‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery’: Adultery in Jane Austen



‘I am proud to say I have a very good eye at an Adultress’.1 That startling claim is made in one of Jane Austen’s letters. It appears that she did not make much use of the talent in her fiction. Only one character in an Austen novel is an adulteress, Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park (1814). In one other novel adultery has already occurred and affects the plot: in Sense and Sensibility (1811) the story of the first Eliza is a tale of female adultery (205–7). Austen never makes a major plot element out of male adultery, although she refers to it occasionally. In Mansfield Park the uncle who was guardian of Henry and Mary Crawford moves his mistress into the house on the death of his wife (41). This is a meagre amount of material to go on, but enough, I hope, for something to be said about adultery in Austen’s novels.


Large Party Meagre Amount Scarlet Letter Sexual Fulfilment Sexual Transgression 
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  1. 1.
    To Cassandra Austen, 12 May 1801. Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd edn, Oxford (1952) 127.Google Scholar
  2. The adulteress is identified in Tom Winnifrith, ‘Jane Austen’s Adulteress’, Notes and Queries, CCXXXV, (1990) 19–20; see also his Fallen Women in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, London (1994) 17–18.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    G.H. Treitel, ‘Jane Austen and the Law’, The Law Quarterly Review, C (1984), 549–586 (572–3).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Lawrence Stone, The Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987, Oxford (1992), Chapter X ‘Parliamentary Divorce’, esp. pp. 322–4.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Keith Thomas, ‘The Double Standard’, Journal of the History of Ideas, XX (1959) 195–216 (200–1).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 5.
    Eighteenth-century women were often advised to overlook the sexual irregularity of their husbands. Dr Johnson is explicit on this point: ‘Between a man and his Maker it is a different question: but between a man and his wife, a husband’s infidelity is nothing … Wise married women don’t trouble themselves about infidelity in their husbands.’ James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. G.B. Hill and L.F. Powell, Oxford (1934–50) III, 406.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Keith Thomas, op. cit.; Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800, London (1977) 501–7;Google Scholar
  8. Annette Lawson, Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal, London (1988) 35–51.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Peter L. De Rose and S. W. McGuire, A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen, 3 vols, New York and London (1982).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Derek Brewer, Symbolic Stories: Traditional Narratives of the Family Drama in English Literature, Cambridge (1980) 155–65; Marilyn Butler, Introduction to Mansfield Park in the World’s Classics series, Oxford (1990) ix.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Oxford (1975) 162–5; 242–3; 284–5. Lawrence Stone considers the question of ‘Social Ostracism’ in The Road to Divorce, 341–4.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish The Birth of the Prison (1975), trans. Alan Sheridan, Harmondsworth (1977).Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    Susan Morgan, ‘Why There’s No Sex in Jane Austen’s Fiction’, Studies in the Novel, XIX (1987) 346–56.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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