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Of Miss Jane Austen and Ms. Paula Jones

November 22, 1998|Drew Limsky | Drew Limsky, a doctoral student in English at New York University, teaches writing at Brooklyn College

NEW YORK — If Jane Austen were alive today, she would approve of Paula Corbin Jones' decision to finally put her case to bed, so to speak. A careful reading of Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" would have saved Jones much heartache and humiliation.

Austen's 1811 novel was, in great measure, a handbook for the young girls who devoured popular sentimental novels of the day, an effort to defuse their overemotional, ultimately self-defeating sensibilities and bang some sense into them. Adherence to this plan would bring the rewards of maturity, good health (both emotional and physical) and enhanced marriage prospects. Moreover, Austen's crusade against sensibility--defined as indulgence of feeling--and advocacy of sense--the restraint of feeling--was embarked upon as a means of encouraging the advancement of women's place in society. The public reckoning of Jones that arrived in April 1998, as well as her belated settlement with President Bill Clinton, seems to be serving the same kind of Austen-style feminism.

The tension in "Sense and Sensibility" derives from the opposing beliefs and behavior of the marriageable Dashwood sisters. Elinor, the elder and more sensible, is emotionally reserved and a model of decorum, while her spirited sister, Marianne, is expansive in her feelings, given to fervent outpourings, romantic imaginings and exaggerated melancholy. When a new suitor, the rakish Willoughby, rejects her, Marianne's distress brings on a hysterical illness that nearly kills her, a wake-up call that convinces the young woman to curtail her sensibility and try to emulate her sensible sister.

Not only did Austen regard emotional excess as evidence of bad taste, but she also saw it as a threat to women's very survival. Critics of her era viewed sensibility as a road leading to social ostracism, godlessness, madness and the poverty of spinsterhood--in a word, ruin. Sensibility was faulted for preventing girls like Marianne from being able to read seducers like Willoughby, and Austen, along with an increasing number of her contemporaries, portrayed it as a liability to the only "career" most women of her time knew: marriage.

Jones reminds us why Austen grew so impatient with sensibility. The former Arkansas state employee failed the crucial test of restraint. Even those observers inclined to believe her story, that then-Gov. Clinton summoned Jones to his hotel room and made a crude sexual advance, found her reaction to the encounter histrionic, an indulgence of emotion that seemed to outstrip the intensity of the event. As with Marianne's disproportionate despair after her brief, ill-fated courtship with Willoughby, Jones appears to regard her encounter with Clinton as an irrevocably wounding trauma.

In her adoption of an overcharged Marianne-like persona, Jones, according to the New York Times, "cast herself as a woman not just discriminated against but damaged . . . 'bawling' and 'squalling' " and quite ruined from something called "sexual aversion." Though the court rejected this last cause of action, along with the rest of her sexual-harassment case, the sexual-dysfunction claim brings to mind the 18th-century concept of tarnished virtue as an injury that transcends the emotional. As in "Sense and Sensibility," a sexual affront causes a physical impairment: Marianne is bespoiled by fever and loss of beauty, while Jones alleges to have been erotically damaged. Austen parodied this "causal" connection, viewing Marianne's injury as primarily self-inflicted. Jones, however, takes this kind of assault seriously, implicating Clinton in the theft of her sexuality.

Like Marianne, Jones was hurt less by the original incident than by her own escalating responses to it. What happened in the Excelsior Hotel made Jones a virtual victim; her legal failure and backfiring public-relations campaign turned her into an actual victim: the butt of jokes.

Hers was a misstep of sensibility. Just as Marianne sought restoration from Willoughby at a formal ball, Jones expected a public clarification from her purported libertine. Perhaps the fact that she withdrew her demand for an apology from the president at last demonstrates that she has absorbed one of Austen's lessons: Don't expect a cad to return with his hat in his hand (or with flowers on Secretaries Day). That Jones is poised to accept a generous dowry for her troubles suggests she has learned Austen's most sensible lesson: Show me the money.

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