In the Autumn of 1999 I received a letter informing me of an important “discovery” concerning Jane Austen.
It was from a pair of Americans, Arielle Eckstut, and Dennis Ashton, living in New York City and apparently eking out a living as some sort of lower-echelon literary hangers-on — agents and/or freelance writers. You can imagine the type, and will no doubt be unsurprised to learn that they were also raging Anglophiles, of the Masterpiece Theatre–watching, Typhoo-drinking sort.
Over the course of two decades as an Austen scholar, I have grown, if not exactly inured, at least somewhat familiar with these sorts of breathless announcements from total strangers. The people who made them were usually non-professional, and sometimes rather deranged, Austen fanatics who after spending years rereading Pride and Prejudice (or, more likely, watching the BBC miniseries version) had decided the novel was, in fact, a disguised allegory of the Life of Christ, or that Jane Austen was actually a homosexual man writing under a pseudonym, or some other such outré interpretation. In writing to me, a recognized Austen expert of some professional standing, they no doubt expected a scholarly, swift and grateful confirmation of their insane ravings.
Without exception, I disappointed them. Quite apart from my simple disdain for groupies and crackpots, I am by temperament reluctant to credit “sensationalistic” claims by even recognized academic scholars. My work for the last three decades has focused on Jane Austen’s rhetorical strategies, chiefly her use of punctuation,1 and I have little time for the sex/race/gender obsessions of the modern literature professions.
However, for reasons that are still not entirely clear even to me, I was intrigued by the Americans’ note. After a number of messages back and forth, and against my better judgement, I arranged to have the manuscripts sent to me for analysis.
I will not bore you here with a description of the months of difficult work that followed — the in-depth textual examination; analyses of the paper and ink used in the manuscripts; careful studies of the handwriting, dates and other evidence that could be brought to bear on the subject.2 I approached it all with the utmost skepticism. Quite apart from the healthy scholarly detachment appropriate to such an inquiry, I personally admit to wanting not to believe the manuscripts were genuine. If they were real, it would overturn everything we thought we knew about Jane Austen, everything two hundred years of scholarship had labored to teach us about her attitudes, style and beliefs. I emphasize again, I had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, in thinking the lost sex scenes genuine (though I will add briefly, that the punctuation in those uncovered pages utilize the same conventions as in her novels — rendering my previous work of some value and not obsolete, as the majority of the trend-related scholarship now is without question).
The fact of this book’s existence will tell you what I eventually concluded.
How to make sense of the Lost Sex Scenes? I confess here it is beyond my ability. Though this has been the most widely (indeed hysterically) publicized and successful episode in my professional life, it has also been the most disturbing. The new scenes make necessary completely new interpretations of every Austen novel. I suspect it will take decades, and generations of scholars, before their impact is fully absorbed. Until then, the most one can do is present the scenes to the public, in all their original and shocking eroticism. The public, indeed, must have their turn. For Austen is not merely a scholarly phenomenon, but a popular one. Her books have been among the most widely read in all of English literature; the new material can only make them more so.
Toward that worthy end, here are the Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen.
2 For a complete examination of these and other issues, see E. Drummond, “Proof and Prejudice: Authenticating the Lost Austen Erotica,” Journal of Jane Austen Studies, Vol. 29, No. 6 (2001).
from Pride and Prejudice from Emma