Author: Leffel, John C
Date published: July 1, 2011
Female modesty is the last barrier of civilized society.
-John Bowles, Remarks on Modern Female Manners
Recent scholarly interest in Jane Austen's juvenilia has helped to dispel the persistent myth of a prim and proper, unsexed and ahistorical author by recovering aspects of Austen's sexually charged humor, aggressive wit, and investment in the history and politics of her time that earlier readers and critics- starting with her own family-had rendered opaque (see esp. Auerbach; Doody; Leffel; and Heydt-Stevenson, "Pleasure"). Of particular interest in this regard is Austen's unfinished novel Catharine, or the Bower (1792),1 a work in which, as Brian Southam notes, "burlesque is intermingled with [Austen's] first experiments in realistic social comedy and more flexible narrative forms" (246). Such a blending-one that Austen's niece, Caroline, had disparaged as a formal and stylistic "betweenit[y]" (qtd. in Le Faye 276)2-allows, I argue alternatively, for the powerful authorial exploration of social and political concerns that reflect the tumultuous era in which the novel was written (see also Johnson, "The Kingdom" 51; Heydt-Stevenson, Unbecoming Conjunctions, 170-75; Tuite 49-55; and Waldron 19). In Catharine, Austen employs pointed cultural references and suggestive literary allusions to upend repressive discourses that sought to regulate young women's bodies and minds and inhibit their sexuality. A focus on the novel's allusions and intertexts, as well as on the figure of the titular bower, reveals Austen's critique of her culture's myopic investment in young women's sexual chastity (or "virtue") by foregrounding how this fixation actually serves to exploit the very women it seeks to protect. Austen's pointed allusions and dynamic social comedy break down barriers and expose a repressive social system-one that is epitomized through the characters of Mrs. Percival (a sermon-toting guardian with a neurotic fear of sexuality) and, to a lesser extent, Edward Stanley (an eccentric, handsome cousin with a seductive disregard for propriety). In demonstrating how conduct literature and regulatory discourses can produce and maintain misogynistic economies, Austen assails the notion that women's sexuality, if not strictly contained and policed, constituted a revolutionary threat that could potentially, to quote the novel's hyperbolic Mrs. Percival, set the kingdom at "sixes and sevens" (204). By so doing, Austen's oft-neglected early novel satirically deflates the widely held conservative argument3-espoused by commentators such as James Fordyce and Hannah More-that strict governance of the female sexual body equates with proper governance of the state.
"It is not merely the name of an Arbour, which charms me"
The novel's opening paragraphs establish a disturbing atmosphere of repression, loss, victimization, and compensatory response. Having been orphaned as a young child, the novel's heroine, Catharine or "Kitty," is raised by her "Maiden Aunt" Mrs. Percival (186). Though her intentions are good, Mrs. Percival's thoughts and actions are dominated by an obsessive concern with her young charge's virtue. Following the advice of moralizing authors like James Fordyce, who encouraged parents to dissect young daughters' deportment "with particular solicitude" (Fordyce 157), Mrs. Percival "watch[es] over [Kitty's] conduct with so scrutinizing a severity, as to make it very doubtful to many people, and to Catharine amongst the rest, whether she loved her or not" (186). Fearful that even the slightest contact with young men will lead to her ward's ruin, Kitty's aunt refuses to let her socialize in the neighborhood and prevents her from visiting young male relations. And in a misguided attempt to regulate her niece's character and conduct, she plies Kitty with sermons, conduct books, and conservative fiction.
Blessed with "a fund of vivacity and good humour" (186), however, Kitty is able to brush off her aunt's suspicions, refusing to let them "damp[en]" (186) her "remarkably open and unreserved" (189) disposition by seeking constant refuge in "a fine shady Bower" (187), built with the aid of beloved childhood companions, Cecilia and Mary Wynne, and invested with liberating imaginative and sexual energies:
To this Bower, which terminated a very pleasant and retired walk in her Aunt's Garden, she always wandered whenever anything disturbed her, and it possessed such a charm over her senses, as constantly to tranquillize her mind and quiet her spirits-Solitude and reflection might perhaps have had the same effect in her Bed Chamber, yet Habit had so strengthened the idea which Fancy had first suggested, that such a thought never occurred to Kitty who was firmly persuaded that her Bower alone could restore her to herself. (187)
Kitty's intimate relation with the bower-a liminal space precariously hovering between interior and exterior, subject and object, and freedom and enclosure 4- requires further scrutiny. "Tranquilliz[ing]" her mind, "quiet[ing] her spirits," and "persuad[ing]" her that it alone "could restore her to herself," the bower is presented here as a sanctuary or liberating space. But it is also invested with sentimental and overtly erotic investments: it is likened to a "Bed Chamber," for instance, and inspires "tender and Melancholy recollections" (187). This is consistent with a lengthy tradition of literary and visual representations of the bower specifically, and similar garden spaces more generally, as sites for sexual expression and emancipation, and as metonymic substitutes for the female body. A brief survey of "bower" conventions in English literary history will thus help clarify how Austen draws upon this tradition in her unfinished novel.
The intensely feminine and unmistakably sexual nature of the bower is well established in the English literary canon. Shakespeare, the source of many of Austen's bawdy references and allusions throughout her works (see Heydt- Stevenson Unbecoming Conjunctions 8-9, 200) deploys the bower in comedies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night to create spaces ripe for imaginative fancy and sexual dalliance: as Orsino says in the latter play, "Away before me to sweet beds of flowers. / Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers" (1.1.39-40). Titania's bower in A Midsummer Night's Dream becomes the locus for the consummation of such "love-thoughts" when the enchanted Queen of the Fairies lures the comically transformed Bottom into her sensuous garden zone. "Wind[ing]" her lover into her arms, the couple's entangled bodies duplicate the intricate weavings of flowers and vines that enclose the erotic sanctuary: "Sleep thou," Titania coos, "and I will wind thee in my arms. / ...So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle / Gently entwist; the female ivy so / Enrings the barky fingers of the elm. / O how I love thee, how I dote on thee!" (4.1.37-42). While Shakespeare's bowers exemplify this space's longstanding erotic frisson in literary representations, Austen more directly engages with another celebrated work from the later English Renaissance: Book II of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590). In threatening to "have th[e] arbour pulled down" (223), Mrs. Percival reenacts Spenser's Knight of Temperance, Guyon, who destroys the seductive witch Acrasia's infamous "Bowre of Blisse," a site of "lewd loues, and wastfull luxuree" (2.12.80)-which is to say, both imaginative and sexual license:
But all those pleasaunt bowres and Pallace braue,
Guyon broke downe, with rigour pitilesse;
Ne ought their goodly workmanship might saue
Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse,
But that their blisse he turn'd to balefulnesse:
Their groues he feld, their gardins did deface,
Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse,
Their banket houses burne, their buildings race,
And of the fayrest late, now made the fowlest place. (2.12.83)
As we shall see, Austen's allusion to the "Bowre of Blisse" provides an ironic commentary on a parallel episode later in Catharine, when Kitty is discovered in the bower in a seemingly compromising situation with a male cousin, thus provoking her aunt's wrath and her recurring threat to act as Spenser's Guyon and turn Kitty's "blisse" to "balefulnesse" by destroying the bower (221). What I would like to emphasize here is how Austen's literary allusion rewrites the moral economy underlying Spenser's allegory: rather than positing the bower as a dangerous site of sensual excess that must be destroyed by the "temperate" knight-hero, in Austen's novel the bower is presented as a sanctuary in which the young heroine can escape from her overzealous aunt's constant surveillance and obsessive drive to regulate her body and hamper her freedoms. Once we recognize Austen's allusion, we also espy her seriously comic parallel between Guyon and Mrs. Percival. Thus, while Charlotte Brontë famously expressed her disdain for Austen's supposedly circumscribed, restrained, and passionless novels by likening them to a "carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers" (qtd. in Looser 5), a quotation subsequently adopted by critics as evidence of Austen's prudery and restraint, Catharine challenges this assessment by employing a "cultivated garden" space as a site of sexual expression.
Austen's bower had more contemporary literary analogues as well: Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and other eighteenth-century writers of what Ros Ballaster has coined "women's amatory fiction" frequently utilize shaded bowers and secluded gardens as spaces for sexual expression, as do both male and female poets writing during Austen's lifetime, including Felicia Hemans, John Keats, Charlotte Smith, and William Wordsworth (see Ballaster and London, Labbe, Romantic Visualities; and Crawford, "Troping"). Austen herself would later employ eroticized landscapes and gardens in novels such as Mansfield Park (1814).5 Indeed, Simon Pugh argues that throughout history, and particularly in literary representation, garden zones are "first and foremost" associated with "the possibility of, [or] the potential for, pleasure" (102). We can push this aperçu further and define the bower itself-significantly built in Austen's work by three young women-in more specifically feminine terms. If we turn to eighteenth-century landscape writing, fiction, and erotic literature, we find the bower as not only a sexualized space but specifically a trope of women's sexuality, thus adding an extra layer of complexity to Austen's use of this figure. In her examination of eighteenth-century narratives of gender, sexuality, and space, for instance, Karen Harvey observes that the most common locations for sexual encounters in erotic writings of the period tend to "cut across urban/rural distinctions" (151), noting the recurrence of "enclosed outdoor space[s]" (156). Not only are such locations "particularly suitable" for lovers' trysts, but "they were also seen as ideal metaphors for female bodies," and Harvey notes the frequent convention by which "women's bodies were moulded into secluded and shady places" (156) in eighteenth-century erotic discourses, offering endless variations on what Paul-Gabriel Boucé elsewhere calls a "hortus sexualis," that is, a botanical and topographical lexicon that assimilates male and female genitalia with plants (202-203). Austen likely had not read eighteenth-century erotic texts such as The Natural History of the Frutex Vulvaria, or Flowering Shrub (1732), but she would have encountered such eroticized botanical descriptions in the works of eighteenthcentury writers such as Behn, Haywood, and others, as well as in the pages of Shakespeare, who in Venus and Adonis (1593), to cite just one example, has the goddess of love employ erotic topography in describing her body as a deer-park to the reluctant Adonis: "I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer. / Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale; / Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry, / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie" (l. 231-34).6 Rachel Crawford points out, moreover, that the word "bower" became "a graphic euphemism for female sex" during the Romantic period, and was used in this way, for instance, in a letter from Keats to Benjamin Bailey (28-30 October 1817) (255).7 I dwell upon this tradition in order to establish the bower first as a site replete with rich historical and literary allusions to erotic investments and potential transgression and second as an intimate space that provides Austen with a natural and healthy analogue to Kitty's development of her sense of herself as a woman, a model she cannot find in her well-meaning though misguided aunt. Lastly, the bower functions as a metonym for Kitty's own sexual body, an association Austen's title itself encourages since it collapses her subjectivity with that of the garden structure.
The plot of the admittedly unfinished novel, moreover, closely adheres to that of "bower poetry" as defined by Crawford: such poems conventionally locate "an enclosed green space as the site of a tryst between a man who enters it and a female character or feminine object...which is an integral part of its terrain" (Poetry 225). Austen ultimately adheres to this trajectory, staging a mock "tryst" in the bower between Kitty and her cousin, Edward, that draws Mrs. Percival's ire and prompts her Guyon-like plan to raze the garden space. But this burlesqued culmination of the bower plot is fulfilled only after Austen stages a series of parallel, anticipatory spatial transgressions that threaten to make her heroine-as Edward suggests-"the whole talk of the Country" (210).
Privacy, Reading, and the Fertile Imagination
As the only space in which Kitty can escape from her aunt's constant surveillance, the bower functions as a sanctuary for private reflections, reading, and solitude-for knowledge and self-knowledge. After one trying argument with her cousin, for instance, Kitty flees to the garden, where "the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, [and] she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book, for she had always one about her, and reading" (199). Kitty is described as a "great reader" (191): she is "well read in Modern history" but also demonstrates a thorough knowledge of novels and "Books of a lighter kind, of Books universally read and Admired" when, for instance, she attempts to discuss Charlotte Smith's novels Ethelinde (1789) and Emmeline (1788) with her fashionable cousin (192). Harbored by the bower's protective shelter, she relies upon the garden space for respite from her aunt's stultifying inspection: "Kitty found herself much sooner tired of Reading, Working, or Drawing, in Mrs Percival's parlour than in her own Arbour" (190). For Kitty, reading in the privacy of the bower is a far different experience than reading in the "tir[ing]" confines of her aunt's home.
But cultural anxieties related to such kinds of unregulated privacy for young women-and the kinds of knowledge it might produce-were well established in conduct-book literature and conservative fiction of the period, which deplored the very ideas and behaviors associated with Kitty's bower: privacy, imaginative freedom, and solitary reading-particularly of novels. It is no coincidence that these very subjects were also attacked in the various medical treatises circulating during this time, particularly in works such as M.D.T. Bienville's influential La Nymphomanie, ou Traité de la fureur utérine (first printed in French in 1771 and translated into English as Nymphomania, or, A Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus by Dr. Edward Sloane Wilmot in 1775) and various anti-masturbation tracts, including the infamous Onania; or, the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered....(Anon., c.1712). As Thomas Laqueur notes, "All those capacities and possibilities on which masturbation thrived-imagination, the desire for luxuries, reading, privacy-were those most necessary to the new political and social order. And they were at the same time capable of bringing it to moral ruin" (268). "[S]elf-government," he concludes, "was a cornerstone to governance more generally" (274). Laqueur's discussion highlights the tensions between the regulation of the body versus that of the body-politic- tensions, I argue, that Kitty's aunt frequently voices throughout the text in ways that specifically recall medical discourses of the time but also the didactic works of James Fordyce, Hannah More, and other cultural critics and writers.
For Mrs. Percival, the bower's potential for private, unregulated imaginative exploration is its most dangerous threat, and her obsessive attempts to control her niece's imagination are at the same time efforts to temper her burgeoning sexuality. Indeed, the link between the imagination and sexuality-neatly encapsulated in Mrs. Percival's concern over Kitty's "Disposition romantic" (219)8-is one of the primary anxieties that Austen interrogates (and satirizes) in the novel. Numerous writers of conduct books and other forms of prescriptive literature in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries bewailed the connection between novel reading, imaginative license, and illicit sexuality. In her anti-Jacobin novel A Tale of the Times (1799), for instance, Jane West warned that "the novel, calculated, by its insinuating narrative and interesting description to fascinate the imagination without rousing the stronger energies of the mind, is converted into an offensive weapon, directed against our religion, our morals, or our government" (333).9 Similarly connecting the reading of novels to an inflamed imagination and to attacks against morality, the influential Evangelical writer and educational activist Hannah More (1745-1833) wrote that imaginative art forms like novels become "agents of voluptuousness": "They excite the imagination; and the imagination thus excited, and no longer under the government of strict principle, becomes the most dangerous stimulant of the passions; promotes a too keen relish for pleasure, teaching how to multiply its sources, and inventing new and pernicious modes of artificial gratification" (Strictures 86; emphasis added). Clearly, More links the reading of novels to illegitimate or "artificial" forms of sexuality (such as masturbation) that had the potential to undermine the individual's "government" by "strict principle." In Austen's novel this perspective is parroted by Kitty's aunt who plies her niece with sermons, conduct manuals and prescriptive literature:
All I wished for, was to breed you up virtuously; I never wanted you to play upon the Harpsichord, or draw better than any one else; but I had hoped to see you respectable and good; to see you able and willing to give an example of Modesty and Virtue to the Young people here abouts. I bought you Blair's Sermons [sic], and Coelebs in Search of a Wife [sic]. I gave you the key to my own Library, and borrowed a great many good books of my Neighbours for you, all to this purpose. (222)
Mrs. Percival's selection of texts here clarifies many of her conservative ideals. In his sermon titled "On the Duties of the Young," for instance, Blair highlights "Moderation, vigilance, and self-government" as "duties incumbent on all" but "especially on such as are beginning the journey of life" (1:305), while in "On a Life of Dissipation and Pleasure," he details the consequences of "extravagant excesses" and "vicious pleasures" (5:271) on the young-two of the allegedly grievous offenses of which Mrs. Percival accuses her ward.
More revealing to Austen's critique, however, is her pointed reference to More's wildly successful novel/novelized conduct manual, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808), in which an idealized male protagonist journeys to secure a perfect spouse and methodically catalogs the moral shortcomings of the potential brides he encounters along the way. Austen's original choice of text here was the Archbishop Thomas Secker's rather stuffy Lectures on the Catechism of the Church of England (1769); her decision in 1809 to update Mrs. Percival's selection from a lecture to this specific novel clearly reveals Austen's disagreement with More's advocacy of stringent and often hypocritical notions of female decorum (see also Johnson, "The Kingdom" 53), as well as her Burkean insistence on directly linking the proper deportment and virtuous conduct of women with the stability of the nation. For as we see in the opening pages of her Strictures on Female Education, More was explicit in connecting women's education and social function to political matters: "the general state of civilized society depends...on the prevailing sentiments and habits of women, and on the nature and degree of the estimation in which they are held" (2). Reminding her readers of French-inspired revolutionary threats against "religion, and order, and governmen[t]" (5), More "call[s]" on women with a "warning voice" to "come forward, and contribute their full and fair proportion towards the saving of their country" (4) by embodying an unwavering feminine "Propriety" (6). Eileen Cleere observes that More was in fact unapologetic about the harshness of her critique of British women, asserting that it was "both necessary and nationalistic" (12). We see this kind of blunt nationalistic sentiment in action when More writes that "an earnest wish to turn [women's] attention to objects calculated to promote their true dignity, is not the office of an enemy. So to expose the weakness of the land as to suggest the necessity of internal improvement, and to point out the means of effectual defense, is not treachery, but patriotism" (Strictures x). Connecting the "true dignity" and sexual purity of England's women with the nation's self-defense at a time when many feared not just cultural but actual military invasion, More's didactic tracts as well as her novel were quite literally intended, in this light, to bolster the nation's "homeland security" (Cleere 1) during a period of revolutions both political and domestic. Her depiction of Lucilla Stanley10 in Coelebs as the ideal embodiment of both proper female domesticity and agricultural selfsufficiency- she expertly manages her private enclosed gardens (akin to her bower) "at her own expense" in order to fund her charitable ventures (242)- functions precisely in this manner. Lucilla is meant to exemplify, that is, the ways in which prescribed codes of gender-specific behavior contribute to the health of the body politic and thus of the nation-and supposedly keep both, as Austen mocks, from "degenerating" (193).11
Though Kitty's aunt does not go as far as James Fordyce,12 who rather crudely attacked novels as being "in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain[ing] such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute" (148), Mrs. Percival does follow more sophisticated commentators like Hannah More in adhering to the belief that imaginative freedoms such as those imparted by epistolary correspondence and unregulated reading are intimately related to female sexuality and, if not strictly controlled, will directly lead to the downfall of all social and moral order-or, to put it another way, will bring the Kingdom to "rack and ruin" (193). But even though Kitty's solitary reading and privacy in the bower are viewed as suspect by her aunt, Mrs. Percival seems to tolerate this sanctuary only so long as it renders her niece complacent to a larger, masterfully orchestrated system of regulation. I'm suggesting, in other words, that Mrs. Percival tolerates what to her appears to be an unhealthy, solipsistic, and potentially threatening reliance upon the bower and the seclusion it affords only because it helps placate her niece's yearning for social interaction with other-which is to say "real"-young men and women. This regulatory structure is challenged, however, with the arrival of Kitty's relatives the Stanleys and, more importantly, the unexpected appearance of their intriguing son Edward.
Edward Stanley and "the affair of Propriety"
The Stanleys' arrival initiates a series of comic interactions and misunderstandings that emphasize both the perversity of Mrs. Percival's views and the extent to which the endemic suppression of female sexuality actually preys upon the innocent and, paradoxically, incites the very behavior that it zealously suppresses. Additionally, Austen uses the arrival of Kitty's handsome cousin to initiate the work's "bower plot" by setting up a parallel series of spatial transgressions that culminate with Edward's intrusion into Kitty's bower. When her relatives arrive, Kitty tries at first enthusiastically to engage her vapid cousin Camilla in intelligent conversation on books, current politics, and history such as she had once enjoyed with the Wynne sisters. In contrast to them, she discovers that "all [of Camilla's] Ideas were towards the Elegance of her appearance, the fashion of her dress, and the Admiration she wished them to excite" (191). Though her cousin is disappointing as a conversationalist, her arrival nonetheless compels Mrs. Percival to allow the girls to attend an upcoming ball, the news of which delights Kitty, who has hitherto been denied such entertainments. But her pleasure in the prospect is checked when she awakens the next morning with "a violent Toothake [sic]" (200), which Mrs. Percival blames on the bower: "I know it has ruined your Constitution entirely....I shall order John to pull it all down I assure you" (202). Explicitly linking Kitty's bodily dis-ease to the supposedly baneful effects of the "damp" bower, Mrs. Percival once more threatens to act as Guyon to Kitty's Acrasia by destroying her "Bowre of Blisse," reinforcing via the Spenserian intertext the link between the bower and Kitty's body.
But unbeknownst to Mrs. Percival, Kitty will soon face a more formidable challenge to her virtue, for the toothache that keeps her home alone from the ball also allows for a private introduction to her cousin Edward, who arrives unexpectedly from France. Gradually recovering and not wanting to miss out on an event that "promis[ed] so much pleasure," Kitty begins "to entertain an idea of following her Friends" to the ball when, as in a fairy tale, a carriage suddenly drives up to the door bearing her handsome cousin (204). When her enthusiastic maid gushes that a handsome stranger has arrived and that he must have "come to ask you to dance with him tonight" (205-06), Kitty "could not help laughing at this idea, and only wished it might be true" (206). Her maid's confession that she "thought he had better not come up into your Dressing room" (205) foreshadows the climactic bower scene later in the novel-a fact made explicit by the novel's juxtaposition of these two feminine spaces (187) and by their etymological associations (see Tuite 32-39). Excited by the prospect of a handsome young man and free from her aunt's intrusive gaze, Kitty indulges in an unmistakably (and comically) erotic fantasy: "But what, in the name of wonder, can he have to say to me? Perhaps he is come to rob the house-he comes in style at least; and it will be some consolation for our losses to be robbed by a Gentleman in a Chaise and 4" (206). Given that her "los[s]" would be compensated for by means of the stranger's "styl[ish]" appearance, good looks, and Gentlemanly status, the kind of theft Kitty imagines clearly involves far more than just her aunt's valuables, and the pair's conversation reinforces this amatory subtext right from the beginning.
As the scene progresses, Austen repeatedly emphasizes Kitty's sexual receptiveness, good humor, and willingness to flirt-all of which flow with remarkable precision and ease when not dampened by her aunt's invasive surveillance. Looking at herself in the mirror, "walk[ing] with great impatience," and "trembling" (206) as she descends the stairs to address, in her maid's words, "the handsomest young Man you would wish to see" (205), Kitty's excitement is made palpable to the reader, and is only enhanced by the young man's quirky air of "Ease and Vivacity" (206). Throughout this scene, Austen stresses Edward's "good humour and Gaiety" as well as Kitty's "natural Unreserve" (208) such that the couple, though strangers, soon talk with a degree of ease and flirtatiousness that would have horrified Kitty's guardian: "But my dear Miss Percival," Edward presses, "what do you say to my accompanying you [to the dance]? And suppose you were to dance with me too? I think it would be very pleasant" (209). "I can have no objection to either I am sure," Kitty responds, "laughing to find how near the truth her Maid's conjecture had been" (209). As Catharine progresses, such instances of provocative humor and disruptive laughter proliferate with surprising rapidity and-for those still convinced that female sexuality and bawdy humor have no place in Austen-a shocking degree of explicitness. Austen emphasizes her heroine's sharp wit, sexual curiosity, and exuberant nature not, however, to emphasize shortcomings that must be redressed or improved but to challenge pervasive social and cultural ideologies that read such traits as evidence of a corrupt and corrupting, inherently violent female sexuality that must be regulated and controlled at all costs (see Sedgwick 83). Austen exposes the hypocrisy and misogyny underlying these views by undermining Mrs. Percival's obsession with her ward's chastity, for the very qualities that make Kitty attractive to the reader (and to Edward)-her quick wit, engaging personality, and intelligence-are precisely the qualities that, in her aunt's paranoid view, bear witness to her "impudence" (218).
Kitty's laughter in the face of Edward's gallantry will soon, however, gain a more thrilling (though disturbing) edge as Austen demonstrates how the strict isolation of young women can render them vulnerable to social blunders that have potentially grave consequences for their reputations in a brutally unforgiving social milieu. Kitty agrees, for instance, to a solitary carriage ride with her cousin to the local ball-an act she knows, in strictest terms, to be socially unacceptable but that she pursues fully aware that it will engage her aunt's severe disapproval. Building upon the earlier remarks about Edward entering Kitty's bedchamber, his presence in the confines of Kitty's carriage posits another male incursion into feminine private space. En route to the ball, the pair engages in sexually frank dialogue concerning the propriety of their conduct, with Edward urging Kitty to enter the ballroom alone with him while coyly insinuating that it will cause a scandal and ensure that they "shall be the whole talk of the Country" (210). Kitty teasingly resists her cousin's advances, saying "To me...that would certainly be a most powerful inducement; but I scarcely know whether my Aunt would consider it as such-. Women at her time of life, have odd ideas of propriety you know" (210), here drawing a line between the sexually anesthetized spinster and her own flirtatious receptivity. What emerges is more serious, however, for her aunt's protectiveness has, ironically, rendered Kitty more vulnerable to social and sexual manipulation. Thus, she is unprepared for Edward's persistence and his disrespect of her aunt when he flippantly suggests that Kitty should "break" (210) people of such age of these starchy kinds of ideas: "why should you object to entering a room with me where all our relations are, when you have done me the honour to admit me without any chaprone [sic] into your Carriage? Do not you think your Aunt will be as much offended with you for one, as for the other of these mighty crimes?" (210). When everything is forbidden, it is difficult to make distinctions between minor breaches of propriety and serious lapses in decorum that actually place a young woman in danger. Edward further questions Kitty's logic when she refuses to enter the room with him after already having engaged in a solitary carriage ride (a "mighty crim[e]"), and counters Kitty's claim that there is "no reason that I should offend against Decorum a second time, because I have already done it once" (210) with an explicit allusion, as Heydt-Stevenson has suggested (171), to the irrecoverable loss of Kitty's virginity: "On the contrary," he replies, "that is the very reason which makes it impossible for you to prevent it, since you cannot offend for the first time again" (210).
Of course, Kitty has not lost her virginity, but Edward's joking reveals the extent to which strict and hypocritical notions of female sexual decorum can lead to a dangerous naïveté in young women whose sexual ignorance can render them vulnerable to breaches of conduct and even sexual violence-a frequent motif in Frances Burney's novels, to which Austen was indebted. Indeed, Mrs. Percival's hyperbolic rhetoric and extreme educational methods have actually rendered her niece susceptible to exploitation and abuse; instead of protecting her niece's virtue, they have left Kitty vulnerable to misplaced affection and seduction to the point that Edward Stanley's faults actually make him more attractive to Kitty-specifically his "thoughtlessness and Negligence, which tho' they appeared to her as very becoming in him, she was aware would by many people be considered as defects in his Character" (225). Vivien Jones argues that "the discourse of innocence, modesty and propriety" promulgated in this period's conduct literature "necessarily encourages women to focus obsessively on the possibility of sexual transgression..." (123). In this passage, Austen similarly demonstrates how disproportionate attempts to police desire can backfire, stimulating and enflaming the very object of regulation. Because Kitty has been denied the opportunity to socialize with other young men and therefore has no concrete criteria for assessing Edward's character, he is a novelty, and Kitty is immediately smitten with him. Edward in turn preys upon his young cousin's lack of experience, curiosity, and easygoing nature in ways that may amuse him or provide a fleeting laugh but that have potentially grave consequences for her reputation. When the couple actually enter the ballroom, moreover, Edward's persistence is actually described in terms of physical violence and even rape: "[Edward] Stanley...would neither allow her to wait, or listen to what she said, and forcibly seizing her arm within his, overpowered her voice with the rapidity of his own, and Kitty half angry, and half laughing was obliged to go with him up stairs, and could even with difficulty prevail on him to relinquish her hand before they entered the room" (211; see also Heydt- Stevenson Unbecoming Conjunctions 174-75). The language here, particularly that describing Kitty's desperate laughter, prefigures the potential loss not of Kitty's sexual (or physical) chastity, but of her social reputation-which in many cases was not seen as much different.
The couple's arrival at the ball is one of the novel's high comic moments. Mrs. Percival, always ready to assume her niece's culpability in sexual matters, is shocked to spot her supposedly ill niece enter the room on the arm of an "uncommonly handsome" young man (211). While Kitty's nervous smile and discernible blush-her "glow of mingled Chearfulness and Confusion" (211)-registers her titillation in defying her aunt as well as her embarrassment in engaging in behavior that she knows could make her "the whole talk of the Country" (210), Mrs. Percival interprets Kitty's glowing countenance and "vivacity" as further evidence of a licentious sexuality that must be contained. An ensuing exchange only concretizes her views, as Edward's flighty sister Camilla-who takes the pair's dramatic entrance as proof of a romantic liaison-asks Kitty, "By the bye are not you in love with him yourself?" "To be sure I am," Kitty jokes, "I am in love with every handsome Man I see" (213). Her aunt, overhearing the words "Love" and "handsome Man," turns "hastily towards them," demanding to know what the girls are discussing: "'What are you talking of, Catharine?' To which Catharine immediately answered with the simple artifice of a child, 'Nothing, Ma'am'" (213-14). This scene's comic impact depends upon several levels of signification: Austen's conjoining of "simple" and "artifice" renders Kitty's supposedly ingenuous response more complicated, and, whether intentionally or not, the statement has the potential of reminding readers of the ubiquitous Shakespearean pun on "nothing," an interpretation prepared for by the sexualized banter we have been hearing from Kitty and Edward up to this point. Even if Austen did not intend to echo a common Elizabethan pun here, the "nothing" that characterizes the girls' topic of conversation is precisely something, and that something is sexual desire.
"Oh! Catharine, you are an abandoned Creature"
If much of the early portion of Catharine thus establishes Kitty's sexual desire, humor, and refusal to be molded by aggressive and unrealistically stringent (and often contradictory) prescriptions for female deportment, in the latter portion of the novel Austen's satire takes on a sharper edge as she depicts the dangerous potential consequences of her aunt's educational methods, revealing how Mrs. Percival's behavior actually renders Kitty prone to the transgressions of which she hyperbolically accuses her. The comic events of the ball confirm Kitty's aunt's worst fears, and without even considering that Edward might be at fault, she interprets her niece's misstep as further evidence of her "impudence," or blatant lack of modesty (218). Speaking to the young man's father, Mrs. Percival "lower[s] her voice" and proceeds, outrageously, to misrepresent and condemn her niece:
[B]ut truth will out, and I must own that Kitty is one of the most impudent Girls that ever existed. I assure you Sir, that I have seen her sit and laugh and whisper with a young Man whom she has not seen above half a dozen times. Her behaviour indeed is scandalous, and therefore I beg you will send your Son away immediately, or everything will be at sixes and sevens. (218)
Austen deleted from the manuscript lines that show even more explicitly how Mrs. Percival uses the language of prostitution to describe her innocent niece: "Her intimacies with Young Men are abominable; and it is all the same to her, who it is, no one comes amiss to her-" (271; emphasis added). Austen clearly demonstrates how Kitty's "open" disposition (208) and natural desire to enter the mature world of adult sexual relations are perverted by her aunt's and her culture's views of female sexuality. The comic misunderstandings that drive the plot of Catharine thus take on an increasingly negative light when we acknowledge that they also serve to mark Austen's heroine as sexually deviant or "lost" to her paranoid aunt.
The climactic bower scene clearly supports this interpretation. Edward, "struck by the ridiculous apprehensions of Mrs. Percival," proceeds to harass his aunt by relentlessly flirting with his cousin (219). His attentions exploit Kitty's inexperience, social isolation, and "Disposition romantic" (219) to the extent that she soon thinks she's in love with him (220). As we might expect, given the symbolic significance of the bower up to this point as well as the conventional plotline of "bower poetry," the point of crisis again occurs in the eroticized garden space. While walking with his cousin in the gardens, Edward follows Kitty into her bower, and observing Mrs. Percival watching them suddenly kisses Kitty's hand and runs away. The shocked elder woman responds like clockwork to his manipulation, and erupts with vituperative hostility:
"Well; this is beyond anything I could have supposed. Profligate as I knew you to be, I was not prepared for such a sight....Such Impudence, I never witnessed before in such a Girl!...Oh! Catharine, you are an abandoned Creature, and I do not know what will become of you....But I plainly see that every thing is going to sixes and sevens and all order will soon be at an end throughout the Kingdom." (222)
The very prospect of a sportive kiss on the hand is enough for Mrs. Percival to condemn Kitty as "profligate," "impuden[t]," and "an abandoned Creature" (i.e., a "fallen woman"). Instances of this kind of repressive sexual discourse, of course, were common; The Lady's Magazine (1791) warned-using a reading metaphor, we notice-that merely kissing a man puts women in grave danger: "It is an introduction to something more capital; it is the first page of the preface to seduction and adultery" (qtd. in A.D. Harvey 88). Harvey further reminds us that during this period an unmarried woman's loss of virginity in any form-whether via rape, seduction, incest, or any other means-automatically rendered her a prostitute in much of society's eyes. The political implications of the novel thus become clear: by having Mrs. Percival connect Kitty's "scandalous" (218) behavior with the potential downfall of the state ("everything is going to sixes and sevens" ), Austen assails the "domino-effect" theory of corruption voiced by pundits such as Fordyce and Hannah More. As critic Robert Hole reminds us, such commentators' views on the subject never veer far from the basic political point that "female sexual indulgence dissolves morality, which dissolution in turn destroys religion, the removal of which allows the overthrow of order in the state" (xxxii). Or, to borrow from Fordyce's version of this argument, unregulated female sexuality directly leads to "rank treason" against the patriarchal order (148).
It is at this point in Catharine, moreover, that an exasperated Kitty finally challenges her aunt's hackneyed moralizing by debunking the notion that her alleged transgressions threaten national security, insisting, "I have done nothing this evening that can contribute to overthrow the establishment of the kingdom," to which Mrs. Percival responds, "The welfare of every Nation depends upon the virtue of it's [sic] individuals, and any one who offends in so gross a manner against decorum and propriety is certainly hastening it's [sic] ruin" (222). Kitty turns the tables on her aunt by retorting that "I can have given an Example only to You, for You alone have seen the offence" (222), identifying Mrs. Percival herself as the real source of "gross" insult. As Heydt- Stevenson perceptively notes, "Mrs. Percival's extreme accusations and threats ineluctably draw the reader to a psychoanalytic point of view that 'impudent,' 'abominable,' and 'scandalous' fantasies mesmerize her, not Kitty, and that the elder woman's overheated imagination projects these incriminations onto Kitty's 'remarkably open and unreserved...disposition'" (173). Kitty is able to take advantage of her aunt's "overheated" imagination and end her tirade by reminding her that she herself is lingering at a late hour in the supposedly "damp" bower:
This speech as she well knew, would be unanswerable with her Aunt, who instantly rose, and hurried away under so many apprehensions for her own health, as banished for the time all anxiety about her Neice [sic], who walked quietly by her side...."I am astonished at my own imprudence," said Mrs. Percival; "How could I be so forgetful as to sit down out of doors at such a time of night? I shall certainly have a return of my rheumatism after it-I begin to feel very chill already. I must have caught a dreadful Cold by this time-I am sure of being lain-up all the winter after it-...I must and will have that arbour pulled down." (223)
Mrs. Percival's breakdown represents precisely the kind of uncontrolled, near pathological imaginative musings that she projects onto Kitty, as her language itself breaks down into repetitive vocalizations of her own swirling obsessions. By placing the scene of this meltdown in the bower and plotting it directly after Mrs. Percival's outrageous accusations, Austen comically vindicates Kitty's conduct while depicting the kind of debilitating psychosis that can result from repressive discourses that seek to hinder women's sexual development and expression and cast them into automaton-like embodiments of patriarchal notions of virtuous conduct.
Far from adhering to Mrs. Percival's views-which place all responsibility and consequently all blame on young women whose innocence is sexualized at the same time that sexual curiosity and desire are virulently suppressed- Austen clearly demonstrates how the flirtatious Edward Stanley exploits and Mrs. Percival herself perverts and criminalizes Kitty's "natural warmth," curiosity, and emergent sexuality. Before the novel fragment breaks off, Mrs. Percival rejects an invitation to London in terms that forcibly demonstrate that to her, Kitty is already "lost," and thus "the last girl in the world to be trusted in London" since she would be "totally unable to withstand temptation" (228).13 Here, Mrs. Percival connects Kitty's allegedly "vicious inclinations" with the probability of her ending up in a "hot house of Vice" (i.e., a brothel)-a common if banal narrative of women's fall into prostitution in sentimental novels and moralizing tracts of the period (228). According to her exaggerated notions of female decorum, Kitty is an "abandoned Creature" (222) for whom there is little hope. And in what Clara Tuite rightly emphasizes as a final, "farcical rewriting" of Spenser's "Bower of Blisse" (41), Mrs. Percival once more threatens to have the bower razed, thereby registering her desire to annihilate her niece's sexual identity itself since, as I have suggested, the garden metonymically stands in for Catharine's sexual body. In this chilling move we discern the urgency with which Austen exposes the potentially damaging nature of such views.
Consequences, Real and Imagined
In presenting such a drastic scenario in her early novel, Jane Austen dramatizes the notion that, in Markman Ellis's words,
an over-excited imagination or stimulated passion for romantic love, lead[s] to the weakening of the prophylactic power of innocence....Innocence (ignorance of sexuality), much like chastity (abstention from sexuality), is not an absence of sexuality: instead it is a relation of power in the libidinal economy. Innocence can be a double bind when its maintenance leads to its destruction. (164)
Kitty is throughout portrayed as the victim that Ellis describes, misrepresented and criminalized by her Aunt's overzealous and insidious views and exploited by her rakish cousin in a "libidinal economy" that sanctions and even promotes such conduct. While the writers of the period's conduct literature repeatedly emphasize the importance of vigilantly regulating young women's freedoms in order to protect their sexual chastity and thereby maintain patriarchal order, Austen demonstrates the flip side of the equation by exposing how excessive regulations and the attempt to hinder or even deny young women's social and sexual development can be the very factors that contribute to their vulnerability. Mrs. Percival is dismayed to perceive in her niece the signs of "profligacy" and sexual receptiveness that Coelebs in Search of a Wife and other forms of conduct literature were supposed to temper or eradicate; despite giving Kitty moral tracts and sermons, in addition to severely curtailing her personal freedoms and socially quarantining her, she has not been able to control Kitty's imagination or eradicate her desires. If the bower functions as a fertile, liberating metonym for Kitty's body, it can nonetheless be pulled down or destroyed, just as Kitty can be physically confined to her aunt's house. Austen stresses, however, that the imagination remains a site of resistance and sanctuary even in the face of the most aggressive pedagogical or ideological assaults.
Withheld by her collateral heirs and not published until the early twentieth century, Austen's Catharine, or the Bower provocatively critiques stifling and hypocritical standards of female social and sexual conduct, faulty educational systems based upon female ignorance, and misguided attempts to regulate the body and the imagination. By rendering Mrs. Percival so extreme and Kitty so appealing, by incorporating an arsenal of suggestive literary allusions and intertexts, and by folding the whole into a comic framework, Austen provides a trenchant analysis of the collusions between public and private interests that can threaten even as intelligent and insightful a girl as Catharine. Assailing "domino effect" theories of moral governance espoused by commentators like Hannah More and James Fordyce, for whom the regulation of female bodies tropes the proper governance of the political state (the body politic), Austen emphasizes how such discourses trap young women in an impossible situation: their ignorance leads to their victimization, and they are in turn abandoned and rendered "lost" long before they even have the opportunity-as Austen, satirizing the vogue for sentimentalized seduction stories, joked to her sister Cassandra in letters from London-"to find [their] Morals corrupted" in the city, or "inevitably fall a Sacrifice to the arts of some fat Woman who would make [them] drunk with Small Beer" (23 August & 18 September 1796; Letters 5; 12). Of course, Austen's attitudes were not static, and her engagements with female exemplarity and education would be recalibrated in subsequent novels such as Mansfield Park. However, setting Austen's boisterous, boldly satirical early works in relation to her more nuanced later novels does allow us to put pressure on some of the more entrenched critical assumptions about Austen's social vision and cultural politics.14 Thus, for instance, while Gary Kelly has claimed that Austen "accords" with "the widespread view that education could both appropriately restrain and properly direct dangerous desires of all kinds, for which women were supposed to bear particular responsibility" (255), Catharine, or the Bower forces us to rethink the "appropriat[ness]" of educational methods that obsessively focus upon "dangerous desires" and the possibility of transgression, and suggests that the burden of "responsibility" placed upon young women might be the very factor that renders them susceptible to exploitation and abuse. This overlooked novel complicates, finally, the notion that "desires of all kinds" can be neatly "restrained" and "properly direct[ed]." Desire-like "woman's wit" in Rosalind's famous quip from As You Like It-is resistant to attempts to confine it: "Make the doors upon [it], and it will out at the casement. Shut that, and 'twill out at the keyhole. Stop that, 'twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney" (188.8.131.52-41).
THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
I am grateful to Jill Heydt-Stevenson and Terry F. Robinson for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay, and to Michele Speitz, Jeffrey Cox, and D.A. Miller for their encouragement and support. I would also like to thank the anonymous readers at Studies in the Novel for their helpful reports.
1 The bulk of Austen's novel was written in 1792, though, as I discuss, she made critical emendations to the draft as late as 1809-1811.
2 Caroline Mary Craven Austen wrote a letter to her brother James Edward Austen-Leigh (1 April c.1868) while he was pondering whether to include some of Austen's early writings in future editions of his Memoir in which she identifies the "early workings of [Austen's] mind" as being particularly problematic, and its output ultimately unfit for publication: "I have always thought it remarkable that the early workings of her mind should have been in burlesque, and comic exaggeration, setting at nought all rules of [the] probable or possible-when of all her finished and later writings, the exact contrary is the [case]....What I should deprecate is publishing any of the 'betweenities' when the nonsense was passing away, and before her wonderful talent had found it's [sic] proper channel" (qtd. in Le Faye 276-77).
3 Austen's political affiliations and allegiances are the subject of ongoing debate. The picture of an ideologically "conservative," Tory Jane Austen was established in the 1970s by Duckworth and Butler. Responding to these influential accounts, critics such as Poovey and Armstrong acknowledged more subversive, proto-feminist strains in Austen's novels, but concluded that, like other female writers of her time, Austen was ultimately forced to adhere to acceptably conservative norms by a domineering patriarchy. These positions-particularly Butler's-were later challenged by Johnson, Jane Austen, introduction. See Jones "Feminisms" 282-86; Waldron 6-15. For a succinct overview of the political atmosphere and major historical events of Austen's era, see Roe.
4 See also Tuite 32-39. As will become clear, however, I do not accord with Tuite's argument that "Catharine's desire for the bower" is an "addiction" resulting from her "reading novels of sensibility" (35). Kitty's reliance upon the garden sanctuary, I suggest, stems not from her indiscriminate reading of sentimental novels but from oppressive attempts to regulate her conduct, inhibit her freedoms, and control her body and sexuality.
5 In the famous set-piece at Sotherton, Austen foreshadows Maria Bertram's adulterous liaison with Henry Crawford by having the pair circumvent both a locked iron gate and a sunken ditch (or "ha-ha") in order to reach an appealingly secluded "grove of oak" on Maria's fiancé's estate. For a provocative reading of Austen's use of sexual puns and "assign[ment] [of] various erogenous zones to the landscape as a mirroring backdrop for the characters' flirtations" in this scene, see Heydt-Stevenson Unbecoming Conjunctions 148-52.
6 On the sexuality of plants and similar erotic gardening/plant metaphors during this period, see also Erasmus Darwin's popular long poem The Loves of the Plants (first published on its own in 1789, and incorporated as the second half of The Botanic Garden in 1791), which draws upon the classificatory system of Linnaeus to recount in heroic couplets the courtship rituals of a variety of plants. In The Unsex'd Females: A Poem (1798), a reactionary attack on women writers including Wollstonecraft, Anna Barbauld, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, and others, Richard Polwhele cites Darwin's Botanic Garden and the rage for botany among "fashionable ladies" as evidence of these women's corrupt morals and vitiated taste: "With bliss botanic as their bosoms heave, / Still pluck forbidden fruit, with mother Eve, / For puberty in sighing florets pant, / Or point the prostitution of a plant" (8).
7 Though Crawford misses it, Keats more directly employs this euphemism in his later poem "Lamia" (1820): when Lycius interrupts his "bliss[ful]" sexual dalliance with the beautiful serpent-cum-woman by succumbing to the temptation to exhibit his bride to the "thronged streets" of Corinth, the narrator interrupts with the following interjection: "O senseless Lycius! Madman! wherefore flout / The silent-blessing fate, warm-cloistered hours, / And show to common eyes these secret bowers?" (Part II, l. 147-79).
8 In their edition of the novel, Doody and Murray cite the OED's gloss on "romantic" here as "influenced by the imagination" (357 n.219).
9 Aware of the irony of countering this assault by writing another novel, West defended her work by insisting that she was "repel[ling] the enemy's insidious attacks with similar weapons" (333).
10 The similarity in names (More's "Lucilla Stanley" and Austen's "Camilla Stanley") appears to be an intriguingly ironic coincidence.
11 Austen told her niece Fanny Knight in a letter that "pictures of perfection" in novels "make me sick & wicked" (23-25 March 1817); it makes sense, then, that her distaste for More's novel was partially dictated by her impatience with the "perfec[t]," allegorized Lucilla Stanley in addition to many of the values she embodies (Letters 335). In terms of the latter, for instance, Austen wrote to Cassandra on 24 January 1809 of her "disinclination" for More's religious didacticism, flatly concluding, "I do not like the Evangelicals" (Letters 170). Indeed, More and her novel were frequent targets of Austen's satire: in addition to the comments cited above, see her 30 January 1809 letter in which she mocks More's decision to use the classicized spelling of "Coelebs" (derived from calebs, Latin for unmarried) for her protagonist rather than the English "Caleb," dismissing More's choice as "pedantry & affectation" (Letters 169-70; 172).
12 Fordyce's Sermons were originally published in 1766, but as Johnson points out, "enjoyed particular currency between 1790 and 1810, when they were frequently reprinted in England and Ireland" (Jane Austen 75). Austen later satirizes Fordyce in the sycophantic clergyman Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice (1813).
13 Sabor notes that Austen's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, attempted an abortive two-part continuation of Catharine by adding to the manuscript of "Volume the Third" in his own hand. Encompassing the final four paragraphs of the novel as printed in the Oxford World's Classics edition from which I quote throughout this essay, these additions were inserted over two time periods: the first two paragraphs in 1815-16, when Austen-Leigh visited the Austen family at Chawton "quite frequently," and "could have received his aunt's permission to make additions," and the second two after 1845, when he inherited "Volume the Third" from Cassandra Austen (364). Because the passage being discussed here falls into the former category, written while Austen was still alive and working-and potentially under her dictation or guidance-I treat it as a part of the novel. The two paragraphs written by Austen-Leigh in 1845, long after Austen's death (starting with "The Summer passed away" and concluding with "Some Gentleman to attend them-"), on the other hand, I have elected to omit from my formal discussion.
14 I would like to acknowledge here one of the journal's anonymous readers, whose comments helped me to reframe this point.
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