by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 16, 2010


And now for something completely different.

Ann Herendeen has taken what may well be the most beloved novel in the English language, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and given it ... a homoerotic spin. As another father to five unmarried daughters might ask, "Sounds crazy, no?"

Well, Tevye, don't spin your skull cap, but it is Regency England, after all. The period named after the indolent, openly fornicating regent for his mad father, George III, is the most infamous period for licentiousness in the history of the island. Not for nothing is "Regency romance" the most popular subcategory of romance novels.

First of all, let's set the record straight. It's true that Austen died a spinster, the provincial daughter of a close-knit, religious family. But she was no innocent. She loved Fielding, which means she probably had read Tom Jones and Moll Flanders. And if she wasn't familiar with Fanny Hill, well, she knew enough about those bodice-ripping gothic novels to satirize them in her funniest novel, Northanger Abbey.

Even in Pride and Prejudice, there is, as Mrs. Bennet huffily informs Mr. Darcy, "enough of that going on as there is in town." Austen had a pretty good idea of what brought Lydia and Wickham together, why she opts to stay with him after he has no intention of marrying him, and what they're doing all day holed up in London. It's a pretty good bet they weren't reading Cobbett's poetry aloud to each other.

So what Herendeen has done is bring to the surface a strong undercurrent of sexual tension that was already there. In an interesting afterword, Herendeen briefly discusses slash fiction, which takes classic tales and brings out their homoerotic element.

In that sense, she has liberated Austen from the insufferable Janeites, those tea-sipping readers who treasure their "dear Jane" for the prim little comfortable world - completely ignoring the bitter irony and grim economic realism that has made a favorite of Marxists and feminists.

Here, most of the sex involves Darcy and Bingley. Once you get through the initial shock of reading a steamy scene in which Darcy (nearly always the top) has his way with Bingley, six years his younger, and, at 22, barely out of the twink stage, it makes a certain amount of sense.

Why, in Austen, does Darcy have so much sway over his friend? Once you delve into Herendeen, you realize that the older-boy-younger-boy public school ya-ya so well known and accepted it's called "the English vice," could be the basis for it.

Herendeen goes farther. Darcy is a member of the Brotherhood of Philander, a "gentleman's club" in London where landed gentry and titled nobility come to dish and swing. In Herendeen's version, Darcy is much too much a snob to patronize streetwalkers of either sex. And he would never step into a "molly house," the male houses of prostitution that flourished in Regency London.

But wait, as they say in the infomercials: There's more. Herendeen also has an explanation for the long, tortured relationship between Darcy and the darkly sexy (here and in Austen) Wickham. You guessed it: From childhood, Wickham has been sticking his butt in the air for his father's boss' son.

She even has a little hanky-panky for the ladies. Charlotte Lucas' close friendship with Elizabeth Bennet takes on a deeper hue - middle-finger deep, to be exact. The presumption is that women, at least gentlewomen, learn about sex the same way boys do - by doing it. Only in their case, the hymen has to remain intact, of course: no damaged goods on the wedding night.

Herendeen blithely explains away Darcy's and Bingley's attraction for the sisters. Both men love and lust after the women. But they're also decidedly bisexual, unlike most of Darcy's fellow Philanders, who mate, if at all, only until they produce an heir (and maybe a spare). There's also a lot of "tipping the velvet" and even fellatio during marriage, to keep from having too many children. (Prudish Americans disparaged blow jobs until after World War I, when returning GIs insisted their wives give them the same satisfaction as French whores.)

Both wives, by the way, let their husbands have their private playtime. And you thought we were so liberated compared to those ancients. Ha!

If Herendeen does a nice job of using sex to deconstruct Austen's characters, she's less successful with the actual writing. I don't have too much of a problem with her liberal interpretation of the plot, except for a late-in-the-day argument between the newlywed Bingleys and Darcys over Darcy having lied to Bingley about Jane being in town.

Nor can I really complain too much if Herendeen's prose doesn't match Austen's. After all, whose could? But there are points where the characters speak vulgarly to each other in a way that made my skin crawl just a little bit.

Even with these caveats, fans of Jane Austen will eat this up. At the head of the mammoth Austen revival that has been raging since the early 1990s, Pride and Prejudice has been subjected to vampires, sequels, updates (most notably Bridget Jones' Diary), manga, sci-fi and zombies.

So why not gay sex? Oh Jane, wherever you are, I hope that famous irony keeps you smiling at all this.

Pride/Prejudice: A novel of Mr. Darcy, Eliabeth Bennet, and their forbidden lovers
by Ann Herendeen
$15, paper
Harper Collins

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).