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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Even more of the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)

After a long gap, the past few days have been busy in the review department for Helena Kelly’s 2016 book Jane Austen - the Secret Radical, to which (some may recall) I wrote a strong first reaction a few months ago here… [“ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)”  ]. In that earlier post, I laid out, one by one, several very very VERY curious and suspicious points of correspondence between the detailed section of her book discussing Northanger Abbey --- and even the title of her book --- on one hand, and my own previously published ideas (online, in live presentations at Austen conferences in both England--where she was present—and the US, as well as in Deborah Yaffe’s detailed chapter about my Austen heresies in Among the Janeites), on the other.

The more high profile recent review is by JASNA headliner Devoney Looser (who’s been writing insightfully about Jane Austen’s feminism for over three decades) in The Times Literary Supplement, in which Looser (much like John Mullan in his Guardian review of Kelly’s book a month ago) mostly damned Kelly’s book with faint and mocking half-praise. As I may not have mentioned in my earlier post, I personally experience a pang of sharp Austenian irony as I read the mostly negative reviews of Kelly’s book, because she is in many ways writing the kind of book I might’ve written in 2009, had I not continued my research the last 8 years, and fleshed out countless additional connections, a process Kelly clearly did not follow, as her reviewers have noted that in much of the book she essentially shot from the hip with only a few bullets in her weapon.

The recent review that prompted me to speak my mind again today about Kelly’s book is not Looser’s, however, it is this one:
January 18, 2017 “Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly” - a review  Rachel Knowles
Knowles’s review made me painfully aware for the first time of yet another bit of “borrowing” (from my publicly expressed ideas about Jane Austen) on Kelly’s part, this time regarding Sense & Sensibility:
“The irresponsibility of men?: In the chapter on Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that Jane was indirectly criticising the men in her family for failing to provide adequately for the women who were dependent on them – Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother. I already knew how hard Jane had found it when her father suddenly decided to give up the living at Steventon and uproot his family from the only home they had ever known and settle them in Bath, but I had never really considered the alternative. Kelly writes that Jane’s father need not have given up the majority of his income to his eldest son – who, by the way, already had the means to support himself – but could have hired a curate to help him and retained most of the income to support his wife and daughters. Another question that I had never asked was why, after the death of Jane’s father, it took Jane's rich brother Edward Knight four years to offer his mother and sisters a permanent home.” 

That sent me right back to find the referenced passage in Kelly’s chapter about Sense & Sensibility:
“There are one or two other elements in S&S which may perhaps point to revision taking place after 1805, and even as late as 1809-10…it was in the summer of 1809 that Jane, her sister Cassandra, their mother, and their old friend Martha Lloyd set up home together in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, in a cottage made available to them by Edward Austen. Edward owned a large house and estate at Chawton in addition to his Kentish property. Chawton Cottage resembles, in almost every particular, even name, Barton Cottage, the small house to which the Dashwood women—all four of them—are obliged to remove…This could almost be a description of Chawton Cottage, which is now open to visitors at the Jane Austen House Museum. Both the real and the fictional cottages are part of the estate of a rich male relation.  Edward’s generosity was welcome, but it was a trifle tardy. The Reverend Austen had died in January 1805, meaning that it took Edward four and a half years to get around to providing his widowed mother and his sisters with a home, four and a half years in which the Austen women had moved from Green Park Buildings to other sets of rooms in Bath, first on Gay Street, then on Trim Street; had paid lengthy visits to Kent, to Bristol, to Gloucestershire, to Staffordshire, before moving to Southampton, to the house in Castle Square where we encountered Jane at the beginning of Chapter 1. So far as we can tell, the offer of the cottage at Chawton arose almost immediately after the death of Edward’s wife Elizabeth-an intriguing coincidence, though one about which we can do no more than speculate.
This isn’t the only apparent autobiographical echo in S&S. The annual income of the Dashwood women, after Mr. Dashwood has died, is L500. The Austen women had around 450L per annum to keep themselves on, plus Martha Lloyd’s contribution…Whether it was intended or not, the most painful echo surely lies in the open pages of S&S, where the security of the Dashwood girls, and their mother, is sacrificed to the future of a toddling little boy; where a home, and almost everything in it, is lost, taken over by a sister in law who is seen as a usurper. This- as we know from Jane’s letters of January 18010- is very much what happened, what she felt had happened, in her own family. The family home given up; financial possibilities sacrificed, and all for a small boy who was unlikely to want for much, all for a dream of carrying on the family name, of shoring up the family legacy. Was James Austen’s wife Mary, who brought friends to look around the Steventon vicarage while her inlaws were still living there, a real-life version of S&S’s acquisitive Fanny Dashwood, with her eye for ‘china’ and ‘any handsome article of furniture’? Well, perhaps. It’s tempting to believe so. At any rate, Jane specifically states that the Dashwood women take both the ‘books’ and Marianne’s ‘handsome pianoforte’ away with them, which is more than she had been allowed to do herself.”

I am now going to walk you through exactly the same sort of specific point-by-point comparison I did in my earlier above-linked post about Kelly’s borrowing of my argument about Mrs. Tilney in NA, and show you that Kelly did pretty much the same thing with my argument about S&S as well!

So, from the above excerpt, I first want you to note the following six bullet points in Kelly’s argument:

ONE: Edward Knight’s “generous” grant of possession of Chawton Cottage to mother and sisters was “a trifle tardy”, Kelly emphasizes repeatedly that it took him “four and a half years” to do this;
TWO: The intriguing coincidence that Edward’s “generosity” was acted on “almost immediately after the death of Edward’s wife Elizabeth”;
THREE: The sacrifice of financial security for “the future of a toddling little boy”;
FOUR: Mary Lloyd Austen is referred to as a “usurper” in Jane Austen’s eyes;
FIVE: Mary Lloyd Austen is seen as a real life Fanny Dashwood glomming onto personal belongings; &
SIX: The loss of Jane Austen’s books and piano.

Now, I will provide you with brief excerpts of my earlier versions of each of these six bullet points in several blog posts of mine all written within a few months of each other nearly 5 years ago (and double posted by me to the Austen-L and Janeites groups) --- obviously long before Kelly wrote her book, and long after (as I explained in my previous post about her book) she heard me speak, and knew that I called Austen a radical feminist. If anyone wants more detail, just follow the URLs I provide, below, and read my points in full context, so you can verify my claims that Kelly, with S&S as with NA, borrowed my points one by one. And please be sure to read to the end of this post, to read one important caveat.

ONE: Edward Austen Knight waited 4 ½ years to be generous:
“I also start from the opinion I have sincerely held for some time, based on all the facts we know about the Austen family history, which is that after the 1805 death of Revd. Austen, the Austen women were condemned to live in a kind of limbo of totally inadequate housing--and the one person who was in the best position to take them from limbo to paradise was Edward Austen Knight-yet he failed to provide them with the keys to Chawton Cottage for FOUR LONG YEARS…”

TWO: Coincidence that Edward acted “almost immediately after the death of Edward’s wife Elizabeth”. And expressing that coincidence repeatedly in various ways:
[in literally the next paragraph in the same post in which I wrote the verbiage re Point ONE, above!];
“Think about it. Edward Austen Knight woke up every day for 1,461 days, and thought, "I am NOT going to provide adequate housing to my mother and sisters today". At least John Dashwood's decision to stiff his mother and sisters out of his father's precatory deathbed request was made during ten minutes of conversation with his wife, and then what was done was done. Edward had to re-make this decision every day for all that long time period. The example of Fanny and John Dashwood's "King Lear" conversation makes you wonder whether JA thought that Edward, perhaps, had not made this decision entirely on his own, and, indeed, did not require repeated reminders from his wife as to why they really could not afford to be too generous to his mother and sisters. All we know for sure is that when Edward Austen Knight's wife dies, within ELEVEN DAYS thereafter, BOOM!----apparently out of nowhere, EAK makes the decision to provide the Austen women with Chawton Cottage. Look at Letter 60, dated 10/24-25/08, if you don't believe me. It's astoundingly obvious when you connect the dates AND the dots. And that is why I am far, far from being the only scholar to reject the claim of coincidence. I am among the many who believe that it was precisely the death of the sister in law who carried such an animus toward JA which was the salvation of the Austen women.

THREE: The sacrifice of financial security for “the future of a toddling little boy”; (March 2012) "Dear Norland" & "Poor Little Harry”: JA's Exile from Steventon: Part Sixty Seven
In the aftermath of the 2011 JASNA AGM a few months ago...I wrote a post which laid out the multigenerational Austen family history underlying the multifaceted allusion by Jane Austen in Sense & Sensibility to the real life dispossession of JA (and her parents and sister, too, of course) from Steventon Rectory by JA's brother James and his wife Mary in 1801. 
That was part and parcel with my previous repeated echoing and extending of several earlier Austen scholars who had pointed out the obvious allusion to James and Mary Austen's 1801 "home invasion" in Chapter 2 of S&S, the famous "King Lear" allusion in which John & Fanny Dashwood sliced and diced the senior Mr. Dashwood's dying bequest to his wife and three daughters (John's half sisters), Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret.
However, it was only yesterday that I connected the dots between that veiled but nonetheless well-recognized allusion to James & Mary Austen in Chapter 2 of S&S (with the backdrop of the Austen family history detailed in my above linked post), on the one hand, and the veiled allusion to JANE Austen's own(and famous) reaction to being dispossessed from Steventon in Chapter 5 of S&S, on the other…
in closing, I just realized that even James Edward Austen Leigh himself gets skewered in S&S, in the character of the spoiled "poor Harry" Dashwood:  "It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?.....He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child...Consider ...that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy...." etc etc.

FOUR: Mary Lloyd Austen is referred to as a “usurper” in Jane Austen’s eyes
“And we know from Letter 35 that Jane Austen left Steventon for Bath during the first week of May, 1801, which means that the time span from the moment JA first learns of the move to Bath, until she finds herself living in Bath, is between just over five months. Hmm......So yes…surely by May, 1801, after an eternity lasting nearly six months (it would be very much the exaggerating mindset of a grasping, greedy USURPER to refer to a time period of five months and four days as "nearly six months") that would try anyone's patience, Mary Austen was indeed quite anxious to have her tiresome in-laws gone from Steventon already. After all, who knew what sort of horrid, malicious rumors these overstaying-their-welcome ingrate in-laws might spread about Mary's attempts to feather her new nest properly, if they continued to be so inconveniently impolite as to remain physically present in Steventon to bear accurate witness to the details of the Massacre,

FIVE: Mary Lloyd Austen is seen as a real life Fanny Dashwood glomming onto personal belongings;
"half a year's residence in her family afforded": The Six-Month Massacre of Steventon
..the following passage in Letter 36 dated May 13, 1801:  "....James I dare say has been over to Ibthrop by this time to enquire particularly after Mrs. Lloyd's health, & forestall whatever intelligence of the sale I might attempt to give.-Sixty-one guineas & a half for the three cows gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables. Eight for my Pianoforte, is about what I really expected to get; I am more anxious to know the amount of my books, especially as they are said to have sold well." 
So you say, "almost reasonable"? I think JA's Letters 29-36, as well as Chapter 2 of S&S, tell us pretty clearly what JA thought and felt about the Massacre of Steventon---a massacre based firmly on the following principle enunciated by JA in Letter 37 dated May 22, 1801:  "The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another.” 
And it is quite interesting to read the characterization of all of the above that was written 70 years later by the real-life model for Fanny Dashwood's "poor little Harry": 
"The loss of their first home is generally a great grief to young persons of strong feeling and lively imagination; and Jane was exceedingly unhappy when she was told that her father, now seventy years of age, had determined to resign his duties to his eldest son, who was to be his successor in the Rectory of Steventon, and to remove with his wife and daughters to Bath. Jane had been absent from home when this resolution was taken; and, as her father was always rapid both in forming his resolutions and in acting on them, she had little time to reconcile herself to the change." 
Tell me, was Jane Austen prescient or not, when she put the following words in Fanny and John Dashwood's mouths in Chapter 2 of S&S: 
"....why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?.... Consider...that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy—" 
"Why, to be sure," said her husband, very gravely, "that would make great difference. THE TIME MAY COME when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition." 
That time _did_ come for the elderly James Edward Austen Leigh when he wrote the above passage in the Memoir, and tried to whitewash over JA's obvious bitter resentment against James & Mary (i.e., against his own parents!) by reframing JA's unhappiness as a response to her father's overhasty decision making predilections, and utterly omitting any reference to James or Mary in that regard! 

 & SIX: The loss of Jane Austen’s books and piano.
[See the references to JA’s books and piano in the above quoted passage in Bullet Point FIVE]

Note in particular that the order of the points made by Kelly is exactly the same as the chronological order of my blog posts which I believe were her primary source therefor. Another coincidence? Of course not! So there you have it, Part Two of my (perhaps, alas, still incomplete) documentation of the borrowings of my ideas by Helena Kelly in her book, without any attribution to me. And now for my promised caveat. Part One was my first post about Kelly’s borrowing of my argument that Mrs. Tilney was Jane Austen’s death-in-childbirth symbol, as to which I continue to assert that I am the first Austen scholar to ever make that claim. Therefore, borrowing of same is a far more serious misdeed, since mine was a totally original interpretation, with a list of bullet points comprising it.

In today’s post, I do NOT claim to be the first Austen scholar to generally point out disturbing parallels between (i) the real life moves of the Austen family from Steventon to Bath in May 1801, and then of the Austen women from Southampton to Chawton Cottage in January 1809, and (ii) the fictional move of the Dashwood women from Norland to Barton Cottage during the first few chapters of S&S, which conflates key aspects of those two real life moves.  I am, and always have been, a stickler for giving credit to pioneers of original thinking, about Jane Austen or any of the other authors I write about, and so I want you all to know that there have been at least two other scholars who paved the way, long before I ever suspected there was anything hidden in Austen’s novels.

Most significantly in this regard, on several occasions, I’ve applauded the late Allison Sulloway for her rarely noticed 1976 (and therefore far-ahead-of-its-time), frankly feminist take on Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood --- in particular the following excellent analysis of painful Austen family history hidden in plain sight in S&S, at 102-3:    
“Austen’s open contempt for her brother James and his wife, Mary, at least in her letters, does not make pleasant reading, but the sources of her grief and anger against them are even more unpleasant. Their worst offense to this affectionate aunt was that they treated their daughters with all the varieties of hostility and contempt that Fanny Price’s two families inflicted on her. And their indifference to the plight of James’s mother and sisters is contemptible. They flaunted their new carriage and pair, their trips, and their plentiful servants, while the little band of women who were now classified with ‘the genteel poor’ scrimped and hoped for tips and presents from wealthy relatives. Mary complained of everybody’s housekeeping except her own, and James infuriated his fiction-writing sister by visiting the three women whenever he became bored with his wife, and by behaving in a boorish fashion, slamming doors, and demanding instant service as a male right. James must have been a rather unpleasant man even as a young curate. When Mr. Austen relinquished his ecclesiastical living in favor of James and then retired to Bath, James coolly bargained for all the household goods at Steventon, for the books, pictures, and silverware, in exactly the same cheap and contemptuous way as did the John Dashwoods in S&S. The cruelest ‘melancholy disproportion’ of all was that Austen’s precious piano and her equally precious books, which she had been able to purchase out of her annual allowance of L20, all had to be sold, not only to finance her father’s retirement in the city of Bath, which she hated, but even more bitter, to help James’s acquisition of the Steventon living from which she was now being expelled….”

Then David Nokes, in his excellent 1998 bio, Jane Austen: A Life, struck a similar chord at p. 237:  
‘Mr. Bent [the auctioneer] seems bent upon being very detestable, ‘she wrote, ‘for he values the books at only L70.’ When she thought of Edward, with all the wealth of Godmersham at his disposal, and James and Mary benefiting from their move to the rectory, she was disposed to be bitter. ‘Mary is more minute’ she noted sourly. Away in London, Eliza was soon hearing rumours of the grand style that was now being affected by the new curate of Steventon. ‘He has made such alterations and embellishments’ she told Phylly, ‘that it is almost a pretty place.’ Austen wrote Cassandra with understandable rancor that even Mr. Austen’s tractable and sweet going little mare had now deserted him, to trot over and pay permanent court to the crown prince of the Steventon rectory, before Mr. Austen and his family of women had even removed to Bath. Yet James had but recently ‘bought a new horse; & Mary [had] got a new maid.’  The pictures, the flatware, and other household goods went to James, while Mr. Austen was frantically ‘doing all in his power to increase his Income by raising his Tythes.’..When Austen remarked, ‘The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another.’ She was expressing the very economic underpinnings of S&S…”  

So let me be very clear --- I’ve never pretended that my argument that JA depicted her own nuclear family’s relocation history in S&S was original--what I do claim is that I’ve developed multiple lines of fresh supportive evidence for the general claims originally made by Sulloway, Nokes, et al. And that matters, because Kelly decided to replicate those very same fresh lines of evidence that I bundled together in a more persuasive argument than merely general assertions, however correct.

What raises my blood pressure is not simply that Kelly is writing about these same themes as if she were the first Austen scholar to think them up (as far as I can see in the online version of her book at Google Books, she does not cite Sulloway, Nokes, or myself, for any of these ideas). That’s bad enough, but it’s not uncommon. No, just as I described in my previous, above-cited post, the devil’s in the details, and the numerous, specific details of Kelly’s argument about S&S demonstrate (exactly as they do in her borrowing of my Northanger Abbey argument) that her primary source for these ideas was almost certainly me. She is a careless borrower, and does not work particularly hard to disguise it. That’s what she did in NA, and now I know, that’s what she also did vis a vis S&S --- and look at how reviewers, like Criado-Perez in her glowing Guardian review of several months ago, and now Knowles in her less than glowing review of the other day, just happen to notice and mention the very points that Kelly borrowed from me. This is not an accident, and it’s not okay.

I conclude by making clear what I did not in my first post--- I did those extra years of research and waited till now to finally land the plane and get my book done this year, precisely because I understand how high the bar is on showing that what I call the Myth of Jane Austen as a conservative is in its totality just that, a fraud perpetrated on the world for two centuries. It’s a very tall order, and now I believe I can successfully meet that challenge. So stay tuned the rest of 2017, but in the meanwhile don’t let negative reactions to Kelly’s book make you think her title (or should I say, my title that she borrowed) is wrong – the argument that Jane Austen was a secret radical feminist just needs to be made much more carefully and completely.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

In Austen-L, I received a lovely response from Elaine Pigeon:

Elaine: "Arnie, I read your post with interest. It is hard to pinpoint the plagiarism as Ms Kelly has been crafty by drawing on facts that are within the public domain, but for you, it must be glaringly evident since she follows the same developmental order and even uses a few words that you do, like usurp — how telling! The fact that she has met you and even attended one of your talks says a lot."

Elaine, first I truly am grateful to you (and all others who have responded similarly in the past few months) for your careful reading of my later post about Kelly's book, it means a great deal to me to receive such careful and well-considered support. I am not sure from what you wrote whether you read my first post a few months ago about Kelly's "borrowing" from me -- it is much more obvious and significant-- and so (as you suggested later in your reply) the combination of what I describe in the two posts is ten times more telling than when each is taken separately. 

Just as the quadruple coincidence in P&P (Wickham, Darcy, Collins & Mrs. Gardiner "independently" zero in on Elizabeth Bennet at nearly the same time) is exponentially less likely to be random than a single coincidence, so too is the quadruple "borrowing" from me by Kelly exponentially less likely to be "great minds think alike". As I wrote in my first post, even I was amazed when I realized the full extent of what she took from me, and also the many ways she would easily have become closely acquainted with my work, after those two close encounters at Chawton House (2009) and Oxford (2007). 

Elaine: "Had she acknowledged you (and the others) it would show the thinness of her contribution."

Exactly so! In a way, I should be flattered, because she clearly found my arguments and evidence convincing enough to give them such a full repetition in her book.

"Although the chapter on S&S may not be enough to go on, I would say that cumulatively it does add up. I wonder how the woman imagines she can every present at an Austen conference or be accepted by Austen scholars? I encourage you to pursue this."

I will continue this measured approach for now, making sure that people who know about her book, especially reviewers, also know about how much it took from my work. In the end, I now believe, after reading the reactions she has gotten, that she will have helped pave the way for my own book to come -- I will aspire to show skeptics the right combination of evidence to convince them, in ways that Kelly was just not up to the task of doing. As I wrote yesterday, she even took from me stuff I was saying ten years ago that I no longer say (like "Everything you think you know about Jane Austen is wrong"), because I received such useful feedback in these groups that such statements are not going to be received well-and I also arrived at a much more nuanced understanding of the shadow stories I had discovered. Kelly just skimmed the cream off the top, and that will not cut it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The play-within-the-episode really IS “the thing” in Frasier to delight our minds and hearts

There are two very long running TV shows, as to which my wife and I have seen pretty much every single episode, many of them twice, and some multiple times: Law & Order: SVU and Frasier. So I was surprised the other night while we watched Frasier reruns on Hallmark Channel, and we saw a couple of episodes we had somehow missed –it was a rare pleasure to, in effect, watch some “new” Frasier!

Beyond the astonishingly consistently high level of comedy that the show maintained for over a decade, one of the many smaller joys of Frasier is its sly erudition. A number of episodes are peppered with subtle allusions of all kinds, erudition which the show never flaunts (after all, the great running joke of the show is snobbery!), but which are there all the same for those who might notice and enjoy them.

Say, for example, the periodic popping up of Shakespeare. Most hardcore Frasier aficionados hear that name, and think of Season 8, Episode 12: ‘The Show Must Go Off”, which aired in February 2001. In it, the Crane brothers try to revive the career of an aging actor whom they long before saw perform Hamlet.  But when they see him perform again, it is quickly clear that he has lost it --what I instantly recall is that the genuinely great Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi was perfect in the part.

Other fans may recall Episode 10 Season 5: “Where Every Bloke Knows Your Name”, with a groanworthy pun when the young Frasier and Niles literally trade childish snobberies over lunch at school:

Young Niles: This lunch is a culinary Hindenberg.
Young Frasier: Niles, have you ever considered that our food may be payback for your recent editorial, "Cafeteria Of Shame"?
Young Niles: Well, they can't intimidate me.  They'll never silence my pen.  I could write an exposé on their baked goods alone.
Young Frasier: [knocks bread roll off the table] Yes, this is the hardest roll since Hamlet!
Young Niles: Good one, Frasier.  May I use it?
Young Frasier: But of course.

And the title of Season 7 Episode 20 was an overt wink at Hamlet: “To Thine Own Self Be True”.

But one of the episodes which my wife and I watched the other night, which reminded me of Shakespeare in a much more comprehensive way than the above, was Season 3, Episode 14: “The Show Where Diane Comes Back”, which first aired in 1996. It requires no further explanation than that Diane Chambers (of course played by Shelley Long in Cheers, the show which gave birth to the character of Frasier Crane) shows up without warning in Seattle, and much frantic Frasierish hilarity, with a strong dose of television nostalgia, ensues.

Now, before I get into the Shakespearean weeds, I want first to orient you as to one important real life backstory that was very unusual about this episode, as per the following summary at a Frasier fansite, and which turns out to be extremely relevant to the rest of this post:

“This episode is a favorite with Kelsey Grammer and the Frasier writing staff, because it put to rest some real demons as well as the fictional ones. When Kelsey Grammer first started to appear on Cheers, Shelley Long campaigned strongly to get him and his character removed from the show. The producers disagreed and Frasier Crane soon became a regular, but there was bad blood between Grammer and Long for a very long time.  This episode not only allowed Frasier and Diane to have closure with each other, but also allowed Grammer and Long to demonstrate that there were no more hard feelings.”

And so clearly this episode (written by Christopher Lloyd --- NOT the same gent who played Doc in Back to the Future as well as the wild man in another long running TV comedy, Taxi), coming near the end of seven seasons of Frasier (which by then had long since established itself as an enormous critical and popular success), was clearly fraught with great emotional significance for everyone on the Frasier team, and so perhaps for that reason it received extra loving attention in its conception and execution.

Which finally brings me to Shakespeare—or, to be more specific, Shakespeare’s most famous play, and perhaps the most famous and influential work of literature in the past millennium in Western culture, a play which I’ve already mentioned--- Hamlet .The episode was nearly over, and my wife and I nearing that agreeable smiling doziness which is one of the gifts of late night Frasier watching, when I caught on to the sly game being played, and so I got out my DVD today and watched the episode again, so that I could point out to you all the winks at Hamlet hidden in plain sight in the episode, as I will now walk you through:

In the first scene, Diane’s unexpectedly showing up at the KACL studio as Frasier is signing off is played curiously like…the Ghost of Hamlet’s father suddenly appearing on the ramparts at midnight at Elsinore, which scares the guards (and then Horatio and finally Hamlet) half to death!:

ROZ: Frasier, that was security.  Some woman insisted on seeing you, she just blew right past them.
FRASIER: Oh, don't panic, Roz — probably just one of my more ardent fans.
Diane appears in the window and knocks on the glass. 
Frasier turns around.  She smiles and waves at him.
FRASIER (with eyes popping and mouth wide open, screams): "AAAAHHHH!!"

Then in the second scene in Niles’s psychiatry office, we hear this sly replay of Horatio responding to Bernardo about the ghost’s initial appearances.

NILES: Well?
FRASIER: She's back — the scourge of my existence.
NILES: Strange, I usually get some sign when Lilith is in town — dogs forming into packs, blood weeping down the wall.
FRASIER: I'm talking about . . . Diane Chambers.
Niles on his intercom.
NILES: Lucille, send Mr. Carr home.
FRASIER: She just showed up at the station today.  Apparently some play she wrote is being produced here in town.  I admit, I just sort of panicked when I saw her, but I think I covered it masterfully….

Of course the dogs and blood are a comic version of Horatio’s ominous catalog:

And what was that about Diane writing a play being produced in Seattle? Read on…..  Niles goes on to help Frasier acknowledge his lingering desire for revenge against Diane, for her having left him at the altar, which is comparable to the ghost’s inciting Hamlet’s desire for revenge against Claudius:

FRASIER: Well, I can't just tell Diane how awful she made me feel now!  It's a distant memory for her.  I'd feel weak!
NILES: You have no reason to feel weak.  You've moved on in your life too.  You have a new career, new wealth, new success. You simply need closure in this one area.
FRASIER: You know, what you just said made a lot of sense.
NILES: You're going to get closure.
FRASIER: No, that business about my success!  I tuned you out after that.  I'm going to invite Diane over for dinner tonight, and I'm really gonna flaunt my success, really rub her nose in it!  That'll prove I'm not just some cast-aside that never got over her.  Niles, I know it's not psychologically sound.  But we're still human.  We have to do what feels good sometimes, don't we?

Then, in the next scene, we have Frasier about to meet Diane at his apartment, just as Hamlet finally encounters the ghost of his dead father after the guards and Horatio have alerted him:

The doorbell rings.
FRASIER: She's a one-time Boston barmaid who had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a sanitarium, where I met her, fell for her, and then was so mercilessly rejected by her that to this day there is a sucking chest wound where once there dwelled a heart!

Of course the report about Diane’s nervous breakdown is a wink at Hamlet’s madness, both real and pretended, which is the central theme and mystery of Hamlet!  And then, after we hear this exchange, as they both fall over themselves to impress each other. We get three more winks at Hamlet—can you spot them?:

DIANE: So, there I was, on the balcony of my Malibu beachhouse, when a pod of whales passed by.  I knew I had to commune with these gentle giants, so like a flash, I was on the beach, scrambling to my kayak.  But cruel fortune interceded, when, not twenty yards offshore, I suddenly discovered myself entangled in an enormous bed of-of, um—
NILES: Sea kelp?
DIANE: Exactly right, sea kelp!
MARTIN: Oh, that's funny—I thought he said "seek help."
DAPHNE: So, you haven't told us how you've come to be in Seattle.
DIANE: Oh, a small theater group has decided to produce a play I've written.
FRASIER: Which one?
DIANE: Oh, my most recent work.  It's a sort of feminist odyssey, experimental in places, in tone akin to Saroyan, with a soupcon of Gide, and a hearty nod to Clifford Odets!
FRASIER: I meant which theater?
DIANE: Oh!  The Roundabout.
MARTIN: That seems appropriate.

Here are the three hints:

First, Diane’s noticing a pod of WHALES passing by as she observes them from a distance is a wink at this:

POLONIUS  My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET  Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS  By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET  Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS  It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET  Or like a WHALE?

Second, of course Diane, like Hamlet, enlists a small theater group to put on a play he chooses and rewrites in such a way as to confront Claudius with an enactment of the murder the ghost told Hamlet that Claudius committed. And just wait till the end of this episode to see how that plays out!

And third, even though there is indeed a Seattle theater called “The Roundabout”, what makes that name seem especially appropriate for Diane’s play is of course that Shakespeare’s Globe was the quintessential theater in the round!

Fast forward now to the second half of the episode, and we have a long manic monolog by Frasier about Diane, in which Niles sits and listens and doesn’t say a word – which is the slyest sendup imaginable of one of Hamlet’s manic monologues spoken to his confidant, Horatio, who after Act 1 only speaks to agree with everything Hamlet says, no matter how crazy!:

And then, skipping still further ahead, we cut to the chase, the leadup to a comic version of Hamlet’s staging of the Mousetrap:

DIANE: Frasier, these past few weeks, you've given so much of yourself to me.  I want to give the one gift I have to bestow.  I want you to be the first person to see my play. Will you come to dress rehearsal tonight?
FRASIER: Diane, I'd be honored?
DIANE: Oh, wonderful, wonderful!
FRASIER: Are you sure you're ready for this?
DIANE: Oh yes, it's time.  Tonight, I bare myself to you.
FRASIER: Big step, Diane.
DIANE: Oh well, I have to say I'm a little nervous about it.  But, barring any lighting or prop problems, the whole thing will be over in a couple of hours.

Of course, speaking of “lighting problems”, when Claudius freaks out and cuts off the performance of the Mousetrap, we hear this:

CLAUDIUS  Give me some light: away!

And that brings us to the play within the episode which is what first alerted me to search out all the above Hamlet subtext:

Frasier sits alone in a small theater, as Diane addresses him
DIANE: Well, the stage is set, my players are prepared.  So, without further ado, I give you Rhapsody and Requiem, a play by Diane Chambers.
When the curtain opens, we see a replica of Cheers, with look-alikes of all characters.
“SAM”: Boy, it sure is great having Mary-Ann back. Just wasn't the same when she was gone.
“CLIFF”: Yeah, well, you know, uh, recent studies at John Hopkins University revealed that the expression "absence makes the heart grow fonder," is in actuality rooted in scientific bedrock.
“CARLA”: Yeah, so's your head.
“SAM”: Ease up there, Carla.
“NORM”: Evenin', everybody.
“SAM”: Hey there, Norm.  What would you say to a beer?
“NORM”: What's a nice beer like you doing in a face like this?
Diane laughs offstage at her own joke. Then his own look alike enters
“DR. CRANE”: Salutations, all.
 “SAM”: Hey there, Doc.  What can I get you?
“DR. CRANE”: Ooh, a prickly choice, Sam.  It reminds me of the one the 18th-century wit John Wilkes faced when asked by the Earl of Sandwich whether he expected to die on the gallows or of the pox.  "That depends, sir," he said, "on whether I choose to embrace your principles or your mistress."
Diane look-alike enters.

So, it’s obvious that the above is an extended, bravura riff on the Mousetrap scene in Hamlet, with Diane, as Hamlet, confronting Frasier, as Claudius, with a reenactment of their past, and then her motive becomes apparent:

“DIANE”: Forgive me.  I suppose that was a tad inconsiderate.
“DR. CRANE”: Quite all right.  A loving spirit like yours can't be bridled.
“DIANE”: But I did leave you at the altar.
“DR. CRANE”: No, you know I hold no ill-will toward you for that.
Frasier getting agitated.
“DR. CRANE”: Could we just stop for a second?  This whole getting-left-at-the-altar thing—I just don't know what I'm supposed to be feeling.
Frasier stands up and interrupts the show:
FRASIER: I may be able to illuminate that for you! [gets up and storms onstage] What you are feeling is that this woman has reached into your chest, plucked out your heart, and thrown it to her hell-hounds for a chew toy!  And it's not the last time either!  Because that's what this woman is!  She is the devil!  There's no use running away from her, because no matter how far you go, no matter how many years you let pass, you will never be completely out of reach of those bony fingers!  So, drink hearty, Franklin, and laugh!  Because you have made a pact with Beelzebub! And her name is Mary Ann!
Frasier storms out of the theater.  The rest of the cast members break into applause.  Diane stands there, mortified.

And so there we have Frasier, like Claudius, finding not his conscience, but his desire for revenge, being caught by what he has just watched onstage; but because Frasier is a comedy, and not a tragedy like Hamlet, the ending is one of mutual forgiveness and moving on, rather than a stage littered with corpses!
When Frasier and Diane see each other in the next scene, she is making notes on her play script (again, like Hamlet amending the Mousetrap), and as they speak, we get one last giant wink at Hamlet:

DIANE: Well, at the very least I obviously owe you an apology for the first time that things went awry between us.
FRASIER: Oh, it's all right.
DIANE: No, it was a time in my life when—
FRASIER: No, Diane, it isn't necessary.  The things I said . . . well, they just needed saying.  Besides, I don't really feel all that harshly—and in retrospect, I'm reasonably sure that you are not the devil . . . although he does have the power to assume pleasing shapes.
DIANE: Well, you should know I've decided to go back to Los Angeles.  Watching the play tonight through fresh eyes,  I—well, I just don't think it's ready.
FRASIER: I'm sure things'll work out fine.  Well, I think I've said what I came to say…..

Of course, there we have Frasier slyly paraphrasing one of Hamlet’s most memorable lines, when the melancholy Dane struggles with the question of whether he can trust the honesty and good intentions of the ghost he has seen and listened to, and then comes up with the idea for the Mousetrap as a solution:

So, in conclusion, how lovely that the Ghost of Diane which has haunted Frasier for years is finally laid to peaceful rest by the end of the episode, just as (per the interview I quoted at the top) the real life Kelsey Grammer and Shelley Long apparently made their peace many years after things got pretty rotten in the state of Cheers!

Cheers (all puns intended), ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

What Jane Austen meant by "I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves"

Today in Austen L and Janeites, Ellen Moody summarized her thoughts about Jane Austen the author, which prompted me to reply:

Ellen wrote: "[In contrast to Woolf] I'm not sure Austen has thought her ideas through. 3 kinds of topics: a kind literal versimilitude clung to and worked out in all particulars (time, place, date,costume, customs, whatever); an intense interest in her central heroines (deep engagement), and off-the-cuff not explained references to morality: Henry feels about such and such a character the way he ought. Well what does that? None of her phrases are particular enough to be able to see what her position is, and she is so often joking. She has some literary criticism of a more thematic sort in the fragments or unfinished novels as well as the two posthumous books."

Ellen, I could not disagree more fundamentally with what you've written, above. For starters, you claim that "None of her phrases are particular enough to be able to see what her position is, and she is so often joking". In this you entirely miss the essence of Jane Austen as an author. She was NOT joking when she wrote this to CEA: “There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'”

You are yourself a very very sharp elf, but you seem to have a deep constitutional aversion to exercising the ingenuity you so obviously have a great deal of, when it comes to determining what Jane Austen means! You insist that she be more particular, without realizing that her failure to do so is deliberate and didactic. She may sound like she’s joking, but she really does insist on her best readers being proactive, and in particular being willing to exercise imagination in order to ascertain her meaning. And why is this didactic? Because, as I’ve often noted, in real life we do not have omniscient narrators perched on our shoulders explaining to us what everything means in our daily lives. Living an examined life is a struggle at which we can never achieve perfection, or anything close to it, because life is (as we hear in Shakespeare in Love) a mystery in so many ways, perhaps most of all in regard to our own selves.

And, I also disagree with you fundamentally, in that my research has proven beyond doubt that JA read and thought deeply and extensively about all the greatest issues that confronted humankind in her lifetime, from war to slavery to women's rights to social justice to agriculture to medicine, etc etc; as well as the more intangible realms we today call epistemology and psychology -- she just refused to be explicit about any of it, both so as to be able to get her novels published, and then widely read, without being censored by powers-that-were that would abhor her radical feminism and gender fluidity; but also ‘cause, as I said above, she expected her readers to work hard to discern her meaning.  In that hard work, we develop our mental muscles, and we also rein in the natural pride and prejudice that all human beings start from before we painfully gain wisdom. Her novels are actually veiled encyclopedias about the wide world she studied so diligently from her corner of the English countryside.

As just one of a thousand examples, please really read closely the post I just wrote yesterday about Mary Crawford's parody of Hawkins Browne's parody of Pope - you will see that it opens the door wide into the excellent comment you made yesterday about your recent re-read of MP: 
The real attack on heartless conspicuous consumption.” Indeed, that is the core insight that drove Rozema’s excellent film adaptation, and it is borne out by Mary Crawford’s sophisticated and wise allusion, which points directly toward Browne’s parody of Pope’s critique of avarice at the highest levels of English society.

And, apropos your observation about JA’s intense focus on her heroines, that is not because she somehow lost track of, or was not interested in, the other characters, quite the contrary! Jane Fairfax is the true heroine of the novel named Emma, but Jane Austen, that wickedly sly elf, told the story from the point of view of the wrong character, Emma Woodhouse, who understands so pitifully little of the life she observes around her, and yet she drags so many readers of the novel down into the pit of confusion with her. The same is true of Charlotte and Mary in P&P, vis a vis the clueless Elizabeth, and also Marianne and Lucy, vis a vis the clueless Elinor, etc etc.

So, as I will be asserting at the JASNA AGM in October (I hope you will come and hear me speak!), I believe Jane Austen was passionate to the literal day she died in her conviction that she had a God-given duty to use the once-in-a-century great genius she was born with, in order to better the lives of people, but particularly women, around the world. And in my opinion, she did a pretty darned good job, as she is still changing lives for the better every single day, two centuries after her death!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The War of the Roses between Wickham and Darcy: Pride & Prejudice reduced to red and white

In a continuation of the thread set forth in my immediately preceding post, there was further discussion in Austen-L and Janeites regarding the thorny question of who is good and who is bad, as between Wickham and Darcy.

First Ellen Moody responded: "Wickham is the one we are to reprobate but in some previous version the second half was more complicated than what we have.

Then Nancy Mayer chimed in: "In the version we have of P & P, Wickham seduces Lydia away with promises of marriage -- which he has no plans to offer--.In the first half he lies to Elizabeth. If Elizabeth hadn't been ticked off by Darcy's snub towards her she wouldn't have paid so much attention to Wickham. She knew it was bad manners to disclose such history to a stranger at first meeting. His behaviour wasn't at all well bred. He doesn't reform. His character doesn't change.

I then offered an outside the box new perspective. Apropos the point they were discussing, we all know by heart the following exchange between Elizabeth and Jane right after the Hunsford/Rosings episode:

"Most earnestly did [Jane] labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear the one [Wickham] without involving the other [Darcy].
“This will not do,” said Elizabeth; “you never will be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one. There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Darcy’s; but you shall do as you choose.”
It was some time, however, before a smile could be extorted from Jane...."

I long ago recognized that this was another one of those many passages scattered throughout all of JA’s novels, which I’ve been steadily collecting over the years, in which JA hides a giant hint at an alternative interpretation of what happens in the story. JA perfected this art, by having the hint be expressed by an unreliable character – unreliable, that is, in the eyes of the fallible heroine, and therefore ignored at the expense of the accuracy of the heroine’s understanding.

Here’s the hint – in so many words, Elizabeth, beneath her playful tone, is unwittingly revealing the zero-sum assumption upon which she is basing her opinions about Darcy and Wickham: i.e., that, as between these two main romantic interests of hers, if one is good, the other must be bad. The only question she believes she must answer is, who is the good guy, and who the bad?

But note the context in which Elizabeth makes this pronouncement to Jane—although it is often overlooked, it is crucial. Elizabeth makes this claim in specific rebuttal to Jane’s attempt to assess Wickham and Darcy in a very different way—i.e., as separate, independent persons – which, if you think about it, is exactly the way we ought to judge any other two people we meet.

That Elizabeth conflates Darcy and Wickham in her mind, almost as if they were conjoined twins, is a kind of “prejudice” which impedes her ability to judge their respective characters accurately. She finds both Darcy and Wickham attractive, and so she can’t quite separate them in her mind. And Jane Austen even gives us a clever foreshadowing of Elizabeth’s confusion, and the ambiguity of the presentation of Wickham and Darcy in the novel, when Wickham first appears, in Chapter 15:

“Mr. Darcy…was beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger [Wickham], and Elizabeth happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat—a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.”

As I’ve written in the past, there is absolutely no way for the reader to ascertain from the above passage who turned white and who turned red—and, even more importantly than that superficial ambiguity, there is no way the reader can determine whether turning white was a sign of anger, fear, and/or surprise, and similarly regarding turning red. That moment is a microcosm of Elizabeth’s conflation of Darcy and Wickham in her mind, and of the ambiguity that is everywhere in the epistemological treatise disguised as a novel that is Pride & Prejudice.

But, back to the question of who is good and who is bad, generations of readers have been so deeply enmeshed in, and charmed by, Elizabeth’s endlessly light, bright, and sparkling speeches, that precious few have been able to step back and realize that Jane is not a foolish Pollyanna in this instance, that is just how Elizabeth sees her. Jane can actually be plausibly viewed by the reader as the clear-eyed “studier of character” of the two eldest sisters, the one who understands that there are no simple dichotomies in human personality. Whereas Elizabeth, with her inflated sense of her own psychological acuity, is the fantasist, the poor student of character, who reduces everything to black and white—or rather, as the above passage suggests, to red and white.

And so, with all that as introduction, now I am going to actually follow the above-quoted hint that JA put in Jane Bennet’s mouth, and suggest to you that what JA is hinting at is that there are actually (at least) TWO plausible possibilities regarding relative goodness and badness, as between Darcy and Wickham:

ONE: That Wickham is a bad man who tells lies about Darcy, who is a good man who tells the truth about Wickham. That of course is the view that Elizabeth arrives at eventually, and is therefore also the view of almost all readers of P&P. But I claim that this is only what happens in the overt story of P&P, one of the two parallel fictional universes that Jane Austen deliberately created.

TWO: Wickham is a bad man who however does tell the truth about Darcy, who is also a bad man and who however does also tell the truth about Wickham. That is a view that I believe I am currently alone in holding, and I claim that this is exactly what happens in the shadow story of P&P.

If you think about it, it’s really obvious that Elizabeth is not stating an objective fact about Wickham and Darcy to Jane, all she’s revealing is her own subjective and very confused point of view. How many times in human history, on both the personal and the national level, have there been situations in which two persons or groups are in conflict with each other, and both are bad, but in different ways. Just think Hitler and Stalin. The battles in life are not always between good and evil, sometimes they’re between Evil #1 and Evil #2.

And haven’t we seen this same pattern presented many times in literature as well? Sibling rivalries in the Bible are not all clearcut battles of good vs. bad, nor are they in Shakespeare, to name two huge examples. And that brings me to my final point, which is that perhaps most aptly to Wickham and Darcy, we have the War of the Roses as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. That scene about Darcy and Wickham turning red and white turns out to also be a giant hint by Jane Austen suggesting the sublminal allusive presence of the long bloody conflict between the Red Rose and the White Rose.

I’ve previously written about various aspects of Shakespeare’s tetralogy dramatizing the conflict between the Yorkist and the Lancastrian branches of the Plantagenet family, as I believe they were alluded to by Jane Austen in Pride & Prejudice:  “Henry VI, Part 2: The first thing we do, let’s kill….Lady Catherine! (in Cheapside)”

But I believe this is the first time I’m explicitly stating that Wickham and Darcy have part of their origins in Shakespeare’s warring cousins. And the allusion fits so well, because there are no clearcut good guys and bad guys in Shakespeare’s complex fictional universe. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare spread the blame for the horrors of that war, in which (as Henry VI realizes as he watches the battle from his molehill) killing was a family affair, very generously between both sides, who take turns committing atrocities, each believing themselves justified by an ever spiraling cycle of revenge.

And of course, Jane Austen could not putting one final hint at that conflict in the mouth of Mrs. Bennet, as she sneers at Elizabeth who has just rejected Mr. Collins’s proposal:

“Aye, there she comes,” continued Mrs. Bennet, “looking as unconcerned as may be, and caring no more for us than if we were at YORK, provided she can have her own way.” 

York indeed!

All of which tells me that JA, from her radical feminist perspective, with clear-eyed objectivity, catalogued many varieties of male no-goodness, and, to those who could discern her double stories, was in effect imagining what the dying Mercutio, who got caught in the crossfire between Montagues and Capulets, might’ve said about Wickham and Darcy: “A plague on BOTH their houses!”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter