Once upon a time, the novel was a new technology. As with many new technologies, many of its earliest and most enthusiastic adopters were women, and its rapid popularisation brought along with it a new set of anxieties about gender, sexuality, and moral corruption. In his article, ‘Masturbation, Credit and the Novel During the Long Eighteenth Century‘, Thomas Laqueur argues that 18th century anxieties about excessive novel reading amongst young women – thought to undermine their ability to distinguish between reality and fiction, to produce a dangerous isolation and morbid self-absorption – must be understood in connection both to contemporary anxieties about masturbation – another morally corrupting, unreal and solitary activity – and in turn to contemporary anxieties about the financialization of capital, which – like both masturbation and novel reading – threatened to undermine the realm of material interaction, duty and exchange by offering in its place an unreal promise of endless, amoral expansion and profit.
Laqueur bases his argument in part on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s article, ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl‘, which reads Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as in part a novel about the dangers of masturbation. Sense and Sensibility tells the story of two sisters – the older, prudent Elinor, who falls in love with Edward, her brother of her cousin-in-law Fanny. Unsure of Edward’s feelings for her, Elinor holds back from a display of emotion, an act of self-restraint which seems to be vindicated when she learns of Edward’s old engagement to a younger woman. Edward, refusing to break off his engagement to a woman he does not love, out of a sense of honour, is disinherited and is offered instead a regular clerical income; on which his mercenary fiance breaks off their engagement, allowing him to marry Elinor. By contrast, the younger and more impulsive Marianne falls in love with the dashing but irresponsibly Willoughby. Their tempestuous relationship comes to an end when it turns out that Willoughby impregnated and then abandoned a young woman, and in the end Marianne makes a more sensible and less passionate marriage. Sedgwick points out that Austen’s depiction of Marianne – anxious, restless, irritable, constantly moving around, incapable of not saying what she feels, cycling rapidly between elation and despair, both too open and too private, self-absorbed – is that of the ‘masturbating girl’ of contemporary medical textbooks. Readers of Austen, Sedgwick suggests, tend to mirror the concerned doctors of Austen’s day, taking the book to be teaching Marianne a lesson about the importance of self-discipline; but what these readings miss is that Elinor’s self-control is also a form of addiction; her self-restraint a reaction to, a production of Marianne’s emotional incontinence. The central concern of the book, Sedgwick suggests, is not the triumph of Elinor’s sense over Marianne’s sensibility, but Elinor’s love for Marianne; the attraction of the self-possessed, self-willed, ideal subject for ‘her sister’s specularised, desired, envied, and punished autoeroticism.’
Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, takes place in the context of another kind of economic, moral and sexual crisis produced by capitalism and by capitalist technologies. Where Austen’s contemporaries worried about the dangers to young women posed by the lure of the imaginary world of novel; what might happen when the lure of the invisible world of imagination becomes more seductive than women’s proper social place inside the family home, what lurks in the background of Beautiful World is the threat of the erosion of privacy brought about by social media, and the impossibility of unmediated connections. The novel switches between third person narration which constantly draws our attention to the mediation of relationships by technology – a notification arrives in the group chat, a protagonist reaches to plug in a charger – and emails between the two characters, who worry about climate change, celebrity, and fertility as they navigate through a series of relationship and mental health crises (it’s interesting that much of the commentary on Rooney’s book – which is so centrally about the relationship of surface and depth, outward appearance and inner truth, and the impossibility of knowing what a person means from what they say – has taken her fictional protagonist’s discussion of authorial celebrity as a straightforward representation of Rooney’s own ideas). The protagonists pick up their phones to call taxis or find restaurants; work emails pop up while they sext; everything is made of or covered in plastic, identified early on in the novel as ‘the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels.’
Where Sense and Sensibility plays out in the dynamic between the socially approved restraint of Elinor and her desire for Marianne’s stigmatised emotional freedom, Beautiful World suggests that contemporary capitalism no longer prizes sense over sensibility. Sensible Eileen, who has always worked hard, ends up stuck in a badly-paid publishing job, too anxious to write. In love with Simon, an old family friend, but unsure of his feelings for her, she repeatedly holds back from telling him how she feels. At one point, she becomes convinced that he is secretly committed to his casual younger girlfriend, she tries to break off their relationship. Simon, having briefly considered the priesthood, works hard at his parliamentary job but feels like he is not really getting anywhere. Eventually, he and Eileen move in together and decide to have a baby. By contrast, impulsive Alice falls into a career as a successful author almost by accident; moves to the countryside after an emotional breakdown where she meets Felix (a not-accidental parallel to Austen’s Marianne, who is picked up by Willoughby after she falls and hurts her ankle while out for a walk). Felix, a warehouse assistant, is due to receive a large inheritance, though can’t quite bring himself to do the necessary administrative work to claim it. At one point he confesses to the ‘worst thing I’ve ever done’, getting a fourteen year old girl pregnant while they were in school together, and then leaving her to travel to England alone with her mother for an abortion. Alice, like Marianne, is anxious, restless, irritable, constantly moving around, incapable of not saying what she feels, cycling rapidly between elation and despair, both too open and too private, self-absorbed: the very image of the masturbating girl. Eileen chastises her – for not working, for working too soon after her breakdown, for not checking in when she travels – but is also drawn to her.
The differences between the pairs are marked by their different sexualities and their different orientations to reproduction. Sensible Simon and Eileen, despite some awkward and unsuccessful attempts at casual, phone and nonmonogamous sex, are resolutely straight; the novel ends with their somewhat ambivalent decision to have a child with one another. Alice and Felix, both bisexual, end the novel childless. Both masturbate – at one point Alice stumbles accidentally across porn on Felix’s phone; at another Alice says that ‘of course’ she touches herself, and tells Felix about her sexual fantasies. Where Austen’s novel ends with weddings, and the happy establishment of two households, Rooney’s ends in lockdown, in the middle of a global pandemic. Alice finds herself open to the possibility of the existence of God, writing a book she is not sure she will be able to finish; Eileen with a baby about to be born into a world whose future is uncertain, unable to imagine herself a mother and yet happy.
The crisis of social reproduction in which the novel plays out is also a crisis of the work of art. In their letters to one another, Eileen and Alice write about the crises in their relationships alongside the crisis of “the novel”. At one point, Eileen writes to Alice:
“Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilisation is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day … Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”
What is the point of working hard, getting married, or having children when the world is ending? What is the role of the artist in a dying empire? The book’s title is taken from a poem by Schiller, looking back nostalgically to the mythical age of the Greek gods: where is the beautiful world we once inhabited? I don’t know quite how to read the ending of Rooney’s novel, in part because I don’t know how to disentangle my own feelings about marriage, children and writing from my reading of the text. It is tempting to see the end as offering us a conservative return to reproduction – marriage and children for Eileen; Catholicism and a finished novel for Alice. But I can’t help think also of that other Romantic Marxist, Benjamin, whose angel of history watches events pile up behind him as catastrophe, the winds of progress blowing him ineluctably further from a lost Paradise (beautiful world, where are you?), not knowing what the future will bring. The Kingdom of God, Benjamin writes elsewhere, is not the goal of history, but its completion, exemplified perhaps in the finished work of art, and in an order erected on the idea of happiness.