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08/16/95

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Terry Castle stands by Jane Austen review

In the August daze of Britain's "silly season," when the Parliament and courts are in recess and the Royals aren't doing their bit for naughty headlines, the press of Fleet Street annually mount a watch for scandalous stories. Reality is checked at the door.

This summer it was Terry Castle, Stanford professor of English, who landed in the tabloid snares with her review of a newly annotated edition of Jane Austen's letters. When her front-page essay was published in the "London Review of Books" Aug. 3 -- bearing the headline "Was Jane Austen Gay?" -- reporters leapt on Castle's subtle depiction of Austen's relationship with her older sister, Cassandra.

Although the review commented widely on the family gossip and trivia of everyday life that are found in Austen's letters, headline writers zeroed in on a few select phrases. Castle's references to the "passionate nature of the sibling bond [the letters] commemorate," her suggestion that Austen's physical descriptions of women could be read as "a kind of homophilic fascination," and her exploration of the "underlying eros of the sister-sister bond" were seized upon by reporters for the Daily Telegraph, Independent and Observer. Reuters also ran with the story, and soon editors from Time and Newsweek were on the phone to Castle, to ask her if she'd said Jane Austen was a lesbian.

But, as an exasperated columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail noted, "the only problem is that Castle wrote no such thing."

Back in her office after a trip to Southern California, Castle clearly was wearied by the attention but in good spirits. In spite of the press coverage, and in spite of a breakdown in the live-satellite link of BBC's "Newsnight" that gave her only 2 minutes and 14 seconds to try to explain what she'd really said, Castle was standing her literary ground.

"Nowhere in my essay did I state that Jane Austen was a 'lesbian' - certainly not in the modern clinical sense of the word - or that she had sex of some sort with her sister," Castle said. "The title of my essay in question ('Was Jane Austen Gay?') was not of my devising; nor did I have anything to do with the provocative 'did they or didn't they?' press release issued by the London Review of Books calling attention to the piece."

In a statement which the London Review of Books has agreed to publish in its next issue, Castle wrote that, "Social historians have been writing for the past 20 years about the profoundly homosocial nature of middle and upper-class English cultural life in the 18th and 19th centuries: the sexes were highly segregated, and powerful emotional (and sometimes physical) ties between persons of the same sex were both common in the period and often expressed in highly romantic or passionate terms. Unmarried women, especially siblings, frequently shared a bed - as Austen and Cassandra did for all of their adult lives. I have been accused of 'not realizing' that such physical intimacy between women was in fact 'normal' or 'common' in the period, when that was precisely part of my point."

The "scandal mongering" reaction to her musings on the Austen sisters' relationship genuinely surprised her, Castle said.

"I realize that my work is controversial in some quarters; I've written a book called The Apparitional Lesbian and that may have waved red flags for people," she said. "But it's also interesting to me that in the press reports people called attention to the fact that I'm from California, and that I live in San Francisco, as if to suggest, 'oh, well, she's crazy.' Other people said because I was from California I had no idea how cold English houses are without central heating, and how people had to sleep in the same bed because it was so cold.

"Of course I knew all that," she said. "And the real irony is that I spent my childhood in England."

The disturbing part of the journalistic flap, for Castle, was the "incredibly homophobic" reaction she saw in the coverage.

"People have reacted as though I'd desecrated the temple or something," she said. "Many people still consider it a terrible slur if you suggest that a person like Jane Austen might have had homosexual feelings."

Castle suggested that the depth of the reaction in Britain also may have to do with Austen's status as a "cultural icon" in her homeland.

"I think there is a kind of fetishizing of Austen, not only among British academics, but among a lot of people who join Jane Austen societies, of which there are still a number in England. And [the press coverage] triggered off a very primitive reaction in people who use her to project their own fantasies about the past, and the purity of the past."

Because Austen also has become "an icon of the early 19th-century spinster," Castle said, "people tend to view her as asexual, as not having had any sort of sensual life at all.

"But her novels, it seems to me, are about desire and eros and emotion. If they weren't, why would we care about them?"

-dm-

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