(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Jane Austen's Reformations

The word “reformation” is not infrequently used in discussions of JA’s novels, in regard to the sometimes remarkable transformations of character that we witness, most memorably, perhaps, when Darcy and Lizzy debrief at the end of P&P regarding the amazing alteration in feelings and self-awareness they have mutually undergone. However, JA being the inveterate punster and prejudiced historian that she was, if you thought about it for a moment, you’d probably guess that if she ever used the word “reformation” in one of her novels, it just might have something to do with that rather dramatic event which occurred in England nearly three centuries before JA was first published. Sorta like when she used the word “ordination” to describe the subject matter of MP, and Janeites have been debating ever since exactly what she meant by that!
Anyway, I stumbled across this point as I was reading in NA, and came to the description of how Northanger Abbey came to be owned by General Tilney—in that description the Reformation (with a capital R) was indeed mentioned explicitly, organically, and literally.
But I wondered whether JA might have used the term anywhere else in her novels, and sure enough, she did use it, but only twice, and both usages occur in the same passage in Chapter 2 of Persuasion:
“They must retrench; that did not admit of a doubt. But she was very anxious to have it done with the least possible pain to him and Elizabeth. She drew up plans of economy, she made exact calculations, and she did what nobody else thought of doing: she consulted Anne, who never seemed considered by the others as having any interest in the question. She consulted, and in a degree was influenced by her, in marking out the scheme of retrenchment which was at last submitted to Sir Walter. Every emendation of Anne's had been on the side of honesty against importance. She wanted more vigorous measures, A MORE COMPLETE REFORMATION, a quicker release from debt, a much higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and equity.
"If we can persuade your father to all this," said Lady Russell, looking over her paper, "much may be done. If he will adopt these regulations, in seven years he will be clear; and I hope we may be able to convince him and Elizabeth that Kellynch-hall has a respectability in itself, which cannot be affected by these reductions; and that the true dignity of Sir Walter Elliot will be very far from lessened in the eyes of sensible people, by his acting like a man of principle. What will he be doing, in fact, but what very many of our first families have done, or ought to do? There will be nothing singular in his case; and it is singularity which often makes the worst part of our suffering, as it always does of our conduct. I have great hope of our prevailing. We must be serious and decided; for after all, the person who has contracted debts must pay them; and though a great deal is due to the feelings of the gentleman, and the head of a house, like your father, there is still more due to the character of an honest man."
This was the principle on which Anne wanted her father to be proceeding, his friends to be urging him. She considered it as an act of indispensable duty to clear away the claims of creditors with all the expedition which the most comprehensive retrenchments could secure, and saw no dignity in any thing short of it. She wanted it to be prescribed, and felt as a duty. She rated Lady Russell's influence highly; and as to the severe degree of self-denial which her own conscience prompted, she believed there might be little more difficulty in persuading them to a complete, than to HALF A REFORMATION. Her knowledge of her father and Elizabeth inclined her to think that the sacrifice of one pair of horses would be hardly less painful than of both, and so on, through the whole list of Lady Russell's too gentle reductions.” END OF EXCERPT FROM CH. 2 OF PERSUASION
Everyone remembers the term “retrench”, which occurs four times in that same passage, but I suspect that few Janeites have ever focused on the use of the word “reformation” there. Of course, the heated topic of discussion is the dire state of the finances of the Elliots and the drastic measures called for in order to alleviate same. But I claim that JA took this opportunity to briefly conjure up the ghosts of Wolsey, Henry VIII and the Catholic Church, in order to provide a little subliminal historical resonance. And, given Sir Walter’s mania for aristocratic ancestry, he’d surely have enjoyed the joke, had he been smart enough to catch it. And it’s a pretty funny joke when you think about it---after all, the Reformation, in England, might well have been subtitled “The Great Monastery/Abbey Robbery”, because it was a huge grab by the King of a gigantic amount of property in England, to be distributed to the King’s many loyal and avaricious minions as largesse. And that is EXACTLY how Sir Walter is taking the whole thing—Kellynch Hall, which has belonged to the Elliots from time immemorial, is being wrenched out of his hands as a kind of monstrous and unjust offense against God, England, and What is Right.
And, as usual, there is one additional touch, which JA inserts, which is the unmistakably fingerprint, and wink of the eye, which tells the reader who suspects this interpretation that, yes, you’re right, it really was JA’s conscious intention to make this allusion, and was not an unconscious incidentalism. Can you see what it is?
Here’s a hint—the clue I am referring to occurs in the passage quoted above, and it has to do with the Reformation Parliament, which was the instrumentality by means of which Henry VIII accomplished his great robbery. ;)
Cheers, ARNIE
P.S.: In case you were wondering, here’s what JA had to say about Henry VIII and the Reformation (without naming it explicitly) in her History of England:
“It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King's reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. Among these may be ranked Cardinal Wolsey's telling the father Abbot of Leicester Abbey that "he was come to lay his bones among them," the REFORMATION in Religion, & the King's riding through the streets of London with Anna Bullen.The Crimes & Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shewn;) & nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for ages been established in the Kingdom.”
Sir Walter would probably have added that the King, in his later years, ought to have paid more attention to his physical fitness, so as to cut a more dashing figure while riding through town with his lady love.


fsomer said...

Hi Arnie~~

Anne's ending thoughts gave pause~~
"Her knowledge of her father and Elizabeth inclined her to think that the sacrifice of one pair of horses would be hardly less painful than of both,....."

~~~Might it be perhaps JA's own winking~; variation on a punny- parody ~~with Henry the V111 and His Anne Boleyn riding alongside~~ Life~~within those eternal variations of scenes~~~~ever repeating their rapacious history~~~~~

Until next time~~~~;-)C. Somer

Arnie Perlstein said...

Very nice riffing, C. (or F?) Somer.

It was indeed JA's parodic way to paint a subliminal picture of another scene entirely than the one superficially depicted.

Very nice, and very sly, but that is not the clue that nails it down, so to speak. There's another one in that passage that is more definitive.



fsomer said...


Perhaps another thought significator of Anne's~~~

"Every emendation of Anne's had been on the side of honesty against importance. She wanted more vigorous measures, A MORE COMPLETE REFORMATION, a quicker release from debt, a much higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and equity."

~And~~if this be not it then ~~ 'stumped' must be one's stand~~~~;-)

c.somer~yes~it is c.~~~;-)

Arnie Perlstein said...

C (do you have a name?),

I will reveal the other hidden clue by the end of Monday, be patient! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

fsomer said...


Looking forward to more punny-puzzling--prosey parodox~~~


christy (f.somer)

Arnie Perlstein said...

I would also enjoy hearing your reactions to some of my blog posts from the past year.