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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Smollett was an ‘especial favourite’ author of Gilbert, who knew a Byng well, too! D’ye see?

I posted a link to my initial post about Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in one of the Facebook groups dedicated to G&S, and I received some wonderful replies, to which I now respond here:

IAN BOND:  “to quote the Mikado, "All this is very interesting". However, I would like to make some comments and I apologise profusely for their extreme length.”

Ian, quite the contrary, I thank you for your taking the time and effort to respond in such detail and so politely as you’ve expressed your skepticism about my interpretation. I will extend you the same courtesies, I was hoping to receive a good “stress test” for my reading, and you’ve provided it – now let’s see if I can save the “patient”!  😉

IAN: “Firstly let us be quite clear that the practice of using stylized pseudo-Chinese/Japanese names had been common practice on the stage for some time, notably in pantomime and burlesque, and even more prominently on the French operatic stage. [you then gave numerous examples]”

Ian, I made it very clear that it was not merely a general parallel usage of such stylized pseudo-Japanese names by both Smollett and Gilbert that I found so convincing. It was the very close correspondence of four of those names, which I’ll repeat again here, and analyze each letter sequences, to be even clearer:

Gilbert turned “Nin-Kom-Poo-Po” into “Nanki-Poo”;  (each name contains N-n-K-P-o-o in order)
Gilbert turned “Cuboy” into “Pooh-Bah”;   (each name has 2 syllables, with “oo” then “b” that “oy/ah”)
Gilbert turned “Fika-kaka” into “Ko-Ko”; (Ka-Ka becomes Ko-Ko”)
Gilbert turned “Pish” into “Pish-Tush”.   (Obviously “Pish” is identical in both)

It’s all about this very close degree of echoing. Unless you can show me any of the multitude of other works you cited which have a comparable cluster of 4 such closely echoing names – names, I might add, which, ALL apply to parodies of Japanese governmental officials -- then I continue to assert that this is in and of itself a prima facie case. It is Gilbert’s giant hint to any of his readers who actually knew Smollett’s writing well (as he did – see below) that they should (as I did) look to see if there might be thematic meaning behind his 4-name cluster.

And as the rest of my lengthy first post showed (which neither Ian nor anyone else has yet addressed, other than Ian’s dismissal of the least significant of them, “Atom”), there are numerous significant thematic parallels which perfectly complement the specific name mirroring. Again, unless you can also show me any of those other works with stylized Japanese names which have even half as many of the thematic parallels I listed and explained, then, again, I believe your critique falls short.

And, by the way, thank you, Ian and others, for detailing that long operatic tradition of using fake Asian names, which I had not been aware of –it tells me that Gilbert chose a nice cover story for his deeper riddle about Smollett/Byng, one that would satisfy those who would take it at face value and not feel the need to dig deeper.

IAN: “In the case of The Mikado we have to consider the following – Gilbert was annoyed and upset in 1884 by Sullivan’s refusal to set his latest libretto – the so-called ‘lozenge’ plot – on which Gilbert had expended a lot of time and energy – and it looked very much as if the partnership could have ended at that point in time. Sometime in the Spring of 1884, Gilbert together with Kitty visited the Japanese Exhibition in Knightsbridge where they would doubtless have seen Kabuki Theatre (which often includes beheadings or the threat thereof), Samurai martial arts, Japanese arts and crafts (“On many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan”) – possibly the art of Geisha make-up? (“Braid the raven hair”?). Legend has it that a Japanese Samurai sword that Gilbert had bought and hung on his study wall, fell to the floor, giving him the inspiration to write Mikado. How true or not that may be we will probably never know. The fact is that Gilbert saw a fantastic way of satirising current British political corruption, the “jobs-worth” mentality, moral corruption et al., by disguising it in a fictional Japanese setting.”

I of course also knew about that Samurai sword bubba meises that Gilbert pulled out of his posterior and fed to his hungry public that yearned for an origin story of his most famous libretto–he was neither the first, nor the last, celebrity to gently mock that sort of intense interest in how an artist was inspired to create a given work of art –just think of John Lennon or Jane Austen. And anyway, I never suggested that the sole reason Gilbert chose to set his plot in Japan was to allude to Smollett’s Atom, and to the tragedy of Admiral Byng behind it – it was coordinated, surely, with several other deeper meanings…

And, don’t you see, your last sentence is actually a further, huge confirmation of my thesis as to why Gilbert did it. I say that Gilbert knew of the satire by Smollett of British moral and political corruption between 1755 and 1760, which led to Byng’s being scapegoated and executed (and, by the way, Admiral Byng’s death was such a seismic event in the British Navy, that interest in it has remained high among historians from 1757 right up till 2018). In a nutshell, I say Gilbert decided to pay Smollett the sincerest flattery, by repeating Smollett’s satire in Gilbert’s own Victorian era, and you can assist me by giving me details on the Victorian era political satire you see in The Mikado of Gilbert’s “peers” (pun intended) which you yourself say was Gilbert’s primary purpose.

I.e., as far as any of you know, were there real life British Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush, and Pooh-Bah, whose true identity Gilbert’s cognoscenti audience would have recognized? In particular, was there anyone who was scapegoated by powers-that-were in order to deflect political heat from them? If so, that would support my argument even more – it would mean that Gilbert emulated Smollett in that respect as well, since commentators have recognized the real people (Byng, Pitt, Fox, etc) hidden in plain sight in Atom.

IAN: “My problem with your theories around Smollett and Admiral Byng: Firstly you say that “For starters, it’s well known to Gilbert scholars that Smollett was one of Gilbert’s favorite authors. Now, look at how closely Gilbert mirrored Smollett’s names – this is way way beyond being “reminiscent”:” – If you are going to say this, you need to name those scholars. As you point out earlier “As far as I can tell, after diligent online research, no other scholar has ever suggested that W.S. Gilbert, in his 1884 libretto for The Mikado, intentionally alluded to Tobias Smollett’s 1769 novella” – in fact you seem to be contradicting yourself….books about Gilbert and Sullivan, both in partnership and apart have been regularly published at least since 1894, when Percy Fitzgerald published “The Savoy Opera”. None of the 100+ books in my collection make any reference whatsoever to Smollett or, indeed, to Admiral Byng, as far as I can see, and certainly recent books by highly regarded scholars such as Andrew Crowther and the late Jane W Steadman, who concentrate on Gilbert, make absolutely no mention of either”

As Bryan correctly pointed out, Steadman was my primary source, although I confess that in my rush to put out my initial post, I failed to recognize that Steadman was not (as Bryan noted) explicitly stating that the real life Gilbert had Smollett on his home bookshelf. Here’s the detail:

W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre by Jane W. Stedman (1996)
Chapter 4: “Love, Marriage, Farce, and Burlesque”
P41: “Lucy Turner was not, after all, Gilbert’s first choice; he married her after his courtship of Annie Thomas proved unsuccessful…”
P43: “It must have been an especially happy time for Gilbert, since was shortly to fall in love, if he had not already done so, with Annie Hall Thomas, a novelist two years younger than himself…Annie published her first book when she was 24… Eventually she wrote more than a hundred [novels], to say nothing of short stories, articles, and verses…
P44: “A much fuller picture of Gilbert is his first professional decade, however, appears in the hero of Annie’s 1866 novel Played Out [in the character of Roydon or Roy]…When Annie describes Roy as a writer, his identity is even more obvious, for he has ‘the art of wording nonsense epigrammatically’ and his phraseology is happy, tricky, and ear-catching. Although it is unlikely that Miss Thomas visited Mr. Gilbert’s bachelor chambers, her description of them is characteristic enough: bookcases full of standard modern novelists and his favourite Fielding, Smollett, Wycherly, Jonson, Bacon, Addison, and Ingoldsby, among others….
Roydon’s resemblance to Gilbert is most developed in Volume 1 of Played Out … it is clear that Annie Thomas modelled him on a man she knew well, and whom she found physically attractive and intellectually congenial. They must have appealed to each other’s sense of fun. Of course, William read Played Out and drew a teasing sketch, after Millais’ Trust Me, in which he holds out his hand for ‘The Novel’ which Annie is hiding behind her back…”

And now, here is the actual passage from Annie Thomas’s roman a clef about Gilbert, which, to me, is very persuasive, if indirect, evidence of Gilbert’s literary loves:

“…a glance round [Roydon’s] sitting-room will throw a further light on the tastes and pursuits, if not on the character, of my hero. The recesses on either side of the fire-place were occupied with broad shelves, and these were filled with books -- original editions, most of them of the standard modern novelists. An independent oak book-stand, placed within reach of the one arm-chair in the room, might be supposed to contain the more especial favourites of that room’s occupant; and there Fielding and Smollett, Wycherly and Ben Jonson, Spenser and Sidney, Bon Gaultier, Bacon, Addison, Ingoldsby, and a host of other wits, poets, essayists, dramatists, humourists, and scholars stood in amicable array….”

Note that Smollett was the second named “especial favourite” which Roydon/Gilbert kept close at hand!

So far, so good, but now I’ve got another big gun to wheel out. When I wrote my post, I did not only rely only on Thomas’s fictionalized “report” about her erstwhile beloved, Gilbert’s literary tastes. I also had found the following intriguing snippet:

Eileen E. Cottis, “Gilbert and the British Tar” in Gilbert and Sullivan, ed. Helyar, pp. 34-35. (1971)
“…the ‘D’ye see’ of Richard’s first song was a favourite phrase of the nautical characters in Smollett’s novels. Richard uses many stock metaphors- he calls Rose a ‘tight little craft’….”

Of course, you diehard G&S mavens know that “Richard” is Richard Dauntless, that endearing British tar of Ruddigore. Last night, while working on this reply to Ian, I pulled up the Project Gutenberg versions of Smollett’s three famous nautical adventures (Roderick Random, Peregine Pickle, and Sir Launcelot Graves), and verified that Cottis was 1000% correct, because they contain, respectively, nine, thirtyone, and fortyfive such salty usages of “D’ye see”! In other words, Cottis wasn’t just picking up on some peripheral, trivial aspect of Smollett’s nautical fiction – she had correctly identified what amounted to Smollett’s signature or iconic method of quickly identifying one of his characters as an authentic British tar!

Now, here, if anyone here needs it, is the ballad sung by the boastful “war hero” Richard Dauntless to his female admirers, a ballad which contains seven usages of “D’ye see” – and, as with Smollett, these are foregrounded, they are at the center of the rhyming scheme of the entire ballad, they are Richard Dauntless’s verbal tic that instantly identifies him:

I shipped, d’ye see, in a Revenue sloop,
And, off Cape Finistere,
A merchantman we see,
A Frenchman, going free,
So we made for the bold Mounseer,
D’ye see?
We made for the bold Mounseer.
But she proved to be a Frigate – and she up with her ports,
And fires with a thirty-two!
It come uncommon near,
But we answered with a cheer,
Which paralysed the Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
Which paralysed the Parley-voo!
CHORUS. Which paralysed the Parley-voo, etc.
Then our Captain he up and he says, says he,
“That chap we need not fear, –
We can take her, if we like,
She is sartin for to strike,
For she’s only a darned Mounseer,
D’ye see?
She’s only a darned Mounseer!”
“But to fight a French fal-lal –
it’s like hittin’ of a gal –
It’s a lubberly thing for to do;
For we, with all our faults,
Why, we’re sturdy British salts,
While she’s only a Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
While she’s only a poor Parley-voo!”
CHORUS. While she’s only a Parley-voo, etc.
So we up with our helm, and we scuds before the breeze,
As we gives a compassionating cheer;
Froggee answers with a shout
As he sees us go about,
Which was grateful of the poor Mounseer,
D’ye see?
Which was grateful of the poor Mounseer!
And I’ll wager in their joy they kissed each other’s cheek
(Which is what them furriners do),
And they blessed their lucky stars
We were hardy British tars
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo!
CHORUS. Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo, etc.

Now, at long last, on to Ian’s final point:

IAN: “Fourthly and lastly, mention of “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” is not evidence of a connection – Gilbert was very fond of using high-flown, pseudo scientific terms for comic effect – take for example “The simple tetrachord of Mercury that knew no diatonic intervals, oOr the elaborate dis diapason (four tetrachords, and one redundant note), eEmbracing in its perfect consonance all simple, double and inverted chords!” from The Palace of Truth, or “Patent Oxy-Hydrogen Love-at-first-sight Philtre” from  The Sorcerer– his writings are full of such things…”

Ian, as I noted at the start, above, the “Atom” allusion was a small wink, and standing alone it would not have been significant! But combined with the numerous other central, thematic parallels which I detailed, and which you’ve completely ignored, it’s Gilbert’s cherry on top of the allusive layer cake of his veiled homage to Smollett’s famous art of political parody and satire.

And, most important of all, I think, I bring in Byng because it is an obvious allusion in Smollett’s Atom, and, again as I said, an “execution” was at the heart of Byng’s own tragic end, one of the few vignettes in Atom, and all of The Mikado! (by the way, in regard to executions, I also mention in passing that I am certain that Gilbert had another, and very famous, literary almost-execution in mind as he wrote The Mikado – of course, I refer to Measure for Measure, by some fellow named Shakespeare (have you heard of him?), in which Claudio is sentenced to die for knocking up Giulietta –do you think that Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are Gilbert’s sly wink at them?

And, in closing, another final avenue of inquiry occurred to me as I was finishing this post. I had a hunch that perhaps Gilbert and/or Sullivan had a personal connection to some member of the Byng family (i.e., one of the Victorian Era, collateral descendants of the childless, executed Admiral), who might, like Thane Byng, the Byng family member who brought Admiral Byng’s tragic story to my attention a month ago, still seeking official vindication.

Well, my hunch turned out to be reality --- read this from The Musical Times (1901) in the aftermath of Sullivan’s death a few months earlier:

“In the many biographical notices of Arthur Sullivan that have recently appeared, comparatively little attention has been paid to the church-musician side of his genius. The mere fact that the gifted composer returned to his first love — church music — in the last completed composition he has left behind him is a sufficient justification for the following remarks….
…The first vicar of St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, where Sullivan held his second and last organ appointment, was the Rev. and Honble. Francis C. Byng, now Earl of Strafford, who from 1865 to 1889 also held the office of Chaplain to the Speaker and subsequently became Chaplain to the Queen. The Earl of Strafford, in response to our request, has very kindly furnished his recollections of his former organist and attached friend, Arthur Sullivan, in the following words:—
“Arthur Sullivan was all affection, sympathy, and kindness. I enclose you one of his comparatively recent letters to me. It may amuse you — his opinion of my intoning incapacity. I was present, by his invitation, at a dinner party he gave at his house — when Tennyson and Millais were present. Tennyson read 'The Window, or Songs of the Wrens,' Millais gave his notions of the illustrations which would be suitable, Sullivan suggesting the music. A unique an pleasurable privilege. I suggested to A. S. that I represented 'Ignorance' of all three — Poetry, Music, and Art!
Here is the 'intoning' letter to which the Earl of Strafford refers. It will be observed that it was written by Sullivan twenty-seven years after he had held his organistship at St. Peter's:—
Ashbridgewood, Wokingham, Berks, 27 Sept., 1899.
My dear Strafford,
Rumour is not quite right in stating that I am writing a chapter myself for Lawrence's book. [Sir Arthur Sullivan By Arthur Lawrence, 1899] But I have let the author have a 'talk' with me a short time ago, and its matter will be embodied in a supplementary chapter. Your name, of course, had already been introduced in an early part of the book, but not as a great musician. There is, however, still time I think to rectify that. I might graphically describe how, in endeavouring to intone, you led the choir, congregation, and organist an exciting chase over a gamut of about two octaves, we vainly doing our utmost to follow you. You were heroic — we never could run you to earth; that is, pin you down to the same note for two consecutive prayers or collects. I hope you are all well and flourishing. I long to see you all again. I shall be here three weeks longer. It is a small place I took for a couple of months to work in -- hard and quietly.
Even yours sincerely, Arthur Sullivan”
The Tennyson-Millais dinner referred to by the Earl furnished an amusing anecdote which is thus recorded by Mr. Arthur Lawrence in his 'Life' of the composer, and told by Sir Arthur Sullivan in his own words:
'The first time Tennyson came to dine at my house, the door was opened by the parlourmaid who had been with us many years, and was like one of the family. She was fairly staggered by the appearance of the visitor, who, as will be remembered, always wore a deep, broad-brimmed black felt hat, and a black cape or short cloak which made him look exactly like a conspirator in an Italian or Spanish play. Our little part consisted of Tennyson, Millais, Francis Byng (now Earl of Strafford), myself, my mother, and another lady. We met to discuss the proposed work in collaboration…’ 

So, given that Francis Byng was such a close friend and musical colleague of Sullivan over a very long time, is it really a stretch to think that Gilbert knew, and cared about, Admiral Byng’s execution?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, June 17, 2018

W.S. Gilbert's Mikado: Admiral Byng was on George II’s “little list”, and his punishment didn’t fit the “crime”!

Several days ago, I wrote my second Admiral Byng post…  …about the outcry in the aftermath of the execution of the scapegoated Admiral Byng for alleged “cowardice” in failing to “do his utmost” to relieve the Siege of Minorca during the Seven Days’ War. That outcry included, as I’ve now shown, overt or thinly veiled critical reactions by a list of no less than five literary luminaries: Voltaire in Candide; Samuel Johnson in various writings; Laurence Sterne (in Tristram Shandy); Tobias Smollett in Adventures of an Atom); and Jane Austen in Persuasion.

In the next two days, I’ll finally deliver on my promise to write another post in which I’ll greatly expand on the scope of the allusion to the Byng execution that I see Jane Austen having woven into the subtext of her final novel, Persuasion, including showing how Austen’s allusion to Byng includes both Tristram Shandy and one of Shakespeare’s plays as well.

In the interim, I follow up today to expand on a brief teaser in my previous post about “the (to my mind, obvious) allusion by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) to Smollett’s Atom, when Gilbert wrote the libretto for The Mikado more than a century after Smollett wrote his novella. The parallels are overwhelming, most of all with the faux Japanese names that poke sharp fun at the real life English rulers they represent…”

Here goes. As far as I can tell, after diligent online research, no other scholar has ever suggested that W.S. Gilbert, in his 1884 libretto for The Mikado, intentionally alluded to Tobias Smollett’s 1769 novella, Adventures of an Atom; let alone that such allusion to Atom by Gilbert had as perhaps its primary purpose and subtexts, that very same “unjust execution of Admiral Byng” which, as I laid out in detail in my previous post, is a clear subtext of Smollett’s novella.

I first suspected Gilbert’s allusion to Smollett’s Atom as I was composing my punny Subject Line for my previous post:    “Binh-goh! Uncle Toby, Siege of Namur & the Atom as Touchstones of Sterne/ Smollett’s Admiral Byng!”  It was at the instant of writing “Binh-goh!” that my mind traveled back a half century, to when my 7th grade class staged The Mikado for the rest of our school. The Mikado was, I now know, the most successful of all the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; but at age 13 I had never heard of it. As a member of the stage crew, I watched many rehearsals, as well as the final performance-- and what stood out most in my memory were all the “Japonified” names of the characters, such as Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko, etc., even as I have not seen another performance of The Mikado since then.

Fresh from writing my last post about Smollett’s Atom which also had that same sort of absurd Japanese character naming, I wondered if Gilbert might’ve had Smollett on the brain? So I Googled and searched the usual databases, and I found first that Jeremy Lewis, in his 2003 bio of Smollett, noted as part of his summary of Atom that “the story is set in 'Niphon', an imaginary Japan at war with China, and the characters are provided with pseudo-Japanese names, reminiscent of those used later in The Mikado.”

I also found a much more interesting snippet by a Berkeley prof named Grace Lavery from only a few years ago, which not only recognized that naming similarity, but also analyzed it incisively; although Lavery didn’t go so far as to argue that the character-name parallels were intentional or meaningful:

“Smollett’s The History and Adventures of an Atom offers both an early example of comic writing about Japan and an example of what The Mikado might look like if it were unambiguously a satire of English political culture. A picaresque it-narrative told by a roguish atom to an amanuensis named Nathaniel Peacock, the novel describes a trip around Japan, comprising a number of eccentric ‘political anecdotes’. Like those in The Mikado, the Japanese politicians described are variously ruthless, stupid, and pedantic and given to pointless arguments—though, written at the highwater mark of English picaresque, the jokes are much bawdier than Gilbert’s, and the narrative involves a punishingly detailed series of ass-kissing scenes, both literal and figurative. Characters’ names, too, share with “Nanki-Poo” and “Pooh-Bah” a queasily euphemistic anality: “Nin-kom-poo-po,” “Fika-kaka,” “Sti-phi-rum-poo.” Yet the most striking difference from The Mikado is that Adventures of an Atom rests on a tight allegorical correspondence between its characters and the British political figures it has set out to describe in the service of a critique of the Seven Years’ War of 1754–1763…” END QUOTE FROM LAVERY

I’ll argue, below, that the similarities first spotted by Lewis and then discussed by Lavery were not only intentional, they were also meaningful, on Gilbert’s part. I’ve concluded that Gilbert intended thereby to point in-on-the-joke readers not only to Smollett’s novella Atom, but more importantly, to the execution of Admiral Byng, the very one which Smollett himself pointed to more than a century earlier.

For starters, it’s well known to Gilbert scholars that Smollett was one of Gilbert’s favorite authors. Now, look at how closely Gilbert mirrored Smollett’s names – this is way way beyond being “reminiscent”:

Gilbert turned “Nin-Kom-Poo-Po” into “Nanki-Poo”; and
Gilbert turned “Cuboy” into “Pooh-Bah”; and
Gilbert turned “Fika-kaka” into “Ko-Ko”; and finally,
Gilbert turned “Pish” into “Pish-Tush”.

Even if I were to stop right here, do you agree that I’ve already made a prima facie case that Gilbert deliberately echoed Smollett’s Atom?

[Before I go further, having making my point about Gilbert’s transformed character names, I want to bring to your attention the strong critique of racial stereotyping in The Mikado, as well-explained in these excerpts from “The Mikado: History and Satire as Scapegoat for Yellowface” by Khaleesi:  
 The Mikado’s…chief aesthetic characterization comes from its fictionalized Japanese setting and the racialized caricatures that its cast embody, most often in yellowface…[one of] the play’s problematic aspects through its history…In 19th century England, there was not an abundance of Asian actors available (nor were casting directors much concerned with such casting practices) so the entire production instead relied heavily on stereotypical visual trappings of Orientalism (…fans, kimono) as well as on yellowface. This went uncontested in Europe and the U.S…
The Mikado is, even in modern productions, also steeped in racial language, from Japon-esque gibberish (…Pooh-Bah and Yum-Yum) to mockingly high-pitched accents…the previously-mentioned excuse of the racial caricature as a veil for the satirical. If The Mikado is distinctly about the English, then the ‘Japanese’ setting remains fantastical and is thus detached from any meaning….Some of the first publicized protests of The Mikado began in 1990… Performances around the country have drawn criticism and protests in recent years, including in NYC (2004), L.A. (2007 & 2009), Boston (2007), Austin (2011), Denver (2013), & Seattle (2014)….The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 2014 production of The Mikado features a near all-white cast …occupying the production’s 40 roles in yellowface. Considering Seattle’s racial demographics (Asians …constituting 13.8% of the city’s population…), the lack of Asian representation coupled with the use of yellowface is especially flagrant, and certainly did not go unnoticed.
…one central thread retains continuity in arguments from both the pro-Mikado and anti-Mikado camps respectively—the idea that The Mikado is about Britain and not about Japan. In other words, that the actual intellectual weight of the work is separate from its Orientalist overtones. This piece of rhetoric leads one to wonder, if detached from its racist settings and characters, is it still able to carry the same intellectual message? Would the piece be liberated by the removal of its problematic surface?...Without the racial fantasy, there is no metaphor, no guise for the “British-ness” to hide behind. There is no play. …The Mikadoas a production to which race is intrinsic, must explicitly face questions of racial representation, racial performance, and privilege, and has failed to thus far.” 

Not for a moment, then, forgetting that The Mikado was an imperfect product of its racist era, I’ll now return to presenting the evidence I’ve gathered that makes me so certain that Gilbert, in a more worthy mode, meant to repeatedly but subliminally parody, and thereby critique, the execution of Admiral Byng, for which he had the model of Smollett’s parody thereof in Atom. To borrow one of The Mikado‘s most memorable lines, “I’ve got a little list”—actually not so little-- of reasons why I am so certain:

FIRST: The previously mentioned character-name echoing between Atom and The Mikado;

SECOND: Prior to writing The Mikado, Gilbert wrote not one but two successful, and today still famous, operettas which have English sailors as its lead characters: HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance; Gilbert’s father was initially a naval surgeon; and in HMS Pinafore, all the action takes place on a ship is at anchor off Portsmouth -- and it was a famous historical fact that Admiral Byng was executed on a ship at anchor off Portsmouth! Just coincidence? I don’t think so!

THIRD (closely related to SECOND): Despite the fact that the action of The Mikado takes place on land, and its cast has no sailors, the famous opening musical number of The Mikado is, inexplicably, “a song of the sea”:

A wandering minstrel I –
A thing of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And dreamy lullaby!
Our warriors, in serried ranks assembled,
Never quail – or they conceal it if they do –
And I shouldn’t be surprised if nations trembled
Before the mighty troops of Titipu!
CHORUS: We shouldnt be surprised, etc.
And if you call for a song of the sea,
We’ll heave the capstan round,
With a yeo heave ho, for the wind is free,
Her anchor’s a-trip and her helm’s a-lee,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!
CHORUS. Yeo-ho – heave-ho – Hurrah for the homeward bound!
To lay aloft in a howling breeze
May tickle a landsman’s taste,
But the happiest hour a sailor sees
Is when he’s down
At an inland town,
With his Nancy on his knees, yeo-ho!
And his arm around her waist!
Then man the capstan – off we go,
As the fiddler swings us round,
With a yeo heave ho,
And a rumbelow,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!

Note also that Nanki-Poo asserts that Japan’s warriors “never quail”, which just happens to coincide with “cowardice” having been the most scurrilous and damaging charge against Admiral Byng!

And speaking of courage, look at these lyrics sung by Pish-Tush, also in Act One:

PISH-TUSH: “criminals who are cut in two can hardly feel the fatal steel, and so are slain without much pain. If this is true, it’s jolly for you; your courage screw to bid us adieu, and go and show both friend and foe how much you dare.”

These lines stop being funny, when we recall that Admiral Byng, the scapegoated “criminal”, faced his execution with extraordinary courage.

And speaking of Admiral Byng’s courage….

FIFTH: The Mikado being a comedy and not a tragedy, of course Nanki-Poo is not executed, mainly and ironically because Ko-Ko is too afraid to behead him! And this is, I suggest, Gilbert pointing to the fact widely publicized after his execution, that Admiral Byng was at his most courageous in his last moments of life, as he faced execution -- even so far as his being willing to wear a handkerchief over his face – not for his own benefit, but to make it easier for the queasy shooters to shoot him at point blank range!

And I believe I am spot-on in asserting that WS Gilbert had that historical factoid very specifically in mind when, at the end of Act Two, Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti are scrambling to explain to the Mikado why they executed the Mikado’s son, Nanki-Poo (when actually they had only lied about executing him, but couldn’t say that –yes, it’s typical madcap G&S plotting), we read this curious bit of dialog:

POOH-BAH. No, of course we couldn’t tell who the gentleman really was.
PITTISING. It wasn’t written on his forehead, you know.
KO-KO. It might have been on his pocket-handkerchief, but Japanese don’t use pocket-handkerchiefs! Ha! ha! ha!
MIKADO. Ha! ha! ha!

That laughter, I suggest, is really W.S. Gilbert’s laughter – but he’s not happy as he laughs, because he reminds us that it is indeed the English gentleman Admiral Byng who used a pocket handkerchief to hide his face – Gilbert finds the absurdity in this tragedy, which is to suggest that those shooting him would therefore have not known his identity!

SIXTH: There are two sly references by Pooh-Bah in The Mikado to Smollett’s hero, Atom:

POOH-BAH: …I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial ATOMIC globule.


POOH-BAH: (aside to KO-KO). Well, I shan’t mean it. (With a great effort.) How de do, little girls, how de do? (Aside.) Oh, my protoplasmal ancestor!
KO. That’s very good. (Girls indulge in suppressed laughter.)

SEVENTH: One of Ko-Ko’s multiple positions in the governance of Titipu is that of “Lord High Admiral”, even though, again, there is nothing in the operetta to suggest that Ko-Ko, in the village of Titipu, is in command of any ships at all! However, I suspect that W.S. Gilbert was once again winking at Admiral Byng, who had not one but two “Lord High Admirals” at both ends, so to speak, of his life:

First, his own father, who had once been Lord High Admiral as well as a great naval hero, and who of course was one of the two persons who brought him into the world;

Second, the Lord High Admiral, George Anson, who bore an implacable hostility toward Byng, and  was right there at King George II’s side, doing everything possible to scapegoat Byng, and get him executed as soon as possible, ushering him out of the world.

To put it another way, Byng was clearly on the Lord High Admiral’s and the “Mikado’s” (i.e., the King’s) little list (or should I say, the King’s little Navy List ( ) of potential victims whom Gilbert had in mind when he wrote these memorable, acidly satirical lyrics:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist
I don’t think she’d be missed – I’m sure she’d not be missed!
CHORUS. He’s got her on they list – he’s got her on the list;
And I don’t think she’ll be missed – I’m sure she’ll not be missed!

And, by the way, I wonder if “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” might be Gilbert slyly referring to “the lady novelist” who, as I’ve been saying in this thread of posts, alluded to Admiral Byng in Persuasion – i.e., Jane Austen!! More on that in my next post!

EIGHTH: Perhaps most compelling of the reasons why I am certain Gilbert alluded to Atom/Byng, is that the driving force of the plot of The Mikado is the capricious, arbitrary edict by the Mikado (and by the way, a “Meckaddo” is also mentioned in Atom!) demanding an execution:

KO-KO: …A letter from the Mikado! What in the world can he have to say to me? (Reads letter.) Ah, here it is at last! I thought it would come sooner or later! The Mikado is struck by the fact that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year, and decrees that unless somebody is beheaded within one month the post of Lord High Executioner shall be abolished, and the city reduced to the rank of a village!

So Ko-Ko must execute someone –anyone, it doesn’t matter who!- or else he will be out of one of his jobs! The problem is, though, that Ko-Ko is afraid to do the deed! That’s when Nanki-Poo happens to wander by, contemplating suicide over what seems to be unrequitable love for Yum-Yum:

KO-KO. Is it absolutely certain that you are resolved to die?   NANK. Absolutely!
KO-KO. Will nothing shake your resolution?    NANK. Nothing.
KO-KO. Threats, entreaties, prayers – all useless?   NANK. All! My mind is made up.
KO-KO. Then, if you really mean what you say, and if you are absolutely resolved to die, and if nothing whatever will shake your determination – don’t spoil yourself by committing suicide, but be beheaded handsomely at the hands of the Public Executioner!

A bit more brainstorming, and Nanki-Poo then gives Ko-Ko a “perfect” solution – he will volunteer to be the arbitrary victim of a beheading, provided he first gets to be married to Yum-Yum for one month.

Think about the obvious satirical parallel here to the arbitrary (and cynical) motives behind the King’s demand for execution of Admiral Byng. As I’ve outlined in my prior two posts about him, the general consensus of historians is that Byng was a scapegoat for English naval failure -- a slab of raw red meat flung to a bloodthirsty rabble. That rabble was making the King and his governmental toadies feel pretty insecure; and so the mob’s anger was deliberately diverted onto Admiral Byng, and then stoked up by the King’s propaganda machine.

In other words, I believe Gilbert was parodying the tragic absurdity of Admiral Byng being selected to make an “encouraging” example to other British admirals, by presenting the comic absurdities of how Nanki-Poo comes to agree to be executed by the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko. Nanki-Poo may have been willing to die, but Nanki-Poo is not real – Gilbert also surely knew that the real Admiral Byng pulled out all the stops asking for clemency in his trial; but all, cruelly, to no avail – no fictional deus ex mikado, if you will, popped up to save him, like the solution that the desperate Ko-Ko comes up with when his own life is politely threatened by the Mikado:

KO-KO: … (To Mikado.) It’s like this: When your Majesty says, ‘Let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, ‘Kill a gentleman,’ and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?
MIKADO: I see. Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!

This is bitter satire indeed, since the clear situation with Byng was that he was a scapegoat – i.e., guilt was irrelevant. Gilbert’s words drip acid as he says, in effect, that King George II and his Lord High Admiral (and, in effect, executioner!) Anson could have just said Byng was dead. And since the King is like a god, wouldn’t that have been enough?

Now, I claim no expertise whatsoever in British history in the 1880’s, but if anyone reading this post does possess it, was there anything that happened between, say, 1860 and 1885 that Gilbert might also have had in mind—some similar act of cruel, arbitrary power by the British government – which he might also have been skewering, via his above eight “winks” at Admiral Byng? I’d love to hear about it if there was!

Anyway, in the end, Gilbert gets in one final satirical dig at George II, when the “humane” Mikado pats himself on the back with this ode to self-blindness:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime –
The punishment fit the, crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

As Gilbert wished the world to know, if ever a punishment did NOT fit the crime, that was the case with Admiral Byng! And that is the perfect moment to end my little list, and this post along with it!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Friday, June 15, 2018

"In vain have I struggled…for self-controul?”: Darcy’s “tender” offer, & Austen tempting bugle-band

This afternoon, I had the special semi-annual pleasure of beginning to browse in a brand new issue of an issue of a JASNA Persuasions –because it’s June, that means the print Persuasion (although it's not yet available to JASNA members in ebook form at the JASNA website, that should happen soon). 

On the fifth page of the second article (written by Peter Sabor about Jane Austen's and the books in the Godmersham library), I read Sabor’s discussion of one of those Godmersham library books:

"In her next extant letter to Cassandra, of 11-12 October 1813, Austen makes a well-known observation about rereading Mary Brunton's three-volume novel Self-Control (1811):  
‘I am looking over Self Control again & my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.‘
….Intriguingly, Austen had also written to Cassandra about Self Control on April, 1811, when Cassandra was staying at Godmersham Park:
‘We have tried to get Self-controul, but in vain—I should like to know what [Mrs. Knight’s] Estimate is but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever --- & of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled.’
The remark suggests, with mock-concern, that Brunton, three years younger and also publishing her first novel, might have scooped Austen, whose S&S would not appear until the end of October. In a missing letter of April 1811 to which Austen is replying, Cassandra had evidently mentioned that Catherine Knight was reading Self Control at Godmersham. Now, over two years later, Jane Austen had found the novel in a third edition on the shelves of the Godmersham library, where she could relish its absurdities alone, mistress of all she surveyed.”  END QUOTE FROM SABOR ARTICLE

Peter Sabor is a thorough and knowledgeable Austen scholar, who, however, rarely ventures far from the safe confines of Austen scholarly orthodoxy. In this instance, I believe Sabor did take a small but laudable leap, in asserting that Austen wrote with “mock concern” about novelistic competition from Brunton. You might be surprised to know that most Austen scholars have missed the “mock” part. However, I find other, deeper absurdities hidden by JA beneath the lines in the above-quoted passage from her April 1811 letter, than were dreamt of in Peter’s essentially mainstream philosophy of Austenian writing.

After reading Sabor’s comments, I was about to explain what else I saw in JA’s April 1811 letter, when I checked to see whether I had already done so in the past --- and sure enough, here’s what I wrote 6+ years ago in Janeites, which I had forgotten entirely in the interim:

“The above statement clearly refers to Brunton's novel, Self-Control, which was published not long before JA wrote Letter 72. However, I can't help smiling as I read JA writing "We have tried to get SelfControul,
 but in vain", because I think JA, who wrote so many deliberately ambiguous sentences during her life, was not only reporting on her difficulty (which may or may not have actually occurred) in obtaining a copy of Brunton's new novel.

No, I believe that as JA wrote ostensibly about Brunton's novel, she also seized the satirical moment, and decided to have a bit of fun as well in this sentence, playfully suggesting a strong but ultimately unsuccessful struggle on the part of JA and (her famously and fearlessly transgressive) sister-in-law Eliza, to gain control over themselves. In other words, Jane is subjecting country-mouse Cassandra to some gentle teasing, conjuring up the notion of JA herself, writing from the ‘vortex of dissipation and vice’ while in the dangerously disinhibiting company of the temptress Eliza, going a little crazy with all the freedom and temptations of the big city…which could be what Cassandra is a little worried about.
And....I further suggest that this was a turn of phrase JA might already, in 1811, have written in her manuscript of P&P, about another struggle to keep self control in the face of overpowering temptation:
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

But then, after that bit of fun, JA immediately reverts back to the subject of Brunton's novel, but only, I believe, in order to have some more satirical fun:
"I should like to know what her Estimate is-but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever-& of finding my own story and my own people all forestalled."

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that "Estimate" is used by JA in a meaning which is today archaic, such that I think what JA is saying, in 21st century words, is "I want to read some reviews of Brunton's novel, to see if they are positive". That would fit with the rest of JA's paragraph, which is about worrying that Brunton's novel will be too good. And so I completely disagree with any interpretation of the above which takes JA as expressing genuine sincere insecurity about some other writer stealing JA's fictional thunder. Stuff and nonsense! She no more was worried about Brunton (or any other novelist, such as Scott, about whom JA made a similar mock-concerned comment in another letter) beating JA to the fictional punch than she was that she was (supposedly) not up to the task of writing manly sketches like her nephew, or writing great historical romances like Clarke asked her to write…When it came to writing, JA did not struggle in vain to control any tendencies toward bad writing. On the contrary, her novels, like Mozart's mature music, are the epitome of a controlled and synergistic balance of imagination and realism.”  END QUOTE FROM MY 2012 POST

As I revisit my 2012 point today, I find, as often occurs in revisiting old posts, that there is even more ore to be mined from comparing Austen’s “in vain” line in her April 1811 letter to her “in vain” line in P&P.

Specifically, I missed the mark slightly, when I wrote the following snippet:

“Jane is subjecting country-mouse Cassandra to some gentle teasing, conjuring up the notion of JA herself, writing from the ‘vortex of dissipation and vice’ while in the dangerously disinhibiting company of the temptress Eliza, going a little crazy with all the freedom and temptations of the big city…which could be what Cassandra is a little worried about…”

This time around, in 2018, I thought to look at what JA wrote in Letter 72 right before she wrote about Mrs. Knight, and found a very specific reason for her trying for “self-controul”:

“…I do not mean to provide another trimming for my pelisse, for I am determined to spend no more money; so I shall wear it as it is, longer than I ought, and then—I do not know. My head-dress was a bugle-band like the border to my gown, and a flower of Mrs. Tilson’s. I depended upon hearing something of the evening from Mr. W. K., and am very well satisfied with his notice of me—‘ A pleasing-looking young woman’—that must do; one cannot pretend to anything better now; thankful to have it continued a few years longer!”

Note these telling phrases:
“I do not mean….I am determined to spend no more money…and then—I do not know…” 

Is it not perfectly clear from this context, that the “self-controul” Jane Austen, seemingly playfully, claimed to “try to get” “in vain” was not to refrain from unladylike London revels, but, more mundanely,  to stop spending money on fine clothes in London shops!

With that more specific interpretation in hand, does that tell us anything different about why Jane Austen might have written so similar a description of Darcy’s struggles, desperately searching for self-control in the face of the overwhelming temptation that Elizabeth, however inadvertently, presents to him?:

“He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began:
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

It might seem at first that JA used such similar language in these dissimilar situations, because the line in Letter 72 would then represent the kind of expectation-deflating irony, of which she was a great mistress: like her own Eliza Bennet, JA dearly loved a laugh; and this would’ve been a joke improvised by JA as she wrote the letter --- inspired to make a zany, Monty Python-esque connection between her London clothes shopping, on the one hand, and Mrs. Knight having expressed an opinion about Brunton’s popular novel, on the other. Peals of laughter, perhaps, then on to the next paragraph of news from London.

That would’ve been an injoke for Cassandra’s enjoyment, in a very similar vein as the humor behind Mrs. Allen’s deadpan fashionista reaction to Catherine Morland’s frantic pleas to substantiate Catherine’s excuses for not being around when Henry and Eleanor had called for her as planned:
“Oh! Mr. Tilney, I have been quite wild to speak to you, and make my apologies. You must have thought me so rude; but indeed it was not my own fault, was it, Mrs. Allen? Did not they tell me that Mr. Tilney and his sister were gone out in a phaeton together? And then what could I do? But I had ten thousand times rather have been with you; now had not I, Mrs. Allen?”
“My dear, you tumble my gown,” was Mrs. Allen's reply.

But, today, viewing all of the above through the lens of what I’ve figured out about the shadows of P&P in the past 6+ years, I now see a very serious and compelling explanation for why Jane Austen would have consciously written these echoes between two of her writings which on the surface might seem wholly unconnected. The key lies in a pun on “in vain” and “in vanity” which I first wrote about in 2015:

[Most relevant excerpt] “ is a devastatingly revealing Freudian slip for Darcy to use the phrase "In vain" when "In VANITY" is what his unconscious mind is confessing in the same breath! I.e., from the immediately following narration summarizing Darcy’s statements in support of his outburst, we learn, as Elizabeth does, that Darcy's struggles have very much been the product of his own vanity, in that he assumes that Elizabeth will just say yes to his proposal. So this wonderfully apt but totally unintentional pun on his part, provokes an ironic smile from the reader, as we read that “he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority--of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit…. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther…”
As Ecclesiastes 1 tells us: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
And Elizabeth, with her quickness on her feet, immediately takes advantage of Darcy’s unintentional revelation of his arrogant vanity, when she rejects him, and then adds, “The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation." 
In other words, she takes his unintentional revelation of his own vain certainty that she would accept him, and twists it to her own rhetorical advantage, by in effect saying, “You’re so vain in your feelings of superiority toward lowly me, that you can’t possibly be upset by a lowly nobody like me saying no.” “

So, behind the superficial appearance of a joke, I see two serious, related veiled meanings:

First, women being interested in clothes in JA’s era was not a joking matter in many instances. For every Mrs. Allen, who lived to shop, and the wannabe Lydia Bennet, Jane Austen knew well that clothing was a serious concern of any gentlewoman of that era, and not merely a matter of female vanity, of the kind criticized by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication. Rather, to be “pleasing looking” was an economic necessity for any single woman in want of a husband; and yet, the Catch-22 for single women like Jane Austen, was that they often had little or no money to spend on achieving that pleasing appearance!

Now, as those who follow my blogging know, I believe that Jane Austen, as she wrote Letter 72, was not in the slightest bit interested in getting a husband --- but she still wanted to look fine – perhaps to female eyes which might observe her  -- and so, behind the surface of a joke, I see a serious averral by JA of her normal desire to look good – and in particular –and this is true of men as much as of women -- to look young as long as possible –not out of “vanity” so much as a healthy desire to have a pleasing appearance.

So far so good, but the even more serious meaning I see in the echoing of P&P in Letter 72 is that we may fruitfully view Darcy’s botched first proposal as a reflection of his having, since childhood, viewed women as having no more personal autonomy than inanimate articles of clothing -- commodities which could be purchased by men of financial means in the “meat market” of Regency Era courtship culture!

And, as I recently posted in my demonstration of Hamlet-Ophelia subtext behind Darcy-Eliza, the notion of Darcy believing that Elizabeth has been coming on to him sexually from the start, fits like a glove (so to speak) with his also seeing her as woman “clothing” to be bought. In effect, Darcy is as astonished at being rebuffed by Elizabeth, as he would have been had a shopkeeper in a fancy London store refused to sell him a cravat which was advertised with a big sign in the window as being on special sale!

No wonder, then, that Darcy struggled to exert “self-controul” “in vain” and “in vanity”! And no wonder that Austen’s sly narrator, as she describes Darcy’s proposal, writes “he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride.”  “Tenderness”, get it? That’s a pun on “tender”, as in legal tender, i.e., the coin of the realm that Darcy laid down to buy commodities he wanted.

So, Darcy, in effect, believed he was being cheated in a business transaction – which will come as no surprise at all to those suspicious readers of Austen’s “romances” who agree with W.H. Auden:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

In closing, this is just one more example of why I find revisiting these little “puzzles”, which Jane Austen left us in both her novels and in her letters, is so rarely “in vain”. Rather, it is while revisiting that these deeper connections emerge to my eyes for the first time from the shadows, and provide more and more validation of the integrity and consistency of feminism and social justice in every word she wrote.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter