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Jane Austen and IVF


Maurice Earls writes: You might be forgiven for thinking that Dibling, or perhaps Little Dibling, was a village in one of Jane Austen’s novels. You would be quite wrong. Dibling is a term used in the United States, particularly in California, to describe the relationship between children of the same sperm donor. Presumably one can have a big dibling or a little dibling. The term is gender-neutral.

The use of reproductive innovations, originally introduced to assist infertile heterosexual couples, has been spreading. Postmenopausal births, once limited to California, have spread, the lesbian baby boom is international and trans people have begun looking at the possibilities reproductive technologies have uncovered.

In a recent review essay in the Times Literary Supplement, Michele Pridmore-Brown looks at the biopolitics of sperm selection. The selectors studied in the books she reviews were women who chose to conceive by donor, using the services of specialist sperm clinics. At these clinics clients are offered catalogues featuring donor profiles from which they may choose and purchase a screened sperm sample at $800 a vial. (Eggs, as one would expect, are considerably more expensive.) Throughout her essay Pridmore- Brown refers to the mating rituals in Jane Austen’s fiction, particularly in Pride and Prejudice, and argues that there are many parallels between Austen’s world and the world of sperm selection. This is an interesting, if surprising, proposition and worth considering.

One of the books reviewed by Pridmore- Brown is Romancing the Sperm, by Diane Tober. The arrangements Tober describes are essentially commercial and thus romancing seems a puzzling term. However, it would appear an element of “romance” does figure in the minds of many “consumers” who, in making their choice, consistently attribute a high value to the donor being “a nice guy”. Selectors are in the sperm market to purchase heritable characteristics and, clearly, they believe personality is, at least to some degree, heritable.

We are told that purchasers of sperm tend to favour “tamer more-domesticated” types. In the selector world, it seems, sexual attraction is not a factor and “nice guys” finish first. If ‑ some would say when ‑ humanity turns to selection and design as the main means of reproduction, “tamer more-domesticated” types will presumably dominate. Would this, some might wonder, lead to a world without war, road rage and JD Wetherspoon’s discounted beer on Monday mornings? Perhaps, but we might also wonder if nurture, or the lack of it, would override inheritance and design. Should the current Californian fascination with halting the aging process deliver, some readers may live long enough to find out.

It is, of course, entirely understandable that prospective mothers visiting sperm clinics would prefer a tamer type of male. These women would presumably be looking ahead to a harmonious family life. No sperm purchaser would wish to load the dice in favour of giving birth to a mini-Heathcliff or similar sort, likely to be difficult, deficient in empathy and resistant to parental direction.

There are other, frequently requested and perhaps more obviously heritable qualities, such as tallness, intelligence and ethnicity. Purchasers look for someone who will fit with their community (ethnicity), who will have an advantage in “today’s competitive economy” (brains) and, of course, tallness which tends to be valued by all, including “small dumpy people” who, like those who reject anyone with freckles, wish to “trade up”. Romance also plays a role in the common belief ‑ possibly a delusion ‑ among purchasers that donors have an altruistic motive for offering sperm. This allows for a subsequent feelgood family narrative of “the nice man who helped us out”. Tober, however, is blunt, arguing that sperm is a commodity and niceness “a secondary commodity”.

But unlike tallness, niceness and tameness can be transitory. Everyone, even an out-and-out rotter like George Wickham – whom we recall was doted on by the old Mr Darcy ‑ can come across as a nice guy in youth. There can be little doubt that a twenty-three-year-old George, resplendent in his red uniform, would be a catalogue success. But if character is heritable, it is not hard to imagine the unlucky selector winding up with a right little wickham in the kitchen, dipping into her purse when she wasn’t looking and lying from morning to night.

Notwithstanding the charming positivity of youth, research on the attitudes of donors does not offer much support for belief in an altruistic motive. One donor’s self-image was of being a “stallion at a mustang ranch”. Others too seemed to feel they were exceptional specimens, happy to pass on their wonderful genes, all of which is more suggestive of ego than altruism.

There is also the question of payment, which must be part of the donor’s motive. This side of things is not dwelt on in Pridmore-Brown’s essay. Is there a basic payment and then a bonus fee each time one’s sperm is chosen? Interestingly, ninety per cent of donations don’t make the grade; presumably they end up in the waste pipe.

Compared to the science of screening donors and their sperm for health, the “romancing” side to the donation and purchase of sperm is thin gruel indeed. Romance, on the other hand is the meat and drink of Pride and Prejudice.

Notwithstanding this fundamental difference, it could be argued that Jane Austen’s approach to romance and donor selection both offer women different means of achieving the same end, healthy children. Pridmore-Brown’s suggested parallel with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is accurate in another significant respect. The focus in both the novel and the new biopolitics is on women’s options and female agency.

A twenty-first century sperm selector, of course, has no interest in a real Mr Darcy or a real Mr Bingley and no need of their money. She is interested in their heritable attributes. She moves briskly through the “romance” and science phases, which are essentially the choosing and transactional phases, to the more socially substantial and long-term phase of bearing and rearing a child.

This latter phase is not examined in Austen’s fiction, where the interest is in the minutiae of the often long-drawn-out finding-love-with-a-worthy-person phase. It could however be argued that family is the absent presence in Austen and that the whole point of getting a good man is to achieve familial success, not so much through stock as through the sound direction and moulding of a child’s character that the good principles and characters of the parents would facilitate. (The age of reason, even as it was becoming the age of sensibility, was nothing if not confident of the capacity to mould human behaviour and character through sound educational and child-rearing practices.)

Romance, then, in Austen’s world is a rational affair with a rational objective. Elizabeth Bennet expresses herself in remarkably clear and cogent paragraphs as she moves through an eventful time towards the careful and rational choice of a marriage partner.

In Austen’s world blind passion is folly and likely to lead to familial failure. The dysfunctionality at the heart of the Bennet family followed from Mr Bennet’s thoughtless marriage to Mrs Bennet. Foolishly, he was captivated by her youthful beauty and neglected to investigate her character. When the penny dropped, he realised he was married to a person of inadequate character and in response he gradually removed himself from her – but not her bed it seems ‑ and from his parental responsibilities, taking to his books and leaving his younger children to the mercy of his wife’s wholly unsound, if not absent, principles. This parental flaw nearly cost both Elizabeth and Jane their husbands. It led to the ruin of Lydia and Kitty was only saved by Elizabeth stepping into the role in loco parentis and exposing her to the moral order and happiness of Pemberley.

If Austen’s Pride and Prejudice discountenances passion, neither does it sanction the money-based pre-romantic style of arranged or pragmatic marriage for persons of wealth and rank. Under this system a person was matched with another of similar wealth and status in order to preserve and perhaps enhance a family’s status. Like sperm selection, the process need not be especially time-consuming. Rational romance, however, of the type approved by Austen takes longer. You don’t uncover a person’s true character and principles across a crowded room or through intimate knowledge of their wealth and inheritance prospects.

The values Austen challenged are encapsulated in the novel’s wonderfully ironic opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The woman-centred perspective is established here from this first sentence, notwithstanding the tongue in cheek. Male agency is irrelevant, the man with a good fortune should be manoeuvred or otherwise got to the altar.

Female wooing in the world of the opening sentence is a moderately subtle business. The family is a central facilitator and the rituals around calling on new arrivals to a neighbourhood, balls and visits are important. Once the initial walls are down the woman may employ a number of stratagems to convince a desirable male that she is essential to his future happiness. Displaying a certain servility ‑ not too much ‑ may help, as would a creditable performance at the pianoforte and a general sort of decorous pleasantness. Having money settled on one is also a significant positive and the capacity to signal the sexual pleasures which may lie ahead by taking a turn around the drawing room ‑ preferably in company with a less attractive woman ‑ to show off one’s figure to advantage is also a serviceable tactic.

The irony of the novel’s opening signals that existing mating practices of this sort will not be celebrated in Miss Austen’s fiction. The magic of Pride and Prejudice, which has enthralled readers since its first publication over two hundred years ago, lies in the way Elizabeth Bennet undermines the world view implicit in the first sentence and yet in the end still manages to come away with all the prizes ‑ a decent and desirable male of good character, loads of money and a big house, a situation undoubtedly “replete with advantage”.

Readers have admired Elizabeth Bennet as the woman who risks poverty and more by refusing to compromise. She remains loyal to her principles, her integrity and her intelligence, refusing point blank to simper or defer in any way to the alpha super-rich male, the brooding, aloof and somewhat awkward Mr Darcy.

Elizabeth’s integrity has a surprising result. Instead of trotting off to marry Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s seriously rich – if sickly ‑ daughter, the very seriously wealthy Mr Darcy is amazed and cannot prevent himself from falling in love and proposing to Miss Bennet. But he is a carrier of the old values and in his “abominable pride” makes it clear his proposal is against his better judgement. His character flaws, real and imagined, have all been quite clear to Elizabeth for some time and she declines his hand. After his rejection he defends himself, asking: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections … whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Darcy’s problem is that he recognises something different and remarkable in Elizabeth, something he admires and loves. This, of course, derives from an underlying moral intelligence. He realises that if he is to get on the right side of Elizabeth’s famous eyes – not her figure mind you, it’s character that counts ‑ he must reform, or at least modify his ideas of social and gender hierarchy. This he does well enough after a few false starts and settles down to a future with Elizabeth who loves him and recognises his worth but knows that further training will be required before he learns to “laugh at himself”. What is all this training for if not to achieve a successful family life?

Darcy, behind the aloof forbidding exterior, turns out to be generous, self-sacrificing, empathetic and lots of other positive things. Elizabeth has unearthed all this through their difficult and circuitous romance. By the end we are in no doubt that the marriage will be successful.

As an entry in a sperm catalogue, however, Darcy would probably not be as lucky. Sperm selection is not about betting on dark horses. He would be more likely to be passed over as a bit odd, and before long management would very likely consign his genes to the wastepipe. Mr Bingley on the other hand would certainly leap out of the catalogue, with the “nice guy” women in California in particular snapping him up. Pridmore- Brown describes him as “kindly, mellow, easily led”. One could add a few more adjectives. Certainly he would come across as the desirable “tamer more-domesticated” type. But if Bingley’s personality were transmitted intact via his sperm, the Californian purchaser could end up with a problem, a charming little Lebowski still padding around the condo in flip-flops in his early twenties, listening to Credence and rolling joints, not exactly the ideal in “today’s competitive economy”.

What about Mr Collins? Pridmore- Brown thinks Mr Collins would do well as a catalogue item but that the purchaser would find she had made a poor decision. I am inclined to disagree on both counts. Clinic catalogues provide more detailed information on donors once clients indicate an interest, including audios and examples of a donor’s writing. There can be little doubt that the response to William Collins would be “No thanks! Save it for Lady Catherine.”

This could well be a hasty judgement as the parson is by no means the worst. Neither Austen nor Bennet think much of him and in truth he is not the sharpest tool in the box and has an unfortunate disposition. His greatest misfortune however has been to spend the better part of his life under the misguidance of a person of low character and principle, his father. If Kitty Bennet can be rescued from the legacy of poor guidance why not William Collins? And in a sense that is exactly what happens to him, under the influence of Charlotte Lucas.

Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas are among the most interesting characters in the book. In a rare moment of really-getting-it-wrong, Michele Pridmore-Brown declares that Charlotte is a bit character. Nothing could be further from the truth. If one were looking for “a bit character”, Charlotte’s mother, Lady Lucas, Mrs Hurst and a number of others would easily qualify, but not Charlotte Lucas. She plays an important structural role.

Charlotte, who is generally depicted as the anti-Elizabeth, is a much misunderstood and underrated character. She is not that different from Elizabeth, older and a bit wiser, perhaps. She is a close friend of Miss Bennet and shares her values. The difference is simply that she is operating under restrictions which do not apply to Elizabeth. She is more perceptive than her much younger friend; she plays the limited cards she has, using her intelligence and understanding to win a certain independence in matrimony and the prospect of a successful family life. In the end Elizabeth, a little grudgingly, appears to recognise this.

At twenty-seven, Charlotte is over the hill biologically and presumably experiences a diminishing egg supply. Today twenty-seven is fairly young but life expectancy and health have changed dramatically over the last two centuries. We are told the heterosexual women who use the donor clinics, having figured that Mr Right will not be making an appearance, are thirty-seven to forty. (We are not told, but presumably lesbian prospective mothers are younger.)

For Charlotte, opportunities were closing down rapidly and she was looking at the grim prospect of living with her parents indefinitely. This, however, does not mean that she would have taken anyone. She was not an unprincipled settler. Where most readers, and the Bennet family, saw only an insensitive, obsequious clown Charlotte saw real human potential.

Charlotte Lucas knew that Mr Collins, while embarrassing, was neither a bully nor a control freak. That’s two important boxes ticked. The fact is that the unfortunate Mr Collins was damaged goods. It seems his father was cruel and did not treat him well. The adult is a complete mess, insecure, desperately seeking the approval of authority figures, trying to live by what he understands are the right and accepted codes. The result is a very foolish person whom knowing types will find amusing.

Charlotte takes a hard look at Collins and concludes that he can be rehabilitated, that he is not, in essence, a bad person. When we see the married couple in their Hunsford parsonage, while Mr Collins, in his insecurity, is still fawning on Lady Catherine he is essentially under Charlotte’s benign direction. She has him out in the garden every day, which is presumably good for his stress levels. Moreover, she is pregnant. It is likely that this child will turn out well and that William will improve in time.

Tallness maketh not the man nor the woman. In the end selectors have little to go on but their faith that their nurture will tell in the end. In their objectives they are not unlike Elizabeth Bennet. But there is a crucial difference which necessitates for Lizzy the meandering path of rational romance.

Jane Austen’s Elizabeth is confident in her own capacity to nurture but she, unlike the heterosexual selectors, will not be nurturing alone. She must determine whether her prospective partner has the right stuff. And this is what the rational romantic must pause to consider when she meets someone’s eyes across a crowded ballroom. If all is well the heart will then get in step.