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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

P.S. re Taking Orders--Oh, Chute!

Six weeks ago, I posted a couple of times about the punning use of the phrase "taking orders" in JA's novels, particularly MP. I have just briefly revisited that subject, with the benefit of six weeks perspective, and have the following points to add, which I believe greatly strengthen my earlier claims that JA was very actively engaged, on multiple levels, with the many meanings of the word "orders".

POINT ONE: First, I now see a very interesting comparison between

(i) young men (including, notably, half of the men who end up marrying the novel's heroine) who end up "taking orders" in the sense of going into the clergy (Henry Tilney, Mr. Collins, Edward, and Edmund) , or NOT going into the clergy (Mr. Wickham conspicuously alone in this category of men who consider entering the clergy, but do not--am I forgetting anybody else?).

AND, on the other side of the gender divide,

(ii) young women who REFUSE to "take orders" in regard to a man's proposal ---think of Lizzy refusing Mr. Collins's proposal, Lizzy refusing Darcy's first proposal, Lizzy refusing Lady Catherine's demand that Lizzy REFUSE Darcy's second (as yet hypothetical) proposal, and finally also Fanny refusing Henry Crawford's sorta proposal (does he actually propose? I am too lazy to check)..

It's interesting to think about the parallels and contrasts between these seemingly unrelated life situations, besides the punning connection via the phrase "taking orders", and my sense is that JA subtly gave considerable attention to this comparison.

By the way, does anyone know the origin of the expression "taking orders" in relation to entering the clergy? I'd be very surprised if its origin was a military metaphor, i.e., becoming a clergyman was equivalent to enlisting to take orders in the battle to win souls. If it had to do with enter a given religious "order", the verb "taking" would not seem a good fit, so much as "entering".

POINT TWO: Second, it occurred to me for the first time to check JA's letters to see whether she ever made reference to "taking orders", and what I found was only one, but WHAT a very interesting one it is!:

In Letter 44 dated 4/21-23/05, the final surviving letter written by JA while living in Bath, JA writes the following to CEA:

"You told me some time ago that Tom Chute had had a fall from his horse, but I am waiting to know how it happened before I begin pitying him, as I cannot help suspecting it was in consequence of his taking orders; very likely as he was going to do Duty or returning from it."

Here's what I found out about Tom Chute-he was an old Steventon friend, who is mentioned in passing in several of JA's letters written when she was in her twenties, but then disappearing. He was three years older than JA, he never married (after living to 53, so that is a noteworthy fact), he served in the Cavalry in his late twenties and was ordained at age 32 and held a couple of local livings till his death...three years before which, at age 50, upon the death of his elder brother William-John, he inherited The Vyne--so I strongly suspect he was an avid hunter and an intimate of James Austen all their mutual lives.

Now, when we factor in all that data (provided by Le Faye, by the way), there is something very very playful about what JA wrote, it's yet another one of her abrupt and brief epistolary veerings away from gossip to a bit of absurdist fantasy, before returning to quotidian gossip once more. Why in the world would JA bring up CEA's having told JA "some time ago" about Tom having fallen from his horse? Tom is not otherwise mentioned in this long letter. And why would his taking orders have anything to do with his falling from a horse? When I read the words "I cannot help suspecting...", I am immediately reminded of Mary Crawford mentioning that she does NOT want to be suspected of a pun, precisely so that everyone listening will be on high alert for the pun she just made!

And note that JA in that same sentence also refers to Tom Chute doing Duty, which, as I checked, seems to refer, as you might expect, to performing military service, which, as we know from the above facts, he did do.

So, what does JA mean by all this? The tone is clearly that of mockery and put-on, as otherwise it would suggest that JA was indulging in some rather mean spirited Schadenfreude--why dredge up the memory of an old accident, just to mock it by giving to the accident victim only conditional sympathy? It would be an especially crazy thing for JA to write if she really meant what she was writing, because only 5 months earlier, a fatal fall from a horse left JA without her dearest female mentor, Madam Lefroy. So, to me, this is black humor, making a joke out of pain, something I believe JA did, a lot.

Otherwise, and relevant to the subject of this entire message, I believe it is safe to assert that JA was also playing with the pun of "taking orders", as relating both to the clerical AND the military realms which the young man Tom Chute straddled. And perhaps the punch line is that it is a hint that Tom was not wishing to "take orders" in the commonplace sense of obeying someone else's commands.

Is it possible, e.g., that JA is hinting that Tom's personal situation involves BOTH of the scenarios I addressed above, ie., while Tom seemed most willing to "take orders" as a clergyman and as a cavalryman, he was NOT amenable to "taking orders" from his parents or much older brother, who were financially substantial folk, to take a more illustrious career path, or to find a wealthy wife---orders which he decided NOT to take?

And just as I wrote those last words, I had a wild thought--did I detect the ghostly presence of the real life Tom Chute in the character of Edward Ferrars, a young man who takes clerical orders despite being pressed by his mother to take a high profile career and a wealthy wife, and who refers to Willoughby as a hunter. And, most relevant of all to the above, the passages late in S&S in which Colonel Brandon gives Elinor the dubious "commission" to tell Edward about Brandon's gift to him of the Delaford living has a distinctly military flavor, exactly analogous in blurring the line between military and domestic realms, to that which I described in my previous message regarding Mr. Elton's "commission" from Emma to get Harriet's portrait framed.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. Le Faye has this to say about Tom Chute in a very recent Persuasions article: "...the Reverend Tom Chute might well have been a suitable match for Jane. However, she seems not to have liked the Chute family very much; and in any case Tom later left The Vyne and spent much of his life at another of the Chute estates, in Norfolk, remaining unmarried to his dying day."

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