(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Invitation to a small Austen-themed Zoom group during the COVID Era

[Updated June 28, 2020 to change the date of the first meeting]

As a hardcore Janeite for the past 26 years (I started late, at 42), and JASNA member since 2005, I'm always up for a lively, informed conversation about all things Jane Austen.
Since the COVID era began 3 months ago, I've enjoyed the luxury of having such conversations regularly, by phone and by Zoom, with a handful of close friends who share my Austen obsession.
I've also enjoyed the occasional regional JASNA Zoom event that has been opened up to various JASNA chapters; and I really look forward to the JASNA AGM, which, I recently learned, will be held virtually in some reduced format in early October 2020. Hurray!
Asynchronous conversation online via emails (I've been a member of the Janeites email group since 2000) is great, but it's not really the same as the spontaneous fun of speaking in voices and, via Zoom, actually seeing the faces of one's conversational partners.
Which is all prelude to saying that I would like to add one more regular Austen Zoom conversation to my schedule, to help get through the rest of 2020, and perhaps beyond.
So I extend this invitation to any serious and open-minded Janeites -- which I will now arbitrarily define as someone who meets all 5 of these criteria:
1. loves Austen's writing,
2. has actually read at least 4 of the 6 novels at least once,
3. has read at least 1 of the 6 novels at least twice,
4. has seen at least 1 film adaptation of any of the 6 novels you haven't read,
5. is NOT hostile to the idea that Jane Austen was a strong early feminist, whose writing can be read as subverting the oppressive patriarchy of her era.
As to #5, I don't mean that you have to agree with me that Austen was generally a subversive feminist, only that you are open to that possibility, and will not feel the need to argue otherwise.
I would like to find up to 8 of you to join me in participating (attending at least 50% of the sessions) in a regular Zoom that meets every OTHER week, beginning the weekend of July 4, 2020, and thereafter every other Saturday always running from 11:30 am to 1 pm Pacific Standard Time. i am setting the limit at 9 participants total, because with more than that, there wouldn't be time for everyone to really have a chance to speak enough.
My idea is for discussions and not lectures. Our topics for discussion will be selected on a fluid, rotating basis by everyone in the group, and ideally would be some particular passage or theme in one or more of the novels, that one of us thinks, and others agree, would make for a stimulating and mutually enjoyable group conversation for 60-90 minutes. This format has worked well the past 3 months in the existing group I started in March. I just want another one!
So, if you're interested, please email me at, briefly tell me why you think you'd be a good fit, and hopefully we can assemble a group in advance of the July 4 weekend!
Cheers, ARNIE

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Sally Rooney's Normal People as Midrash on Jane Austen's Emma

 The following is an online dialog between myself and my good and brilliant friend, Mary Cantwell, over the past few days, regarding my claims in my initial blog post the other day here….
   …about  Sally Rooney's complex allusion to Jane Austen’s Emma that I first noticed this past weekend while watching her TV series Normal People (but not having yet read Rooney’s novel).

I present these brainstorms as they occurred over the past couple of days, because they illustrate the synergy of two engaged and open minds tossing theories and ideas back and forth while decoding subtle, rich works of literature in “conversation” with each other (i.e., Normal People as midrash on Emma):


Mary: "Arnie, I re-watched the series including the strawberry scene. The movie is, as you suggest, similar in feeling to Call Me By My Name. The Italian sun is distinctive....As for Normal People... The hot weather, squabbling and tension among the characters were all there to match Box Hill scene, though, as were the unsettledness of the relationships. There is also the dialogue begging the youth hostel travelers to please take a shower, which can be sort of reminiscent of Frank Churchill being hot and tired when he arrived at Donwell Abbey (I get Box Hill and Donwell scenes mixed sometimes)."

Me: “Mary, it's not only the emphasis on the strawberries, and the grand rural summer vista, the hot weather, the squabbling and tension (that begins between Jane and Frank at Donwell Abbey, during the word games) and unsettledness of the relationships. That entire matrix would already be sufficient to
rise beyond the possibility of merely unconscious influence. But the final wink is the opening shot of Episode 8, when Connell and the other young man walk out and stand between the two pillars, which, I suggest, is an obvious and pointed allusion to Emma's reflections that I put in red in my blog post:
‘It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty’ “

Mary: "I don’t think this is a conscious nod to Emma, but it could very well be since Rooney WAS a recipient of an English scholarship at Trinity and Emma certainly is etched in the minds of all avid readers of English literature. (Though Rooney majored in American Lit)."

Me: “Rooney and her film-making team had to go to special trouble to find that location with the two pillars leading nowhere (or maybe even to construct two fake pillars there?) -- clearly, in context with all of the rest of that Episode, this is all about the Donwell Abbey scene in Emma. The young woman who is Marianne's 'best friend' is clearly Mrs. Elton, hence it is she would pointedly makes her comments about cutting up all the strawberries. I'd say that Marianne is really Jane F in this scene, and Connell is really Frank, but, as in Emma and in Midsummer Night's Dream, we have lovers misgraffed, etc.”

Mary: "In watching Rooney’s interviews, I don’t see Austenian irony. She’s a Marxist, which is almost by definition irony-free. I certainly don’t think she was being ironic regarding the S&M scenes. (Although this hadn’t stopped her hometown wits from referring to Normal People as “Fifty shades
of Sligo,” which she probably finds hilarious since the Irish, like the English, like to rag on one another.). The S&M scenes are very earnest. I do agree that she probably wanted to slam the horrible writing and production of 50 Shades. A good writer and for that matter, a good Marxist, would want to show the real life effects of destructive relationships."

Me: “You’ve added good value on the 50 Shades point. As for her irony, I think Rooney is much much slyer than she lets on in her interviews- as with Austen, there is a layer of meaning that Rooney never reveals explicitly, she just expects the reader/viewer to read/view between the lines (or the pillars!)”

Mary: "If the dialogue of the movie follows the dialogue of her books, the writer is earnest in adopting a good bit of Americanized social behavior. An Irish mother and son saying “love you” every time they part for an hour or two and an Irish boy showing single-mom training in sensitivity is very Gilmore Girls and very any other 90’s- and aughts-era American TV production. What it isn’t is Irish, unless this is what they mean by post-Irish. The English speaking world has capitulated to American manners - a great thing in one sense, because we Americans are nicer and we do insist on demonstrations of niceness, a parade of niceness almost. It’s good to lose English and Irish snideness and put down behavior but what’s not good is losing Anglo-Irish sense of irony. (Austen and Wilde and Swift!) We Americans are accused of being tone deaf to irony, so perhaps I am missing a lot! I will withhold my opinion until I read her books (I have two on order), but I saw no irony in the series. Jane Austen – no. English verdure – no. Great series worth watching though!"

Me: “I am giving this thought, but I think there is a shadow story, one that might become more visible to me when I get the book and read it!


I have a few more thoughts about the intentionality of the Emma allusion in Normal People. Let's not forget that Rooney did give us an explicit cue to be thinking about Emma, when, in one of the earlier episodes, a scene at an English seminar at Trinity College (a scene which is also in the novel, as I've read about it in articles and interviews), in which Connell speaks about his being unsettled after reading the scenes when Harriet first shocks Emma with her (Harriet's) interest in Knightley, and then the narration entering Knightley's point of view as he ponders Jane and Frank's mysteries.

So there is no question that Emma is a major touchstone for Rooney in this novel/series. In that context, it is simply impossible that these multiple linked allusive echoes in Episode 8 to Donwell Abbey are merely unconscious --they are intentional, and central - that scene in many ways is climactic, just as Donwell Abbey & Box Hill are climactic in Emma.

Rooney expects her Austen-aware readers to take the hints, and then do the work, by thinking about what it might mean. Rooney only gives us the subjective thoughts of characters, there is no omniscient "objective reality" narrator -- as you know, I claim that Austen has it both ways, by giving us a narrative voice that is often ambiguous as to whether it is objective or subjective. That is how an author creates a shadow story.  

Also, as I said before, I think Rooney is much more interested in Jane F than in Emma. Yes, Marianne is, like Emma, an "heiress" with a single parent who is not a true emotional parent - but in most other ways Marianne reminds of Jane Fairfax - artistic, mysterious, isolative. just occurred to me that Connell's mother is very much like Mrs. Weston – her relationship with Connell is more like two siblings than parent-child -- and recall that she tells Connell that he is her 'teenaged mistake" - who was his father? We don't know -- maybe it was a man connected to Marianne's family? After all, Mrs. Weston worked in Emma's household, just as Connell's mother works in Marianne's household.

The more I think about it, the more I see Rooney as hiding all of these Emma allusions in plain sight -- daring us to wonder if these are intentional or not, and what light they might shed on the backstory and offstage action of Normal People.

And finally --- shades of JD Salinger's writing career -- Rooney actually created the characters of Connell and Marianne in a 2016 stand-alone short story called "In the Clinic", two years before she wrote Normal People-- In that short story, Connell takes Marianne to the clinic when she gets an infected 'wisdom tooth'  removed. 

I knew from the first sentence of the story that somehow it was going to relate to a concealed pregnancy, and sure enough, 2/3 of the way through the story, we read:

"The dentist packs Marianne’s mouth with gauze and gets her to bite down. She’s feeling woozy, as though the tooth is a sick child she has given birth to. She remembers that Connell is in the waiting room and feels a tidal gratitude which drenches her in sweat..."

I was immediately reminded of Harriet's last minute infection that keeps her from attending the Randalls party, and then of this passage in Ch. 52 of Emma:

She had no difficulty in procuring Isabella's invitation; and she was fortunate in having a sufficient reason for asking it, without resorting to invention.—There was a tooth amiss. Harriet really wished, and had wished some time, to consult a dentist. Mrs. John Knightley was delighted to be of use; any thing of ill health was a recommendation to her—and though not so fond of a dentist as of a Mr. Wingfield, she was quite eager to have Harriet under her care.—When it was thus settled on her sister's side, Emma proposed it to her friend, and found her very persuadable.—Harriet was to go; she was invited for at least a fortnight; she was to be conveyed in Mr. Woodhouse's carriage.—It was all arranged, it was all completed, and Harriet was safe in Brunswick Square.
Who knows, maybe Rooney, when she was in college, heard about my June 2007 talk at Oxford, in which my topic was ......  Emma!  ;)


Mary: “Intentional allusion or not, Marianne would be Jane Fairfax in the Italian villa scene. To push the allusion further, the Mrs Elton character is strong arming Marianne/Jane to stay with her current boyfriend, who abuses her, rather than have her true love.”

Me: “Yes, brilliant! As I said, that friend (I just checked, her name is Peggy) is very Mrs. Eltonish – and, if you recall my posts here several months ago in which I suggested that Mrs. Elton visits Donwell Abbey on her own after those two group picnics, in order to find out how hard Mr. Knightley’s “strawberries” really are (so to speak) –the counterpart in NP is that Peggy very frankly suggests a menage a trois amongst them, which unnerves Connell.”

Mary: “Oh and Connell/Frank goes to the dance with someone else (the rich Emma-like girl) and not the woman he loves, just as Frank asks Emma for the first dance instead of the socially inferior Jane Fairfax. I suppose the whole Connell/Marianne secret relationship can be a nod to Emma.”

Me: “[See me hitting my head and going “DOH!!!] Of course that is the MOST IMPORTANT PART of the allusion, that had not even occurred to me!  Bravo, Mary! You are a great brainstorming partner!

Normal People is Emma from the point of view of Jane and Frank, and without an Emma (and also without a Knightley), but rather with aspects of Austen’s Emma distributed among the other characters!”

Mary:  “Rooney does invite us to read Emma. That is the best argument that the allusions were intentional. Good comparison with miss Taylor/Mrs Weston to Connell’s mother.”

Me: “Well, I think it’s all of it together. The explicit allusion is there for those who need permission to go mucking around in NP’s subtext, but the real interpretive payoff is what is left implicit.”

Mary: “As for your last comments about shadow story pregnancies, I don’t doubt that Rooney would be receptive. I’ve read and watched several interviews with Rooney. Abortion and contraceptive rights are at the forefront of her mind. She cites the date when she was born and the fact that on that date, pharmacies in Ireland were still prosecuted for illegal sales of condoms. In many ways, the Ireland she grew up in was more like Jane Austen’s time than it was modern day Europe or America. (One of the reasons Austen’s books are so popular in socially conservative countries like India and Pakistan. They really get Austen).”

Me: “YES YES YES! It does fit perfectly, and now I really do wonder whether my speaking twice in England (in 2007 and 2009) about Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy eventually caught her attention. Thank you so much for that info, it does give even deeper meaning to the allusion.”

Mary:  “I am happy if any of these allusions to Austen turn out to be intentional. Rooney is highly popular. If her agenda is to promote Austen, good on her”

Me: “Indeed!!!”


Mary: “Thanks, Arnie. Great to share ideas and great to  have a reason to re-watch Normal People. (If Peggy is indeed Mrs. E, then we can savor the “F Off, Peggy” moment) which neither Jane nor Frank would be allowed to say in Regency England.)

Me: “You’re welcome, Mary! Our brainstorming the past couple of days is a good illustration, I think, of why Austen’s (and now, we see, also Rooney’s) fiction is ideal grist for the mill of discussion – it took just the two of us two days to reach a central insight (yours) which confirmed my initial insight, i.e, that the concealed relationship of Jane and Frank in Emma, which is central to the arc of the story, is mirrored in the concealed relationship of Marianne and Connell, which is also central to the arc of the story of Normal People.
And I am sure we’re not done quite yet!

Me:  “An hour ago, I wrote the words “And I am sure we’re not done quite yet!” not having anything specific in mind to add to Mary’s and my brainstorming on the idea of Marianne and Connell in Normal People as early 21st century versions of the early 19th century secret lovers Jane and Frank in Emma.

However, as I took a brisk walk in my lovely Portland (OR) neighborhood on this mild sunny Spring day, I decided to unleash my inner imaginist again, and meditate on other ways that Rooney’s lovers might be modeled on Austen’s. In hindsight, I think I already had a subconscious notion in that regard, which required locomotion to bring it bubbling up to my conscious awareness, as you will see.

As I thought about the concealed romances which go on for most of the arc of the storyline in both Austen and Rooney, I realized that the echo was even more multilayered – in both cases, it’s also not merely that the romance is concealed from others in their social circle, but that the concealment enables the male of the two to shamelessly continue to enjoy social popularity, even as the female continues to live in the shadows – and, indeed, to go so far as to physically isolate herself from the crowd for an extended time, to get away from unfriendly eyes.

But she doesn’t only live in the social shadows, she is also the target of mockery which occurs right in front of the male. So, just as Frank joins in with Emma’s unpleasant gossipy speculations about who might be Jane’s secret Valentine gift-giver, and Jane must bite her lip and stay silent, Connell fails to stand up for Marianne.

He is silent even as he hears her dissed repeatedly in his own presence by all the mean kids, who all also seem to be jealous of her talents. And then, to cap this humiliating pattern, he goes to the prom with the “Emma” of their circle, the well-to-do, popular, pretty fair-haired Hannah (with whom he has been intimately involved, and is still enmeshed), just as Frank goes to the Crown Inn ball with the well-to-do, popular, pretty fair-haired Emma.

So, is it a little in-joke when Rooney has Marianne, in the Italy scene, compliment Connell for his writing in his recent emails to her? Are we thereby meant to recall the praise heaped on Frank at several points in Emma for his letters? I think so!”

Mary: “Researching a little more re: Rooney vs. Austen, I found this:

“Actually, something that I read just after I had finished writing the book [Conversations with Friends] was Emma. Obviously I can’t compare myself to Jane Austen [laughs], but, for me there were odd echoes there. Emma is twenty-o ne like Frances is twenty-one, they both have an extreme attachment to an older man, they both have an ailing father in the background, they both have a very intense friendship with a younger woman. So, these social structures, I don’t think are necessarily completely unique to the generation I am part of, and part of observing.”  Full interview is as follows: w

Although she contends she read Emma after writing CWF, and that CWF “has echoes” of Emma, her subsequent writing of Normal People would have been with a conscious thought to Emma."

Me: “I half-agree with you --yes, NP is, as we've been discussing, extensively related to Emma - but i think Rooney is being disingenuous when she claims not to have read Emma before writing NP -- she reminds me of Charlotte Bronte, who wrote pretty much the exact same thing to Henry Lewes, even though Jane Eyre clearly derives much inspiration from Emma, in addition to all of Austen's other novels! And I think Rooney is aware of that literary historical factoid too! 

Mary: "She brings up Emma in the interview; she brings up Emma in the college scene in Normal People. She wants us to think of Emma. So, I am sliding over to your side of things and see Emma a conscious intermingling of themes in Normal People."

I'm glad, and I look forward to your reply to my latest message further excavating the allusion to Emma in NP.

Mary: "So many reviews mention the “confidence” of Rooney’s writings, especially in so young a person (nod to Lady Catherine De Bourgh*). I would say she has quite the confidence to mention Jane Austen while disclaiming any comparison to herself!
*”Upon my word,” said her ladyship, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person.” "

Yep, Rooney has that cocky but justified confidence, a swagger that she has 100% earned. 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sally Rooney's Normal People (Episode 8) winks broadly at Jane Austen's Emma (Donwell Abbey episode)

My wife and I have watched 3/4 of Normal People, the new miniseries on Hulu, and will watch the rest by the end of this weekend. We have found it to live up to all the buzz, and then some – it is remarkable and, indeed, Austenesque, in its understated subtle power.

I posted a few years ago about Sally Rooney when I first heard about her, particularly the oft-repeated suggestion that she was a 21st century Jane Austen, in her very small scale focus on complicated romantic relationships which includes crucial family and socioeconomic context. Her characters instantly come alive through their dialog.

Rooney and a collaborator have now adapted her novel for TV, and it is brilliantly realized, and makes for compelling watching. There is a fair amount of sex, which some have objected to, but I think it is clearly the opposite of exploitative – all the sex is all tastefully portrayed with great feminism-informed sensitivity. Sex and love are inextricably interwoven in this story, as it is in in real life.

There is an explicit mention of a scene in Emma, which comes up during a discussion in a college English seminar. But also, I see a very sly wink to the hardcore Janeite, in another scene --without any spoilers, there is an evocation, which fits very well with the arc of the storyline, of the following passage in the Donwell Abbey scene in Emma:

“The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—“The best fruit in England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”
...It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds.—It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty.—The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood;—and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.” “

Here is a screenshot of that moment in Normal People, at the very beginning of Episode 8, do you see the object which is mentioned in the above passge in Emma? 

When you see Episode 8, think about how the rest of that Episode relates to the Donwell Abbey episode in Emma:

Otherwise, I have the sense that another, perhaps improbable touchstone for Normal People is the recent sexploitation series of Fifty Shades of Grey novels and films. But unlike Rooney’s clearly great admiration for Austen, I think Rooney decided to, in effect, satirize Fifty Shades of Grey through an Austenian lens, and replace E.L. James’s absurd, unrealistic, poorly acted, and poorly written characters with compelling characters closely observed. Rooney’s sex scenes are among the most powerful scenes in the miniseries, because of the way the characterizations are convincingly furthered in them, not in any way for purposes of titillation.

So, don’t miss the Normal People miniseries; and I have already placed an order for the novel, so I can read it, too – I bet you will also want to do so!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

A Triple Literary Quiz

I’m thinking of an author who produced:

ONE: A writing in which riddles and the number “3” are both given special, interrelated prominence in several ways;

TWO: A writing in which false modesty (i.e., an indirect boast) is expressed in specific regard to the speed of writing;


THREE: A writing addressed to the leader of the writer’s country (or to that leader’s literary representative) in which the writer claims to have modest, small-scale writing skills and ambitions, and to be writing as a duty and tribute to that national leader.

So, what author am I thinking of, and what works of literature?

As usual with my quizzes, beware of the “obvious answer”. Why? Because one answer may be “obvious” to one group of readers, but a different answer will be “obvious” to another group of readers. And I don’t believe there is much overlap between the two groups I’m referring to in this instance ……although, as the answer to this quiz suggests, there ought to be!

Also as usual, I will provide the answer(s) within two days.

Happy literary hunting!

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Extraordinary Debate over The Depth, Breadth, and Height of Jane Austen’s Literary Soul

Four months ago, we had a thread in the Janeites group about Devoney Looser’s exciting discovery of an April Fools Day, 1823 mock letter about Jane Austen and her writing. Devoney claimed that such letter, written under the pseudonym “Jane Fisher”, had actually been written by Mary Russell Mitford.

I supported her claim with some further analysis of that letter in the following two blog posts:

My conclusions included the following: 
“In a nutshell, Mitford sees “ghosts” of Persuasion’s heroine, Anne, and her eventual sister in law, Mrs. Croft, when Mitford walks the streets of Bath! And I, in turn, now find myself strangely haunted by the realization that Mary Russell Mitford was a much sharper elf than I ever dreamt of.”

That’s relevant background to my topic today, which is my reading the very interesting section in Katie Halsey’s Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786 to 1945 (2013), which begins as follows:

“Between July 1841 and June 1845, Mary Russell Mitford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning engaged in a long-running affectionate epistolary argument about Jane Austen…In the correspondence, both women demonstrate clearly their own allegiances through their manoeuvrings with Austen’s name. They are both, more generally, oppositional readers who choose to define themselves against cultural stereotypes of the ‘bad’ female reader; in this series of letters, they also come to define their literary selves through their opposition to each other.
In the course of their discussion we can trace two different visions of what a novel should be: Mitford’s, whose model is Jane Austen, and whose belief is that accurate pictures of conventional life may contain within them the truths of the human heart, and Barrett Browning’s, for whom ‘Conventional Life is not the Inward Life’. The clash is, in broad terms, between the novel of manners and the novel of psychological life, and between a pre-Romantic and post-Romantic literary sensibility.
While Mitford passionately admires Austen, and considers her novels models of great literature, Barrett Browning objects to Austen on the grounds of lack of ‘poetry’, ‘inner life’ or ‘ideal aspiration’. When discussing Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë poses the question ‘[can] there be a great artist without poetry?’, and finds Austen ‘without “sentiment,” without poetry’, concluding that she therefore ‘cannot be great’. Both Brontë’s and Barrett Browning’s rhetoric is strongly reminiscent of P. B. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which ‘to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression’.” END QUOTE FROM HALSEY

That was all news to me, and of great interest, particularly because of the afore-described recent uptick in my respect for Mary Russell Mitford as perhaps the most perceptive of early Janeites. I came upon Halsey’s discussion of that 180-years-past literary debate over Austen, as I was reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese for the first time. I wondered: do we have any idea what Barrett Browning thought of Austen’s fiction? Halsey’s book was my first Google result, and I found myself with a full answer to that question, as I’ll outline below.

For those with access via their library system to the Ebooks portal, you can read that entire section in Halsey’s book there. For purposes of this post, I will just provide one representative quote from that 5 year correspondence between Mitford and Barrett Browning that stood out most for me:

Barrett Browning: ‘There is more poetry, more of the inner life, more of the ideal aspiration more of a Godward tendency in [an 1842 novel by a now forgotten author] than we need seek for or than even you my beloved friend, can, I think, imagine in any book or books of Miss Austen considered in a moment of your most enthusiastic estimation.‘

Ouch! At least with Charlotte Bronte, who wrote similar sentiments to Henry Lewes several years after that, I have long had the comfort of believing, along with Jocelyn Harris and others, that Bronte was just pulling Lewes’s leg, because Jane Eyre in particular is saturated with all of Austen’s fiction from one end to the other. But I don’t get the sense from Halsey’s chapter that Barrett Browning was kidding, she was deadly serious, and really meant it when she bemoaned Austen’s (to her at least) soul-deficiency.

Part of what makes me believe this Barrett Browning wasn’t kidding when she expressed those negative judgments on Austen to Mitford, is what BB wrote when she revisited the subject of Jane Austen’s literary soulfulness more than a decade later. Note the subtle difference ten+ years made, as quoted and then explained by Halsey:

“Barrett Browning stuck tenaciously to her opinion of Austen, writing in 1855 to John Ruskin that her argument with Mitford had not caused her to admire Austen’s works:

‘She [Mitford] never taught me anything but a very limited admiration of Miss Austen, whose people struck me as wanting souls, even more than is necessary for men and women of the world. The novels are perfect as far as they go – that’s certain. Only they don’t go far, I think. It may be my fault.’

Although this extract reiterates some of the points she made to Mitford (lack of soul, focus on the conventional life, the novels’ perfection in their sphere and Austen’s limitation of aspiration), there is a note of hesitancy (‘I think’), even apology (‘it may be my fault’). She here dismisses the effects of her correspondence with Mitford, but it seems that Barrett Browning’s confidence in her opinion has been paradoxically both shaken and strengthened by Mitford’s opposition. “  END QUOTE FROM HALSEY

While I agree with Halsey that Barrett Browning’s hesitancies are good evidence that Mitford’s arguments had to some extent undermined BB’s certainty about Austen’s deficiencies, I’d also speculate that it was also the quiet subversion wrought on BB by Austen’s fiction itself, perhaps upon later rereadings. Austen, like Milton’s Satan, knew how to worm her way into her reader’s subconscious, relying on repeated rereadings to work their magic over time.

In other words, in spite of herself, Barrrett Browning seemed to have learned, perhaps by 1850 when she published her famous Sonnet 43, that she loved Austen’s fiction in more ways than she could count, or even consciously grasp --- and maybe, just maybe, Barrett Browning came to question whether she did not love Austen better, because the depth and breadth and height of her own soul was not sufficient to love Austen’s deeper, broader, and higher soul, and not the reverse!

Wouldn’t it be something, in other words, if, at least in part, Sonnet 43 was inspired by Barrett Browning’s growing doubts about her own love of Jane Austen’s fiction?  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Trump & Co's Immodest (barbaric) Proposal to Rid our Country of "useless eaters"

Today, literature touches real life again. My brilliant old friend Chris has just chillingly summed up one particularly horrific aspect of our general nightmare:

"So it has come to this. Earlier this month, the Lt Gov of Texas declared the country’s elderly—all 46 million citizens over 65–should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of “the economy.” A few days ago Fox put on a panel to promote this idea. It included Bill O’Reilly, who said the elderly who have died so far of Covid 19 “were on their last legs anyway.” And now a GOP Indiana congressman just told CNN that the government’s obligation is to choose the “American way of life” over the lives of senior citizens.
Think about this very, very carefully. Before the Nazis arrived at their “Final Solution,” they first had to promote a culture of devaluing human life. They started with the infirm, the mentally ill, and the socially marginalized—the vulnerable and “non-productive” parts of the economy. Eventually, when Jews were herded to the camps, the first thing the SS did was separate the elderly for immediate gassing. They were deemed “useless eaters.”
This is the gate to the horrors of hell. If such notions are not ruthlessly exposed and destroyed now, think about who will be next to die for the good of “the economy.” Immigrants, inmates, the disabled, diabetics who cost “too much” to treat, the homeless, the mentally ill, addicts, and so it goes.
We already have in place the “ethic” that if you lose your job, you lose your health care. Those discarded by “the economy” at this hour become even more vulnerable. And as far as “the economy” is concerned, according to Fox and the GOP, the vulnerable are expendable; they become a net drag on “the economy.” They become useless eaters." 

To which I can only add these helpful suggestion for catchy Republican slogans to match Trump & Co's "Immodest Proposal":

Lower Medicare age to 60? No! Lower the age of Death? Yes!

250 years ago, even Jonathan Swift could not have foreseen a level of casual barbarism like this - and he satirized the calculated oppression of starving Ireland by their British "friends"!

And since my friend Chris wrote the above, and I made the association to Swift's Modest Proposal, real life became even more surreal when I watched this video segment of Dr. Oz on Fox News referring to a very "appetizing opportunity" for reopening the economy that only results in a few percent additional mortality:

Cheers, ARNIE

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Answers to My Quiz with a “Twist”: Austen meets Aristophanes!

I’m thinking of a great work of literature that meets ALL of the following criteria:

ONE: It was written long ago by an author whose name is known to countless people, including many who’ve never read their works:  


 TWO: It was one of this author’s earliest works, but one that they significantly revised later in their career:  

Both NORTHANGER ABBEY and THE CLOUDS were youthful works later revised.

My central claim is that when Jane Austen revised Northanger Abbey in 1816, she was not only aware of the great early Greek comic playwright, Aristophanes, but that she made The Clouds a central allusive source for her novel about a naïve heroine who achieves self-knowledge.

Today, I will just give summary answers to the clues I listed in my Quiz. In followup posts to come, I will go into greater detail on some key points, all fleshing out the surprising news (to many, but not to me) that Austen’s knowledges of the ancient classics was very deep and granular, indeed.

THREE: Among the general public, it is NOT the most famous of that author’s works:

Her most famous novel is PRIDE & PREJUDICE.         His most famous play is LYSISTRATA

FOUR: It focuses on the theme of self-knowledge, and how one can help another person find it.

Henry Tilney says to Catherine Morland:
“Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves”. This statement epitomizes Henry’s teasing manner of speaking to Catherine, and virtually repeats Socrates’s most famous maxim that a life well lived has the goal of self-knowledge. But the key point is that Austen had both Plato’s Socrates and Aristophanes’s Socrates in mind as she wrote Northanger Abbey, and wove both of them into the character of her charming hero.

FIVE: It has a major male character who:
is a braggart of mammoth proportions;
who constantly lies;
contradicts himself in every other sentence he speaks;
who is particularly obsessed with racing his horses and chariots/carriages; and
who repeatedly uses the expression “By Jove!”

John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey and Strepsiades’s son, Pheidippides, in The Clouds both fit every one of these specific points to a tee, far past the possibility for coincidence.  Compare these two passages:

1853 Translation of The Clouds by William James Hickie:
[STREPSIADES to SOCRATES, seeking to receive education at the latter’s school in the art of lying, so as to be able to go to court and get out of all his debts that his son’s horse obsession got him into]:

 “I will do so in reliance upon you, for NECESSITY oppresses me, on account of the blood-horses, and the marriage that ruined me. Now, therefore, let them use me as they please. I give up this body to them to be beaten, to be hungered, to be troubled with thirst, to be squalid, to shiver with cold, to flay into a leathern bottle, if I shall escape clear from my debts, and appear to men to be BOLD, glib of tongue, audacious, IMPUDENT, shameless, a fabricator of FALSEHOODS, INVENTIVE of words, a practiced knave in lawsuits, a law-tablet, a thorough RATTLE, a FOX, a sharper, a slippery knave, a dissembler, a slippery fellow, an impostor, a gallows-bird, a blackguard, a TWISTER, a troublesome fellow, a licker-up of hashes. If they call me this, when they meet me, let them do to me absolutely what they please. And if they like, by Ceres, let them serve up a sausage out of me to the deep thinkers….”

And now look at the strong parallelism to the above speech in Catherine Morland’s reaction to John Thorpe’s endless lying and boasting:

“Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a RATTLE, nor to know to how many IDLE assertions and IMPUDENT FALSEHOODS the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb; they were not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next…”

And the above parallels are why I give “credit” to Donald Trump for unwittingly helping me discover these parallels between Aristophanes and Jane Austen, both of whom obviously knew, and knew of, men in their worlds, 2200 years apart, who were just like him.

SIX: It has a major male character who repeatedly, teasingly asks questions which seem to be designed to provoke his conversation partner to think outside the box, to question basic assumptions, and to seek self knowledge.

Henry Tilney, to Catherine Morland            Socrates, to Strepsiades

SEVEN: It has a short scene in which clouds are observed and interpreted as meaning or signifying different things.

In The Clouds (this scene was also clearly a source for Hamlet’s riddling of poor addled Polonius), Socrates teaches Strepsiades that we see what we want to see, and not necessarily what is there:

Socrates. Answer, then, whatever I ask you.
Strepsiades. Then say quickly what you wish.
Socrates. Have you ever, when you; looked up, seen a cloud like to a centaur, or a panther, or a wolf, or a bull?
Strepsiades. By Jupiter, have I! But what of that?
Socrates. They become all things, whatever they please. And then if they see a person with long hair, a wild one of these hairy fellows, like the son of Xenophantes, in derision of his folly, they liken themselves to centaurs.
Strepsiades. Why, what, if they should see Simon, a plunderer of the public property, what do they do?
Socrates. They suddenly become wolves, showing up his disposition.
Strepsiades. For this reason, then, for this reason, when they yesterday saw Cleonymus the recreant, on this account they became stags, because they saw this most cowardly fellow.
Socrates. And now too, because they saw Clisthenes, you observe, on this account they became women.
Strep. Hail therefore, O mistresses! And now, if ever ye did to any other, to me also utter a voice reaching to heaven, O all-powerful queens.

Then they go on to discuss the relationship between clouds and rain.

Austen, the mistress of ironic deflation, clearly had this scene in mind when she wrote about Catherine’s anxious imaginings about rain interfering with her planned outing with the Tilneys, in Chapter 11 of Northanger Abbey:

“The morrow brought a very sober-looking morning, the sun making only a few efforts to appear, and Catherine augured from it everything most favourable to her wishes. A bright morning so early in the year, she allowed, would generally turn to rain, but a CLOUDY one foretold improvement as the day advanced. She applied to Mr. Allen for confirmation of her hopes, but Mr. Allen, not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine. She applied to Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen's opinion was more positive. “She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the CLOUDS would only go off, and the sun keep out.”
…. At half past twelve, when Catherine's anxious attention to the weather was over and she could no longer claim any merit from its amendment, the sky began voluntarily to clear. A gleam of sunshine took her quite by surprise; she looked round; the CLOUDS were parting, and she instantly returned to the window to watch over and encourage the happy appearance. Ten minutes more made it certain that a bright afternoon would succeed, and justified the opinion of Mrs. Allen, who had “always thought it would clear up.” But whether Catherine might still expect her friends, whether there had not been too much rain for Miss Tilney to venture, must yet be a question.”


And to add to all of the above I add a final “twist”, hinted at in that last word of my Subject Line. It is no accident that (1) Strepsiades meant “twister”, as in twister of words, i.e., liar, in ancient Greek, and (2) we read the following in Northanger Abbey, as Catherine Morland suffers through her final conversation with John Thorpe in Chapter 15:

“Shall not you be late at Devizes?” said Catherine. He made no answer; but after a minute's silence burst out with, “A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul! A clever fancy of Morland's and Belle's. What do you think of it, Miss Morland? I say it is no bad notion.”
“I am sure I think it a very good one.”
“Do you? That's honest, by heavens! I am glad you are no enemy to matrimony, however. Did you ever hear the old song 'Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?' I say, you will come to Belle's wedding, I hope.”
“Yes; I have promised your sister to be with her, if possible.”
“And then you know”—TWISTING himself about and forcing a foolish laugh—“I say, then you know, we may try the truth of this same old song.”
“May we? But I never sing. Well, I wish you a good journey. I dine with Miss Tilney today, and must now be going home.”

Twisting himself indeed – It is Jane Austen who has the last laugh on the fools of the world!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter