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

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Catherine's (perhaps not so) Excessive Solicitude

[Nancy Mayer] "It said so in the quotes Christy gave us. "It polarised the critics. On one side was the Harding camp, embracing the new, caustic Jane Austen; on the other, those who remained faithful to the 'gentle-Janeism;" There was another recently, in which Janeites are accused of wanting only a sweet Victorian lady-- or words to that effect."

Well, in 1940 (and for many years afterward), "gentle-Janeism" camp _was_ a "truth universally acknowledged", was it not? I note the resistance I encounter in making my claims in the 21st century, generations after the rise of feminism. I can't even imagine the firestorm that Harding encountered in 1940 when he challenged the near universal orthodoxy.

As for "gentle-Janeism", even today my impression is that it is still a commonly help stance, but...with all that has been written about JA in the past 20 years, it is now only part of a wide spectrum of opinion about the "real JA".

"They had been wearing dresses with long sleeves ( and short gloves) during the day, and gowns with short sleeves ( but looonng gloves in the evening) This information is important to the social historian. I am more interested in social history than literary theory."

And I, too, could care less about literary theory--my interest in shadow stories and allusions arose, and continues to be based on, what I actually read in the text of her novels and letters. When I read scholarly jargon about literature, I run for the hills faster than anybody, mainly because my sense is that these literary theories are like the art criticism Tom Wolfe satirized in _Believing is Seeing_, where the work of art itself is now a footnote to the analysis. I am and will always be text-driven and text-intensive in my analysis.

But.....I am extremely interested in _history_, most of all in Jane Austen's opinions, beliefs, and aspirations regarding the full scope of the lives of women, and that includes fashion, because, first, there are a number of instances where she wrote about fashion in her letters, and second because fashion, like a hundred other aspects of ordinary life, was a theme in her novels as well, one that she subordinated to her primary task of exposing to the reader the full, complex personalities of her varied characters.

Speaking of which---Nancy, I think you will be extremely surprised at the perfect example of this which I found this morning, as a result of my thinking about the very fortuitous conjunction you made, however inadvertently, between fashion and JA's covert scholarly accomplishments. Read on.....

First, there is a brief, but excellent overview of the subject of fashion and JA by Penelope Byrde entitled "Dress and Fashion" in _The Jane Austen Companion_ at ppg. 131-4, which cites Byrde's 1979 book _A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the Works of JA_, which I have not read, but which was reviewed by Marsha Huff of JASNA in 2003 here:

But, as with everything else in her novels, there's much more than meets the eye in what might appear to some to be JA's ordinary, commonplace (mostly) female interest in the details of fashion.

The clue comes in the one memorable moment in her novel where the subject of fashion takes center stage for an entire paragraph, and that is in Northanger Abbey:

"[Catherine] went home very happy. The morning had answered all her hopes, and the evening of the following day was now the object of expectation, the future good. What gown and what head–dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening. This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt, might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter. But not one of these grave reflections troubled the tranquillity of Catherine."

I never before noticed that bit about the lecture that Catherine's great aunt reads her. However, as soon as I did notice it, I knew it was going to turn out to be another in the very long list of covert allusions that you think are mostly a figment of my imagination, my fantasies about JA as having an encyclopedic knowledge about everything. If Catherine's great aunt read her a lecture on the subject, then I knew that the lecture really existed, and was not a phantom made up by JA for expediency as a trivial throwaway bit of background. I just had to find it.

I knew from all my prior experience that, like any great mystery writer, JA plays fair with her readers, and so I knew there was some real-life lecture somewhere that a real-life bluestocking like Catherine's great aunt would have actually read to her grand-nice, and that JA would have given a significant clue--a Hansel/Gretelian "bread crumb"--to identify that lecture right there in the text of that long paragraph. Can you spot the clue? I found it on my second guess.

(scroll down) ......



First, I tried "frivolous distinction", but while it was a phrase used a number of times in print prior to 1818, none of them had anything to do with fashion. But second, I Googled "excessive solicitude" and look where that took me immediately:

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2^nd part of the 2^nd Part, Treatise on Fortitude and Temperance, Question 169, Article 1: "Whether there can be virtue and vice in connection with outward apparel?"

While I recommend you read the whole passage, here is the relevant excerpt that proves this was the very lecture that Catherine's great aunt read to her the previous Christmas:

".....the lack of moderation in the use of these things may arise from the inordinate attachment of the user, the result being that a man sometimes takes too much pleasure in using them, either in accordance with the custom of those among whom he dwells or contrary to such custom. Hence Augustine says: "We must avoid EXCESSIVE pleasure in the use of things, for it leads not only wickedly to abuse the customs of those among whom we dwell, but frequently to exceed their bounds, so that, whereas it lay hidden, while under the restraint of established morality, it displays its deformity in a most lawless outbreak."

In point of excess, this inordinate attachment occurs in three ways. First when a man seeks glory from EXCESSIVE attention to dress; in so far as dress and such like things are a kind of ornament. Hence Gregory says: "There are some who think that attention to finery and costly dress is no sin. Surely, if this were no fault, the word of God would not say so expressly that the rich man who was tortured in hell had been clothed in purple and fine linen. No one, forsooth, seeks costly apparel" (such, namely, as exceeds his estate) "save for vainglory." Secondly, when a man seeks sensuous pleasure from EXCESSIVE attention to dress, in so far as dress is directed to the body's comfort. Thirdly, when a man is too solicitous in his attention to outward apparel.

Accordingly Andronicus reckons three virtues in connection with outward attire; namely "humility," which excludes the seeking of glory, wherefore he says that humility is "the habit of avoiding EXCESSSIVE expenditure and parade"; "contentment", which excludes the seeking of sensuous pleasure, wherefore he says that "contentedness is the habit that makes a man satisfied with what is suitable, and enables him to determine what is becoming in his manner of life" (according to the saying of the Apostle, 1 Tim. 6:8): "Having food and wherewith to be covered, with these let us be content;"---and "simplicity," which excludes EXCESSIVE SOLICITUDE about such things, wherefore he says that "simplicity is a habit that makes a man contented with what he has."

And now i get back to my reply to Deb yesterday. Sure, Northanger Abbey can be appreciated without being aware of this covert allusion to St. Thomas Aquinas--but what an increase in depth and meaning is provided by becoming aware of this hidden treasure buried just beneath the surface of the novel text! On one level, the covert allusion provides a commentary on that moment in the action, and gives the aware reader the benefit of Aquinas's opinions on this point, and helps to sharpen our evaluation of Catherine's thoughts at that moment--is she being excessively attentive to dress, in a way that is harmful to her because she does not think enough about important things? Or, is JA perhaps alluding to Aquinas _ironically_, i.e., questioning whether Aquinas is right--perhaps a very intelligent young woman _can_ at appropriate times be very solicitous about matters of fashion, while exhilarated by romantic feelings, but still be properly attentive to the serious matters of life at other appropriate times?

I.e., Aquinas is another one of those men who have held the pen for millenia, telling women how be behave, and perhaps JA is suggesting that a wise woman needs to read Aquinas through a female lens, and decide for herself how to balance the great aesthetic pleasure and stimulation that can be derived from close attention to fashion, as long as it does not spiral out of control and cause loss of perspective. And maybe JA sees Aquinas as being inconsistent, even hypocritical, in blithely rationalizing the high fashion of some men of the cloth, instead of questioning the role of finery in inculcating obedience to religious dogma.

And all of this bears on what I claim is the central question of the novel, which is whether Catherine is really the overimaginative, poorly educated, gullible girl that so many Janeites take her to be, or whether she is actually appropriately imaginative, well educated, and perceptive in ways that Henry only eventually learns to appreciate and respect. To know that Catherine had a great aunt who read her St. Thomas Aquinas, and that this actually comes to Catherine's mind as she is worrying about what to wear, suggests to me that her aunt was also the one who made sure that Catherine read Shakespeare and a wide range of significant nonfiction learning, and who taught Catherine to think for herself.

And good thing that Catherine remembered her great aunt's lessons, because she surely was not going to receive validation for her brains from Mrs. Morland, who saw the young Catherine as an airhead who was too busy playing baseball to learn to spell, and who, vis a vis the 18 year old Catherine, freshly victimized by the reckless cruelty of General Tilney, was only too ready, in her insensitive way, to echo Aquinas's "simplicity is a habit that makes a man contented with what he has" with "Wherever you are you should always be contented, but especially at home, because there you must spend the most of your time". But the reader who spots and understands these covert allusions knows better than that, and will applaud when Catherine aspires to more than docile domestic contentment, and ignores Mrs. Morland's further advice: "“There is a very clever essay in one of the books upstairs upon much such a subject, about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance — The Mirror, I think." (an essay that _also_ actually existed....

...and was part of the propaganda that, along with conduct books, helped to keep women in their place).

And where do you think JA came out on this question? I think the answer is clear from all of the above that JA was with the great aunt who taught Catherine to read and become familiar with, but then to mistrust male authority!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Of course, when i read the phrase "excessive parade", I could not help but think of Mrs. Elton, who is the poster child (in a negative sense) of Aquinas's passage.

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