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

Friday, January 14, 2011

Fetching Jewels From The Deep: Acrostics in Austen, Nabokov….and in Mythology and The Ghost Writer, too!

This post is an instance of the extraordinary convergence of four seemingly unrelated streams of investigation by me relating to Jane Austen’s wordplay and shadow stories. It is 2,941 words in length, so it is not for the faint of heart, but it takes this long to “land the plane”, and I hope you will indulge me this one time in a super-long post.

I will unpack my argument piece by piece, and if you are interested in my literary sleuthing (and if not, why in the world would you be reading this in the first place!) and are patient, and carry on through it all, I believe you will be very happy with the payoff by the end of the process. As there is a lot to digest, you might even want to reread this post a second time, as I believe that will give you the best chance to get a taste of the wonder and delight I experience on a daily basis as I do my research, and “fetch thee jewels from the deep”, so to speak. ;)


I begin by repeating something I have mentioned dozens of times in this blog, i.e., the wordplay in the second charade that appears in Chapter 9 of Emma. As I always do when mentioning same, to orient the reader as what I am talking about, I do not reinvent the wheel, but instead direct you to the following link, for the 2007 article written by my brilliant friend Colleen Sheehan, in which she disclosed to the world her momentous discovery of a second secret answer to that charade:

(there is another link near the end of the above article that leads to a second article by Sheehan in which she discloses the second secret answer to Austen’s charade)

I was subsequently able to extend Sheehan’s brilliant discovery, by focusing on the significance of one of the striking aspects of Austen’s wordplay in that charade, which was that, as Sheehan pointed out, it is a double anagrammed acrostic, i.e,. the letters L, A, M , B appear in different jumbled orders at the beginning of the four lines of each of the charade’s two stanzas. Sheehan take as the significance of that acrostic, when unjumbled, as pointing to Charles Lamb aka “Elia”, whose contemporary writings pointed directly to the second secret answer of that charade, the “Prince of WHALES”.

In the talks I have been in the process of giving about the shadow story of Emma during 2010-2011 to a half dozen JASNA chapters, I point out that while Sheehan is 100% correct in that analysis, there is a second and equally huge significance of that double acrostic, which is that it points to the shadow story of the novel, focused on the characters of Frank Churchill and Mrs. Elton; i.e., that there is a shocking connection between the acrostic which Mrs. Elton refers to, and that same second charade itself, which the narration does not explicitly reveal.

And I will in my book also point out how Austen is in part looking backward to Milton, and some other great writers who wove thematic acrostics into some of their most famous poetry and prose.

But perhaps the most significant example that I assert was on Austen’s radar screen is the so called “Titania acrostic” from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was discovered about 60 years ago by a British cryptic crosswords maven, in a very famous speech by the Queen of the Fairies:

Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,

I..e, the first letters (except in the fifth line, where it is the first two letters) spell “O Titania”!

Note that, as I suggested earlier, the image of fetching jewels from the deep is itself a wonderful metaphor for the act of diving into the depths of the poetry of these very lines and retrieving the jewels, i.e., the hidden acrostic. This is no coincidence, it was Shakespeare’s winking confirmation to the reader, the “x” that “marks the spot”, so to speak, to search for the acrostic right there in that very speech.

And you are probably not aware that, based on entirely independent means of analysis, the Austen subtextual pioneer who I have praised many times in the past as well, Jocelyn Harris, in 1986 brilliantly demonstrated that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a major subtextual allusive source for the romantic snafus of Emma itself.

Just a coincidence with the Titania acrostic? I think not! Clearly, Jane Austen was demonstrating in a host of ways that she knew all about it, 130 years before the discovery was announced publicly.

So I suggest that at the very least the above suffices to establish that hidden acrostics were a big deal for Jane Austen qua fiction writer. I have argued repeatedly that all of her wordgames in Emma are very consciously placed there by JA not only to give clues to secret answers about the real world, or about the progression of the shadow story of the novel, but most of all as a symbol for the novel itself—i.e., she is implicitly likening Emma to a charade, to an acrostic, and telling the reader, yes, there are hidden meanings here for you to search out.

But the very cleverness of these word puzzles also raises a big question, which I have been asked hundreds of times by skeptics—why would Jane Austen go to the trouble of constructing an elaborate word puzzle like this, if it was going to be so hard to detect that it would take 190 years for someone like Colleen Sheehan to discover it?

My full answer is very complicated and beyond the scope of this blog post, but I will give one part of it, which is that I think Jane Austen, genius that she was, simply overestimated her readers’s ability to decode it. I think she wrote that puzzle for the benefit of the kinds of proactive, literarily suspicious, playful readers who would pick up on, and then work hard to decode, the hundreds of clues in Emma to its shadow story (which I am the first to discover and describe).

It turned out that if anyone figured out the answers in her day, they did not publish their discovery. And then she suddenly died, and once time had passed, it required the Internet, and the contemporary explosion in interest in Jane Austen, for conditions to be ripe again for discovery.

And part of why I am so sure of this is that history repeated itself 134 years later, when Vladimir Nabokov walked in Jane Austen’s literary footsteps—as I will describe in the next section.


As a direct result of my post about Nabokov and Austen a few weeks ago (which I provide another link for, below) being flagged in the Nabokov listserv, I was fortunate to be alerted by Prof. Stephen Blackwell that I should take a close look at the short story by Nabokov entitled “The Vane Sisters” which was published about 60 years ago in a literary magazine. I hereby give my sincere thanks to Prof. Blackwell’s for that tip, because the story is everything he suggested it was, and more, as I shall explain below.

The most famous feature of that story is known today to many serious Nabokovians, i.e., that Nabokov embedded a hidden acrostic in the following final lines of the story:

“I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies-every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.”

Can you see the acrostic yourself? I will present it a few lines below, but I heartily encourage you to resist the urge to scroll down, and give it a shot at solving it yourself first.





Here it is:

“Icicles by Cynthia, meter from me, Sybil.”

That solution does not appear anywhere in the story, but it turns out that once you know it, and you reread the story, you can see that Nabokov has been obliquely hinting at this acrostic during the entire story, seeding it with at least a half dozen inobtrusive, winking “bread crumbs” , the final one being the sly reference to “inept acrostics” in the very paragraph that contains that acrostic (just like Titania’s “jewels” line pointing to the acrostic buried in that same speech), which collectively would lead the suspicious reader to search for and find an acrostic somewhere in the story—and what better place for it than the last paragraph of the story itself!

And what I have just described, above, in regard to Nabokov’s hidden acrostic, is precisely the experience of the reader who, as I have done the past 6 years, seeks to excavate and understand the shadow stories of Austen’s novels. Until you have the epiphany that there is something there to be excavated, the textual clues are not consciously registered as such, but I claim that they are, for many readers, subconsciously tickled and registered subliminally.
I have coined the term “Trojan Horse Moment” to describe this infiltration of an idea into the mind of the reader, where at some mysterious moment it may suddenly bubble to the surface and be recognized consciously.

And that also leads us back to the question about what Austen was thinking when she buried her acrostic in that charade in Emma—did she expect anyone to see it? Because exactly the same question comes up with Nabokov—did he expect anyone to see it?

Fortunately, with Nabokov, we are fortunate to have correspondence (also famous to knowledgeable Nabokovians) from him to Katharine A. White, the editor of The New Yorker, the magazine he had submitted the story to in early 1951, but which refused to publish the story. This correspondence tells us that Nabokov most definitely did expect readers to see it!
Listen to the relevant portions of Nabokov’s reply to that rejection, which fairly drips with wounded and angry pride (my comments are in brackets):

“I am sorry the New Yorker rejected my story. It has already been sent elsewhere, so that I feel free to discuss certain points without being suspected of trying to persuade the New Yorker to reconsider their decision

[So basically, Nabokov is informing White of what she missed, purely for the satisfaction of telling her off, without giving her a second chance to change her mind—and it did wind up being published in The Hudson Review, which is where I found it online] .

First of all, I do not understand what you mean by ‘overwhelming style’, ‘light story’, and ‘elaboration’. All my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter….For me, ‘style’ _is_ matter.

I feel that the New Yorker has not understood ‘The Vane Sisters” at all.


Let me explain a few things: the whole point of the story is that my French professor, a somewhat obtuse scholar and a rather callous observer of the superficial planes of life, unwittingly passes (in the first pages) through the enchanting, and touching ‘aura’ of dead Cynthia, whom he continues to see…

…At the end of the story, he seeks her spirit in vulgar table-rapping phenomena, in acrostics and then he sees a vague dream (permeated by the broken son of their last meeting), and now comes the last paragraph which, if read straight, should convey that vague and sunny rebuke, but which for a more attentive reader contains the additional delight of a solved acrostic…”

[Nabokov then walked through every single word of the acrostic, as if White was a doofus who could not “get it” unless he leads her by the nose, word by word. Then he explains what this means, thematically, and he gets back to the point I started with, which is Nabokov’s expectations of being understood]

“You may argue that reading downwards, or upwards, or diagonally, is not what an editor can be expected to do; but by means of various allusions to trick-reading, I have arranged matters so that the reader almost automatically slips into this discovery, especially because of the abrupt change in style.

[I love that he expects the reader to automatically slip into this discovery, he is relying on precisely the same techniques that Jane Austen did!]

Most of the stories I am contemplating (and some I have written in the past…) will be composed on these lines, according to this system wherein a second (main) story is woven into.” END OF

[And there you have Nabokov very explicitly revealing that he had reached a stage in his career by 1951 that he was going to be writing double stories, apparently of the same kind as I have described in this blog about Jane Austen’s shadow stories. And actually, in Nabokov’s long chapter about Mansfield Park, which he wrote more or less around the same time he wrote that letter to White, he uses a term for the story that everyone can access easily which I actually prefer to my own term for it. I’ve been calling it the ‘overt story”, but he came up with the much more elegant “revealed story”. Therefore, henceforth, I intend to use his term, in his honor. ]

Now, you may also ask, did Nabokov have any idea about Austen’s hidden acrostic? My suspicion is that even if he did not guess the secret second answer [“Prince of Whales”] to Austen’s charade, he did know that Austen was up to major wordplay tricks in her novels.

And you may also ask, did Nabokov, like Austen, present this acrostic as a symbol for embedding shadow stories in his novels, the way Austen did? And did he realize that Austen did this?

That is a huge subject that I will also address in my book, but for now, I think it’s clear from what he wrote to White that he certainly intended the symbolism to apply to his own writing, and he probably also saw the same symbolism in Austen’s writing. That is precisely why he lavished such evident love on his famous long essay about Austen’s Mansfield Park. But, like Austen, he was not going to make it easy on his readers to know how he loved Austen’s writing, so he left that as a kind of “hidden code” in both his fictional and literary critical writings.

In that context, my earlier posts about Nabokov’s playing a complex game in his comments to his friend Edmund Wilson…

…find unexpected validation in the hidden acrostic game that Nabokov played in “The Vane Sisters”.

And last but not least, I find it highly significant that “The Vane Sisters” has as its two title characters two sisters. Nabokov was well aware that Jane Austen was one of two sisters, and that Jane’s sister was named Cassandra. So is it just a coincidence that one of Nabokov’s ghostly sisters is named Sibyl, which Wikipedia’s entry about “The Vane Sisters” tells us the significance of….:

“The very name of Sybil hints at the trick of the final paragraph, as the word acrostic was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythreaean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word.”

And is it just a coincidence that the mythological Sibyl shares one crucial characteristic with the mythological Cassandra, tragic daughter of Priam, which is the ability to foretell the future!

Was this name game, combined with the acrostic, a hidden homage to Jane Austen? And was Nabokov perhaps thinking of Mr. Woodhouse who so worriedly said to Emma:

“"Ah! my dear, I wish you would not make matches and foretell things, for whatever you say always comes to pass.”

I say, yes, yes, yes!

I could go on and on, but I think the essential point is clear for purposes of this post.
So, was I correct in foretelling that you would find this post interesting? If so, let me hear from you, either in this blog, by email, or by public response in one of the groups where I have posted a link to this post.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. I did not forget that my subject line foretold one more literary connection, and here it is:


There is very analogous wordplay which plays a climactic role in the 2010 Oscar contending film The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski in a very faithful adaptation of the 2007 novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, the solution to which is very complex and which I will be unveiling in my forthcoming book about Jane Austen’s shadow stories. Suffice for now to say that my research makes it clear to me that Harris (possibly with Polanski’s knowing participation) has added another rich layer to this historical chain of thematic acrostics, and that Austen’s complex acrostic game in Emma is part of the mix they cooked up. Stay tuned for more on this topic in this blog around Oscars time.

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