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Jane Austen’s Love Language: Constructions of Female Desire Through Reading/Writing in Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan

By Meghan Farbridge

Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey derisively suggests that women’s writing “is faultless except [for] … a general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar” (Austen 16). Perhaps Luce Irigaray, the twentieth-century feminist theorist, may have countered that women purposefully eschew ‘stops’ and ‘grammar.’ Women’s language, Irigaray argues, “sets off in all directions leaving ‘him’ unable to discern the coherence of any meaning” (28–29).1 This linguistic strategy reflects the multiplicity of women’s sexuality. Female language, she claims, expresses sexual pleasure. Critical readings of Jane Austen are not typically prurient ones, yet there are certainly subtle libidinal undertones within Austen’s acutely clever prose. In Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan, two of her posthumously published early works, the libidinal is mediated through novels and letters. Northanger Abbey is the bildungsroman of avid Gothic novel-lover, Catherine. Lady Susan is the epistolary tale of the titular Susan Vernon and her coquettish schemes. Drawing upon Irigaray’s critiques as a modern feminist framework for these two novels, I argue that reading and writing are libidinal spaces wherein the female protagonists express their subjectivity, pleasure, and desire. Both within and outside the text, for character and author alike, language is a means of power. Through her self-reflexive discourse, Austen ironizes the idea that women’s desire – and thus female language – is something to be feared. She develops Catherine Morland and Lady Susan as female characters with complex interiorities, each capable of erotic desire in their own way. Catherine fashions her desires within novel-reading, and Susan within letter-writing. I suggest, then, that the spaces of reading and writing become an extension of the body; text becomes a kind of alternative erogenous zone. Despite her subversive narratives, however, Austen ends both Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan with ironic codas which undermine and even trivialize her own characters. With these abrupt conclusions, Austen reminds her readers of the real suppression of women’s desire and power in the nineteenth century.2

If in both Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan the characters express pleasure through language, then Austen, within the prose worlds she creates and governs, holds the ultimate sexual and textual power. With this power, Austen authors and authorizes her female characters. As Irigaray critiques, it is “the rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary” which allows the “multiplicity of female desire and female language [to] be understood as shards, scattered remnants of  … sexuality denied” (30). Austen figures her own female imaginary in prose, and so her characters’ desires are not ‘shards’ or ‘remnants’ – rather, her characters exist outside of a censorious patriarchal society. Austen cultivates an ecosystem for Catherine and Susan wherein the two women may explore their own sexual, intellectual, and powerful subjectivies. Each character is whole, not scattered in pieces; they have developed and faceted interiorities. Anything “denied” to these women is at the deliberate behest of Austen herself (Irigaray 30). In the sexually suppressive nineteenth century, woman still “finds pleasure almost anywhere” – for Catherine and Susan, it is within the novel and letter (Irigaray 28). 

Catherine Morland and Lady Susan relate to other characters and connect to themselves through reading and writing. In her younger years, Catherine struggles with elocution and writing, and the narrator deems her “occasionally stupid” – it is reading, rather than writing or speaking, which arouses her passion and brings her pleasure (Austen, NA 5). Catherine attempts to socialize with other characters by way of the novel. Her friendship with Isabella Thorpe is initially founded on their mutual appreciation of the literary form, but Isabella soon becomes more preoccupied with romantic engagements than books. Isabella’s brother, John Thorpe, rudely tells Catherine “Oh, Lord! … I never read novels; I have something else to do” because “novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff” (NA 32). Later, when Catherine gleefully “talk[s] of unexpected horrors in London,” a confused Eleanor Tilney does not register that Catherine is talking about a new novel (NA 82). Though Catherine’s love interest Henry Tilney enjoys novels, he tells her not to imagine she could cope with his knowledge of them (NA 78). A gendered power imbalance also divides his and Catherine’s shared enthusiasm for reading: “I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl at home” (NA 78; emphasis mine), Tilney tells her. He is condescending, and says that to “engage in the never-ceasing” conversation of “‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’” would “soon leave you … far behind me” (NA 78). In discussions of other arts, like drawing, “Catherine was quite lost” (NA 79). Despite Catherine’s attempts to connect socially with her peers through reading, her attachment to the novel isolates her from them.

An intrusion from Austen reminds the reader of the degrading “common cant” around the novel (NA 24): “‘Oh it is only a novel’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with … momentary shame” (NA 24; emphasis mine). Such shame around the novel gives the pleasure of reading a masturbatory air – especially in the context of the era, which considered masturbation to be self-abuse. Coupling this with the dismissal of novel-reading by her friends, it is clear that Catherine must turn to the novel as a private pleasure. Thus, reading serves an autoerotic function for Catherine. Novels provide a space for Catherine to understand her subjectivity away from, and amidst, the other characters.

It is significant to note that Catherine only finds such pleasure in fiction, an exercise in the imaginary. She can enjoy poetry or plays, but historical writing “is very tiresome” and tells Catherine “nothing that does not either vex or weary [her]” (NA 79). In the little bit of history she must read “as a duty,” she is only interested in the author’s embellishments to the facts as “invention is what delights [her] in other books” (NA 79). Histories to Catherine are “real solemn” reconstructions of reality where “the men are all so good for nothing, and [there are] hardly any women at all” (NA 79). Certainly Catherine’s sociopolitical reality in nineteenth-century England excludes women – so instead she identifies with fiction. Novels provide her with a space of invention and imagination, a space where “the greatest powers of the mind … [and] the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language” (NA 24). The novel is also a “production of extensive … pleasure,” as Austen pointedly reminds her reader (NA 23). Catherine experiences the pleasure of Udolpho, the novel with which she is infatuated, with libidinally charged affect. Reading completely absorbs and overwhelms her senses. Before a party, she is “left to the luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho, lost from all worldly concerns of dressing and dinner” (NA 35; emphasis mine). Austen, whose deliberate diction always invites close reading, chooses sensual words here. ‘Raised’ and ‘restless’ connote a pleasured quivering. Catherine is swept away into the text. Reading is not an escape from the world around her; rather, it is an avenue towards exploring her sexuality.

Catherine claims that she “cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible” (NA 96) – such is not a problem for the beautiful coquette, Lady Susan. By virtue of the epistolary form, the reader is able to directly witness the duplicitous subjectivities and intersubjectivities of the characters in Lady Susan, notably the women. Only a handful of the letters in the book are from the male perspective. By containing men within female writing, the women are in control. The subversive economy of power here is not patriarchal but one of written word and belief in that word. Power is feminized, moved to the private sphere, and becomes completely imbricated with language. Gossip ensures that Lady Susan not only defines her own self, but is also fictionalized in writing by the other characters. Mrs. Vernon and her brother, Reginald, define Susan by her sensual beauty and “high mental powers” (Austen, LS 208). The former dislikes Susan, and her contempt stems from Susan’s sexuality, “her neglect of her husband, her encouragement of other Men … were so gross and notorious” (LS 205). To Mrs. Vernon, Susan’s sexual confidence, and ability to attract and entrance men, is her “want of character” (LS 205). The ability to manipulate language and sway the opinion of other characters becomes a key part of the economy of power and control throughout the novel.

Susan’s actual libidinal energies are not just apparent in the hearsay of others. She manifests her desire in writing – not just her wishes for herself, but also those for others. Susan literally italicizes her desire that Frederica, “that horrid girl of mine … shall be punished, she shall have [Sir James]” (LS 212). She is adamant that she must “punish Frederica … severely … for her application [letter] to Reginald” and “punish him for receiving it so favourably” (LS 233). Lady Susan desires control over everyone’s language and lives – over the epistolary form itself. Susan even seems to have the capacity to “[take] from [Mrs. Vernon] the power of speaking with any clearness” (LS 219; emphasis mine). Susan uses her intellect and voice to seize the power of other characters by twisting their language. She has the deceitful and duplicitous ability to manipulate others’ words in order to suit her own needs and wants – this is pleasurable to her. Recall that the economy of control and power in this novel is one of language. So a control over the epistolary form – which is, until the conclusion, the only space for the characters’ existence – is thus a control over the entire landscape of the text. Lady Susan’s erotic desire is based in punishing and controlling the language of others, while her intellectual prowess is tied to her sense of superiority. 

Weaving these together, it becomes clear that Susan’s intellectual dominance is also a form of sexual dominance. She is said to be “the most accomplished Coquette in England,” yet her language of punishment, control, and power reveal that Susan is more than simply a coy, mischievous coquette (LS 195). Her letters begin to expose her as a kind of dominatrix. She derives erotic pleasure from her ability to control others, especially through language. And, in Sedgwick’s terms about Austen criticism in her essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” Susan “brandishe[s]” her language “like so many birch rods in Victorian sadomasochistic pornography” (833). Her writing becomes her whip:

There is something about [Reginald] that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity which I shall teach him to correct…There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a personacknowledge one’s superiority. (Austen, LS 200; emphasis mine)

Her use of ‘pleasure’ here underscores the erotics of this passage. She not only requires submission, but is piqued by challenges to her superiority that she can correct. Reginald’s so-called sauciness is his flirtatiousness – he proclaims in an early letter that he is a “distinguished Flirt” – as well as his willingness to question Lady Susan (LS 195). Her pleasure comes from actively taming him, and then receiving assent of her power and superiority over him. Control and dominance are the site of Susan’s sexual power: “a very few words from me softened [Reginald] at once into the utmost submission, and rendered [him] more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever” (LS 232; emphasis mine). Austen’s clever double entendre comes through in Lady Susan’s language here. The innuendo of softening hints at Reginald’s own sexuality – and how Susan, who can harden and soften him at her will, controls this too. Dominance in intellect and control over language is Susan’s exploration, or perhaps her pointed assertion, of her sexuality. 

Reading and writing are thus processes of, and spaces for, women’s pleasure and desire. Austen ironizes the idea that this desire and language is something dangerous. The newly literate and educated woman of the nineteenth century evoked ambivalence and anxiety in men, some of whom believed that “she who can bear to peruse [novels] must in her soul be a prostitute” (Fordyce 75). Indeed, such a comparison between prostitution and reading invites questions about Victorian ideals of purity. The strict and suppressive social mores of the nineteenth century saw any woman who had – or was suggested to have had – sexual relations outside of marriage as ‘fallen,’ a term used to shame women’s sexuality, desire, and pleasure. The ‘fallen woman’ of course included prostitutes, whose open, and thus immoral and ‘dirty,’ sexuality was a threat to the uneducated, submissive female trope of the ‘angel.’ So then to equate women’s language with the fallen lowliness of prostitution, as it was seen in this era, is to suggest that reading and writing were inherently impure and immoral for women. Austen seems to almost anticipate this developing Victorian trope, scathingly noting that “a woman especially if she [has] the misfortune of knowing any thing should conceal it as well as she can” (Austen, NA 81). Mistakenly, female “desire is often interpreted, and feared, as a sort of insatiable hunger, a voracity that will swallow you whole” (Irigaray 29). An educated, literate/literary woman is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to be submissive; she rejects the assumed “civility and deference of the youthful female mind” (NA 32). In this context, the fear of women’s desire is the fear of the autonomous, educated woman.

Catherine locates her transgressive sexual desires in the Gothic. This genre is her drug of choice, so to speak – often the Gothic novel was denounced as a literary drug, one which led to the overstimulation of women’s bodies and inevitably to their fallenness and immoral sexuality. Indulging in her own fancies and in the Gothic architecture of the abbey, Catherine believes General Tilney has locked up or even murdered his wife. Henry reprimands her: “Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained” (NA 145). His monologue is pedagogical, demanding that she “remember the country and the age in which we live” and berating her with rhetorical questions about education and legal systems (NA 145). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points to this theme in the “punishing, girl-centered moral pedagogy and erotics of Austen’s novels” as the “spectacle of a Girl Being Taught a Lesson” (833). Such a spectacle is “the forcible exaction…of what can only be the barest confession of a self-pleasuring sexuality” (834). Her indulgence in the novel is a dangerous, ‘dreadful’ one; Henry must correct Catherine’s naughty and transgressive reading of Gothic novels which causes her to pervert reality. There is little talk of novels after this point: “the visions of romance were over” (NA 146). Catherine is stripped of her space for imagination and desire. 

In Lady Susan, female language is cast as dark and occult. Susan’s very appearance “possesses an uncommon union of Symmetry, Brilliancy and Grace” and her “happy command of Language…is too often used…to make Black appear White” (LS 197–198; emphasis mine). Along with her alleged deceitfulness in language, the other characters villainize Susan throughout the text for how her beauty tricks them. She appears “five and twenty, tho’ she must in fact be ten years older” (LS 197). Despite not having the charms of youth, Susan nonetheless embodies a sexual power over both men and women – one rendered as monstrous because she is not submissive. “To come with a well-informed mind,” as Austen says in Northanger Abbey, “is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others” (81). This is certainly true of Lady Susan, whose purported “bewitching powers” are only her acute intellectual control (LS 201). Coupled with her entrancing beauty is her “Countenance [which] is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner [that are] winningly mild” (LS 199). But as Mrs. Vernon says of Susan’s sweet voice: “I am sorry … for what is this but Deceit?” (LS 198). Mrs. Vernon spends the entire narrative trying to expose Susan’s “perverted” and “dangerous abilities” of language (LS 243, 201). It is clear, then, that these women’s interest in reading and writing is seen as nefarious and endangering to themselves and to others. To suppress women’s language is to simultaneously suppress their desire. 

Austen, with characteristic wit and irony, cannot help but conclude her novels cynically. In the pedagogical scene at the abbey, Henry Tilney righteously disabuses Catherine of her imaginative notions. She is left ashamed and “most grievously humbled” (NA 146). “Her folly” – a particularly feminine stupidity – of “indulg[ing]” in reading “seemed even criminal” (NA 146). She is shunned from the abbey. “In her silence and sadness,” left literally with no language or words, “she was the very reverse of all she had been before” (NA 177). Yet, squished into a final paragraph, Austen grants Catherine “perfect happiness” (NA 177). This is, however, an ironizing of the classic marriage plot so popular at the time of the novel’s publication. Austen marries Catherine off to Henry, who flirts with her for most of the narrative. What “Catherine did not know” – but that Austen and her reader know – is that “a good-looking girl with an affectionate heart and very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man (NA 81). Henry is charmed, Austen suggests, by what he deems as Catherine’s “imbecility” (NA 81). Men do not “desire any thing more in a woman than ignorance” and so Henry is only attracted to those parts of Catherine to which he can condescend, and serve his own vanity (NA 81). In Austen’s ironic and cynical twist, Catherine is married off to this very man, who had once chastised her for her reading, her language: her only “felicity” (NA 177, 35). 

Similarly, Lady Susan’s disappointing and sudden conclusion – marked by a total change in narrative structure – undermines the titular character’s power and control. Austen steps in as though she is another epistolary character, a third-person ‘I;’ the reader realizes that this ‘I’ is, in fact, omniscient and scathingly ironic. Within a few pages, Austen reduces the “agonies” and “greatest distress[es]” of Lady Susan’s social theatrics to banalities and irony (LS 240, 236). She explains what a shame it is that “this Correspondence … could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office Revenue, be continued any longer” (LS 247). Lady Susan’s aggressive and manipulative character and schemes become simply a bit of money in the state’s pocket. Though it ends with Susan’s inevitable success – she abandons Frederica and marries the wealthy Sir James – this is overshadowed by Austen’s pity for Miss Manwaring, who “was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself” (LS 249). Despite figuring powerful moments throughout both novels, in the “tell-tale compression of the pages” there is only a dead end for Austen’s female characters (Austen, NA 185). There is no transcending the social conditions in which Jane Austen herself must survive. By undermining, in the conclusions, any challenges which her subversive narratives had made to her patriarchal social structures, Austen aggressively and ironically points the reader towards the actual inadequacies of the nineteenth century ethos. 

Every time a reader engages with Northanger Abbey or Lady Susan, however, they reopen Austen’s female imaginary and once again allow the women of the text, and Jane Austen herself, to live in these spaces of erotic power. Austen’s layers of fiction, motive, and irony are complex and compelling. Virginia Woolf explains Austen’s prosaic abilities best: “when she is pointing out where [things/people] are bad, weak, faulty, exquisitely absurd she is winged and inapproachable” (441). Austen herself is a woman writer in a position of power to critique her contemporary culture – and certainly her language as satirist, as practitioner of irony, allows her to speak and embody multiple voices. Thus language, in these two novels and elsewhere, is not only a tool for women’s autodidacticism, as much of women’s writing tended to be in this period; women’s reading and writing are also deeply connected with power. The practices of reading novels, for Catherine Morland, and writing letters, for Lady Susan, carve space in language for them to express their subjectivity and sexuality. The reader understands them as complex and subversive characters with individual motives. One must read Austen as Irigaray says one must hear woman: “as if hearing an ‘other meaning’ always in the process of weaving itself, of embracing itself with words” (29). When Austen or woman speaks, “it is already no longer identical with what she means” (Irigaray 29).

  1. Of course, Irigaray is not the only feminist theorist to make such a claim about ‘feminine’ language as inherently sexual. Much of twentieth-century feminist thought addresses female language in this way. I land on Irigaray here partially from my personal interest in her work, but also because of Irigaray’s thoughts on feminine multiplicity and plurality, and the sexual female imaginary.
  1. Note that my general use of the term ‘the nineteenth century’ from here onwards refers to the long nineteenth century, which spanned the late 1800s through to the early 1900s. Northanger Abbey was completed at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was published in 1817; Lady Susan was likely written in the late eighteenth century, but was not published until 1871. For my purposes, I recognize that the social and sexual mores expressed in these two novels reflect ideals characteristic of this larger period.

Works Cited 

Austen, Jane. Lady Susan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. pp. 191–249.

———-. Northanger Abbey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. pp. 5–187.

Fordyce, James. Sermons to Young Women, 3rd American ed. From 12th London ed. [Philadelphia, 1809].

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Cornell University Press. 1985.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, 1991, pp. 818–837.

Woolf, Virginia. “Unsigned Review” in Jane Austen: Critical Assessments, vol. 1, edited by Ian Littlewood. East Sussex: Helm Information, 1998, pp. 439–442.