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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jane Austen as a literary Archimedes

After posting earlier my metaphor of Jane Austen as a literary Archimedes.....

....I was curious to see if I was the first to think of feminist writing as an attempt to leverage a sexist world in a feminist direction, and I found a very interesting article which I would recommend to anyone interested in this topic, "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism" by Myra Jehlen in Signs, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), pp. 575-601.

Here is how it begins, and resonates strongly with my conception of JA as a feminist:

"Feminist thinking is really rethinking, an examination of the way certain assumptions about women and the female character enter into the fundamental assumptions that organize all our thinking. For instance, assumptions such as the one that makes intuition and reason opposite terms parallel to female and male may have axiomatic force in our culture, but they are precisely what feminists need to question-or be reduced to checking the arithmetic, when the issue lies in the calculus. Such radical skepticism is an ideal intellectual stance that can generate genuinely new understandings...."

Which leads me into replying to the questions Nancy just posed to me:

"If you are correct about Jane Austen wanting to change her world, I still have to say I think she chose an odd way of going about it. A very subtle, unpredictable, and uncertain way of going about changing the world. Usually the lever is at least apparent. What good is a war which no one sees you waging? What good are warnings to females who do not see them because they are not evident?"

And I answer these reasonable questions by, ironically, throwing back to you what you always say to me--remember that JA was living 200 years ago, her world was different from our world, don't treat her like she was living today.

Well, in the England of 200 years ago, it was a VERY risky business for a woman to be forthright in expressing the radical feminist ideas and sentiments which I find everywhere under the surface in JA's writings. So JA's choices were drastically limited--either find ways of hiding these things in plain sight where they would only be seen by readers who could be trusted not to blow JA's secret, but who would derive sustenance, education, and inspiration from what they read--i.e., intelligent women, women who could keep the secret among a safe audience, OR say nothing, and
fail to document the wrongs done to women in her world.

JA clearly chose Plan A. She chose the option of veiled disclosure, so that she could get this female "Torah" written and out to the female reading public. And that brings us to the next aspect of putting ourselves into JA's shoes in her time. She had no idea till the last year of her life that she was in danger of dying young. The buoyant optimism and joie de vivre that leaps off the page of her Emma-era letters demonstrates a mature genius in the full bloom of her powers, exhilarated at the prospect of taking her place among the famous and esteemed writers
of her generation. And perhaps hoping that after a period of years, she might actually be able to express her ideas more overtly, and to reveal the "code" that would unlock the shadow stories of the many novels she would have hoped to have spread far and wide in the kingdom.

But cruel fate cut her down in her full bloom, and not only stopped her from writing more novels, it prevented her from being around long enough to make that public revelation.

Imagine her excitement if she could have lived another 30 years to read Wuthering Heights! Imagine how her own writing style might have evolved over the decades!

I say that the Brontes themselves were already part of the world that JA tipped with her literary "lever".

Cheers, ARNIE

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