Times Literary Supplement features Romancing the Sperm by Diane Tober

Sperm and sensibility

Michele Pridmore-Brown discusses the modern world of designer children, based on age-old preoccupations


In the insular world of a Jane Austen novel, the rules of the romantic game are well defined. The bit character Charlotte, for instance, in Pride and Prejudice, has a clearly set deadline if she wants to secure her future. She pragmatically “settles” for the tediously pompous vicar Mr Collins, for no other reason than because she is twenty-seven, when the game of choosing is over for women in Austen’s world. Her younger more alluring friends have more time and can ogle better prey – like Mr Bingley. Incontrovertibly a catch, he is kindly, mellow, easily led, well-resourced in the way that counts in this game, and pleasing in appearance. Indeed, his arrival in a mythical town in early nineteenth-century England sets the novel in motion with a flurry of female activity. But his friend the aloof and arrogant Mr Darcy ends up being the real romantic hero, worth far more than Mr Bingley. Elizabeth Bennet falls for him after overcoming pride on his part, and prejudice on hers; or to invoke another Austen title, by merging “sense and sensibility” (economic pragmatism and romantic love or affinity). A fourth male, Mr Wickham, is a decoy: brilliantly feathered in military garb and glib, he is camouflaged as a catch but is in fact insolvent as well as deceitful. Of course, given the requirements of dramatic tension, Elizabeth almost falls for him first.

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