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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jane Austen the sharp poker

My earlier comments about Jane Austen as a sharp poker drew a rebuttal from Nancy Mayer in Janeites, which i reproduce below in quotes, with my counter-rebuttals:

[Nancy] "No one in her lifetime called Jane Austen a person who pokes at others. A neighbor did say she looked as though she had a poker ( a fireplace utensile) down her back. She did have exemplary posture."

Nancy, you have forgotten the actual (and very famous) quote, written by the (famous-in-her-own-right for, e.g., writing Rienzi, a hit play later adapted into a Wagnerian opera) Mary Russell Mitford, not long after the publication of P&P:

"Mamma says that [JA] was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers; and a friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of " single blessedness " that ever existed, and that, till' Pride and Prejudice ' showed what a precious gem was hidden in that unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quietness. The case is very different now;
SHE IS STILL A POKER—BUT A POKER OF WHOM EVERY ONE IS AFRAID. It must be confessed that this silent observation from such an observer is rather formidable. Most writers are good-humoured chatterers—neither very wise nor very witty:—but nine times out of ten (at least in the few that I have known) unaffected and pleasant, and quite removing by their conversation any awe that may have been excited by their works. But A WIT, A DELINEATOR OF CHARACTER, WHO DOES NOT TALK, IS TERRIFIC INDEED!"

That description simmers with passive aggressive digs like the "single blessedness" [a smarmy expression for an unmarried adult woman]--which Mitford even put in quotes so as to sarcastically suggest that JA was NOT worthy of blessings---but even so, there is a strong ring of truth in Mitford's brilliantly written description nonetheless--a sort of grudging respect from a rival female writer.

But if you read that paragraph and take from it that Mitford just happened to mention that a friend referred to JA as a "poker" (which carries not only the ominous aura of a pointed tool which gets used regularly as a murder weapon in country house detective stories, but, even mundanely, suggests what I think JA did all the time in her writing --stirring up a fire and raising sparks) by accident, then I have a bridge to sell you very cheap....I.e., I think it's obvious from that quote that the actual
topic is NOT JA's posture! Mitford was herself a kind of wunderkind and professional writer, adept at the deployment of metaphors. And I also don't have to tell you that "terrific" in those days did not mean "great!", it meant "terriFYING"! I doubt that anyone found JA's sitting very erect a terrifying experience!

The clear meaning of Mitford's characterization is that it takes one to know one, and Mitford KNEW that JA was WATCHING and (like Lizzy Bennet) quietly mentally delineating the characters of the people she was observing--after all, Mitford had herself, like the other literati of England, just read P&P and had taken note of Darcy's dry riposte to Lizzy during their memorable repartee while dancing with each other:

"...I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either."

And so I bet a LOT of people in JA's neck of Hampshire probably felt very much as Darcy did--her piercing gaze must have penetrated to the corners of any room she was in, and that obviously made a lot of people very nervous indeed.

[Nancy] "Your idea of her as going around poking -- literally or figuratively-- at people who came to dinner or whom she met in public is greatly at variance with her over all portrait. She need not be a saint nor a Victorian aunt to be polite to people. her sharp comments were usually written or spoken to Cassandra. I think you distort Austen in one way while those who want her to be a sweet tea drinking country mouse distort her in another."

What I meant to suggest about JA's behavior at dinner parties was that if she were speaking, she would always speak politely--Mary Crawford almost always speaks very politely indeed--but it was the implications of what she said, the gray area, that might tend to unnerve some people. I imagine her dropping little Mr. Benneticisms, leading fools on for the entertainment of a trusted friend seated nearby, or even just for her own amusement and collection of foolery for dialog in her novels in

And, speaking of JA's modus operandi at dinner parties and the writing of her novels, listen to what JA wrote at age 30 about one of the women in attendance at one of her brother Edward's dinners at Godmersham in 1805:

"Fortune was also very civil to me in placing Mr. E. Hatton by me at dinner. I have discovered that Lady Elizabeth for a woman of her age and situation , has astonishingly little to say for herself, and that Miss Hatton has not much more.”

What I derive from that is both that JA is saying, in so many words, that Lady Elizabeth and her daughter were not very intelligent, or, at least, were not women of information, as JA might have put it. But I also infer that JA had asked these ladies questions which tended toward finding out something about their lives, and she had hit a stone wall in response. Now, why that is significant in that particular instance is that 7 years later, JA wrote a novel in which, in part, JA delineated the character of Lady Elizabeth's uncle----who was none other than Lord

So I believe these folks had reason to be afraid, because (despite ALL the protesting WAY too much by Henry Austen and by James Edward Austen Leigh) JA DID write about real people in her novels, all the time--and people knew it!!!

Cheers, ARNIE

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