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

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Acknowledged truths, pride, prejudice....and Warren Hastings, again!

In Janeites and Austen L, Anielka Briggs posted her claim to have discovered a previously unknown allusion in the title of Pride and Prejudice to a 1791 volume of "Sermons" by The Rev. George Butt, AM, Chaplain in Ordinary to his majesty George III.

I checked it out, and then responded thusly:

I believe that Anielka has done some good sleuthing, and has made a plausible case that Jane Austen could very well have meant to covertly point to the (pompous, hypocritical) Sermons (written by the aptly named Mr. Butt), when she came up with the title Pride and Prejudice. It is indeed a volume which Mr. Collins would have treasured and studied as a valuable resource for enhancing his own "craft" in delivering his own sermons--meaning, he would shamelessly plagiarize them! ;)

However, I do not agree with Anielka's further claim that Austen did _not_ have in mind at least _several_ other well-known books which also contained that same hendiasys Pride and Prejudice (there are hundreds of hendiasyses, by the way, in what I believe was Jane's favorite Shakespeare play--Hamlet).

Not only in Burney's Cecilia, not only some others which I have previously found to be very interesting (they are very easy to find, by the way, with Google Books), but, as Pat Rogers nicely summarized and illustrated in his intro to his 2006 edition of P&P:

"The title Pride and Prejudice has embedded itself so deeply in our consciousness that we easily forget the phrase had a life of its own before Jane Austen claimed the sole rights. In the century before the novel was published, this expression turned up at least a thousand times in printed literature, with or without minor Oliver Goldsmith's History of England (1764). Jane was brought up on this Charles Churchill's satire Independence (1764). Samuel Johnson had written of 'The prejudice and pride of man' in The Idler no. 5, 1758...Similarly, Lord Chesterfield wrote in his famous Letters to his son (1774) of 'that local and national pride and prejudice, of which every body hath some share. Closer in date to Austen's time as a writer, one of the items in the _Sermons_ upon Several Subjects (1790) of Johnson' friend Dr. Williams Adams had carried an allusion to 'Misrepresentations which our own pride or prejudice may make the actions of other men', a formula which fits Elizabeth and Darcy. However, the most prominent example...appears in Cecilia (1782)...a book Austen unquestionably drew on in her own writing...If that should not seem clear enough, the phrase is repeated twice more in the same speech. Cecilia may not have provided the sole basis for Austen's choice of this title, but she must have exploited the stock phrase in the full knowledge of what Burney had written."

And I would chime in to say first that I think that Austen was well aware that she was deploying a literary cliche as her title, and she was, in her characteristic way, ironically exploiting that decision--she could have stuck with "First Impressions" but she wanted to begin making her point about ambiguities in how we know the world even before her novel was opened to its first page--she wanted readers to be guessing what this title was supposed to mean--was it a religious message echoing a sermon? was it a political message echoing a social or economic critique? or was it all of the above, plus, underneath all those questions, a philosophical meditation on the nature of knowledge? You know my answer is "All of the above!"

I have argued a thousand times that attempts to claim one particular meaning for a given Austen allusion are inherently offbase, because what JA was about more than anything was to destabilize blithe assumptions and simple explanations She was about inducing people to first identify, and then to challenge their own assumptions, their own explanations, and to struggle to make them better assumptions and explanations.

Isn't that the essence of the extraordinarily tight plot of P&P in particular? It's all a concatenation of interlocking flawed assumptions and explanations -those "first impressions" which turn out not to be accurate, or, even if accurate in one sense, still incomplete in another. That is at the core of the beauty of the plot, how these dominoes fall in such an extraordinarily beautiful sequence.

So I am glad to add Anielka's discovery to the short list of the most interesting of the sources I think JA had in mind in that title, with those caveats.

But there is a serendipity that arose out of Anielka's post, which I will also share with you.

As I was quoting from Rogers's intro passage re the phrase "pride and prejudice", I noticed that later on the same page he began a similar summary and illustration with regard to the famous first _sentence_ of P&P, which in many ways has penetrated even more deeply into modern literary consciousness than the title P&P itself---of course, I refer here to "a truth universally acknowledged".

The serendipity in this is that as I quickly scanned down the page, what name did I see but "Warren Hastings"! It turns out that this famous phrase "truth universally acknowledged" ties back directly to my recent postings about Warren Hastings, and in particular his impeachment trial, as a pervasive allusive source for JA's novels.

First here is what Rogers wrote in that section of his Intro which made me smile:

"Slightly adapted, the turn of phrase appears in books such as "Civis', Letters, Political, Military, and Commercial, on the Present State and Government of the Province of Oude and its Dependencies" (1796), a work which refers to the Austens' close family friend Warren Hastings, whose highhandedness in Oudh figured in the impeachment proceedings against him. The author writes, 'It is a truth universally admitted, that the subjects under all arbitrary governments are happy or miserable in proportion to the wisdom or depravity of their rulers' (p. 8)."

That passage was, to my mind, written in 1796 by its author as an unmistakable homage to the equally aphoristic hendiadys coined by Sheridan in his _very famous_ 1795 closing argument (as to which, by the way, Hastings's "highhandedness in Oudh" did not merely "figure in" the impeachment proceedings, it was as central to those proceedings as a blue dress, a cigar and the wording of certain sworn statements about same, were central to _another_ famous impeachment!) which I cited in my earlier blog post....

....i.e., in which Sheridan famously referred to Hastings's (alleged) evil chicanery vis a vis the Oudh, in turning son against mother:

“Filial Piety-It is the primal bond of society. It is that instinctive principle, which, panting for its proper good, soothes, unbidden, each _sense and sensibility_ of man.”

I think no further explanation is necessary, to show how that is really was a remarkable serendipity.

Cheers, ARNIE

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