Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics
and the Literary Canon. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 49. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002.
xiii + 242 pp. Illus.: 4 halftones. $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-80859-6).
Bibliographic Citation: Looser, Devoney.
"On Clara Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary
Canon." [date of access]. Romantic Circles Reviews
7.2 (2004): 7 pars. 19 Apr. 2004. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/reviews/tuite.html>.
Table of Contents
List of illustrations
Note on texts used
Introduction: the "fall into a quotation": tracking the canonical,
Romantic and post-Romantic Austen
1. Aunt Jane's "early workings" and "betweenities":
closet dramas of literary apprenticeship
2. Sensibility, free indirect style and the Romantic technology of discretion
3. Breeding heritage culture: Mansfield Park, reflections on the
revolution in France and the glorious revolutions of the country house
4. Austen's romantic fragment: Sanditon and the sexual politics
of land speculation
- Debates about whether or not Austen is "Romantic" have raged
for decades, so it is surprising that Clara Tuite's forceful book is
the first to address the subject. Tuite's argument, that Austen's
writings are steeped in some of the ideologies of Romanticism, is certainly
accurate. It should seem odd to label Austen an Augustan or Regency
author, either removed from her own day and age or placed in a literary
category all her own. Tuite's book might provoke arguments about which
ideologies Austen's texts display, but Romantic Austen provides
the groundwork on which future scholars who consider the matter will
need to build.
- Those who expect to see comparison to the "big six" and
their relationship to Austen's oeuvre will be either disappointed or
surprised. Though there are a handful of references to Wordsworth and
Coleridge, the names Shelley, Keats, Byron, and Blake do not appear
herein. The Romantic to whom Tuite repeatedly compares Austen
is Edmund Burke; the term she most often associates with both figures
is "organicism" (11). As Tuite puts it, "it is
possible to identify Austen with a kind of Burkean position that venerates
the country ideal and attempts the 'renovation' of the paternal aristocratic
order" as the natural order (170). Likening Austen to Burke
does not tell the whole story for Tuite. What complicates Austen's debt
to Burke is "feminocentrism," a feature that shows Austen's
"commitment to upward mobility for women" and that makes her
a kind of "Tory feminist" (95; 170). Austen manifests a greater
liberal and professional investment in writing than does Hannah More
or Jane West, according to Tuite; Austen also exhibits a greater sense
of the "aesthetic as an autonomous category" (171). Tuite's
study explores "the relationship between aristocratic apologia
and female social mobility" in Austen's writings (155).
- Tuite writes that she means for her title to call up not only Romanticism
and the Romantic period but also to signify the "romance"
of heterosexual love (17). Page for page, the Burkean Austen gets
more extensive treatment than the feminocentric one. Nevertheless, those
sections in which sex and gender take center stage will likely provoke
more commentary. These sections might be classed (in an emerging field
of study indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and pioneered by Terry Castle,
Claudia Johnson, and D. A. Miller, among others) as "Queer Austen"
(17). In her introduction, Tuite includes clever readings of popular
uses of Austen, including one of a Museum of London poster, touting
an exhibition titled, "Pride & Prejudice: Lesbian and Gay London"
(20-1). She also makes a case for a "queer reading of Austen"
by "interrogating heterosexual romance at the level of genre and
canonical reproduction" (18).
- The project of "queering" emerges in nearly every
chapter. It does so in the reading of Catharine, or The Bower's
Aunt Percival, who is seen as a deviant maiden aunt devoted to closeting
her charge in a story of "homosexual panic" (34). Tuite concludes,
"the bower is a prepubescent female matrix from which the sexually
ambiguous heroine emerges into heterosexuality" (38). Later
sections in the chapter link this reading to interpretations of Austen
as "maiden aunt" and show how this relates to her canonicity.
Tuite suggestively concludes that Austen's canonicity demonstrates "the
rise' of the novel as the rise of the maiden aunt"the
"major social type of literary practitioner from the late eighteenth
- Another notable emergence of the book's "queering Austen"
project occurs in the last chapter, devoted to Sanditon. There,
we are told, "childless woman and niece hoarder" Lady Denham
"adumbrates the figure of the lesbian vampire" (174).
Denham is so labeled because she "preys on sick young women and
bleeds rich young West Indians, not with leeches but with milch-asses,
thereby reversing the maternal figure of milking" (174).
Tuite identifies this lesbian vampirism as neo-Gothic, prototypical,
and elegant (174-5). Again, Tuite leads us toward a biographical connection.
She concludes that Lady Denham is fashioned as "a kind of fantastical
alter-ego of Austen" (190). This is because "Austen's
unfinished' novel finishes with the spectacle of a parvenue female
who keeps the patrimonial fetishes of aristocratic culture but wishes
to pass them down through women" (190).
- In the more directly Burkean sections of Romantic Austen, Tuite
works in the critical tradition of Marilyn Butler, whom she cites with
frequency. The other critic to whom Tuite is indebted is Clifford
Siskin, whose important work on Romantic development and on "the
work of writing" buttresses Tuite's arguments in every chapter.
Chapter two shows how Sense and Sensibility comes "to be
an instantiatory text of British domestic realism
. moved from
being unremarkable to being almost the only version of sensibility which
was told in English literary history" (58). It does this,
Tuite argues, through its "formal mechanisms" (62), including
free indirect discourse and "counter-romance" (68).
Chapter three uses Mansfield Park to show that "Austen's
texts themselves participate in the Romantic-period cultural strategy
of naturalizing the country, and its local social relations," as
did Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (100).
Tuite sees the texts as two sides of the same coin: "If Burke's
Reflections offers political history as family romance, Mansfield
Park is the family romance as political history" (101).
In this assessment, she is convincing, though I am not as persuaded
as she is that Burke (and not Wollstonecraft or Godwin) is the appropriate
comparison for Austen.
- As the above summaries and quotations illustrate, Romantic Austen
is a multi-layered and multi-faceted book that requires and generally
rewards patient reading. The book is at its best when it gives readers
strong arguments with which to grapple. Tuite's writing ticks may prove
frustrating; there were too many uses of words like "instantiate"
and "interimplicate" for my taste. Occasionally, the argument
is also difficult to discern in her dazzling rhetoric. Ultimately,
however, the book offers up fascinating (if sometimes off-the-wall)
interpretations of Austen. Tuite makes polemical statements on the subjects
of sexual politics, genre, class, and nation that are sure to spark
further and future debates on the character of Austen's relationship
to Romanticism and/or the Romantic era.
Review published 19 April 2004; last updated 25 June