Saturday, 3 July 2010

Autistic Austen

I recently came across a book called So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in 'Pride and Prejudice' by Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer. (I know.)

I am usually quite suspicious of psychological pathologies, not only because of Foucault's Civilisation and Madness - which charts the category of madness in a similar way to queer theory's critique of the pathology of the homosexual in the nineteenth-century - but also because of Louis Theroux's documentary on America's Medicated Kids, where the first reaction on the part of parents and doctors was diagnosis and medication.

Bottomer's response to the caricatures in the novel seems to be to diagnose them as being on the 'autistic spectrum'. To quote from the book:
Few [autistic people] have been formally diagnosed: instead, at different times in their lives, they have been considered by others to be, 'odd', 'awkward', 'shy', 'brilliant', 'honest to a fault', 'self-centred', 'dedicated', 'spoiled', 'reserved', 'rude', 'quiet', 'a bit different', 'immature', 'not easily side-tracked', 'reliable', 'selfish', 'hard to get to know', 'uncaring', 'eccentric', 'totally focused on their work', 'unfriendly' or 'absolutely impossible.'
You can see where Bottomer is heading, preparing the way for a diagnosis of Darcy as autistic - completely ignoring the purely psychological fact that Darcy really is just shy, spoiled and rude, for reasons which Austen makes explicit. You know, sometimes people aren't autistic: they're just dicks.

Let's look at Bottomer's examples of autistic behaviour:

Mr Collins: 'awkward and solemn... often moving wrong without being aware of it'

Mary Bennet: 'every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason'

Mr Bennet: 'so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice'

Mrs Bennet: 'with manners so far from right herself'

Anne de Bourgh: 'spoke very little'

Lady Catherine de Bourgh: 'not rendered formidable by silence'

Fitzwilliam Darcy: 'I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers'

This is diagnosis run riot. Given the enormous range of possible behaviour which Bottomer deems autistic - according to what objective criteria, given that it is apparently a 'spectrum'? - almost every character in every novel could be considered so. But surely Austen's point is that social grace - and, more sinisterly, the appearance of being in love - can be learnt, imitated and faked, but that the characters in the novel do not try.

‘I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,’ said Darcy, ‘of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns as I often see done.’
‘My fingers,’ said Elizabeth, ‘do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.’

I've often wondered whether autistic people would be better served by Regency society, where roles and customs were rigidly detailed and prescribed, thus providing a code to follow. Here, Lizzie makes a similar sort of point - there is nothing wrong with the characters in the novel, apart from the fact that for various reasons they refuse to practise social diplomacy, rather than being pathologically incapable.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    You might not be aware, but the "to be fond of dancing" image you are using on this post was made by me. Would you please add a caption crediting me as the maker, or if you'd rather, please remove this image from your entry?

    Thank you in advance.