We live in a mad, mad world where anything goes and many things have gone. One of the things that appears to have gone is a sense of sanity. Take, for instance, a recent essay in The Atlantic which claims to show that William Shakespeare was in fact a woman.[*]
The essay itself, which was written by Elizabeth Winkler, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is pathetically banal and does not warrant our attention, except insofar as it presents us with the opportunity to have some fun.
Essentially Miss Winkler believes that Shakespeare must have been a woman because of the realistic and sensitive way that he portrayed women in his plays. Clearly a man is incapable of treating women fairly, or of understanding them objectively; ipso facto, since the positive and realistic portrayal of women by male writers is inconceivable and beyond belief, and since such a positive portrayal is present in Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare must, therefore, have been a woman. Such is the logic of Miss Winkler’s case.
This set me thinking. If it’s true that the abyss that separates the sexes is so abysmal that it cannot be crossed, does it mean that female writers cannot be expected to portray their male characters sympathetically or realistically?
Taking Miss Winkler’s line of thinking seriously for a moment, for the sheer fun of it, or perhaps the sheer hell of it, I thought I’d take a look at the novels of Jane Austen. It seems to me that Miss Austen depicts her male characters so convincingly that she can’t possibly have been a woman. Take Mr. Wickham, for instance. No lesser critic than G.K. Chesterton praised Miss Austen for proving herself to be a “shrewd and solid psychologist” in her depiction of the feckless deceiver in Pride and Prejudice:
Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth. He did not merely swagger or sentimentalize or strike attitudes; he simply told the girl, as if reluctantly, that he had been promised a living in the Church by Old Mr. Darcy, and that young Mr. Darcy had not carried out the scheme. This was true as far as it went; anybody might have believed it; most people would have believed it, if it were told with modesty and restraint. Mr. Wickham could be trusted to tell it with modesty and restraint. What Mr. Wickham could not be trusted to do was to tell the rest of the story; which made it a very different story.
Chesterton explains that Mr. Wickham’s deceitfulness was “a perfectly sound and realistic example of the way in which quite sensible people can be deceived by quite unreliable people.” He then goes on to praise Miss Austen for not making the unreliable person “obviously unreliable.” She was “right in supposing that Elizabeth Bennett might have believed him,” adding that the more credulous modern woman “might believe him any day.” Clearly, in Chesterton’s view, Miss Austen was far smarter and far less credulous than modern women, which might lead us to conjecture, following Miss Winkler’s logic, that she wasn’t a woman at all. This is borne out by the suspicious circumstances of her life. No less of an authority than Wikipedia itself has admitted that “there is little biographical information about Jane Austen’s life except the few letters that survive and the biographical notes her family members wrote.” Why do we know so little about her? Why do we know less about the real Miss Austen than we know about the real Mr. Shakespeare, even though the former was born two centuries closer to our own time? Surely this is suspicious.
Considering how little we know about the mysterious Miss Austen and how well she understands the male psyche and is sympathetic to it, can we really be expected to believe that she was really a woman? Evidently, and following Miss Winkler’s logic, it would be preposterous to believe that someone who was not a man could understand men so well. This being so, and following Miss Winkler’s thinking, I’d like to suggest that Miss Austen’s novels were actually written by her contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is intriguing, for instance, that the novels allegedly written by Miss Austen did not begin to be published until after Coleridge had ceased writing any poetry of merit. Clearly his Muse was now working in a different direction, orienting itself to the new fashion for fiction. At that time, an age of priggish pride and prejudice, this change of literary orientation would have been considered a betrayal of the high ground of poetry to the new plebeian passion for prose. It would be understandable, therefore, were the revered poet to seek to keep his novel-writing a secret and that he should write under a pseudonym. What better disguise than to don the mask of a woman?
Additional evidence that Miss Austen’s novels were written by Coleridge can be found in the way in which his example was followed by others. Emily Brontë, for example, was probably inspired by Coleridge when she decided to disguise herself as a man named Ellis Bell when publishing her own novel, Wuthering Heights. Unfortunately, Miss Brontë was exposed or outed when it became clear that she could not depict men sympathetically or realistically. In Chesterton’s words, “Heathcliff fails as a man as catastrophically as he succeeds as a demon.” In making “the other sex a monster,” as Chesterton further remarked, Ellis Bell proved himself to be a woman.
In conclusion, let’s reiterate the facts. Shakespeare is a woman pretending to be a man; Jane Austen is a man pretending to be a woman; and Emily Brontë is a woman pretending to be a man who is outed as a woman. Such is the mad trajectory on which the Winklerist school of literary revisionism takes us. In the midst of such madness, might I suggest that we stop distinguishing in this sexist manner between men and women and settle for the much simpler solution of declaring all writers to be intrinsically transsexual?
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* Winkler, Elizabeth. “Was Shakespeare A Woman?” The Atlantic, 16 May 2019.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is an engraving of a portrait of Jane Austen (1873) by an unknown artist, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.