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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jane Austen was a sharp poker with a prodigious memory and a clever poking strategy

Prompted by Marilyn Marshall's very interesting post speculating about how Austen used her prodigious powers of memory in composing her writing, I have joined in the discussion.

First I rebutted Ellen Moody's suggestion that JA paraphrased most of the time from memory and not quite accurately as follows:

I haven't taken a count, but I have found at least a hundred exact duplications of phrases, and hundreds more paraphrases. You have to understand why they are there in the first place. They are not quotations because JA was doing this COVERTLY. She was not heavy handed like Radcliffe, with chapter epigraphs overtly flagging the allusive presence of Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays in her novels. JA did this, but she did it COVERTLY. These are "veiled epigraphs" (I prefer to channel Hansel and Gretel and call them "bread crumbs") for readers who have read the sources and recognize the allusions.

The question to then ask is, WHY did JA put the words of a Shakespearean character, or of a world famous philosopher or historian or scientist, in the mouth of one of her characters, or in the mouth of her narrator? Spotting the allusions is only the beginning of the reading process with her.

Now, the rare instances in JA's novels where there is a quotation, in quotes, it's usually by characters like Mrs. Elton, and the misquotation is completety deliberate, and thematic. And the same question arises, WHY that quotation (mis)spoken by that character?

At other times, when JA was lampooning a public figure, she had to "smudge" the allusion so that she could deniably say "Who me?" if asked, and yet, those who understood her agenda would get it.

I spoke at Oxford in 2007 about how JA deliberately changed individual two WORDS in the "woman" charade in Chapter 9 of Emma for thematic purposes. She did the same thing, EXACTLY, with her private handwritten copy of Byron's Napoleon poem that was found in her papers, where she changed two words- RHYMING words. These are not accidents, or misrememberings, they are intentional. JA was self-assured enough to alter Shakespeare, Byron, the Bible, ANY SOURCE, for her own purposes.

It's all of a piece. She was an EXTREMELY meticulous craftsman in whatever she did, artistic or everyday.


Then I rebutted the suggestion by Nancy Mayer that the Austen family was a family of writers so it seemed odd that anyone would complain or ridicule her, as follows:

It wasn't THAT she wrote, it's WHAT she wrote, that rubbed some in her family and friends circle the wrong way. She was known to be a "sharp poker" (in Mitford's words), and that could cause embarrassment for the family. Just think of any Sir Thomases in her family monitoring her behavior at a dinner party, waiting for her to mosey up to the line of speaking truth to male power, and tweak their noses, subtly. It's no accident that she invented the characters of Lady Susan and Mary Crawford, among others.

" her father sent her book Susan off to a publisher and sold it for £10."

Where it languished in publishing purgatory the rest of her life. And note, Northanger Abbey has several overt eruptions of passionate defense of female passions, like novel reading. One wonders if the book was sent to Crosby by Reverend Austen with a quiet understanding between gentlemen that it would NEVER be published, as a way of shutting her up. I think Sir Thomas 's quietly fascistic burning of all the copies of Lovers Vows upon his return from the slave plantation was symbolic of that event.

Note also that JA did not get M.A.D. and reclaim the Northanger Abbey manuscript until 1809, when her father was long dead, AND the Austen women FINALLY had Chawton cottage as a sanctuary. That says it all.

Sharp pokers had to be blunted somehow, after all, before they poked too hard. So she invented her own way to poke--often very hard--but ALWAYS with deniability.

Cheers, ARNIE

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