Emma and the Prudes

No, ‘Emma and the Prudes’ is not the name of a new rock band.  It’s the title of a talk today by Wendy Lee for the Jane Austen Society in New York.  Was Austen’s Emma a prude by the standards of the day?

I was particularly interested in the topic, as a ‘prude’ myself, and having just schlogged my way through the rather awful Spinster for my book club

Lee was careful to distinguish being a prude from being a spinster.  Her source is 17th-century French literature and its female types–the prude and the coquette.  The Queen and the flirt

A prude is a woman who seeks social and political power.  Consequently, she is suspicious of marriage, even if she is married, and avoids it if she isn’t.  Being a prude has nothing to do with sexuality, having or not having sex, nor attitudes about sex.  Instead, the prude simply preferred fem-centric society.

Clearly, the term is derogatory.  The male equivalent is the misogynist.


Was Emma a prude? She states clearly that there’s no advantage to her marrying. She’s already financially secure. Only love would induce her. She certainly enjoys a circle of female friends. Sounds like a prude to me.

In the literature Lee studied, the prude was depicted as a hypocritical, judgmental killjoy, who could be hysterical and suicidal.  Iconoclast, heretic, vulture.  No one can know what she’s thinking, as she comes across as ‘unfeeling,’ with neither affection not animosity.  She certainly was the best of liars.  From the literature.  Lovely

A spinster had more positive associations initially, referring to 12th-century girls in France who worked as spinners, an acceptable occupation for unmarried women.  Over time, you know what happened.  The male equivalent was bachelor, never a pejorative

Basically, these ugly labels keep women in their place, towing the cultural line.  Lee’s literature included Prude, the novel, by a Young Lady.  I pointed out that whether or not the author was a woman, the point was to keep women in the marital way.  Lee shows how the husband in marriage replaced the circle of women, a sacrifice by the prude

I also asked Lee about the link to the history of feminism.  In the U.S. from the 1850s on, women who advocated for their rights were certainly considered difficult.  They merely wanted to be sovereigns of their own lives.  In other words, a prude.

When you think about it, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

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