Rachel Givney, a writer and filmmaker originally from Sydney, Australia (currently based in Melbourne), is the author of Jane in Love, published by Penguin. Rachel has worked on Offspring, The Warriors, McLeod’s Daughters, Rescue: Special Ops and All Saints. Her films have been official selections at the Sydney Film Festival, Flickerfest and many more. Here, she shares her views of dating during lockdown – and says there are plenty of positives …
During the Fifty Shades of Grey craze in the 2010s, several newspapers asked authors to rate the scenes from other novels they’d read which they found most erotic. Many writers nominated the famous scene in Fingersmith, where maid Sue instructs timid upper-class Maud on what will happen on her wedding night. Others spoke of the bondage or orgy scenes in Story of O. Scenes from The Folding Star and Lady Chatterly’s Lover earned many a mention. Yet one other cropped up in such lists time and again, and it startled not for its similarity to these steamy scenes, but for its difference. Many cited the moment from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, in which Captain Wentworth lifts Anne Elliot into a carriage as the most erotic thing they’d ever read.
The world knows Jane Austen for her witty quips and her polite satires of the economic nature of marriage, not for her sex scenes. So how did this little moment of one character hoisting another into an equipage make it onto lists of the world’s most erotic? Firstly, due to its rarity. Austen published six novels, and this is the only instance in the entirety of them where she depicts one character touching another. Secondly, unspoken implication pierces the scene. The man lifts the woman into a carriage, and he has to touch her to do it. ‘Yes – he had done it,’ Austen writes. ‘She was in the carriage and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it.’ He puts his hands on her body, where exactly? Austen leaves that to the reader to imagine. It’s what’s implied, that makes it erotic.
Some would cry that the recent unprecedented moment of physical distancing made dating impossible. Had we been living in an earlier time, with an earlier plague, this might have rung true. No one was meeting new people during the Black Death or the sweating sickness. But during coronavirus lockdown, the opportunity to date lay in one’s hand, anyone with an internet connection could continue courting largely in the way they did before. (And yes, dating online is the modus operandi now; the last three weddings I’ve attended involved couples who met online.)
In the pre-lockdown days, people on the Tinders, Bumbles, Happns would connect, then chat for anywhere from a week, to a few hours, after which they’d meet up, ideally in some well-populated area, and see if the chemistry they had in the digital realm translated to the physical one. With coronavirus, people still met online, but when it came time to assemble physically, instead of meeting at a bar, they’ve had to escalate the relationship via telephone or video conference. Sounds dull? It was. There was no chance for physical contact, that was illegal, no opportunity to see the person in the flesh. And with that came opportunity.
With physical intimacy removed from the equation, a person possessing a genuine interest in a relationship conversed instead, asking the other about where they grew up, their interests, quietly and politely digging over weeks and months to uncover shared passions and viewpoints, desires, foibles. This is the meat of a relationship. A person only interested in a fling didn’t bother.
Does the idea of deprivation of physical intimacy with a person one desires sound frustrating? Absolutely, in a good way. What tantalises more than seeing someone and being unable to touch them. For the same reason that a tiny hint of touch and desire puts Persuasion on so many people’s lists of the most erotic, it is in the imagining of what is to come that bewitches us. How lovely to spend hours, days, visualising the possibilities of what might happen physically with a new partner? Even a casual encounter can be heightened by anticipation. When one holds off until it means something, how much more exquisite the eventual consummation becomes.
My novel, Jane in Love, is about a Jane Austen who time-travels to the present day and falls passionately in love with a modern-day man, which causes all her books to begin disappearing from the shelves. Austen would have felt right at home dating during Covid-19. In her own time, sex before marriage was an abomination. Once she’d taught herself how to use a smartphone, she’d fit right in with the enforced physical distancing.
Dating during lockdown prevented people from starting physical relationships with each other. It made us all a little more Austen, a little less Story of O. Have we gained anything from this? Should this holding off on physical contact continue now that we are free to touch one another without incurring a fine? Each person in their dating life learns for themselves, in their own time, what works best for them. But it was nice to spend time in Austen’s world for a little while, with all the erotic potential contained within.
Editor’s note: My sister-in-law recommends this as the best book she’s read this year.