Monday, September 03, 2007

Autism in Jane Austen

And now for something completely different (though it's a copy of a post to Jo Talk), as they used to say in Monty Python. I just heard about a book called So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in 'Pride and Prejudice' by Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer

I haven't read this, though I will, but it's intriguing. I quote from the Publisher's Site

"So Odd a Mixture looks at eight seemingly diverse characters in Austen's classic novel, Pride and Prejudice, who display autistic traits. These characters - five in the Bennet family and three in the extended family of the Fitzwilliams - have fundamental difficulties with communication, empathy and theory of mind. Perhaps it is high-functioning autism or Asperger's Syndrome that provides an explanation for some characters' awkward behaviour at crowded balls, their frequent silences or their tendency to lapse into monologues rather than truly converse with others."

Off the top of my head, I'd want to compare P&P with the other Austen novels and others by her contemporaries, for this might have simply been a style of the times. But I also had another thought.

IMO, Jane was not autistic or Asperger's, but I wonder if Cassandra was. I hadn't thought about it before, but we have many letters from Jane telling Cassandra about the balls and parties she attends, but Cassandra seems to rarely go to such events. That would be typical of someone who found it difficult to communicate easily with or even understand others.

Interesting to think about , eh what?



Delle Jacobs said...

Jo, I haven't read the book either, so I guess I should before commenting. But I've got a long history in social work, particularly with troubled adolescents. And one thing I find frustrating is the way writers and other people jump on a diagnostic bandwagon. I've worked with many autistic and Aspergers kids, and adults, and believe me, there is a difference between someone who is socially shy or even inept and a person who is seriously impaired.

I was a very shy child, and still experience discomfort and awkwardness in some social situations, but that mostly depends on what nasty little tale I'm telling myself about myself at the time. That's insecurity, not a cross-wired brain.

Using this new criteria established by people who really don't see inside other people's heads as they would have us believe, I would have been labeled Aspergers. My son would be Aspergers. My husband would be. Most of my friends would be, too. Does that sound like a disabling disorder if so many of the population suffer from it?

The reality, in my opinion, is that it's a mean thing to do to give a person a label the essentially demeans them, simply because they have feelings of insecurity that sometimes get the best of them.

Delle Jacobs

Jo B said...

Delle, I do know what you mean, but I never think of shyness as autism/Asperger's. I have read quite a bit on the latter, and I see it is a kind of social blindness, an inability to read the reactions of others.

This can lead to a person avoiding company and especially strangers because it generally doesn't turn out well. People can see this as shy, but it's not.

I've never thought Darcy shy, but he does tend to avoid the unfamiliar. His social position makes that difficult and sometimes impossible, so he tries to keep his distance. Hence he comes across as stiff and arrogant.

It's one interpretation, and an interesting one to me,


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