Our appetite for literary gossip

Bryan Appleyard in The Times of London:

AustinJane Austen had a lesbian affair with her older sister, Cassandra. It’s obvious, really. There was “the passionate nature of the sibling bond” so evident in the letters. There were her descriptions of women, betraying “a kind of homophilic fascination”. And, of course, there was her fascination with the “underlying eros of the sister-sister bond”. Case closed, I’d say.

Well, no. All these quotations come from a 1995 article in the London Review of Books by Terry Castle, an American academic. Castle was simply noting certain important preoccupations in her writing. An eager subeditor, however, had other ideas. “Was Jane Austen Gay?” was the headline. The LRB had barely hit the newsstands when Newsnight went on air with an earnest discussion of the sexual proclivities of one of our greatest novelists. Good grief! Was Mr Darcy really a woman, the bulge in his breeches a clumsy prosthetic? We had to know. But why? Literary biography is one of the dominant forms of our time. Almost weekly, big fat books emerge to reveal new truths about our greatest writers. Among the current fatties are Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis and the second volume of John Haffenden’s life of William Empson. The first has drunkenness and promiscuity; the second a bisexual fascination with troilism. And, yes, Austen is in for another doing-over, as a film released next year, Becoming Jane, about “a little-known but true love affair with the brilliant, roguish and attractive young Irishman Tom Lefroy”. One way or another, it seems, we shall just have to accept the awful, the incredible truth: Jane Austen had sex. Gosh.

More here.