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

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Ingenuity of Man...and also of Jane Austen (JA)

The following is a response by me to another comment made by Jill Heydt-Stevenson (quoted by me, immediately below) in the Janeites and Austen-L groups:

“I've come to learn a *little* -- truly a little--about the tradition of women and keeping chickens, etc. I've discovered that it has quite a history. But this is pure conjecture: I'm not sure what I would find when I looked closely."

Jill, I have found that most conjectures regarding aspects of daily life hinted at in passing in JA’s novels, particularly those relating to life in a country village (as opposed to the big city), usually turn out to be very fruitful avenues of inquiry, on multiple levels, so thanks for inducing me to stroll down this one.
It turned out to be a fairly short stroll for me, because the “shadow” of your question that interests me most is the metaphorical one, as opposed to the actual poultry-keeping practices of real women in JA’s world. But as your book illustrates, the metaphorical and the sociohistorical are NEVER separate questions, and I would bet a good amount that once I throw out this, my own metaphorical response to your conjecture,, my interpretation will rapidly be deepened in a variety of interesting and unexpected ways, once others come forward, as I am sure that Nancy and others will, with details about real world Regency Era hens and chickens, of which I am currently quite ignorant.

And, as I just browsed in your chapter on S&S in Unbecoming Conjuinctions, at ppg. 65-66, I see that you have already set the stage for my own comments with your own wonderful and spot-on metaphorical analysis of Willoughby as the "fox" who raids the Dashwood "hen house" (i..e, cottage) in S&S. What I wish to suggest is that your brilliant take on the Dashwood henhouse is a direct precursor to what I believe is the most memorable event associated with poultry in all of JA’s novels, which is described in the penultimate paragraphs of Emma:

“In this state of suspense they were befriended, not by any sudden illumination of Mr. Woodhouse's mind, or any wonderful change of his nervous system, but by the operation of the same system in another way. Mrs. Weston's poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkies -- evidently by the ingenuity of man. Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered. Pilfering was housebreaking to Mr. Woodhouse's fears. He was very uneasy; and but for the sense of his son-in-law's protection, would have been under wretched alarm every night of his life. The strength, resolution, and presence of mind of the Mr. Knightleys, commanded his fullest dependance. While either of them protected him and his, Hartfield was safe. But Mr. John Knightley must be in London again by the end of the first week in November. The result of this distress was, that, with a much more voluntary, cheerful consent than his daughter had ever presumed to hope for at the moment, she was able to fix her wedding-day…”

I claim that JA’s narrator is winkingly whispering in our ear that what has happened here, metaphorically, (but only in the shadow story, I immediately add!), right under Mr. Woodhouse’s (and the unwary reader’s) nose, is that (whether or not Mrs. Weston’s poultry-house was actually raided or not--and I think not) Mr. Woodhouse’s “henhouse” (i.e., Hartfield, which is the residence of the solitary hen of Highbury who bears “golden” eggs—i.e., Emma) is the one which has been "raided"!

And, if Emma is the golden "hen", then the “fox” must be none other than Mr. Knightley himself, who has, with a little help from his friend Mrs. Weston, so effortlessly deployed his “ingenuity” in order to work such a “wonderful change” in Mr. Woodhouse! And what an ironic Chinese-Box sort of tour de force this really is on JA's part, to deploy this device of a theft to covertly illustrate the very act of "matrimonial larceny" which , on the surface, is what that theft triggers! And all of it hiding in plain sight!

So Nancy, when you wrote yesterday, on the subject of Mary Wollstonecraft's condemnation of the inequality of male and female power in England two centuries ago, that the great Vindicatrix had cast her net too wide, I beg to differ--JA is, to my mind, was very much of Wollstonecraft's mind on this subject, and was just begging the sharp reader to infer that it's not just the Willoughbys who were the foxes of JA's world, but also, potentially, the likes of George Knightley as well.


And I would be remiss if I did not also quote the one sentence in JA’s letters that belonged in Unbecoming Conjunctions, but which somehow slipped through your wide-flung net, Jill--- the one which relates directly to all of the above allegorizing about animals and ingenious men. It is also the one that I discussed in Janeites several years ago, an excerpt from the 11/13/1800 Letter 26 which JA wrote to Martha Lloyd:

"Mrs. Stent will now & then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks & Hens, what can we want?"

I believe that my interpretations of this line from Letter 26 as a sexual innuendo (and, as I recall, I am not the first to suggest this, by the way) and the above passage from Emma bolster each other, in that the "theft" of Emma by Knightley is one with a distinctly sexual aspect which would not, I would imagine, be the case with a fox and a hen---the most important act which the "hen" Emma will perform on behalf of the "fox" Knightley will be to give birth to an heir to both Hartfield and Donwell Abbey--and that led me to a thought which I just double checked, and found JA herself winking at me, as I finally paid attention to the meaning of a passage from the novel itself, as Emma contemplates her future with Knightley:

"It is remarkable, that Emma, in the many, very many, points of view in which she was now beginning to consider Donwell Abbey, was never struck with any sense of injury to her nephew Henry, whose rights as heir expectant had formerly been so tenaciously regarded. Think she must of the possible difference to the poor little boy; and yet she only gave herself a saucy conscious smile about it, and found amusement in detecting the real cause of that violent dislike of Mr. Knightley's marrying Jane Fairfax, or any body else, which at the time she had wholly imputed to the amiable solicitude of the sister and the aunt." (Chapter 51, Emma)
What I wonder is, when Emma and Knightley marry, and then Knightley moves into Hartfield, while he still retains ownership of Donwell Abbey, does this not mean that Knightley has become owner of BOTH Donwell Abbey AND Hartfield? It seems to me that it leaves Emma's two nephews even FURTHER out in the testamentary cold!

Cheers, Arnie

P.S.: By the way, the quotation from Letter 26, above, is another example, like the passage about Princess Caroline and the Prince Regent which I quoted the other day from another of JA’s letters to Martha, Letter 82, of how the precious tiny handful of surviving letters that JA wrote to Martha (I think there are three?) are the very ones which are most likely to contain the most overt innuendoes, because they did not have to run the gauntlet of the censorious flames of CEA’s chimney in order to survive.

But as the recent discussion of Letter 57 to CEA reveals, even JA’s letters to CEA contained coded messages of real significance, and in that regard, and in relation to the above-quoted passage from Chapter 55 of Emma, I give you one of the three or four most famous lines from all of JA’s letters, in Letter 79 to CEA dated 01/29/1813 (not long before JA began the final composition of Emma), but with a little discreet addition of ALL CAPS:

“I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great of INGENUITY themselves”
Mr. Woodhouse, who could be victimized by the “ingenuity of man”, was one of those dull Elves….

P.P.S: And Elissa, this is your cue to somehow tie in any or all of the above to Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules! ;)

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