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

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sir Thomas Bertram as Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen’s Whales of Print

I’ve spent a great deal of time during the past week doing some very enjoyable, exciting and important research about the role of Samuel Johnson in the shadow stories of Jane Austen’s novels. I had for several years been well aware that Johnson was an important allusive source for Jane Austen, as the butt of her covert, subtle but devastating satire. However, I had not appreciated the depth and breadth of her allusions to him, both his writings and his life, in her shadow stories. I now have done the work, and see him so much more clearly and distinctly than I did even a week ago. I really do thank Elissa for raising the subject of Samuel Johnson, and also those who opposed my point of view, for prompting me to delve deeper.

It turns out that Johnson is arguably one of the two or three most important sources for JA, because, I believe, he was the epitome of a certain sort of powerful man in England—very intelligent, with a great deal of influence over other people, and with a cocksureness that he was a friend of women. And yet, viewed from a savvy feminist perspective, which is exactly how I believe Jane Austen viewed men like Samuel Johnson, he was, in a way, even more harmful to the cause of women seeking some redress for the wrongs done to them by the patriarchal society of Austen’s England, than the rakes and lower level predators who made women miserable. Why? Because those “piranhas”—the smooth talking charming WIlloughbys, Wickhams, Henry Crawfords, Captain Tilneys, etc. were not that difficult to spot, if a woman could control her attraction to such dangerous men.

However, the men who were unconscious hypocrites, who thought of themselves as having women’s welfare at heart—men like Sir Thomas Bertram—were much more dangerous, because they were not conscious deceivers, trying to get women into bed without marrying them. They thought they were taking care of women in the oppressive unfair way they confined their wives and daughters to gilded cages, and made laws, and promulgated theological doctrines and cultural mores, in support of that oppression.

I have during the past week reviewed a great deal of material relating to Samuel Johnson vis a vis JA’s writings, and it has been a revelation for me, as I have seen, over and over again, that he is everywhere in her novels. I had not realized previously just how pervasive the allusions are.

And, most important, it’s not surprising, or accidental, that my comments about Johnson sparked such a strong protest from some, because I claim that JA’s skewering of Johnson was entirely in the shadow stories of her novels—and Sir Thomas, as a representation of men like Samuel Johnson, is a perfect example. In the overt story, Sir Thomas is not such a bad guy, he is very well educated, concerned about behaving like a gentleman, a man of power and influence, who makes honest mistakes which he eventually correct.

I.e., to accept my opinion as to how JA saw and depicted Samuel Johnson would inevitably carry with it the acceptance of my shadow story interpretations in general. They are inseparable, and also mutually supportive.

So the shadow Sir Thomas, as an emblem of men like Samuel Johnson, is another sort of “monarch of the seas” entirely—they are not only “Princes of Whales”, they are also “Whales of Print”, in the sense of being the kind of “leviathans” depicted in _print_ on the pages of JA’s novels, powerful men who oppress women and less powerful men.

And, on top of all that, Johnson is _also_ present in JA’s subtext as part of a wider societal debate about subjects such as the relationship between history and fiction which is discussed explicitly in Northanger Abbey, and in aesthetic judgments of prior authors such as Shakespeare.

As to Shakespeare, I believe, as I noted earlier, that JA was in _violent_ disagreement with Johnson. I think that JA valued _most_ the very aspects of Shakespeare which aroused such unconscious jealousy and rage in Johnson—the pervasive punning, the flights of imagination, the freedom to escape from the rigid cage that Johnson would have imposed on creative writings in his certainty that _he_ knew how to convey moral lessons in fiction. Johnson hated Shakespeare because Shakespeare was a bird soaring in flight, while he, stuck to the earth by leaden boots, tried his whole life to repress his own “dangerous” imagination, and to restrain it in others. He did the same thing vis a vis Fielding’s Tom Jones, for exactly the same reason.

I was tempted to post a series of blog entries elaborating all of this as it relates to Samuel Johnson, but I really do think it is an argument I only want to make in my book, where I can get it just right, and not confuse things with a scattershot presentation.

I just wanted to let those following along here to know where I stand.

Cheers, ARNIE

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