The Atlantic

Queering the Work of Jane Austen Is Nothing New

Starting in the Victorian era, stage performers and writers have been subverting the novelist’s reputation as the go-to author for conventional, heterosexual love.
Source: Hugh Thompson / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

It’s an old Jane Austen conundrum: The author never married, but her fiction suggests she was expert in the ways of desire and love. How can that be? What were her desires, and did she act on them? Questions about Austen’s sexuality recently resurfaced in warring headlines, with the BBC TV historian Lucy Worsley suggesting that Austen “almost certainly never had sex with a man and may have instead engaged in ‘lesbian sex.’” Worsley’s conjecture provoked predictable reposts and ripostes. Speculations about Austen’s romantic life have proven reliable fodder for sensational headlines, so it’s unsurprising that they’d resurface this year, with celebrations of the bicentenary of the author’s death at a fever pitch.

Scholars are no closer to pinning down the truth about Austen’s amorous longings and intimate experiences. Yet there’s at least one part of Austen’s legacy that may be described as queer, in the most expansive sense of that word: her posthumous performance history. Starting in the Victorian era, actors and playwrights shifted Austen’s characters away from traditional gender roles and heterosexuality,

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