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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Carolyn Heilbrun and Harold Brodkey re JA

"Austen may or may not have been conservative. Certainly she wrote novels conservatives could read without distress, which have waited for modern critics to reveal their profound radical awareness of the female bondage inherent in that conservative world."

The above is from Carolyn Heilbrun's review of The Life of Jane Austen by John Halperin in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 183-185. In that one nutshell, Heilbrun resolves the paradox--indeed JA wrote novels that conservatives could see themselves in, but also wrote novels that radical feminists could also see themselves in. And Heilbrun also unmasks Halperin's cluelessness about JA and her attitude toward marriage.

Also, I just read, and will be returning to, a marvelously poetic, drily playful, challenging (in some places, I must admit, a little over my head), provocative article by the poet/novelist Harold Brodkey, entitled:

“Henry James and Jane Austen” The Threepenny Review, No. 33 (Spring, 1988), pp. 3-7
It is more about Austen than James, and there are way too many interesting lines in Brodkey's article to quote any in particular. Suffice to say that it is the most sophisticated sort of praise for JA's literary artistry, attributing to her both great knowledge of the literature written prior to her, and also deservedly great influence over the literature written after her, including, but not limited to, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce. A great deal of food for thought, written in the most extraordinarily crafted prose literary criticism ever was written in. A word genius's profound appreciation for, and analysis of, an earlier genius of words.

Monday, October 26, 2009

“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul.”

Might there be some interesting resonance between the following two pithy accounts, in the first person, of the apparently powerful emotional experience of a male reader (with a famously satirical eye), upon reading a famous novel by a famous female author?

“The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days--my hair standing on end the whole time."

"Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone"

In particular, as a connoisseur of the various parts of the human head, such as skulls and hair, the mysteries I want answers to are these: at the precise moment when Henry Tilney's hair was standing on end, was his tongue in his cheek? And if so, is this a clue as to the location of the tongue of the scrivener of that latter account as well?

P.S.: The title of this post just happens to be the epigraph to Chapter 2 of The Mysteries of Udolpho; and the famous speech from which that epigraph was derived also just happens to include the following predicted, additional effect of that soon-to-be unfolded tale:

"....And each particular hair to stand on end...."

And everybody knows that it is not very difficult to "dig up" descriptions relating to graves, corpses, skulls, and bones in the writings of the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and also in the famous play from which that famous epigraph is derived.

It sure makes each particular hair of MY head stand on end, and harrows my soul (but only in the best way), when I contemplate the sku---I mean---the skill of all the famous authors mentioned above, in getting across their meaning, without reducing themselves to the indignity of hitting any of their readers over the head, with shin-bones or otherwise.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent

Someone just asked in Austen-L whether Jane Austen's own characterization of herself, writing to the the silly James Stanier Clarke as "most unlearned", was tongue in cheek. Here is my response.

After Jane Austen wrote those letters to Clarke, I understand that the apothecary Haden had to perform emergency surgery on her to release her tongue, which had become stuck to her cheek, due to the massive amount of putting-on contained in those letters, especially Letter 138(D).

I.e., there was not a single word in those letters to Clarke that she really meant--JA's best birthday present upon turning 40 was to find, in James Stanier Clarke, the quintessence of a real life Mr. Collins---a fool in a position of small, but (in terms of JA's literary career) significant, power, whom she could lead down a particularly entertaining garden path, in exactly the same way Mr. Bennet got his jollies when he asked Mr. Collins:

"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"

See how closely the ironic tone of Mr. Bennet's words resembles that of the following two sentences from JA's Letter 138(D) to James Stanier Clarke:

"Under every interesting circumstance which your own talents and literary labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, the service of a court can hardly be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of time and feeling required by it.”

And I can hardly say which is more ironic--Mr. Bennet insincerely flattering Mr. Collins about the latter's expertise in flattery, or JA insincerely commiserating with Clarke's toadyish, relentless (and at times humiliation-garnering) currying of the Prince Regent's favor. I think, all in all, that the real life put-on is more ironic, because her gulling of Clarke was not the sport of a fleeting moment--it actually landed her a "big fish", i.e., the Prince Regent's royal command that she dedicate Emma to him---Emma being the novel which covertly skewers the Prince Regent in every possible way. And the permanent record of the success of her put-on is the Dedication to the Prince Regent.

By the way, it occurs to me now that, when you take into account how Emma satirizes the Prince Regent in Emma, that in a very real sense converts the Dedication into the first words of the novel itself, i.e., it causes us to view the novel in a larger frame, a la Henry Fielding, with his various prefatory materials in Shamela, among JA's literary models, or Barth, Nabokov, or Fowles, among many modern novelists.

And I think that enlargement of the novelistic frame is a clue to ONE of the meanings of the following comments by Emma to Harriet about the charade in Chapter 9:

"Leave out the two last lines, and there is no reason why you should not write it into your book."

"Oh! but those two lines are" --

"The best of all. Granted; -- for private enjoyment; and for private enjoyment keep them. They are not at all the less written you know, because you divide them. The couplet does not cease to be, nor does its meaning change. But take it away, and all _appropriation_ ceases, and a very pretty gallant charade remains, fit for any collection. Depend upon it, he would not like to have his charade slighted, much better than his passion. A poet in love must be encouraged in both capacities, or neither. "

I really do believe that JA was in part thinking about the novel Emma as the "charade" and the Dedication of the novel as being metaphorically represented by "the couplet". Recall, e.g., the young Prince Regent's notorious and public courtship of "Perdita" (Mary Darby Robinson), in which he was so Mr. Eltonish in his galanterie, a heartsick poet in love.

And the following lines from Lydia's letter to Mrs. Forster seem to me to be a particularly apt description of what JA must have been feeling as she wrote to Mr. Clarke:

"What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing."

The final intriguing question that I fear we can never know the answer to, is whether Clarke had actually read P&P before meeting JA. My guess is he did not, or if he did, he only skimmed it. If he had read it carefully, I find it difficult to imagine that even a pompous fool such as himself could have failed to discern his own resemblance to Mr. Collins, and further that Mr. Bennet was sporting at Mr. Collins's expense, and further still that in general P&P was a skewering of the kind of aristocratic snobbery that was his own raison d'etre.

If Clarke had read P&P and really understood it, is it possible that he could have then failed to discern that he himself was being hoist on the same petard of clueless narcissism as Mr. Collins, and by the very same person, Jane Austen, who created the character of Mr. Collins? The mind reels!

And....if for whatever reason you remain unconvinced by all of the above, and if the irony which permeates every sentence of her letters to Clarke is not sufficient, then the crowning hint that JA was putting Clarke on, is the DATE of Letter 138(D)!

Get out your Le Faye and you'll see how big a fool Clarke REALLY was!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Words of wisdom

" As soon as a writer throws in short cuts, speedy action, we know he is trying to please us. Therefore, is afraid of us. Jane pleases us in her way; other writers please us in our way." ---- John Fowles

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I have just enjoyed reading the following article, which somehow had eluded my previous research, even though I have taken a special interest in literary criticism which recognizes Jane Austen's philosophical sophistication.

“Sense and Semantics in Jane Austen” by Donald D. Stone Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jun., 1970), pp. 31-50

Stone not only (correctly, in my view) compares Austen to Wittgenstein (high praise indeed) in terms of her emphasis on the power of words to shape thought, he then shows an acute insight into the double-parody of Northanger Abbey, which has eluded most other critics:

“In the real world, [Catherine Morland] learns of both the inadequacies of a romantic point of view and the disadvantages of a realistic point of view. In the real world, she discovers, heroism is nonexistent but evil exists, although in a less readily recognizable form, with the same ferocity as in Gothic fiction. ‘…in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.’.… if one is to get by in life, one must be wary of both illusion and the presumed absences of illusion. When Tilney mocks the simplicity of Catherine’s background—‘What a picture of intellectual poverty!’ (79)—Jane Austen by no means intends for us to agree. When the author unites anti-heroine Catherine and anti-hero Tilney, she in effect combines a noble simplicity with an ironical intelligence—and implies that the latter may need the former more than the reverse."

All you ever hear about in Northanger Abbey is that Catherine has great common sense, yes, but she needs Henry Tilney to bring her runaway imagination down to earth so she can see what is "really" there. Just as all you ever hear about re Knightley's recall of Cowper's famous poetic line "Myself creating what I saw" is that it alerts us to the dangers of overimagination.

Stone did briefly discuss Emma, but he failed to mention that highly relevant passage in Emma, and the parallel between it and Catherine's situation in Northanger Abbey. Regarding that passage in Emma, a point parallel to Stone's WAS caught, by the way, in 2004, by William Deresiewicz in his wonderful book Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, where Deresiewicz very astutely pointed out that JA very cleverly has not only overtly alluded to Cowper, she has also COVERTLY alluded to Wordsworth's subtle poetic formulation to the effect that one needs both reason AND imagination in order to understand what is most worth understanding.

Emma's mistake is not that she imagines too much, it's that she applies her imagination spectacularly in order to spot all sorts of stuff that others overlook, but then she goes astray in the interpretation of what she has spotted.

But Jane Austen lays a trap for the unwary reader, by making it look in each of these cases that the problem is too much imagination, which is very ironic, since the reader, in order to avoid that trap, has to use.....imagination!