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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The latest -- on the Sutherland Fracas -- and the Strawberry Dashes Scene -- in Emma

I just learned that Rachel Brownstein, last week, commented in Geoff Nunberg's blog... response to Professor Sutherland's Nov. 29 clarifications of her original statements regarding the editing of Jane Austen's manuscripts:

I just posted the following comments in that thread at Mr. Nunberg's blog:

I am glad that Professor Sutherland has finally issued a public statement which implicitly retracts the strong implication that she put out there, and left out there for over a month, that Gifford edited many of Jane Austen's novels, and which "clarifies" that she meant to talk only about Persuasion, when she mentioned manuscripts in existence which reveal significant changes that Gifford may have made in Austen's writing style.

However, it is unfortunate that, to the best of my knowledge, her clarification has not (yet?) made it onto NPR, where it might actually be heard and registered by many of the people in the U.S. who _did_ hear, or hear about, her original comments.

I also note that Professor Sutherland still has not owned that it was entirely _her own_ doing, and not the fault of the brevity or the editing of the NPR interview, that her on-air comments, coming on the heels of her being quoted in several newspapers in similar fashion, created so many false and misleading impressions.

Nor has she, even now, to the best of my knowledge, retracted any of the sarcastic verbiage ("polishing her halo", "absolute nonsense") she tossed in the direction of all the other Austen scholars and devotees who have sounded off negatively on her claims, which was all based on the fair implication of the actual words which Professor Sutherland actually spoke during that not-brief NPR interview.

I cannot think of any issue regarding Jane Austen that has created so many interpretive "strange bedfellows" among Janeites who cannot agree on _anything else_ about her novels–we are _all_, orthodox and radical interpreters alike, united in our dismay at what Professor Sutherland suggested.

Instead, it is noteworthy that in her _very_ late response, she rushes through a perfunctory clarification of what she claims to have really meant, and then spends the entire rest of her reply trying to bolster her argument that, essentially, the removal of dashes and substitution of normal punctuation, in some _important_ way alters the literary style.

The example from Persuasion which she chose, which one would presume would be her "best shot", is, to me, utterly unconvincing.

And, as I also commented in the second of my blog posts on this fracas about this a month ago…

…what I don't believe has been mentioned by others responding to Professor Sutherland is the most powerful argument of all against her claims. I.e., that, ironically, _Emma_, the novel that Professor Sutherland had strongly suggested had been significantly altered by Gifford, is the one among Austen's novels which plays fastest and loosest with ordinary punctuation!—in its depictions of Emma's frequent streams of consciousness, and of Miss Bates's numerous Joycean streams of speaking, all of which are peppered with dashes.

But, most of all, look at the famous Chapter 42 "Donwell Abbey strawberries" dialog that consists of _twenty four_ (count 'em, 24!) dashes:

"The best fruit in England — every body's favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one's self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade."

As I have suggested in online comments in the past, most readers of _Emma_ mistakenly assume that this dialog must have been spoken entirely by Mrs. Elton, because it is introduced by the following narration:

"….and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of."

But I have suggested, as part of my own explication of what I call the "shadow story" of _Emma_, that Jane Austen—who really _was_ an extraordinary innovator in writing style in a hundred ways, slyly deploying writing techniques that Joyce would be lauded for boastingly doing a century later—deliberately wrote that narrative snippet so as to be readable in _two_ ways, not merely onel and that the alternative but plausible reading would be that there were _several different_ speakers of those dialog snippets separated by dashes.

So what an irony that Professor Sutherland has the most important point precisely backwards, because one of the most startling innovations in _Emma_'s writing style turns out to be the _retention_ of Jane Austen's "ungrammatical" dashes! And perhaps Gifford's greatest gift to the world, if he did indeed edit _Emma_ was in his _not_ messing with the many such passages in the novel which have made it the immortal masterpiece that it is!

Cheers, ARNIE

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