Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Jane Austen and autism

An interesting post by Shirley Dent on the Guardian books blog today has drawn my attention to the fact that a book is soon to be published which tries to explain the behaviours of Darcy and some other characters in Pride and Prejudice, by claiming that they must have been on the autistic spectrum. Darcy? An autistic sex symbol?!

Of course being a fan of Jane Austen's work and having lots of experience of autism, I had to explore this further. The author, Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer appears to have a respectable professional pedigree as a speech and language therapist. The book is being published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, a reputable firm which publishes many books on matters relating to autism. The credentials of the book seem to be good.

However, without having read the book, I have to say it makes me feel uneasy. Yes, people in Jane Austen's time probably showed some of the characteristics of autism, even though it was not recognised as a diagnosis until the mid 20th century. But lots of people show aspects of autism, particularly men. In fact most of us probably have some features of autism in our make up. It is only when a person shows many of these features that an autistic spectrum disorder would now be diagnosed. The awkward characters described could equally have had social anxiety disorder, plain shyness or a merely an inadequate upbringing which imbued them with unattractive personal characteristics. Doesn't the title of Pride and Prejudice give something away?

Simon Baron Cohen, a widely respected professor in the field of autism (and incidentally the cousin of Sasha Baron Cohen of Ali G and Borat fame), has hypothesised that autism is merely the extreme end of the male personality. I can think of so many men (and some women) I know who show some autistic features, yet are not autistic. This might account for the fact that autism is found in approximately a ratio of four males to every female. Jane Austen may well have met men with autistic aspects to their personality, but they would have been very mild. Anyone with moderate to severe autism would back then have been locked away and hidden from view.

I don't read books to analyse characters down to the most basic level. I prefer to read books for enjoyment, which is probably why I gave up formally studying English Literature at the age of 16. However there are many alienated characters in literature, especially tortured artists. Thomas Mann frequently used the art versus life scenario in works such as Tonio Kroeger and Death in Venice. Are such characters also autistic? Where will this retrospective character analysis end and how will affect it future readings of classic works?

Perhaps this book is just jumping on the band wagon of the current media interest in autism and of course Jane Austen. In what way could it possibly help people with autism today? That is what society should really be concentrating on.


Kore said...

Reading books for pleaure? Oh yes please! Maybe when K272 is over I will be reading for fun, relaxation and a hint of escapism, without concerning myself with analysis and notetaking. I'm not against depth and meaning in a novel but I prefer to keep my studying separate from my relaxation!

Yvonne said...

When I started reading your post I couldn't believe it - Darcy autistic? Surely a far-flung idea cooked up to sell books. But then I thought about it and it kind of makes sense...Darcy being awkward socially and quite blunt, well known characteristics of autistic people. But like you said, Darcy's behaviour is explained by his upbringing and social standing, rather than genetics. Who knows...I guess people are free to hypothesise all they like, but I doubt this will influence mainstream interpretations much.

Cathy said...

Welcome, hellojed. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds the theory less than wholly believable!

Anonymous said...

You do seem to read prolifically Cathy. How do you find the time? Interesting that you gave up studying English Lit at 16. You obviously have a profound love for it.

Cathy said...

Hmm, actually I buy far more books than I have time to read! I do love books, always have, but for pleasure rather than study. Having said that, I did do a languages degree so still had to do literature, just not English literature!