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

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why did Jane Austen keep it all secret?

The question I am asked as often as any other, when discussing my discoveries, is, "Why would JA keep all of this a secret?". It is a good question, and I think I finally have come up with a good answer.

Since the beginning of this year, my first answer has been the example of the savage (albeit totally justified) satire of the Prince Regent contained in the second charade of _Emma_, which Colleen Sheehan discovered, and gave a good preliminary interpretation of, in her two Persuasions articles earlier this year. If any of you have missed it, here is the link, which I first gave in January:

That HAD to be kept secret, or else JA might very well have faced consequences similar to those suffered by Leigh Hunt and his brother in 1812. Especially if at some point anyone realized further that the satire of the Prince Regent in the novel was not confined to some name-calling (the "Prince of Whales"). After all, Lamb, anonymously, and Cruikshank, openly, had covered that ground pretty well and very publicly by the time _Emma_ was published.

But what if some clever elf in the PR's circle of friends and toadies had become aware of that joke, and had wondered whether that was all; and had actually sat down and read the novel all the way through. Perhaps he would then have realized that in _Emma_ this joke was only the tip of a very large iceberg (the tail/tale of a very large whale?) in which that "gentleman's" entire life (body) was exposed to extended ridicule in its full ugliness.

Ending with JA's having used Clarke as her unwitting dupe to induce the Prince Regent to ask that _Emma_ be dedicated to him--truly the icing on the cake (the krill in the baleen?).

Dangerous indeed, and JA would have had to worry not only for herself, but her entire family, who could have borne the brunt of any retribution against her. The stakes were high indeed, so it was crucial that she have total deniability, to be able to say "Of course not! Would I, a lady, write such ridiculous things?" Just in case.

It's interesting to note in that regard that the one overt reference to the Prince Regent as a not very charming fellow is in one of the 4 surviving letters that JA wrote to Martha Lloyd, and not in one of the nearly 100 surviving letters which she wrote to her sister. Perhaps part of the thinking here on CEA's and JA's part was to make sure there was nothing in JA's surviving letters, circa 1815, which could have adverse consequences were they to fall into the hands of friends of the Prince. And, luckily for us, the destruction wrought on Martha's letters by Frank's daughter Cassandra missed that crucial letter which has, today, immortalized JA's actual very low opinion of the Prince Regent in unmistakable fashion.

But, aside from the danger of some sort of direct retribution, there is another side to this, a more subtle one, having to do with JA's career, and her artistic legacy. Today, by chance, I stumbled across a discussion of the following famous line from NA in Mary Waldron's 1999 _JA and the Fiction of her Time_:

“A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.”—

Waldron pointed out that this refers to Gregory, _A Father’s Legacy_, p. 13: “But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.”

However, a quick archives search here in Janeites took me back to a 2001 post by Ursula Rempel, which took Waldron several interesting steps further:

"I am struck by passages in _Northanger Abbey_ which strongly resemble the works of Ann Murry, John Gregory, and Priscilla Wakefield. (We had a discussion on Austen-L list in the Spring of 1997, and Eugene McDonnell [quoted that passage from NA] I wrote back with the following snippets from Gregory, Murry, and Wakefield: [Quoting the Gregory, from 1774]

Murry: "Knowledge ought not wholly to be concealed; yet like beauty, it appears most amiable seen through the veil of diffidence and modesty." _Mentoria: or the Young Ladies' Instructor_, 1778

If you carry on through the passage in NA, Wakefield shows up: "Ignorance, vanity, and imbecility, are the characteristic imperfections in the female sex, and may be considered as at once constituting their reproach, and their misfortune." (In the _Lady's Monthly Museum_, 55, 1798.)

Austen writes (in NA, 125): " . . . in justice to men, . . . imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any thing more in women than ignorance." The conduct books operate in various ways throughout the novels--not always as blatantly as my quotes above show. One example is the catechism Elizabeth is subjected to by Lady Catherine on the matter
of her "accomplishments." Education, decorum, and accomplishments are what the courtesy manuals are all about--and all resonate in the novels." [END OF REMPEL ]

As wonderful as Rempel's catches re Murry and Wakefield are, and are extremely resonant with the satire of the novels, particularly NA, I don't think they really apply to JA herself as a mature woman and novelist, during the past 8 years of her life. I seriously doubt that she concealed her genius from the men she met in her life, if those men showed themselves to have the sense to grasp what she was about.

In that final epoch of her life, the Gregory allusion is the most apt for understanding why, beyond the fear of actual some sort of prosecution against herself or her family, JA would go to what must have been a gigantic sustained artistic effort to create these astounding subtextual worlds (an achievement similar to what James Joyce accomplished in _Ulysses_), and then to conceal them so well that they are only today becoming visible in their fully glory, nearly 2 centuries later.

I think Gregory is spot on--JA was no shrinking violet, no young submissive wuss, she had tremendous courage--but she was also extremely pragmatic, and understood full well what had happened to the careers and the legacies of Wollstonecraft, of Mary Darby Robinson, and of a number of powerful women who had dared to openly challenge the patriarchy, the aristocratic and/or monied powerful men who ran England. Gregory might have been making a joke, but the big smear that was put on those important female figures showed it was no joke at all.

So JA found a way to have her krill and eat it too. She filled her novels with their sins, their hypocrisies, their full awfulness, but she submerged it a little, just enough to make it visible only to those with eyes to see, in apparent confidence that no one with contempt for women would even imagine that a woman could, or would even try, to pull off such a stunt. And apparently she was right.

I think that the world has only now caught up to her, and she's far beyond their revenge at this point. ;)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Puzzle #2

I'm thinking of a story in which an anonymous "large-sized" gift is mysteriously delivered, and then some people speculate as to the possible identity of the donor, and the possible motivations, good and bad, for its having been made. Some time after the gift has been accepted, the donor of the gift returns and the donor's identity is eventually revealed, to almost everyone's great surprise. Nothing is ever quite the same again in the town.

Any guesses as to what story, what donor, what gift, and what town?

Hint: The answers have something to do with a word or words containing the letters W, O, D, H and S.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Answers to Puzzle #1

Before giving the answer to Puzzle #1 that I had in mind, I want to recognize a very interesting alternative answer that I received from Carmen Brissette Grayson, to wit:

"In her classy, ironic way, Austen illustrates that the self-conscious attempts to falsify reality so that true motives are masked as "natural and simple" set the narrative's trajectory."

Indeed, the novel Emma is shot through from start to finish with characters (especially the speaker, Mrs. Elton) who, for various reasons seek to mask their true motives. Thanks, Carmen!

Allow me to add to that answer another one, which can best be shown graphically, as follows:

"That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day: -- but AS YOU LIKE. IT is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing...."

So what was Jane Austen doing here? It might be a natural reaction to see it as a cutesy, clever, covert allusion to the title of a Shakespeare play. But all my experience tells me that, funny and clever as it is, to put that title into Mrs. Elton's mouth, this is more.

First, it is a clue to tell the reader who detects it that it would be worthwhile to give some thought as to how and why Jane Austen herself may have alluded to As You Like It in Emma. I have, and I think you will find that a rewarding exercise.

But second, and more significant, I think, it is a metafictional message to the reader from Jane Austen herself (who does indeed "see Jane every day" the mirror!), in which she is alerting the reader that in interpreting much of the mysterious action of the novel, it can be read straight, taking the text at face value, or it can be read slightly askew, using the clues and hints in the novel as wormholes into the secret subtext of the novel. Read it this way or you like it!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Jane Austen Puzzle #1

What coded advice does Jane Austen give to her readers for interpreting the subtext of Emma, using Mrs. Elton as her ventriloquist's dummy, in Chapter 42?

"That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day: -- but as you like. It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here, -- probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade -- a sort of gipsy party. We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors; a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?

If you think you see the answer, email me at I will announce all those who give the correct answer on Wednesday, May 16, at 5 pm EST.--AP

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

June 7 Presentation at Oxford

So you think you know all the right answers to all the right questions about Jane Austen’s Emma?

By Arnie Perlstein, independent scholar from South Florida (

Presentation on THURSDAY, June 7, 2007, at 5 pm, at the English Faculty which is in the St. Cross Building on Manor Road (a massive 60s building-hard to miss). Follw this map:

The English Faculty is Number 20 on it.

For more details on the Romantic Realignments

Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies. To suppose that a manuscript of many generations back could have remained undiscovered in a room such as that, so modern, so habitable! — Or that she should be the first to possess the skill of unlocking a cabinet, the key of which was open to all! . . . . .Why the locks should have been so difficult to open, however, was still something remarkable, for she could now manage them with perfect ease. In this there was surely something mysterious…”—Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, Vol. 2, Ch. 7

Emma has famously been called the detective story without a murder. Why was Rex Stout rereading Emma as he died? Why does Miss Marple remind us of Miss Bates? Why did James Joyce, the King of Literary Subtext, call his children Sense and Sensibility?

The aura of mystery in Emma has never been adequately explained. Have the “locks” of Emma been so difficult to “open”, because everyone has assumed, like Emma herself, that questions always have only one right answer? because the connections between all those answers have been opaque? because only during the past two decades has light been provided by the seemingly unrelated discoveries of numerous Austen scholars, and by resources on the Internet, that can illuminate the “tumblers”? I am happy to answer---yes, yes, and YES!

In my presentation, first I’ll summarize, and put in context, several basic discoveries regarding the puzzles of Emma, particularly those in Chapter 9. Then I’ll apply those answers to the primary purpose I believe Jane Austen intended for them, i.e., to demystify all aspects of the novel’s central riddle: the vexed relationship of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. By the end of the novel, Emma believes no mystery remains—but I beg to differ. ;)

If you wish, take a peek beforehand at the questions listed below, and see if any alternative answers occur to you. Don’t be alarmed if they don’t, and also don’t mind the number of questions, the answers are all “joined at the hip”. If you do puzzle over these questions, you’ll be walking in the estimable footsteps of Mr. Knightley, who himself was perplexed by the mystery of Jane and Frank. Recalling Cowper, he sought to avoid imaginary observations, but I claim that Knightley transcended Cowper, and followed the deeper advice of Madam Fauques de Vaucluse, not to “so far despise the flights of imagination, as wholly to seclude them from the exercise of reason; since these two faculties are so nearly allied, that fancy without judgment is capricious and irregular, and judgment without fancy is confined to very narrow bounds.”

Like a Regency Era combination of Nero Wolfe and Will Shortz, Knightley united fancy and judgment, solved the puzzles confronting him, and then (like Superman) covertly acted to set things right. Please be my guest to come and find out what Knightley only told Emma after their (satin-deprived) wedding! ;)


1. What is the answer to the first charade that Mr. Elton recites to Emma and Harriet in Chapter 9? Who wrote it?

2. What is the answer to the second charade given to Emma by Mr. Elton in Chapter 9?

Who wrote it?

3. What is the answer to the Riddle partially recalled by Mr. Woodhouse in Chapter 9?

Who wrote it?

4. What is the acrostic that the “abominable puppy” makes on Miss Hawkins’s name?

Who wrote it?

5. Are there any anagrams in Emma? Who wrote them?

6. Did anyone from the Regency Era ever detect any secret subtext in Emma?

7. What does the Rosetta Stone and the Trojan Horse have to do with Jane Austen?

8. Did Jane Austen allude to the Royal Family in Emma?

9. Did Jane Austen allude to Shakespeare in Emma?

10. Is there any connection between the Shakespeare and the Royal Family allusions?


1. Why does Frank delay coming to Highbury?

2. What does Frank do in London when he goes and comes the same day?

3. Who buys the piano for Jane?

4. Why can Emma not forgive Jane?

5. Where does Frank go generally when he leaves Highbury?

6. What is Frank busy doing at Miss Bates’s home before Emma & Co. arrive?

7. Why do apples bloom in June in Highbury?

8. What is the nature of Jane Fairfax’s illness?

9. What role does Frank play during Harriet’s encounter with the Gypsies?

10. Why does Mrs. Elton take such a strong and particular interest in Jane?

11. What is the cause of Mrs. Churchill’s sudden death?

12. What was the nature of Jane and Frank’s secret relationship?

13. Who writes the letter to Mrs. Weston that explains everything about Frank and Jane?

14. Why does Jane write to Frank about Mr. Perry’s carriage?

15. What happens to the Churchill family jewels?

16. Who attends Frank and Jane’s wedding?

17. Why does Frank speak of his dream again at the end?

Keep in mind that the above is only a partial catalog of the mysteries raised by the text of Emma.. There are many others involving all the other principal characters, the answers to which I’ve also discovered by the same approach.

III) TRICK QUESTION: What fictional story contains all the following significant elements?

Many secrets, puzzles, and codes; a text which, when viewed through special lens, reads differently; secondary clues not visible until you have first solved primary clues; the number 55; spectacles; a character involved with a kite; a character famous for words regarding satisfactory completion; silence; ghostwritten letters; a character focused too long on a precious treasure; meanings “written between the lines” and “under the surface”, not visible to the casual reader; an anagram the solution of which leads to concealed treasure; many things are doubled; climactic action during July; the name or title of an English Royal Family member; a broken shoelace; the word “Knight”; anonymous letters from a teenager to the newspaper published by the letter writer’s elder brothers; common sense; AND the number three or a trinity.

Remember, sometimes questions have more than one right answer! ;)

Arnie Perlstein,
Weston, Florida

© Arnold L. Perlstein 2007

Jane Austen's Artistic Credo

"I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves."

January 29, 1813 letter to her sister, Cassandra.