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Monday, February 7, 2011

Jane Austen’s Heroides

The following sequence of falling dominoes dramatically illustrates why much more original, outside the box scholarship about Jane Austen occurs in online discussions among non-academic obsessives, than in the halls of academe themselves! And it also illustrates, I claim, that it is very difficult to overestimate JA’s erudition, imagination and feminism, because she continues to astonish even me, who makes such large claims on her behalf already, with her achievements!

First we had Cathy Janofsky, in Janeites, make this offhand comment:

“Although I dislike Aeneas, I love how Virgil paints his tragic heroines. (This would be a great comparison--Dido and Marianne).”

Then we had Elissa Schiff, also in Janeites, react thusly:

“And what a wonderful comparison of Virgil's Dido to Marianne Dashwood you have made!!! Absolutely brilliant. I think of poor Marianne, crying her heart out, racing about in a storm, thrashing about on her pillows with a high fever over loss of Willoughby and then think of the heartbroken Queen of Carthage - who realizes she has just been a "way-station" on Aeneas's journey - making her final dramatic gesture, about to throw herself onto a funeral pyre as her beloved Aeneas sails away from her forever, and then remember that haunting half-line of verse: "sed non infelix Phoenissa."

Although I had missed Cathy’s “throwaway” suggestion, when I read Elissa’s reaction, that reminded me of my own past research (some of which I have had the pleasure of discussing with Cathy, who is indeed a classics scholar of no common rate!) and caused me to point my own idiosyncratic “lens” at the question of whether Marianne Dashwood is in fact a sly literary representation of Dido, and, further whose (i.e., which classical author’s) Dido? And _look_ at what I quickly found online to confirm, and then radically extend, Cathy’s brilliant intuitions, validated so poetically by the erudite Elissa !

The key to the door that unlocks this particular sector of JA’s genius is Ovid’s Heroides Letter #7, and the remainder of this post, which runs another 1,500 words, provides the detailed textual evidence supporting my claim that JA was alluding very specifically to Ovid’s Heroides Letter #7, about Dido, in the character of Marianne Dashwood, the Dido of S&S (and also, for that matter, to Jane Fairfax in Emma).

Wikipedia: “The Heroides (The Heroines), or Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines), are a collection of fifteen epistolary poems composed by Ovid in Latin elegiac couplets, and presented as though written by a selection of aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology, in address to their heroic lovers who have in some way mistreated, neglected, or abandoned them…Arguably some of Ovid’s most influential works…In the third book of his Ars Amatoria, Ovid makes the claim that…he created an entirely new literary genre…suitable reading material to his assumed audience of Roman women.”

In my opinion, based on all I have discovered and analyzed in terms of JA’s literary sources, Ovid’s Heroides 7, pertaining to Dido, would have been near the top of the list of sources that would have been of extraordinary interest to Jane Austen, from the time she composed her Juvenilia (which I now see as her own early burlesques of The Heroides and other similar classical works).

In my opinion, JA was not dependent on her brothers, or anyone else, to help her interpret the classical texts she was reading, from whichever printed sources she was able to access them. As the following will illustrate, JA was reading _multiple_ classical sources—not only the sexism-prone Virgil but also his feminist “antidote”, Ovid, and interpreting them both in a very sophisticated way! Read on and see what you think!

And the second key is my conception (ha ha) of Marianne Dashwood as having concealed a pregnancy from Elinor during nearly the entire length of S&S. Look at where Googling “Dido” and “pregnant” and “Heroides” led me:

_Reading Dido: gender, textuality, and the medieval Aeneid_ (1994) by Marilynn Desmond

(I quote excerpts from a long chapter entitled ““Dux Femina Facti: Virgil’s Dido in the Historical Context”):


“Petrarch…read[s] Virgil’s Dido as a poetic adaptation of the historical figure….But Virgil is not the only poet or reader who revises Dido: Ovid’s Dido, and, much later, Boccaccio’s Dido mark two influential interpretations of Virgil’s Dido that function as landmarks for medieval traditions [including Chaucer] of reading Dido.”

So as we will see, below, in Heroides 7, Ovid repeatedly rewrites Virgil from a feminist angle!


“…Both Aeneas and Dido engage in the sexual activity that brings on disaster in Aeneid 4, but ONLY DIDO BECOMES TAINTED by amor and suffers a reversal of fortune…”

And this double standard is (seemingly) true of every man and woman in Austen’s novels who transgress sexually.


“In Heroides 7, Dido reacts to the implications in Aeneas’s account of the loss of his wife…”You like about everything. Nor does your deception start with me, nor am I the first to suffer. If you ask what has become of the mother of beautiful Iulus—SHE PERISHED, ABANDONED ALONE BY HER HARSH HUSBAND. This you had narrated to me…” Ovid’s Dido interprets Aeneas’s role in this episode to his disadvantage….. Virgil’s Dido listens to the account of Creusa’s death without reacting. Ovid’s Dido implies that Aeneas’s account of this scene might have proved a warning for Virgil’s Dido, had she heeded its implications…the queen of Carthage could expect no better treatment than Creusa had received.”

And there is the first Eliza Williams aka Creusa!

“In Heroides 7, Dido also reconsiders her understanding of the events in the cave (4.165-68). Ovid’s Dido represents the scene in language that evokes and all but quotes the passage from Virgil...”That day destroyed me, when a dark storm cloud with SUDDEN RAIN FORCED US under the steep cave. I had heard voices…” Ovid’s Dido…exposes the limited understanding of Virgil’s Dido as a participant in the cave scene…”

As in Marianne Dashwood’s getting caught in a sudden rainstorm on a steep hill!


“…. “Ovid’s Dido also subverts the predominantly tragic, epic tone of Aeneid 4 by emphasizing elements of pathos. In a moment of rhetorical embellishment, she amplifies VIRGIL’S DIDO’S WISH THAT SHE WERE PREGNANT (4.328-29) by carefully entertaining the possibility and referring to this hypothetical, unborn child as Julus’s brother (139). In the Aeneid, Dido’s desire to be pregnant is an expression of her desire to compel Aeneas to honor his obligations to her…Ovid’s Dido, however, speaks as a woman; she pointed explores the possibility of this hypothetical pregnancy from a maternal, not a political, point of view—a gender-specific interpretation of Aeneid 4…Ovid’s Dido emphatically foregrounds her personal concerns and her responses as a particular woman overcome by desire, not a queen.”

At the end of this message, I will quote the relevant lines from Heroides 7.


“….Ovid’s Dido..acknowledges and simultaneously deflates the most powerful symbol of Aeneid 4, the representation of Dido’s passion as vulnus, which is metaphorically evoked at the beginning of Book 4 and becomes a literal wound at the end of the book…In language that heightens the erotic values of this wound, Ovid’s Dido refers to the metaphorical wound and the symbolic value of the wound she is about to inflict on herself: ‘Nor is MY HEART PIERCED first by this sword: that place has the wound of cruel love.”….Ovid again allows Dido a point of view that only the narrator or reader of Virgil’s texts possesses. …”

And I suggest that Heroides 7 is a subtext that underlies _Persuasion_ as well, beginning with the immortal line that JA gave to Wentworth at the White Hart Inn-but look at how much more still!


“…At a critical moment in Virgil’s Aeneid 4, when Mercury appears to Aeneas to command his departure, he tells Aeneas: “a variable and changeable thing is a woman always”. Although such an antifeminist statement is not a normative assertion for the entire text of the Aeneid, this pithy definition of femina nonetheless casts a long shadow over the Aeneid: much of the chaos and instability in the cosmos is attributed to the feminine. Ovid’s Heroides 7, depends on a discernibly different concept of femina, a definition of woman as a skeptical reader of language and meaning. Dido echoes Mercury’s comment to complain of Aneas and implicitly negate Mercury’s comment: “Would that you too were changeable with the winds.”

And isn’t that exactly what is discussed at the White Hart Inn? The constancy of women and men, and look at how Anne Elliot very closely echoes Ovid’s Dido, after Harville first presents Virgil’s take on women!

And finally here are some of the final words spoken by Ovid’s Dido to Aeneas in Heroides 7:
Receive, Dardanian, the song of dying Elissa; What you read from me are the final words I have read. …And not that I hope to move you by my prayer, So do I speak: I have said these things, even though God is contrary. But since I have undeservedly lost my good name And my bod and my chaste soul, it is nothing to lose words. But you are determined to go and leave behind an unhappy Dido, And the same wind that blew your ship away, also blew away your faith…Another love is to be held by you, and another Dido Whom you will again betray, with another promise. When will you build a city as good as Carthage And WHEN WILL YOU LOOK DOWN ON YOUR PEOPLE FROM A HIGH CITADEL?...

Did Emma Thompson perhaps have some awareness of the applicability of that last quoted line when she composed the shot of Willoughby looking down on Delafield from a distance?

And here is the coup de grace, the passage in Heroides 7 which, I claim, was at the forefront of JA’s mind as she wrote Marianne Dashwood’s character:

Perhaps also, you criminal, you leave Dido pregnant And part of you lies hidden, shut up in my body. A wretched infant will emulate the fate of its wretched mother, And you will cause the death of one not yet born. And along with his mother the brother of Iulus will die, And one torment will carry two away joined together. “But a god orders me to go!” I wish he had forbidden you to come And the Punic earth had not been trod upon by Trojans. At this god’s command, I’m sure, you are being battered by wicked winds And you wear away the slowly passing time in a rushing sea. Pergama (the Trojan citadel) would scarcely have had to be sought out again by you With such great labor if it had been as great while Hector was alive.”

But as to whether Willoughby is the only Aeneas in S&S, that is for another place.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. Apropos Did and JA, also don’t forget Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial grand niece of Lord Mansfield, and one of the most crucial real life models for Fanny Price! JA was well aware of the mythological overtones of D.E.B.’s name, which were deliberate, and the result of the circumstances of her paternity and eventual transplantation from a slave ship to the “palace” of her kinsman the great English jurist! …Would that you also might be as changeable as the winds…Suppose, at the sea’s PERSUASION, you even loosen the cables—Many sorrows still does the wide sea contain…

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