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

Friday, August 21, 2009

Darcy and Wickham

The following is a response to posts by fellow Janeites Sylwia and Simon which I just posted to the Janeites yahoogroup (which I heartily recommend as the best online forum for discussion of all things Jane Austen, but where I must be careful not to wear out my welcome with undue discussion of shadow stories!) to a couple of excellent comments regarding the shadow story of P&P. I welcome any additional comments here.

"Thank you for your explanation, Arnie. I'm not sure I can read the book the way you do. I don't see two stories there, only many accounts. Although it's true that many readers read the book superficially, I think that there are many others who see it in a deeper way. Nonetheless, what I see is still in line with the main story rather than not."

Fair enough, Sylwia. Then I say, do it your way and enjoy it. Your augmented version of the overt story is an interesting and complex one, even if it is one that I don't believe was intended by JA.

"Could you tell me where you disagree? If there are any holes in it I'd be happy to stand corrected."

No, I really can't, because that would reveal all the other shadow story elements I have discerned over the past 4 years. It's not a question of holes or errors, you have done a very thorough job within the scope of what you've discerned. Rather, what I can say, borrowing from AJ Harvey's 1968 metaphor of the shadow story as an invisible planet exerting a kind of "gravity", is that when you are aware of the other shadow story elements besides the secret relationship between Darcy and Wickham, that relationship is "reshaped" in very complicated ways by the gravity exerted by the other pieces of the shadow story.You've seen one planet, but there are actually nine planets in the solar system. ;)
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"The problem with Darcy is that the range of interpretations of him as a character is very wide. Some people think that he's shy, some that he has Asperger's, some that he's a libertine, some that he's Superman (as a friend of mine often jokes), and some that he's Jesus Christ (as I like to joke about the Darcy who sacrifices himself for just about anybody who's around and in need)."

And I am suggesting that about half of that huge interpretive variance is accounted for by the inadvertent conflation of the overt and the shadow story. Even after one does the separation of the overt from the shadow story, there is still plenty of interpretive variance in each version of the story, but it is over a smaller range of possibilities.

"From what I've seen all over the internet, in fanfiction and in movies i.e. Lost in Austen or Bridget Jones, Darcy often personifies anything from Prince Charming for adults to Heathcliff. There is now a P&P retelling published where Darcy has sex with various women all the way to Pemberley, and I've seen people argue that it's in line with Austen's Darcy too."

There's a reason for all those reader reactions to P&P. At least some of those responses to P&P are genuinely midrashic, in that they do constitute a kind of implicit response to actual shadow story elements intentionally created by JA, and are not merely, as a shadow-story denier such as Victoria would suggest they are, entirely and solely the products of those later writers's imaginations. All of the Bronte sisters did definitely read JA's novels, and you can see this much more clearly in their novels when you let in the shadow story of JA's novels.

"It's just very easy to read the book in a way that ignores the text and impresses one's fantasy."

Yes, but the subtle trick is to tether one's fantasy to the text of P&P, in order to see the shadows that JA intentionally created, and to discard the ones that do come solely from one's own fantasy. The rigorous act of tethering, and insisting on textual "bread crumbs" as validations of fantasy, and on knitting together different strands of shadow story elements into a coherent alternative story, is the corrective for unbridled fantasy.

"In short I don't think there's one Darcy out there, and even people who read only the story that "everybody knows" are in disagreement about him."

Yes, but as I suggested above, much less disagreement if you separate the overt from the shadow story.

"What I've been trying to do is to find out what the text says about him (and about others too), in as fair a way as possible, even if I didn't like what I found."

Me, too! It's just that I am taking into account a lot more shadow material than you are. I could tell that you were otherwise reading against the grain of the normative reading of Darcy, in a way similar to my own approach. You were REinterpreting the text of the novel in light of Darcy and Wickham's secret relationship, and you did a pretty good job of it. But you were not working from all available information.

"So I wasn't assuming that the good characters say truth and only truth and that the bad ones lie, but rather compared the evidence. Perhaps I cannot read two stories there because I cannot pretend that some things never happened when they're clearly supported by the text, which means that if it's a shadow story then I don't see there any overt one with a better Darcy in it."

Where you and I part ways is that while I agree with you that what you see about Darcy and Wickham is "clearly supported by the text" (you must know that not only you and I, but also several others have also seen it), but that I believe, but you do not, that there are indeed a number of OTHER such strands of shadow story which are ALSO "clearly supported by the text", involving all the other major characters except Lizzy (in whose head we have been all along, and so she is the only major character who is the same in the shadow story as in the overt story).

It is fundamental to JA's artistry that we be in the head of the heroine and the heroine alone (except in rare instances) during the entire novel. It gives JA enormous freedom with all the other characters.

I invented the term "Trojan Horse Moment" to describe the technique that JA used---the shadow story is like a Trojan Horse, that JA has planted inside the heads of all her readers. There are a lot of little "soldiers" inside the "Horse", and one of the soldiers in P&P is the Darcy-Wickham secret relationship. That soldier became visible to you one day. What you don't realize is that there are a lot of other little soldiers in there whom you haven't seen yet!

Now, imagine the joy and challenge of making those other soldiers visible over a period of years--that describes what I've been doing since late 2004! It's as much art as it is science, and it is the meanest high of all! Like doing a hard NY Times crossword puzzle that takes many years to solve. And what's even better, each of the novels is its own puzzle, but these puzzles are also related to each other, so that solutions in one help you see solutions in the others!

And now to reply to Simon as well.....

"Lurker replying here... I'm intrigued, Arnie, by your latest posts on the shadow story. I've been reading messages for years, and so am very, very familiar with your theories (at least in outline; in specifics they somewhat elude me)."

Because I've never been that specific, and intentionally so!

"I was just wondering - does anything where we're not-quite-told something, where something happens off the page, immediately transfer to the shadow story? Is it ever possible that a subtly hidden character trait, or action, is intended for the primary story - or can that only be read as what happens 'in front of the reader', as it were?"

To shadow or to overt, that IS indeed THE question for an interpreter of JA's novels! I cannot give you a mathematically precise answer--perhaps there is a skeleton key that has even after all these years eluded me, which enables a reader to reliably assign some of those shadows to the overt story rather than to the shadow story. But for whatever my intuition is worth after all these years of reading JA's subtle hints and clues, my sense is that there is a certain cleanness and elegance in the separation of overt from shadow story, which fits with my conception of JA as a classicist, a kind of Mozart of Words. Once you let in all the shadows, the blending seems hopelessly complicated, contradictory, messy, fuzzy, and Romantic (in the musical sense of that term). There is a crystalline quality that emerges when you do the separation, which is so beautiful, that it must have been what she intended.

And one more point, that relates back to Sylwia's perception of the Darcy-Wickham secret relationship. If you see that secret relationship, and let in its full implications, it changes EVERYTHING in the novel, because it changes Darcy so fundamentally, and he is so central to the action of the novel. So it is a kind of fulcrum, a crossroads. Take one road, and you have the overt story, take the other, and you have the shadow story.

Thanks to you both for your excellent questions, and the opportunity to explain myself more fully.

Cheers, ARNIE

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rears and Vices Redux

We've been discussing Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" pun in the Janeites and Austen-L groups, and I thought I'd bring my latest comment in that thread to this blog as well.

As with so many other aspects of Jane Austen's writing, I have found that,when confronted with a problem of interpretation, it is often wrong to frame questions of interpretation in terms of either one interpretation or another--the better approach is to look for doubleness, and to be prepared for both meanings to be valid. So, I will demonstrate below, that it is a false choice between the homosexual and the heterosexual interpretations of Mary's pun--it is actually BOTH that apply!

First, I continue to assert, and therefore agree with some folks in those other groups, that the pun is in one sense about male sex on Navy vessels. This is made absolutely clear by the FULL context of Mary's joke, a context which is universally ignored by those claiming Mary could not possibly have meant this meaning. I do not claim that this ignoring is intentional, but what happens during every discussion of "rears and vices" that I have ever seen is that Mary's quote is such a magnet for our attention that it draws our eyes away from, and leads us to ignore, the full context. But the fact is that Mary's statement is not some isolated joke by the novel's narrator, it is a statement made by one character in a fully dramatized scene replete with dialog. Here is that full context:


“Miss Price has a brother at sea,” said Edmund, “whose excellence as a correspondent makes her think you too severe upon us.”

“At sea, has she? In the king’s service, of course?”

Fanny would rather have had Edmund tell the story, but his determined silence obliged her to relate her brother’s situation: her voice was animated in speaking of his profession, and the foreign stations he had been on; but she could not mention the number of years that he had been absent without tears in her eyes. Miss Crawford civilly wished him an early promotion.

“Do you know anything of my cousin’s captain?” said Edmund; “Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?”

“Among admirals, large enough; but,” with an air of grandeur, “we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post–captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. NOW DO NOT BE SUSPECTING ME OF A PUN, I ENTREAT.”

Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, “It is a noble profession.”

“Yes, the profession is well enough under two circumstances: if it make the fortune, and there be discretion in spending it; but, in short, it is not a favourite profession of mine. It has never worn an amiable form to me.”

Edmund reverted to the harp, and was again very happy in the prospect of hearing her play. END OF EXCERPT


So Mary makes her pun in direct response to Edmund's question about Mary's large acquaintance in the navy, and Edmund's question in turn is directly prompted by a specific discussion about William Price's experiences at sea, in particular the sad fact that he had spent a number of lonely years at sea in foreign stations.

Now, in that context, reread Mary's answer REALLY carefully, and in particular focus on the phrase "I saw enough".

Everybody always reads that as if it refers only to the behavior of the circle of admirals. I.e., to paraphrase, Mary has seen quite enough of the naughty things these darned admirals do, thank you very much.

But there is a second, at least equally plausible meaning of that phrase "I saw enough" that is always ignored, but which actually fits better with the full context of the above excerpt. It can also mean that Mary is explaining that even though she knows very little about what happens on board at sea among post-captains and other inferior ranks, she doesn't need to know details about the rears and vices at sea, because she has already SEEN ENOUGH of rears and vices even among the small circle of land based admirals, to allow her to extrapolate and also know about what happens at sea!

The negative implication of her statement, bringing the world of the ordinary sailor at sea into the picture, is quite logical, this is not a stretch of interpretation. She is saying she does not need to have information about the rears and vices that were occurring at sea, in William's world, the world of ordinary sailors who are in effect exiled far from home in male-only environments in foreign seas. Why does she not need to have that information first hand? Because she could make an informed inference about what goes on at sea based on what she DID see among the admirals, all of whom, we may infer, were once ordinary sailors at sea in their own youth.

And perhaps some of you are now realizing that what this also means is that Mary may very well be hinting that William has participated in that activity at sea. Mary has just listened to Fanny's heartfelt account of William's loneliness, how much he misses his sister and the rest of his family, how much they miss him, etc etc. And Mary, who has seen far too much of the real world, cannot resist the urge to put a tiny pin into Fanny's naive balloon. No wonder Edmund looks grave.

And to those who will respond that we have no reason to link the ordinary sailors to the circle of admirals, the above interpretation is bolstered by Mary's drawing an explicit parallel between the admirals and the inferior ranks: "they are ALL passed over, and ALL very ill used." It's a variant on "Cosi Fan Tutte", they're ALL the same. And, as in Mozart's and Da Ponte's opera, the irony is that even though the "they" is supposed to be the women, it actually turns out to really be the men who are all jealous, narcissistic, primitive, and easily manipulated! Mary Crawford is saying the same thing--the ordinary sailor at sea, the ageing admiral on land, they all do it.

And that also completes my thought and return to my initial comment. I think it is clear that Mary is talking BOTH about homosexual activity at sea, AND also about the heterosexual lechery and depravity of her uncle's circle of admirals, which almost surely involves females being treated as sexual objects in some way. And those females also seem to include Mary herself, hence her desire to get very very far away from her dear old uncle at the first opportunity. No wonder Mary is Mary.

There is no reason to limit Mary's innuendoes to just one sphere. She is in a way a kind of cynical philosopher of the sexual behavior of the male human primate, having involuntarily garnered her knowledge at a young age from experiences which have profoundly jaded and corrupted her spirit, and she is, in one immortal paragraph, summing up and crystallizing her dearly-bought wisdom--they--men---are indeed all the same.