Is Mr. Darcy's Pen a Metaphorical Penis?

"You write uncommonly fast." Ahem.
A couple of days ago, disappointed in some of the twists in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I started to read up on Jane Austen's sexual politics. It is a common theme lately to debunk the sanitized image of Austen as an asexual spinster who never left her house and replace it with the image of an Austen we'd all like to hang out with: world-savvy, cuttingly funny, and quick on the double entendres. I do not know enough yet to tell if this reconstruction is more faithful to her character than the last, but I admit that a part of me cheers for this 3rd wave Jane Austen. (A part of me finds it slightly problematic, though, but that part needs to read a lot more before opening its mouth.)

Anyway, one of the articles I read this week is Jill Heydt-Stevenson's "Slipping into the Ha-Ha": Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen's Novels. Heydt-Stevenson argues that the racy elements some readers see in Austen's writing are not only there, but they are there for a purpose. They are a veiled - and thus acceptable - way of criticizing the patriarchy, of subverting its values. The dirty joke signals that the author sees through the patriarchy's game. Among other things, Austen uses this bawdy humor as a way of exposing the (rather crude) sexual and power dynamics behind the romantic ideal of courtship, as a way of "collapsing boundaries between prostitution and courtship."

There were a lot of things I appreciated in this article - and it's well worth a read - but there were also places where I felt it veered into "literary criticism gone mad." Take, for example, this exchange between a desperately flirtatious Caroline and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Chapter X:
"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."

"Thank you—but I always mend my own."
For Heydt-Stevenson, Caroline's line is a "powerful metonymy of phallic power," while Darcy's reply, recognizing her sexual allusion, "playfully invokes autoeroticism." The more I think of it, the more I think this cannot be right. Mind you, this is not just an exercise in interpreting metaphors Freudian-style, where no cigar is ever a cigar and "all vegetation is pubic hair" (to slightly misquote Maud Bailey). In order for this interpretation to work, the characters themselves must be in on the joke. But if they are, how is Darcy's reference to masturbation a good or cutting reply to Caroline's (supposed) innuendo? "Thank you, I've never needed a woman for that"? Is Darcy really the ultimate Socially Awkward Penguin?

But then again, perhaps I'm being naive and reading less into this than I should. (It happened before.) So I'm crowdsourcing this one. What do you think, internet? Is a pen just a pen? Is this pen a, erm, "powerful metonymy of phallic power" and its owner the Socially Awkward Penguin? Is there a third choice I'm missing?


  1. Best title and article ever.

    I'm one of those who thinks Jane Austen is actually a 21st reinterpretation of her works and that she was actually neither a feminist nor a revolutionary in any way. Of course, I know most people disagree and it's OK since we'll never know how the real Austen was.

    1. I think there is one way in which she could be (most of) what this reconstruction claims she is, but without being a revolutionary. And that is if our (popular) understanding of her era is in itself flawed or sanitized. Or perhaps she wasn't as much revolutionary in relation to her age, as counter-revolutionary? If the 18th century was more open about all sorts of things than the 19th century was starting to be, I mean.(Just thinking aloud.)

      I'm sure someone must have written about this, but I would be very interested to trace how the image of Austen evolved, especially in the context of the evolution that took place in feminism itself.

  2. Perhaps a third option is that Catherine's comment was indeed an innuendo, and that Darcy failed to recognize it, responding only to the words themselves and not the subtext. Or that he recognized it but deliberately ignored the innuendo. What would either of these options say about male-female relations in Austen's worldview?

    1. I think the idea that Darcy failed to recognize the subtext might work. I need to reread Austen to get a better grip on this, but there are a number of interesting questions here. First of all, was Caroline completely out of line or were such puns part and parcel of flirting? If she was completely out of line, then Darcy could fail to recognize the pun because he wasn't expecting it. (And this would be interesting from a cultural point of view.) If she wasn't and this was something you could expect from women in her circle, then perhaps Darcy is just bad at this game. (Which is not in contradiction to the rest of his characterization.)

      I don't think that the option in which he recognized the subtext but chose to ignore it works quite as well. If he recognized the subtext, then he must also recognize that his choice of words makes him look bad in the terms of that subtext. A simple "I'm fine, thank you." would be better.

      But regardless of the (possible) sexual subtext, this interaction might say something about male-female relations in P&P. Caroline is very much the aggressor here and Darcy rejects her. In a very nice line at the end Elizabeth tells Darcy this:

      "The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them."

      It would be very interesting to follow this problem of who takes initiative and with what results (especially when you also have Jane and Bingley who are both bad at this).

      Thank you, this was food for thought :)

    2. I very much appreciated your post - wonderful food for thought yourself! Questions of initiative and agency are always interesting in a patriarchal culture due to their potential to either reinforce or subvert the norm.

  3. I believe that barn-yard humour abounded during Austen's time - how could it not. They lived lives in such intimate contact with their horses and dogs in particular.

    But in this case, I believe that Caroline Bingley was just sucking up (no pun intended!)

    Throughout the entire book she looks for ways to get Darcy to notice her and pay attention. She uses every 'mean art' at her disposal.
    A woman of her education, secluded from many of the harsh realities of life, would not have been in on these type of jokes.

    But perhaps Darcy's response could be interpreted as his flinging a little sexual innuendo at her innocent helpfulness - a private male joke! Otherwise , why didn't he just say 'no thank, I'm fine'?

  4. Yes, it is exactly that, Jill Heydt Stevenson's only error was in not realizing where Jane Austen borrowed that sexual innuendo from! I will be posting an explanation on this very point at my blog this evening, and will post a link to my blog post here then.

    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  5. And here's the link I promised to the blog post that explains why the answer is yes:

    Rapidly fingering flowing pens of twin Lotharios, Mr. Darcy & Clarissa’s Lovelace

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