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

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What Mrs. Barbauld wrote and Jane Austen Knew

Finding that quotation by Wollstonecraft of those few lines from Barbauld's song prompted me to take a fresh look at the material I have collected to date regarding JA's interest in Barbauld, and it was well worth the fresh look, because now I see it in a dramatic new light, as you will see, below.

First I noted that Kim Damstra, in his prescient 1999 article about Charlotte Lucas as a covert mover behind the scenes in P&P (which I have cited with high praise in the past) also, in that same article, quoted Isobel Armstrong in regard to Barbauld:

"Isobel Armstrong outlines the link between P&P and Anna Laetitia Barbauld's contemporary philosophical essay, 'On Prejudice':*//* “[Austen’s] discussion throws light on one aspect of prejudice: it arises when you either cannot see or do not know something, and no two people can ever know or see the same thing”.

So that already suggests that JA was attentive to Barbauld's ideas prior to the publication of P&P in 1813, and therefore prior to writing Emma.

But the other item I had collected some time ago, but now see in a dramatic new light, is the following piece written by Barbauld:

Remarks on Riddles by Mrs. Barbauld

Finding out riddles is the same kind of exercise of the mind which running, and leaping, and wrestling, in sport, are to the body. They are of no use in themselves, they are not work, but play; but they prepare the body, and make it alert and active for any thing it may be called to perform in labour or war. So does the finding out of riddles, if they are good especially, give quickness of thought, and a facility of turning about a problem every way, and receiving it in any possible light.When Archimedes, coming out of the bath, cried in transport, " Eureka!" (I have found it,) he had been exercising his mind precisely in the same manner as you will do when you are searching about for the solution of a riddle. Riddles are of high antiquity, and were the employment of grave men, formerly. The first riddle that we have on record was proposed by Sampson, at a wedding feast to the young men of the Philistines, who were invited on the occasion. The feast lasted seven days; and if they found it out in seven days, Sampson was to give them thirty suits of clothes and thirty sheets; and if they could not guess it, they wore to forfeit the same to him. The riddle was, "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." He had killed a lion, and left its carcass: on returning soon after, he found a swarm of bees had made use of the skeleton as a hive, and it was full of honeycomb,- Struck with the oddness of the circumstance, he made a riddle of it. They puzzled about it the whole seven days, and would not have found it out at last, if his wife had not told them. The Sphinx was a great riddle maker. According to the fable, she was half a woman and half a lion. She lived near Thebes, and to every body that came she proposed a riddle; and if they did not find it out, she devoured them. At length Oedipus came, and she asked him," What is the animal which walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?" Oedipus answered Man:—in childhood, which is the morning of life, he crawls on his hands and feet; in middle age, which is noon, he walks erect on two; in old age he leans upon a crutch, which serves as a supplementary third foot. The famous wise men of Greece did not disdain to send puzzles to each other. They are also fond of puzzles in the East. There is a pretty one in one of their tales.—" What is that tree which has twelve branches, and each branch thirty leaves, which are all black on one side and white on the other?" The tree is the year; the branches the months; the leaves black on one side and white on the other, signify day and night. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors also had riddles, some of which are also preserved in a very ancient manuscript. A riddle is a description of a thing without a name; but as it is meant to puzzle, it appears to belong to something else than what it really does, and often seems contradictory; but when you have guessed it, it appears quite clear. It is a bad riddle if you are at all in doubt when you have found it out, whether you are /right /or not. A riddle is not verbal, as charades, conundrums, and rebusses are: it may be translated into any languages which the others cannot. Addison would put them all in the class of false wit; but Swift, who was as great a genius, amused himself with making all sorts of puzzles; and, therefore, I think, you need not be ashamed of reading them. END OF BARBAULD ARTICLE

I think it must be clear from the above that my (and, implicitly, I think, Knox-Shaw's) claim that there is a deliberate echo by JA of the Barbauld song in the second charade of Chapter 9 of Emma is immeasurably bolstered by Barbauld's above article, as it strongly suggests that JA read BOTH Barbauld's article AND Barbauld's song--the former being the "theory", the latter being an application of that theory, i.e., a kind of quasi-riddle in its examination of an apparent paradox--apparent paradoxes being the bread and butter of most riddles!

And by the way, I have repeatedly expressed similar sentiments as Barbauld did, about doing puzzles as a kind of mental yoga. I am 100% sincere when I give my lifelong practice of doing hard crossword puzzles (and, more recently and to a lesser extent, diabolical sudokus) major credit for sharpening my acuity for peering into the shadows of JA"s novels and letters. The ability to spot patterns based on fragmentary information is the essence of the skill it takes to "decode" JA's shadow stories, and, by the way, I also firmly believe that JA believed that such an ability was a vital part of the toolkit that every woman needed to survive in Regency Era England.

So when you read about JA's love of charades, recognize that this was not just play for her, but also very serious business.

Cheers, ARNIE


Adriana Zardini said...

Hi Arnie! I wish I were in USA to hear you talk about Emma!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you, Adriana, maybe one day I will speak in Brazil! ;)