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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Meaning of Moral Silence in JA's Novels, and Mona Scheuermann a Modern-day Marilyn Butler

Just today I came across, for the first time, a book entitled _Her Bread to Earn_, from 1993, written by an academic literary scholar, Mona Scheuermann. My attention was drawn to the following excerpt from Scheuermann’s book, at p. 233-4:

“I want to preface my discussion of Jane Fairfax with a look at a short passage that generally goes unremarked in our reading of Emma….: ‘[James will] always like going to Randalls, because of his daughter’s being housemaid there…That, was your doing, papa, You got Hannah that good place. Nobody thought of Hannah till you mentioned her -- James is so obliged to you!" "I am very glad I did think of her. It was very lucky, for I would not have had poor James think himself slighted upon any account; and I am sure she will make a very good servant; she is a civil, pretty-spoken girl; I have a great opinion of her. Whenever I see her, she always curtseys and asks me how I do, in a very pretty manner; and when you have had her here to do needlework, I observe she always turns the lock of the door the right way and never bangs it. I am sure she will be an excellent servant; and it will be a great comfort to poor Miss Taylor to have somebody about her that she is used to see. Whenever James goes over to see his daughter you know, she will be hearing of us. He will be able to tell her how we all are." Emma spared no exertions to maintain this happier flow of ideas, and hoped, by the help of backgammon, to get her father tolerably through the evening, and be attacked by no regrets but her own.’

There is no comment or corrective by Austen on this discussion. Mr. Knightley enters, and the focus of the scene shifts entirely away from this interlude. But the discussion of Hannah the servant maid is, I think, useful for us as a measure of our own perspective on the much more important Jane Fairfax characterization. What is significant in this discussion about Hannah is the unquestioned assumption that some people have servants and that some people are servants. Mr. Woodhouse thinks highly of Hannah: she is ‘a civil, pretty-spoken girl’ who politely asks him how he is and who never bangs the door. That she might have feelings or the desire to do more than be had in to do needlework, or that she might even want to live in the same house with her father, does not enter Mr. Woodhouse’s mind—and we understand his lack of empathy, since already we know that above all he is self-centered. But none of this enters Emma’s mind either, and none of it shows up in a comment by the author. Hannah seems just fine to Mr. Woodhouse and to Emma. She also, I am suggesting, seems fine to Austen. Hannah has a social place and fits into it; we don’t worry about her any farther.” END OF SCHEUERMANN EXCERPT

Scheuermann wrote the above comments in 1993, in a chapter about Jane Austen in a book discussing several authors, but in 2009, I see that she published a book exclusively about Jane Austen, and from my quick browsing in it, it seems to me that the kind of analysis and perspective we see in the above quoted excerpt from 1993 is being continued, and amplified, in her 2009 book. That is consistent with the following positive critical comments at the publishing house’s website:
Re Reading Jane Austen, 2009, by Mona Scheuermann:

“Scheuermann does not have a political agenda; Austen is not, for her, a ‘feminist novelist,’ nor is she a ‘failed feminist novelist.’ By setting Austen’s novels in their own remarkable era, Scheuermann discovers a writer who, far from merely working that small piece of ivory, intimately faces the most profound concerns of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England.”—Maximillian Novak, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, UCLA

“Repeatedly hijacked by assorted critics with contradictory agendas, Jane Austen’s writings have long been held hostage to a rag-tag band of ideologies, methodologies, and plain old ambitions. Now, Austen’s novels have been liberated…Scheuermann returns to us a Jane Austen that we all knew (or at least hoped) existed: an Austen with robust conceptions of the good and decent life, a no-nonsense Austen who makes clear judgments about the merit of ideas, people, literature, and the arts. ”—Kevin L. Cope, Professor, Department of English, Louisiana State University

“Scheuermann offers a reading of a conservative Jane Austen that is profound in its simplicity, and sophisticated in its refusal to be taken in by the various jargons of recent criticism…Scheuermann makes a strong argument for acknowledging that Austen’s values are often very different from our own, no matter how violently we twist and torment her texts to make her ‘one of us.’ In doing so, she demonstrates the full clarity of Austen’s ethical vision and the very good reasons why—as a check to our own certainties—it is always timely and instructive to reread her novels.”—Melvyn New, Professor of English, Emeritus, University of Florida

In essence, Scheuermann’s 2009 book, although very curiously she never once mentions Marilyn Butler’s Seventies book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, which was the seminal text espousing a view of Jane Austen as a Tory conservative for a generation of Austen criticism, seems nevertheless to be an extension of Butler’s arguments for the next generation of Austen critics. I had thought such views to have passed by the wayside in academia, but apparently not.

Needless to say to anyone who follows what I write about JA, my opinion is diametrically opposed to Scheuermann’s, as I believe that JA was, overtly, a careful feminist, and, covertly, a radical feminist.

But what I want to discuss now is the way Scheuermann reads the above quoted passage from Chapter 1 of Emma, and in particular, I want to zero in on the following conclusion by Scheuermann:

“Hannah seems just fine to Mr. Woodhouse and to Emma. She also, I am suggesting, seems fine to Austen. Hannah has a social place and fits into it; we don’t worry about her any farther.”

I am amazed that Scheuermann reads that passage from Emma and concludes from it that Emma’s utter lack of concern for Hannah’s inner life implies a similar lack of concern on JA’s part. Scheuermann apparently considers the point obvious, based on the lack of “comment or corrective”(in the narration of that passage in Chapter 1 of Emma) critical toward Emma or Mr. Woodhouse. And so, the logic goes, if JA had looked askance on Emma or Mr. Woodhouse in this regard, the narration would, and should, have stated, or at least strongly implied, that critical or hostile stance. JA would not, like Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot so often did, have remained silent.

And I realized that this is a significant point in the interpretation of JA’s writing, because my first thought as I read Scheuermann’s comments was that this must be only one of a number of passages scattered through JA’s novels, where some sort of reprehensible behavior is depicted, but neither any character nor the narrator actually reproaches the behavior, or the characters so behaving.

And yet, upon further reflection, it is hard to produce one from memory. One which occurred to me, is to ask whether, in Persuasion, JA’s narrator, or any character, ever explicitly reproaches the narcissistic, selfish behavior of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot toward Anne? But then, in that case there is no need for such an explicit reproach, because we as readers are so identified with Anne, that we feel their cruelty toward her without the need for any explicit reproach. That is obviously different than with Hannah Heretofore the Housemaid of Hartfield, where we are not invited to identify with her at all.

I also at first thought of the famous passage in Chapter 2 of S&S, in which Fanny Dashwood leads John Dashwood into temptation to be horridly selfish and insensitive, would fit the bill perfectly, because I recalled (correctly as I verified) that there is nothing in that chapter which expresses even a hint of a reproach by the narrator. However, I also checked, and verified, that near the end of Chapter 1, i.e., immediately preceding that scene, we ARE told by the narrator that Fanny and John are pretty selfish sorts. So for some reason (and I regret to say I think it an authorial misjudgment, because it was so superfluous, given Fanny’s horrid behavior throughout the novel) JA felt the need to spell out a moral judgment in no uncertain terms.

But my gut tells me that there are many such passages nonetheless, hiding in plain sight. Anyone care to help in detecting any other examples? Until then, I will remain up in the air as to my intuitive conviction that JA often resisted the urge to spoonfeed morality to her readers, and that she expected that when she depicted man’s (or woman’s) inhumanity to man (or woman), it was the job of the reader, not the author, to parse out the morality. I think she wanted the reader to deduce what JA’s attitude was toward the bad behavior she depicted, without her having to spell it out, but I will reserve final judgment pending review of all the relevant evidence.

I also just realized that what complicates the above determination is that it’s also my CERTAIN sense that when JA DID allow the narration to express moral judgments on the actions of characters, she often wrote those passage to be read in two ways, i.e, either straight or ironically---as judgment, or as parody of judgment. I can produce a ton of examples of that variety.

The closest model I see in the novels to the elusive persona I think that JA so often adopted in her narration is Frank Churchill toying with Emma during their guessing game about the identity of the donor of the piano. I see JA as, similarly to Frank, yessing the reader to death, leading the reader to make assumptions, and then seeming to ratify those assumptions—but are these ratifications sincere?.
But back to the specific example of Hannah….I quickly checked to see if any scholars or amateur Janeites other than Scheuermann had ever weighed in on the subject of JA’s attitude toward Emma vis a vis Hannah, but I found nothing.

In terms of discussions of servants in Austen’s novels in general, I did find one long article in the 1988 Persuasions, entitled “Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England” by Judith Terry. But despite its promising title, this article never mentioned Hannah (even though she is that rare servant in an Austen novel who is actually described in a personal way), and Terry makes the following Scheuermann-like comment: “Throughout the novels, [JA] is consistently of the opinion that too much intimacy with servants is a bad thing.”

Similarly, in a 2001 dissertation, “Literary servants' vanishing act in the eighteenth century”, Tracy Michelle Volz writes: “Austen adopts Richardson's new domestic paradigm, but she moves even further in the direction of servant as paid commodity rather than as protected member of the household. In Mansfield Park, for example, she revisits Pamela in order to show the dangers of blurring class boundaries.” And that same premise is essentially also echoed in Julie Nash’s 2007 book _Servants and Paternalism in the Works of Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell.

On my side of the argument, all I could find is that Julie Wakefield at her austenonly blog, wrote last year:

“Because of Jane Austen’s fleeting references to servants in her works, I have heard people refer to her so-called method of hiding them, as Her Invisible Servants, implying that, as she was mostly silent on their roles and physical presence, they meant nothing to her and she was indifferent to them. This is not correct. From the evidence of her letters she was clearly involved in the detail of her own servants’ lives and of those employed by the various branches of her family. The letter written from Lyme of the 14th september 1804 talks affectionately of James and Jenny , their servants. Jane Austen had a very close and long friendship with Anne Sharpe, the governess to Edward Knight’s children.”
But I go even further than Wakefield. In my opinion, Hannah in Emma is one of the many secondary characters in JA’s novels whose lives JA was focused on, but covertly, in the shadow story. I could not agree more with Anielka, who wrote the following a few months back about the novella by Anna (sounds a lot like Hannah, and who also had a father named James) Austen Lefroy, entitled Mary Hamilton, which has a very voluble house servant named Hannah:

“Emma's secrets are hidden in Miss Bate's speech and here Hannah performs the same function.”

I am of the opinion that Anna Austen Lefroy understood the significance of Hannah Heretofore the Housemaid of Hartfield, and covertly celebrated her untold story in her own novella. Austen’s servants were not merely nobodies to her, they had a rich secret life which she recognized as an echo of her own secret life as a genteel impoverished lady.

And I have one OTHER important reason to believe that Hannah was a significant character for JA, which I will be revealing publicly at my talk to JASNA-NYC in two weeks. It’s really quite amazing, and blew me away when I discovered it six months ago, and it does constitute some very specific evidence in support of my claims.

Cheers, ARNIE

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