NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED HERE: https://litreactor.com/columns/jane-austen-reviews-fifty-shades-of-grey-by-el-james.
As well as writing six novels on the subject of love and marriage, Jane Austen kept up regular correspondence with her family, including her niece, Fanny Knight, who once asked her for advice on whether she should marry for love.
More recently, Fanny has come across the BDSM sensation Fifty Shades of Grey (Click here for book review) and, like many young women of independent mind, is unsure what message about modern romance it conveys. Unwilling to approach her mother on the subject, Fanny once again has turned to her aunt for a second opinion about E.L. James’ bestselling book.
My dearest Fanny
How touching that you should ask for my opinion on this novel. I received the commission with many tender feelings and in the hope that my thoughts might be of some help in guiding your own.
My delay in replying has two causes, the first owed to some difficulty in securing a method of reading which would prevent discovery. This proved to be the smaller of the two obstacles. After several interruptions in the dining-parlour where I found myself forced to cast the volume under a nearby pelisse, I concealed the book within the cover of a collection of sermons by the late Rev. Ewd. Soames and was able to continue undisturbed for several hours.
The second obstacle took the form of my inability to comprehend certain of the terms used. My recourse to Papa’s dictionary proved futile and in the end I had to avail myself of other counsels. As fortune would have it, a visit was planned to the home of Mrs J-, who, as a married woman, I felt might be able to shed some light on the matter.
I broached the subject as soon as the tea was poured, explaining my difficulty and my heartfelt desire to overcome it.
Mrs J- expressed herself perfectly willing to assist me and proposed I begin with a list of those terms with which I was unfamiliar. These I had noted on the back of the weekly grocery order.
‘Clitoris, vagina, erection…’
Mrs J- stopped me there. She assisted me with some diagrams. Reference was made to bulls and cows. Once we had established those facts, I expressed myself surprised at the notion of female organs of pleasure. Could these truly be said to exist?
Mrs J assured me they did and that all women possessed them. With some reservations, I accepted her word on the subject and proceeded to enquire if she could help me judge the accuracy of some other elements of the work. To this proposal, she agreed.
Was it true, I wondered, if all marital relations required the male to beat the female with a braided leather strop? I had in the past imagined that a harmonious relationship between man and woman might be achieved through a lucky balance of temperaments, an ability to treat the other with respect and a cheerful acceptance of one’s own faults and infelicities. These were the ideals around which I had modeled my own novels – that love might be achieved through conversation, reflection and misunderstandings at country houses. Now it seemed that a whole paraphernalia of objects about which I had up to that point remained completely ignorant formed an essential part of the process. Genital clamps. Handcuffs. Bedposts. Floggers. Baby oil. I referred once more to the back of my grocery account. Were all these devices in common use by young people embarking on their first experience of Romance?
Mrs J- sought to reassure me that none of these appliances had figured in her courtship, nor as far as she was aware in those of any of her family or near acquaintance. She expressed the firm conviction that for most people, married love did not feature being tied to a wooden cross and struck on the clitoris with a crop.
We sipped our tea and fortified ourselves with a buttered scone. I then ventured to comment that in some respects the work possessed some similarities to my own: the disparity in wealth between man and woman, the seeming impossibility of their union in happiness, the interfering family—
Once again Mrs J- interrupted me. She confessed that she herself had also read the book. Everyone, it seems has read it. Even the Minister’s wife has read it. Carried along by this wave of mass approval, she also purchased a copy and read it.
‘But I have not read it,’ I said. ‘Until now.’
She patted my hand and expressed the thought that this did not entirely surprise her, then before I could ask her what she meant by that, went on to enquire as to my impression of the character of Anastasia, the young woman at the centre of the story. Did she, in any respect, resemble the women I invented for my own works of fiction?
I thought of Elizabeth Bennet and her refusal to excuse Mr Darcy’s poor behavior despite his wealth and standing. I thought of Elinor Dashwood’s cool, intelligent acceptance of her circumstances. I thought of Emma who always receives courteous behavior because she never puts up with anything lesser.
‘Perhaps Fanny of Mansfield Park?’ I ventured.
Mrs J- demurred. Would Fanny allow a man to arrange her visits to a doctor? Would Fanny sit quietly while a man decides what she should eat? Would Fanny allow a man to attempt to win her affections with expensive gifts?
‘No,’ I said. ‘No she would not.’
Exactly, said Mrs J-. The young women I wrote about, she said, were females of sound character and independent thought. Like Anastasia, their experience of the world might be limited, but they placed enough value on themselves to resist the advances of a man whose fundamental emotional weakness meant he could only achieve marital satisfaction through the use of whips, chains and treating his partner in life as though she had the mental capabilities of a small child. In accepting this treatment (and even apologizing when some small act of rebellion threw him into a sulk), Anastasia demonstrated as much self-esteem as Mrs J-‘s antimacassar.
‘What you are saying,’ I interpolated during a lull (for she had grown rather warm), ‘is that Anastasia forms a very poor role model for any young woman happening to read this book.’
Mrs J- recovered her breath and agreed. She would not want her own daughters to believe that a man’s wealth and power excused such infirmities of character. She would not want her daughters to see Anastasia’s behavior as representing anything but a curious twist in human psychology.
‘I see.’ I replaced my teacup in its saucer. ‘Anastasia, poor child, is a flake.’
And so was Mr Grey, concluded Mrs J-. One might read about their antics with interest, but in the end, one could only feel pity for them.
We concluded our conversation on that note, with promises that Mrs J- would repay my visit soon in order that we plan our next round of charitable donations for Relief of the Poor. My account of our conversation forms the basis of my assessment dearest Fanny to which I would add this: Should you happen to encounter a single man in possession of a good fortune but in want of a wife, and his attempts to woo you include a tour of his Red Room of Pain along with an invitation to sign a contract governing your eating, sleeping, mode of dress, personal habits and hygiene arrangements, you have my firm direction to run screaming in the opposite direction.