Five Questions: Sarah Ailwood on Jane Austen’s Men

Sarah Ailwood is a Senior Lecturer in the Law School at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. Her research draws on literary studies, gender theory and legal theory to investigate relationships between gender and subjectivity in law and literature, through both historical and contemporary approaches. She has published work exploring the complexities of women’s legal memoirs and feminist law reform, and co-edited (with Melinda Harvey) an essay collection examining Katherine Mansfield and Literary Influence. Her first monograph, Jane Austen’s Men: Rewriting Masculinity in the Romantic Era, which we discuss below, was published by Routledge in August 2019.

1) How did you first become interested in writing a book on Jane Austen’s men?

I became interested in Jane Austen’s men when I decided – several years ago now – to write my PhD on Austen. As an undergraduate I was strongly impressed and influenced by feminist literary scholarship on Austen and other women writers, and when I started my PhD I knew that was the area I wanted to pursue. When I began my research, I realised that only half the story of Austen’s engagement with gender was being told, and that my contribution could be shining a feminist light on Austen’s men. It was well established that Austen’s heroines represented Romantic feminine selfhood and agency, and I was interested in what Austen had to say about the implications of such a model of feminine subjectivity for masculinity.

Several years passed between completing my PhD and publishing by book. It is fantastic that in the intervening time so much interest in eighteenth-century and Romantic literary masculinity has emerged. It allowed me to revisit Austen’s men in new and unexpected ways when completing the book. In particular, I was able to explore how Austen negotiated questions of authorship and genre in how she rewrote masculinity, and the depth of her engagement with her contemporaries and popular fictional genres.

2) To what extent do you see Austen’s novels as developing a coherent position regarding healthy expressions of masculinity, and to what extent are her depictions of male protagonists contingent on the specific circumstances she sketches in each book?

I do see Austen’s novels as developing a coherent sense of masculine identity, which she presents as ideal or desirable – for both women and men – through its location in the courtship romance plot. Austen’s vision of idealised masculinity is independent and internalised, and measured according to authenticity to self rather than external measures such as peer-group status or reputation. By discarding masculine identities tailored to achieving different forms of social approval, Austen’s men are able to create space within heterosexual romance for the agency and selfhood embodied in her heroines, or which they crave.

However, the way in which Austen constructs this image of masculinity changes significantly across her novels. In Sense and Sensibility Austen introduces this ideal by exposing the fallacy of male literary stereotypes, establishing a platform for the more psychologically-complex men she would create in her later works. In some novels, such as Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, men strive to transform themselves to achieve this masculine ideal, with varying degrees of success, and Austen represents the inherent challenges such an ideal presents. In Emma, Austen champions its radically disruptive potential, and in Persuasion she exposes the complex flipside of an authentic masculine identity that is confronted by rejection, grief and loss. So although Austen promotes a coherent vision of desirable masculinity, she also critiques and complicates it from a range of perspectives.

3) In what principal ways do you see Austen’s versions of masculinity responding to those posited by her male and female contemporaries?

Austen’s rewriting of masculinity was deeply engaged with the work of her predecessors and contemporaries, and there is much work yet to be done to uncover its full extent (as well as the extent to which other Romantic women writers were themselves concerned with rewriting masculinity). I see Austen’s career in two stages in this regard. In the first stage, Austen responds to stereotyped literary masculinities she inherits from her eighteenth-century predecessors, particularly in Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and explores how a new masculine ideal might be created in the courtship romance genre. This project reaches its zenith in Pride and Prejudice, in which Austen takes male subjectivity as a subject in its own right, and dramatises the process by which a man who is otherwise a bastion of gentry society transforms himself solely to become desirable to a woman who embodies the disruptive potential of Romantic feminine selfhood and agency.

In the second stage, Austen is acutely responsive to the fictional genres that arose in the 1800s and 1810s, the representations of literary masculinity they champion and their implications for gender relationships. She is particularly concerned at the emergence of popular fictional genres that sought to reinscribe a conservative gender hierarchy, which she had debunked in Pride and Prejudice. In Mansfield Park Austen responds directly to Evangelical fiction, particularly works by Hannah More and Mary Brunton, and its reinforcement of conventional ideologies of sexual difference. Austen critiques Evangelical masculinity through both Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram, men who see Fanny only as fulfilling a socially-prescribed role as ‘wife’. In Emma Austen similarly critiques conservative gender hierarchies, this time in the national tales of Sydney Owenson and Maria Edgeworth, through the relationship between the idle and feckless Frank Churchill and the highly-accomplished and intelligent Jane Fairfax. Austen finds a more modern, progressive model of masculinity and gender relationships, however, in the historical novel, and particularly Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, which she celebrates through the relationship between Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley. In Persuasion Austen’s engagement with contemporary poets, particularly Lord Byron, certainly contributes to her exploration of the potentially damaging consequences of an internalised, psychologically-complex vision of masculinity.

4) In concluding your introduction, you write that ‘it is ironic that [Austen’s] male protagonists are now equated with a particularly stylised model of romantic literary heroism.’  Is this a relationship you see as problematically warping modern apprehensions, or an irony usually transcended when readers, viewers or adaptors look deeper?

I think that given Austen’s innovation not only in advocating a new and modern masculine ideal, but also in complicating it in different ways across her novels, it is ironic that Austen’s men are now often associated with a literary stereotype of the desirable romantic hero, when Austen explicitly wrote against stereotyped literary masculinity. Measuring Austen’s men against literary stereotypes – as romantic heroes or villains – elides their complexity and has lead to the dismissal of some of her most interesting and complex characters for being unattractive or unworthy of the heroines. Fortunately in modern adaptations there tends to be a greater emphasis on considering her men from a more global perspective, which I think demands that audiences consider them more deeply, in the same way that Austen required of her readers in the 1810s.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I would love to extend this research to explore other Romantic women writers and masculinity, particularly through the lens of emerging new approaches to theorising literary influence, to explore whether reconstructing masculinity could be considered a shared endeavour among Austen and her contemporaries. Let me know if you’re interested in collaborating! I’m also working on eighteenth-century women’s published memoirs of their legal experiences, exploring their generic negotiations of legal and textual subjectivity, and researching and advocating for sexual harassment law reform in Australia, and other legal responses to the #metoo movement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prove you're human with the power of SIMPLE MATHS (Turing would be proud) *