarily in the country, in the villages of Steventon of her childhood and youth, and Chawton of her adult life.

In these two women, contemporaries, only ten years apart in age, we see exemplars of two opposite approaches to life and to art. Stael is Romantic with a capital R, Austen is realistic, and emphatically lower-case. Nowhere is the difference so pronounced as in their views on seduction—and conversation. For Stael, seduction and conversation went together. Not conventionally beautiful, she seduced her lovers with her wit and her lush body, her intellect and her passion together creating an irresistible package. For Austen, such behavior is unthinkable¬, ridiculous. We can imagine her lampooning a personality like Stael, never emulating her.

Recently, as it happens, I've been reading articles that dispute the popular notion that "there's no sex" in Austen's work. Partly because there's so much explicit sex in the recent crop of novels (like my Pride/Prejudice) that are prequels, sequels, alternative versions or mash-ups, it's sometimes assumed that in the original novels the characters don't experience sexual feelings at all. And, as scholars and close readers alike have occasion to point out, you have only to read Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth's exchanges at the end of Persuasion or Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy's back-and-forth zingers in Pride and Prejudice to know how wrong that attitude is.

But sensuality and sexuality are not necessarily seduction.

For Stael, seduction was the highest form of art, in conversation and in life. For Austen, seduction is not a virtue at all: it's a vice. The seducers in her novels are the closest she comes to creating villains: Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, who seduces a fifteen-year-old girl, impregnates her and abandons her, then attempts to seduce the very willing Marianne. There's William Walter Elliot in Persuasion, whose veneer of seductive charm masks a reality of cold opportunism. And of course Wickham in Pride and Prejudice is the walking embodiment of seduction: good-looking in the perfect combination of masculine and "pretty," and very charming. He'd score A+ with Stael for conversation and sex appeal. But he leaves nothing but bad memories and gambling debts behind in every town he's billeted in, and he runs off with Elizabeth's barely-legal (sixteen) sister Lydia, only marrying her when Darcy catches him and pays him to man up.

During the many sessions of the AGM we learned a lot about the particulars of English style vs. the French or European style in Austen's time, the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In every area: men's and women's clothing, hair styles, interior décor and in manners of speech, the English style favored simplicity and directness. English hair styles were softer and more natural looking; clothes less elaborate and more functional, for riding or walking. And so, it seems to me, Austen's characters reflect the simple, direct good manners and lack of pretension that were the behavioral ideal of the English aesthetic.

"There is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation," Mr. Darcy says, deflating Miss Bingley's attempt to distinguish herself as superior to Elizabeth (or any other woman Mr. Darcy might pursue). "Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable." Nothing could be further from Stael's world. Here in Austen's world, good people, men and women both, must walk a very fine line between exposing their feelings and concealing them. To betray one's feelings openly was, for a woman, to risk appearing compromised; for a man, unsophisticated or downright stupid. But "cunning" is even worse—the deliberate attempt to seduce a partner by employing "arts."

But what of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy? Reading their brilliant banter feels like watching two passionate people engaging in a live sex act on center stage. I've referred to it, more than once, as "conversational sexual intercourse." But for the purpose of my argument, that's the point: it's not seduction at all. It's wham, bam, right there, direct and open, even if neither party was entirely aware of the intensity of the attraction. Mr. Darcy is fighting his feelings of love, while Elizabeth doesn't realize feels any attraction at all. It's all sex at this point. But wow! Is it ever!

Stael's one recorded comment on Austen's books was "vulgaire," meaning commonplace, ordinary. Exactly. Austen knew that overblown Romantic silliness is the enemy of good fiction. She made grand drama out of the ordinary, commonplace events that are the stuff of most people's lives. It's unlikely she could have been happy in high society, with or without a salon: she had too sharp a satirical vision to take it seriously.

The only reason any of this matters to me is that I see myself as almost 100% like Stael and not at all like Austen. I'm a performer by nature like Stael, a would-be diva and star, not modest as Austen was, whether by choice or necessity. I may not be Romantic or "sentimental," but I can't imagine a better life than Stael's, with lovers and conversation, a reputation as a wit and a celebrated salon. But there's that insistent 1% of me that values the superior writer—Austen—and wishes I could be half as good as she was. It's a funny thing to be like one person but to admire her opposite.

Everybody who knows me at all knows I love Jane Austen. But I'm adding the portrait of Stael to my meager stock of images on Facebook and LiveJournal, to show the world that other side of me—the person behind the writer.

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