Exploration of Gender and Sexuality in Lady Susan and Wide Sargasso Sea
In Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the concept of gender remains a key aspect throughout both of the narratives in regard to plot development and characterization. Whilst Lady Susan was thought to be written almost two centuries before Rhys’ novel, Austen’s approach towards gender is more modern, as the female protagonist is independent and uncoventionally confident in terms of her sexuality. As a “distinguished flirt”, Lady Susan allows Austen to challenge the stereotypical gender roles of contemporary society. On the other hand, the Creolian female protagonist in Wide Sargasso Sea remains oppressed by her English husband. The postcolonial novel unveils the lack of female freedom during the 19th century, especially for women such as Antoinette, born into a brutal colonialist and patriarchal society. Despite the Austen’s feminist approach, she still hints at the chauvinistic attitude of society, as shown by the wide disapproval of Lady Susan’s avant garde behavior. However, both authors also capture glimpses of male weakness, as the men in Lady Susan appear somewhat foolish and easily manipulated by the female protagonist. Likewise Rochester is shown to be slightly intimidated by the otherness of his Caribbean wife.
Austen tests the norms of power relations between man and women through her presentation of Lady Susan, who is shown to be a revolutionary figure, both “rich, independant, and sexually satisfied”. Contrary to the traditional expectations of femininity, Lady Susan is openly flirtatious and aware of her seductive mastery. At the beginning of the narrative Mrs Vernon describes her as “captivating” (p.6), meaning the reader is immediately aware of her charisma. This marks her as striking – not necessarily in terms of just her physical appearance, but her character too, hinting at her powerful nature. Claire Tomalin refers to the protagonist as “a predator”; implying that in essence her male subjects are her prey. This builds on the idea of Lady Susan as a dominant female, who reverses the stereotypical gender roles by cunningly enchanting men. Her magnetism is further implied in Mr DeCourcy’s early letter to Mrs Vernon, as he exclaims “What a woman she must be!” (p.7), indicating his eagerness to acquaint himself with the widow. The abruptness of this phrase and the use of punctuation also emphasises his sense of admiration for Lady Susan. He later refers to her “bewitching powers” (p.7) which contributes to the portrayal of the protagonist as a compelling seductress. The choice of the word ‘bewitching’ is interesting, as it hints at her hypnotic hold over men, whilst also highlighting the unusual nature of her fortitude; Lady Susan’s assertiveness and sexual appetite is incongruous to her society, and consequently these qualities are seen as almost supernatural. Kate Macdonald describes the female figure as “utterly ruthless in the pursuit of her own desires”, which supports this view of her being atypically selfish concerning her carnal desires.
Unlike Lady Susan, the female protagonist of Wide Sargasso Sea lacks independence and self-assurance. As a Creole woman whose identity becomes sapped by her husband, Antoinette is almost at the other end of the spectrum to Lady Susan. She needs Rochester in order to fulfill her, and is shown to be impotent without his reassurance. For example, in Part II of the novel, following Antoinette’s emotional abandonment by Rochester, she declares “But I cannot go. He is my husband after all.”, demonstrating her subservience. The justification of her actions by the mere fact that Rochester is her husband shows her incapacity to act for herself – the reader discovers that her decisions become moulded by him, whereas in Austen’s novel, it is Lady Susan who manipulates the opposite sex. Andrea Masset discusses this “[loss of] identity in phallocentric society” as she refers to Antoinette as holding a “muted position”. This contributes to the portrayal of the protagonist as a powerless sufferer due to societal conventions – a point which is epitomized by Angela Pneuman; “She is, in short, a victim”. This description adds to her somewhat pathetic portrayal, evoking pity in the reader. Antoinette is also heavily dependent on her caretaker Christophine, who eventually leaves her, leading Antoinette into a state of despair as she cries “what will become of me?” (p.63). This hints at Antoinette’s inability to be self-sufficient, and shows that in contrast to Lady Susan, she is reliant on those around her for comfort. In fact, Christophine is far more comparable to Austen’s protagonist, as she recognises the importance of female power, stating “Women must have spunks to live in this wicked world” (p.63). Here Rhys alludes to society’s cruel condemnation of women, and stresses the need for female ascendancy – something which is not manifested in the character of Antoinette. Sandra Drake refers to Christophine as a “model of female independence-and self-reliance”, therefore reinstating this idea of her as a feminist icon who is considerably stronger than Antoinette.
Despite Austen’s modernist slant on gender roles, the author still conveys a sense of disdain with regards to Lady Susan’s free-spiritedness, as the letters exchanged between the other female characters reveal their contempt towards the widow. This is evident in a letter from Mrs Vernon to Lady DeCourcy, in which Lady Susan is said to be an “unprincipled woman” (p.13). This demonstrates that, although Lady Susan is very confident in terms of her sexuality, her actions disgust her fellow lady subjects. She herself even recognizes this, stating to Mrs Johnson that “The females of the family are united against me” (p.4). Her non-conformist attitude is discussed by Kate Macdonald, as she refers to her as “one of the truly great Appalling Women in British Fiction”. This supports the opinions of the other female figures in the novel, as Macdonald’s use of the word ‘appalling’ hints at the seemingly shameful behavior of Lady Susan. Mrs Vernon’s revulsion is also indicated in a letter to Lady de Courcy, describing her behavior as “inexcusably artful and ungenerous” (p.6). Here Austen allows the reader to consider the expectations of contemporary society regarding the conduct of women, as during the the 19th century, the time in which the novel was published, women were still regarded as largely inferior, and therefore unable to express themselves as freely as men – certainly not sexually. It is not only her female subjects that disapprove of her flirtatiousness, as shown by Sir Reginald DeCourcy, who says her encouragement of other men is “so gross and notorious, that no one [can] be ignorant of them at the time, nor can [forget] them” (p.18). This refers to the importance of image for women, as Lady Susan’s actions have clearly tainted her status; her openness about her sexual desires renders her somewhat unappealing in the eyes of certain men carrying traditional values. It is clear that although she is proudly self-willed, she is an object of scorn to many of her subjects.
The misogynistic undertones of Austen’s novel are comparable to those of Wide Sargasso Sea, especially when considering the significance of the male protagonist Rochester. His attitude towards his wife is similar to that of many of Lady Susan’s subjects, as Rhys clarifies that she is little more than an article to him – someone who he continues to dominate and eventually drive to madness. For instance, in Part II of the novel, Rochester talks about Antoinette as if she is an inanimate object, stating “The doll had a doll’s voice” (p.110). This reveals his lack of compassion towards his wife; here the use of the determiner ‘the’ to address Antoinette stresses the impersonal nature of their relationship and his lack of respect for her. The metaphorical comparison of his wife to a doll also contributes to the portrayal of Rochester as an oppressor, as Rhys depicts Antoinette as a lifeless toy, helplessly puppeted by her husband. The fact that Rochester rejects his wife’s real name, renaming her as ‘Bertha’, also demonstrates his disregard for Antoinette as an equal. Furthermore, by refusing to listen to her side of events towards the end of the novel, he effectively denies her the right to have a voice. He even begins to mimic his wife by calling her ‘Marionetta’; a cruel joke that reflects her doll-like malleability. Sandra Drake explores this idea of female repression, as she describes Rhys’ narrative as one concerning “the struggle for Antoinette’s survival” in which she is reduced to “psychological helplessness by European colonialism and patriarchy”. In light of this view, Rochester comes to represent the tyranny of colonialism as well as a male-dominated society, as he exerts his complete English control over the Caribbean landscape and people. This allows Rhys to highlight the extent to which the male protagonist damages his wife’s mental state.
Although Austen’s novel is set in a time period in which men are considerably more powerful and liberated than women, certain male characters are portrayed in a weaker light – as Mr Manwaring, Mr DeCourcy and Sir James become helplessly ensnared by Lady Susan. Austen’s presentation of such characters serves a somewhat comical purpose, as they are strangely charmed by a female; an occurrence which would not traditionally take place in contemporary society, as the male figure is typically expected to adopt such a role. Lady Susan is also able to manipulate Mr Vernon, which she reveals at the beginning of the novel, stating “I really have a regard for him, he is so easily imposed upon!” (p.8) when referring to his acceptance of her lodgings request. This implies that Mr Vernon is weak-willed, as Lady Susan is able to exploit him without him showing any real knowledge of her actions of manipulation. Similarly, Mr Manwaring is shown to be rather pathetic, as Lady Susan exclaims “Poor Manwaring!” (p.9) in a letter to Mrs Johnson, adopting a pitying tone, hence painting him as a feeble man, rather than one exuding dominance. Sir James is presented as equally as meagre, being described as “contemptibly weak” (p.4), providing the reader with a rather laughable image of a sickly, inadequate man. This allows Austen to cleverly challenge the gender stereotypes, as these qualities were not commonly associated with men throughout the 19th century, where women were treated as the weaker beings. The foolishness of men in the narrative is further exemplified by Mr DeCourcy’s submission to Lady Susan, as Mrs Vernon states “Her power over him must now be boundless, as she has entirely effaced all his former ill-opinion” (p.16). This humorous description emphasizes the meekness of Mr DeCourcy as a result of his enticement by the adulteress Lady Susan, as Austen’s use of the word “boundless”, hyperbolizes the extent to which he is charmed, suggesting that the widow possesses infinite dominance over him. The alliteration in the phrase “entirely effaced” also stresses the weak nature of Mr DeCourcy, implying that he is completely numbed by female power.
Rhys, like Austen, also allows the reader to see the weakness in male characters, as Rochester reveals occasional signs of angst. This is largely suggested to be consequential of his wife’s difference, which perhaps intimidates him. For example, he is shown to be deeply disorientated and potentially perturbed by the unfamiliarity of Jamaican culture – and regards his wife as emblematic of this. As a result, Rhys’ presentation of Rochester as an oppressor is perhaps a mere indicator of his own feelings of distrust and fear, which ultimately drive him to imprison his wife in his attic. This fear is unveiled towards the end of the narrative, as Rochester says “I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of loneliness. Above all I hated her.” (p.111). Here the author implies that Rochester’s detestation for the Caribbean and Antoinette is simply due to the fact that he is frightened of the unknown and therefore unwilling to accept the lifestyle that his wife represents. Glyn Griffith describes Rochester’s treatment of his wife as a result of “the Otherness which he feels obliged to repress in order to maintain his Eurocentric perspective intact”. This therefore implies that he is scared of losing his ‘Europeanness’ as he thinks that the Caribbean landscape could possibly cloud his judgement and forget his colonial loyalties. The presentation of the relationship between Amélie and Rochester also hints at his weakness, as Rhys foreshadows the power that the servant will capitalize on Rochester at the beginning of Part II, where she is described to give him a look so deeply malicious that he is forced to turn away. As he succumbs to his sexual urges with Amélie, he disregards his imperialist beliefs and disapproval of Jamaican culture, highlighting his lack of power in terms of carnal desire.
Upon considering the concept of gender in Lady Susan and Wide Sargasso Sea, it is evident that both authors are influenced by the circumstances of their own societal upbringings. Austen’s novel shows a female figure who is far more selfish but also braver than the typical nineteenth century woman, who pushes the social boundaries and unapologetically expresses her sexuality – regardless of the disdain she provokes in others. Rhys’ experience of growing up in the colony of Dominica means her narrative instead presents the female protagonist as a victim of the patriarchal society, as her marriage is portrayed as an act of colonialism; based on conquest and power. Nevertheless, both of the novels capture aspects of male weakness; an almost alien concept in contemporary society. Regardless of the author’s different explorations of the theme, gender is shown to be a construct determined by social pressures – the characters are either afraid of disobeying the gender norms, or open to challenging them.
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