Sally Rooney, Jane Austen, sexual tension and the 'grand philosophical project'
‘I think if there’s a well-enough rendered sense of sexual tension, the reader will read almost anything.” –Sally Rooney, speaking on The Cut podcast
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Welcome to March. Hope you are finding some beauty and hope where you can, as spring arrives to the northern hemisphere.
Today, we begin a new month here at the Austen Connection and it’s Jane Austen TV month! We have some fun conversations about the Austen and Austen-adjacent television that’s unrolling in the weeks ahead. And all that’s coming up.
But one television show on the radar is less obviously Austen, and yet still, as I went digging for the Austen Connection as always, in many ways it’s all about Austen: and that’s the series based on the Sally Rooney book Conversations with Friends. It’s coming in May, and last month Hulu released the trailer, and this has all the inter-webs literati fluttering, and rightly so.
Are any of you here in this space reading Rooney, like me, and - also like me, always - thinking about Austen connections? For those of you who are not, don’t worry - this conversation is going to tempt you to pick it up!
And for those who haven’t yet noticed - some of you are working back across the centuries and may not have time for the Latest Thing, so let me catch you up: Rooney is a young Irish writer who published Conversations with Friends - a novel filled with art, ideas, gender politics, and meaningful sex - in 2017, while in her early 20s.
It was a hit; but more importantly it, and her follow-up Normal People, were critically acclaimed well before Normal People became a successful Hulu/BBC Three series in 2020, and all three of her novels have not only lived up to but have increased the hype.
I just finished the latest one, Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You and, as I wrote in a recent Instagram post that helped me sort through my ideas here, I am still somewhat haunted by these characters, their struggles, hopes and dreams, their desires and attempts at love and life, and connection. Their navigations of money, power, class, and status. And art and ideas.
And I’m struck - but this will surprise no one - by the resonance of all of this with Austen’s characters, which of course are also haunted by the hopes and dreams and attempts at love and life and finding their way. And also money and class and status. And art and ideas.
As Rooney puts it, she’s exploring the “power disparity” in our lives, through the dynamic of relationships.
Reading Sally Rooney has actually enhanced my views of what Austen herself is doing. And that’s sort of magical - when you are reading a contemporary book that is so deeply in conversation with a classic author, that you can take the influence backwards in time, to see the 19th century situation more clearly by considerations of our contemporary inheritance of the art and ideas.
More specifically, I find the Eileen-and-Simon relationship of Beautiful World, Where Are You weighted with parallels to Emma and Knightley in all the obvious ways, and also in some less obvious ways: As in Emma, there is between our two people an age difference, a childhood friendship, a “power disparity,” a competent older man embracing tradition in ways that baffle a younger, intelligent woman. And she is both annoyed by but also loving, and needing, the way he catches her when she falters.
And the parallels between Emma and Knightley are also there in less obvious ways for Eileen and Simon: the failure of family in her life which leaves her neglected, bored, and adrift; and the inner, hidden vulnerabilities and desires of a man who scans as powerful, and how these socially constructed identities can shape us, confine us, and force a negotiation in every level of our relationships.
I felt I was seeing clearly these parallels; yet at the same time, because I am always thinking about the Austen parallels in everything, I was sort of chuckling to myself that the echo was probably in my head - and not in Sally Rooney’s. After posting my Instagram post (largely saying what I just said, above), I went on my way.
But then, I came across a podcast episode from The Cut, which led me to read a few more interviews with Rooney, and I realized that Rooney is absolutely building off of Jane Austen and other 19th century works. And not only that, she’s doing so consciously, intentionally, and she’s actively exploring some of the Austen philosophies - not a word we always associate with Austen - as she goes.
And not only that - but when Rooney talks about Austen, she tends to invoke - guess which novel? - Emma. The novel that is Austen’s own ultimate navigation of power disparity, status, money, inequality, in life, in relationships, and love.
So here’s a quick breakdown of the things Rooney is doing that help us look back and see Austen in a contemporary light. What better way to re-vision the way that Austen wrote the lives of young 19th century women than to look through the eyes of a young 21st century artist writing hers. And when we look, we find some interesting things.
The philosophical project
When I heard Sally Rooney on The Cut podcast use the word “philosophical” to talk about her approach to writing about relationships and family, I got very excited, and I wasn’t even sure why.
Rooney says she’s writing about relationships, and family as a unit, rather than the individual, as the basis for ethics and for who we are in the world. And she calls this exploration a “huge philosophical project to engage in” just like that of Austen.
And as I think about it, there are a few reasons that this is exciting.
First, before we even get into the project itself, let’s just look at the fact that Rooney is a young woman declaring herself a philosopher. And I feel that is a word that applies to what Jane Austen was doing, and also just before her, what Mary Wollstonecraft was doing. I feel Wollstonecraft, who was writing and influencing fiction and art and ideas all around her and through the centuries, was more accurately a philosopher.
So why don’t we tend to refer to Wollstonecraft as a philosopher?
She tends to be called a Feminist writer; but she wasn’t even dedicated solely to the cause of women. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman followed from her Vindication of the Rights of Men, and she was right there with the Dissenting writers, political scientists, and philosophers of her day - lunching and brainstorming with the likes of Thomas Paine, and published by their mutual supporter Joseph Johnson.
Sure, Wollstonecraft was interested in the experience of women; but she was, first, interested in the human experience. To me, it feels like Wollstonecraft influence is cornered into the Feminist channel simply because she’s a woman writer - but we might think of her more broadly as a humanist, political writer, and philosopher.
And not only that, but Austen, as I’m continuously celebrating here, is clearly influenced by Wollstonecraft, and is examining Wollstonecraft’s philosophical inquiries through the novels. Austen is also exploring not only the experience of women in the world, but also humans in the world, and embarking, as Rooney puts it, on a “grand philosophical project.”
Law, Rooney tells The Cut, and criminal justice, and the foundations of our social systems, are based on the ethics of the individual; what happens if we examine ethics through the dynamic of our relationships?
So there: We’ve understood something about Austen by looking backward through Rooney. And we begin to understand it even better when we actually look past the gender of these writers and attach the idea of philosophical inquiry to what they are doing.
Austen is also exploring not only the experience of women in the world, but also humans in the world, and embarking, as Rooney puts it, on a “grand philosophical project.”
But not only that!
Secondly, where this really gets interesting is when you begin to unpack what Wollstonecraft, and her literary daughter Jane Austen, and her actual daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, are all doing and what Sally Rooney is inheriting and continuing.
And what they are all doing, what they are all philosophizing and inquiring about, is how relationships and specifically the family as a unit can or does provide the basis, as opposed to individualism, for the structures of an ethical, healthy, productive, equitable society.
This revisioning of a society based on family unit and relational affection is what’s going on in Vindication, in Frankenstein, in all of Austen, and it lasted right through to Victoria and Albert - who we associate with family values, forgetting that they themselves came from terrible families - and it’s what’s going on in all of Rooney.
Rooney says she’s exploring philosophical questions about ethics and goodness and how to live ethically and responsibly through the prism of relationships; and perhaps exploring whether it’s not so much about individuals but more about the “units” of parent-child, lovers, families as the channel for our responsibilities to society, through each other.
Is there any better way, as it happens, to describe the novels of Austen?!
Rooney tells The Cut she’s still exploring all of this because she doesn’t understand it.
And she says this philosophical project could last her entire life.
Gender politics, class politics, plain old politics - and desire
Friends, we could write an entire book just breaking down everything we just said - and likely someone has, and here’s where I must give a shout out to my own brilliant daughter who recently asked me to read her thesis on the influence of socialism on the friendships in Rooney, which has definitely inspired all my thinking here.
But let’s consider this a beginning, and a continuation of a constant conversation that we will be having about the themes of Austen and the themes of Rooney and the philosophies that influence them and the philosophical inquiries that animate them.
And let’s just quickly spell out that while Jane Austen on the surface appears to be putting two people together into a courtship plot ending in love and marriage; she is through the prism of relationships, as Rooney says, actually exploring the experience of a young female-identifying person and how they navigate their world, and how they find a path through the social and political structures that may marginalize them, how those structures support, or not, the human, and how this navigation plays out through desire, sex (yes, there is sex in Austen - and not just a little bit), and love.
For Rooney, the political navigation - the ideas influencing the art - arrive against a backdrop of socialism and communism and The Troubles and examine how our society is missing the point when it comes to wealth and equality, and how our inequities influence our humanity at every level of society, rich, poor and in between; and in Wollstonecraft-down-to-Austen it arrives against the backdrop of Dissenters and revolution (French, American) and inheritance laws, and also how our society is missing the point when it comes to wealth and equality and how our inequities influence our humanity at every level of society, rich, poor and in between.
It’s there in Austen, and it’s there in Rooney.
It’s politics, it’s gender, it’s power, and it’s a philosophical exploration challenging our notions of all of those things, with relationships at the center - and it’s also desire.
There’s an intense desire in Rooney, and it directly channels the intensity of desire, and need, deprivation, and ambition, in Austen.
It’s, first, a desire the way we typically think of desire: It’s what makes the world go round. We want love, we want the stability of a relationship, and we want to desire the person we build that with. There is so much here, friends, that we will need to save much of this conversation for another day - where we can bring in Rooney’s characters, Eileen, Simon, with Emma, and Knightley and all of Highbury.
But before the desire comes the deprivation, and I feel this is key to Austen, key to Rooney, key right back to Wollstonecraft. We all know what it feels like to experience the absence of desire, the absence of that foundation of affection and loyalty and love that family is supposed to provide.
But it’s possible (please weigh in here, friends, as I’m still exploring this) that in the early 19th century the idea of family loyalty might have been a rather radical idea. Victoria and Albert hadn’t come on the scene yet, mass-marketing the idea of the family unit and the Christmas card photo.
And Wollstonecraft and Shelley certainly felt the deprivation of family - there was no consistency or stability in their home lives - while Austen appears to have experienced deprivation and displacement as well, as did of course Dickens.
There’s an intense desire in Rooney, and it directly channels the intensity of desire, and need, and ambition, in Austen. It’s, first, a desire the way we typically think of desire: It’s what makes the world go round. We want love, we want the stability of a relationship, and we want to desire the person we build that with.
But the deprivation doesn’t have to be massive; even a quiet need can fuel the desire that you sense in these novels.
In Rooney’s Normal People, Marianne says to Connell, “I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.”
How to make people love you?
This is not a concept out there in the universe anywhere more than in Austen, who writes of characters failing to attach themselves, and in one of the saddest lines from Austen, in the last chapter of Mansfield Park, we are reminded of Aunt Norris, who “had never been able to attach even those she loves best.”
Love is work; it’s a learned skill; it’s hard-earned, hard-won, and when you are writing about it, it’s a grand philosophical project.
Holding it all, holding us all, together: Love
But that desire is also a hunger, a vision: for the creation of a better society, through relationships.
That sounds small and simple, but it is actually huge and grand.
Wollstonecraft in her Vindication, Shelley in her Frankenstein, maybe even Paine in his Rights of Man, are challenging the traditional Burkean universe and calling for stable, equitable units of relationships - built on loyalty and affection, merit rather than inheritance, built not on economic alliance but on choice in love - to provide a structure for society.
Society, as Wollstonecraft, Paine, Shelley, and Austen knew it, was in danger of falling apart at the seams. America was forcing a new world order; France was stampeding into something; Mary Shelley was following her husband, poet Percy Shelley, and Byron and their lovers across Europe, and her young children were not surviving the adventures.
All of them wondered whether things might just be that little bit better - as in, healthier, more stable, more equitable, more inspiring - with loyalty, family, and love.
It might seem old-fashioned and outdated now; but it came, again, not from prudish moralizing - none of these people were actually following these rules in their own lives, from Wollstonecraft right up to Dickens - but it came instead from an intense hunger, based on need of and deprivation of love and affection.
For instance, Wollstonecraft, according to biographer Claire Tomalin, spent some nights of her childhood shielding her mother from an alcoholic father; then, tragically, she died in childbirth, leaving her second daughter to grow up desperate for maternal and paternal love and stability.
These two, Wollstonecraft and Shelley - with Austen sandwiched right in between them chronologically - influenced the art and ideas, the visions and desires, of the 19th century.
They began the grand philosophical experiment that Rooney has picked up.
They were asking in their philosophy and their writings, then, what Rooney is still asking today: What if we based our ethics, our society, our humanity, on not individual action but on the trials and triumphs of our relationships? What if we loved each other, and committed to each other, and built a unit - and therefore a society - around that? What if we look at ourselves through the prism of love?
What if, indeed.
Tell me, friends: Are you reading Austen, and seeing that vision of love? Are you reading Rooney? Are you reading both? If so, let me know!
Have you thought of Austen, Wollstonecraft, or now Rooney, as philosophers?
Let us know all your thoughts!
And, here’s what’s coming in the Austen Connection:
‘The Courtship’, ‘Sanditon’ and Jane Austen TV
The month-and-more of Jane Austen TV kicks off this Sunday with the wackiest idea ever - a reality dating show set at an English castle. It’s The Bachelorette meets Andrew Davies, and judging from the trailer of The Courtship this looks in some ways better than expected, and in other ways - we have questions.
What’s looking good:
The parents are involved from the start - a nice Regency touch!
Friends are also involved and feature prominently in the drama - also good. Go, Charlotte Lucas, best wing-woman in literary history.
Diverse casting - in a post-Bridgerton world, this is becoming the new normal, and rightly so. Let’s hope that soon it goes without saying.
Why do we have the Bachelorette-obsessive “are you here for me” paranoia and manufactured drama going on in this show? Surely there is another sort of drama that can be found in this situation - and likely there will be; we’ll stay tuned.
But, still, is any of the manufactured drama always-rampant in reality-dating shows even necessary in this setting? Just give us the grand green lawns and architectural hedges and fountains, not to mention the Regency dresses and decor, and shut up with your dramas, everyone. We’ll be fine.
If you watch The Courtship, premiering on NBC this Sunday, let us know what you think - and we’ll be sure to come back and weigh in.
Also, stay tuned for a special guest post next week from Elizabeth Gilliland, who is the author of the new What Happened on Box Hill, and also has a PhD in English literature with a focus on adaptations - so she’s a good one to help us look ahead to all things Sanditon, coming March 20 on PBS. A look ahead to Sanditon next week!
Meanwhile, friends, please have a good weekend, full of love and attachment to all the good people and good things you can find,
Your epistolary Plain Jane
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