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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Jane Austen's art of veiled allusion

In a continuation of the conversation in Janeites about the Beechen Cliff discussion of fiction and history, a topic which I last wrote about in this blog in a general way just over a month ago....

..Elissa Schiff had some interesting comments I responded to:

[Elissa] "It is indeed interesting that Eleanor Tilney is so well educated - I certainly had not remembered those lines, although I did remember that she like history. "

You should reread the entire Beechen Cliff episode in Chapter 14, it is one of the passages in Austen's novels that demonstrates how deeply JA really was interested in intellectual history, and what original opinions she had about subjects like history, literature, the history of
ideas, gender roles, etc. It is a rare moment in the novels where JA takes off the mask, and shows the world that she is indeed a woman not afraid to allow men to see how learned and brilliant she really is. And then she winks about it when she writes, smack in the middle of that same discussion in Chapter 14:

"A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can."

Don't you see that JA is talking about herself at that very instant? She is in one sense violating that rule, because she is opening a window to reveal that JA is aware of these past writers, but then she follows that rule by making it seem like these are throwaway details.

[Elissa] "But that brings us to the point that Eleanor Tilney is not talking about writers of literature: she is talking about - and this is particularly apposite for a General's daughter - military leaders!!! Caractacus was a leader of an area in northern Britannia [first century?] who petitioned Rome and then led revolts; and Agricola was a Roman general who conquered parts of Britannia [basically we know so much about him because his son-in-law was Tacitus]"

Yes, Madam, these were military men, but...........what _you_ don't know---but I found out last year only because I was curious and I dug around a while----is that there is an allusion to Caractatus in a work of _literature_ that was very much on the minds of Eleanor, Henry, and
Catherine at that very instant at Beechen Cliff, because they talk about it---The Mysteries of Udolpho by Radcliffe! That is _not_ a coincidence, and is a perfect example of what I mean about JA's art of allusion. Think about what that says about JA's standard practice as a
writer. I claim I have a thousand similar examples, although this one is particularly beautiful and telling.

The same exact thing is true of every single allusion contained in the first chapter of NA, where we hear about Catherine Morland's early schoolroom studies--Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, and several others---these are presented in a comic fashion, as if the content of
the literary works mentioned was of absolutely no significance whatsoever to the story of NA, but were just illustrative of some silliness or lack of depth in the young Catherine--but in fact, every single one of them is thematic, and highly significant! Think about what that says about JA's standard practice as a writer! The same with the charades in Emma, the allusion to Lovers Vows in MP, the poetic allusions in Persuasion and Sanditon, the list goes on and on and on and on.

The footprints of her omnivorous curiosity, her enormous intellectual power, are everywhere, but you have to look for most of them, and you have to take them seriously, even if they are presented as thought they don't matter. She is _not_ going to make it easy for readers to spot
them. That is rule #1 of hiding things in plain sight.

My default stance of assuming her familiarity with sources, where most other scholars wait on the equivalent of "notarized proof" before they even look beneath the surface, is precisely why I have been the first to find many allusions by her--the proof with Jane Austen is in the text of her writing-that is the Jane Austen Code in its essentials. So she has trained me to suspect allusions everywhere, and that is why I search and find them, where other scholars would think the evidence too speculative to warrant a search at all. That approach may work well with many other writers, but it is a devastating, even fatal, shortcoming when dealing with a sly alluder like Jane Austen. You are just going to miss the cream (to echo
Victoria's recent post) of the allusions.

And think about it--how successful would detectives seeking to solve crimes be if they did not pursue leads until they had proof that the leads were worthwhile? Solving of mysteries, of whatever kind, involves barking up many trees which turn out not to have any edible prey hiding
in them--but for sure if you never bark, you never find the ones that really are there.

[Elissa] "However, this is all basic schoolboys' history - analogous to our knowledge of the early life of Abe Lincoln. But this is still no foundation from which DeF. can make a sweeping assertion of JA's vast knowledge of antique literature. There is no real evidence she was the
total polymath you make her out to be. Just as Shakespeare took most of his knowledge of the early Britons and of the ancient Greeks and Romans from Hollinshed and yes, translations of Ovid were always popular, especially during the Renaissance - JA most likely did the same."
Elissa, you are getting hung up on the question of whether JA was actually reading the original Latin or Greek, and that is missing both DeForest's and my own central points, which is that whether or not JA was a serious Latin scholar--I don't have any idea how well she knew
Latin---and even if she was reading the ancient works in English translation, or was relying on friend and family who translated or at least closely paraphrased for her benefit---one way or another, she got the knowledge she needed, she knew the specifics of what these ancient
writers had written. She knew how to network to extend her knowledge, and she was a packrat who retained enormous amounts of very specific textual details, somehow or other, by whatever amazing system she employed. I know this by the hundreds and hundreds of textual "bread
crumbs" she left behind everywhere in her fiction and her letters. She does not allude in a vague general way, she always alludes in very very specific ways. That is precisely how I find the allusions.

Your description of Shakespeare is very apropos. Just like Shakespeare's plays, JA's novels display a deep thematic grasp of the themes addressed by a variety of ancient writers (and don't forget the Bible here either). She was a prose Shakespeare in this crucial aspect, too.

Cheers, ARNIE

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