The following is my response to comments by my friends Diana and Diane in Janeites and Austen L:
Me: "But why exactly would his and Emma never having seen Mrs. Elton before have made it less likely (or MORE likely, for that matter) that Mrs. Elton would turn out, upon first viewing, to be a "very pretty sort of young lady"
Diana: “Because it's a JOKE, Arnie. Mr. Woodhouse isn't joking of course, but Jane Austen is showing his silly thinking, which is even sillier because he takes his time with it, is so "deliberate." He always thinks things over for a long time, and *still* comes out with absurdities that are tied in with his fear of life. Naturally, never having seen a young lady before has nothing whatsoever to do with how she turns out to look; except, of course, for the fact that Mr. Woodhouse does not like things or people he has not known for a long time, and he has a positive horror of anything new. Mrs. Elton is new - so he's surprised that she could seem pretty. Simple explanation, no need to bark up so many trees!"
Me: It is indeed a joke, Diana, but I suggest to you that it's a double joke, and the second joke is there to be enjoyed by those who don't agree that it's as simple as you claim it to be. I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most enjoyable (and fruitful) trees I've barked up in recent weeks! Or, put another way, ruff, ruff! ;)
And it’s a tree I stumbled upon by my usual serendipity born of obsession. I found Mr. Woodhouse’s little bon mot because it was (fittingly) used (although slightly misquoted) as one of the epigraphs for a wonderful article from almost thirty years ago which I believe was the FIRST scholarly argument claiming that JA was a philosopher in muddy petticoats, i.e., that all of JA’s novels reflect JA’s obsessive interest in epistemology, i.e., how we know what we know, the subjectivity of human cognition and perception.
So I claim that ONE valid response to Mr. Woodhouse’s absurdities is to treat him as a metaphorical gymnast of a very quirky kind, a cockeyed genius poet, if you will. There’s a reason why Joe Orton, the great dark absurdist English playwright of the Sixties, loved JA.
Actually, Emma is (at least) a TRIPLE joke, because barking up the same sort of trees in the past has led me to understand that Miss Bates, Harriet Smith, and Mr. Woodhouse are a TRIO of "fools" (and there are more in the novel as well, and they're all entwined with each other in the claustrophobic little world of Highbury, so perhaps it's a "CHAIN of fools") who are all, when viewed through special spectacles, much wiser and wittier in the ways of the world than Emma. Emma is, in that sense, theater of the absurd a century before it was officially invented!
As to these fools, their substance appears to be one way in the bright light Emma shines on them, but they look very different in the shadows Emma never learns to see into. It's all a matter of point of view.
Diane’s sharp intuition led her, as it led me last year, to take special note of the mock epic quality of “He had caught both substance and shadow”, and indeed, as Elissa pointed out, the ghost of Shakespeare is lurking beneath the floorboards. Shakespeare plays with the juxtaposition of substance and shadow a dozen times in his plays and sonnets, but the one I think JA had most saliently in mind as she wrote the above words was the following very famous speech from Act 2, Scene 2, of Richard II, spoken by Bushy:
“Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows, Which shows like grief itself, but is not so; For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears, Divides one thing entire to many objects; Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty, Looking awry upon your lord's departure, Find shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail; Which, look'd on as it is, is nought but shadows Of what it is not. Then, thrice-gracious queen, More than your lord's departure weep not: more's not seen; Or if it be, 'tis with false sorrow's eye, Which for things true weeps things imaginary.”
As has often been pointed out in the realm of Shakespearean criticism, most elaborately by Gilman in 1978, Bushy is referring to the “curious perspective” of paintings like the very famous one by Holbein, i.e., to anamorphic art, where the viewer sees a different image when he shifts his point of view, and Bushy is saying, basically, that how we see the events of our own lives depends on our own point of view, and what appears to be tragedy from one angle may not be tragic at all, from another perspective. The centerpiece of my approach to JA's fiction is that all of it is amamorphic, i.e., two parallel fictional universes in each novel.
And I would go so far as to argue that Emma (the novel) is, for all of the above reasons, and many more, arguably the most spectacular joke in the history of Western literature.
And so I take the perspective that JA took special pleasure, when Emma was a done deal, finished and published, in writing her April Fool's letter to James Stanier Clarke filled with modest self-deprecations which were precisely the opposite of her true opinion as to the magnum opus she knew she had achieved in Emma.
Diane: “I am working on a paper on this (at this point for my own amusement) and this village choir is everywhere--and it radically undermines the reliability of the novels. People have written before about this sliding narration in JA but I haven't found anyone who takes it out to the limit of how very, very unreliable it really is, because you have to come from the POV of a JA who is playing with her audience with a deep, deep sense of amusement.”
It was by taking JA’s narration out to the limits of unreliability that I first discovered fragments of the shadow stories of JA’s novels 8 years ago in Willoughby and Lucy, and it is evident from all your postings, Diane, that you also have a profound understanding of that same core principle, and you also crystallize your thoughts about this subject with particular elegance and clarity.
From the Archives: Harriette Wilson on Virtue
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