Best of the Net 2008  

Jane Austen's Toes

“There is, for instance, no mention of toes in any of
her work. . . . Nor are there any hips, thighs, shins,
buttocks, kidneys, intestines, wombs, or navels. . . .”
  —Carol Shields, Jane Austen (2001)

Jane Austen never mentions toes,
although she must sometimes
have thought about her own—
blistered, perhaps, and sore
from walking in pattens with wooden soles,
especially (one would guess)
under the ball of her big toe,
just where the arch of the foot begins—
though such details are absent from her books.

I’m not surprised she never mentions
intestines or kidneys. I myself prefer
to let them do their work
unimagined. And somehow
the absence of a womb
in her work is unsurprising.
We are left to imagine, if we must,
Mr. Darcy discovering Elizabeth’s toes,
along with her hips and thighs,
her nipples and navel,
and all the other parts
the author never mentions—
the body beginning where the novel ends.

We can infer from letters
that she herself possessed a body—
she mentions stockings, shoes,
shawls, shifts, and stays
(“not made to force the bosom up at all”),
the soft sibilant shuffle of silks—
though even clothing
can become tiresome.
“I hate describing such things,”
she says of a bonnet.

Her women are embodied
mostly in words, in the delicacy
and daring of language. Even Fanny,
for most of the novel nothing
but silence and scruples,
begins to materialize—
not when men start to notice her looks,
but when she finds her voice.

It’s the voice we think of,
not the body or even the face
in Cassandra’s watercolor
that we want to think of as pretty.
Standing at the foot
of her grave, we find it hard
to imagine a body
lies there at all. The stone
mentions only her soul,
her character, and her intellect,
but is silent on the subject of her bones.

-Rob Hardy (Apple Valley Review)