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

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reflections on a pun on Sir Walter's large looking glasses

I have said that JA never met a pun she didn't like, and I just found another one, that is particularly marvelous!

It is in Chapter 13 of Persuasion when Admiral Croft is telling Anne about the few changes he has made at Kellynch since taking possession of the place:

"I have done very little besides sending away some of the large looking-glasses from my dressing-room, which was your father's. A very good man, and very much the gentleman I am sure; but I should think, Miss Elliot" (looking with serious reflection), "I should think he must be rather a dressy man for his time of life. Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from oneself. So I got Sophy to lend me a hand, and we soon shifted their quarters; and now I am quite snug, with my little shaving glass in one corner, and another great thing that I never go near."

Do you see the pun?

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The pun is when the Admiral, while finding a tactful way to talk about Sir Walter's narcissistic personal vanity about his appearance, manifested by all the giant mirrors in his dressing-room, is described as looking at Anne "with serious _reflection_"!

And what I love about this pun, and about all of JA's puns, is that this is not like puns in a Saturday NY times crossword puzzle, which are very clever, but that is _all_ they are, very clever. We expect no more from a crossword puzzle than the pleasure of that cleverness, we don't expect a crossword puzzle to have any other meaning. But this inobtrusive pun of JA's, like all her puns, is much more than very clever, it is a looking-glass (in the sense of a telescope) which peers into the heart of the meaning of the novel itself, as I will expand upon below.

In this usage, the pun draws attention, with the lightest subliminal touch, to the symbolism of Sir Walter's large looking glasses--this man who cannot stop looking at himself in the mirror, but who never looks past the surface of his own skin, and is deeply blind to his inner self and all his Dorian Gray-like inner "warts" (and this makes me wonder if there might be a whiff of Sir Walter in the character of Dorian Gray himself--any Wildeans here to give a quick reaction?) .

But, far more significantly, thinking about (I had to stop myself from writing "reflecting on"!) the double meaning of the pun--Admiral Croft reflecting _about_ Sir Walter's reflecting mirrors!--led me to realize that the word has been chosen by JA for the special treatment of a pun, precisely because of its flexibility. In a physical sense, it refers to the reflection from a shiny surface of a physical image visible to the human eye--but that meaning is the meaning of the word that is _never_ explicitly deployed by JA in the novel! It is everywhere _implied_ in the above quoted scene between the Admiral and Anne, but never explicitly stated as such. In fact, there is an almost Hamletian aspect to this pun, because at the precise instant that the narrator is referring to the Admiral's "serious reflection", meaning, "serious thinking", the Admiral, if there had been a mirror in the room there with his wife, Anne, and Lady Russell, would have presented a very "serious reflection" in that mirror! So JA's wordplay has multiple levels even within the confines of this one scene!

But her wordplay has more serious implications beyond that scene, because the principal other metaphorical sense of the word "reflection", as "thought", is deployed numerous times in the novel, usages which the reader schooled in JA's punning artistry has learned to look for, as I just did, so as to assemble them in one place and then see what comes to mind when one does--I invite you to do so now if you wish:

The last sentence of Ch. 9: [Ann meditating herself to composure, after the flutter of being rescued by Wentworth from the Musgrove boy on her neck] "She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and _reflection_ to recover her."

The last sentence of Chapter 11: "When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious _reflection_, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination."

Chapter 12 [After Louisa's fall at Lyme]: The tone, the look, with which "Thank God!" was uttered by Captain Wentworth, Anne was sure could never be forgotten by her; nor the sight of him afterwards, as he sat near a table, leaning over it with folded arms, and face concealed, as if overpowered by the various feelings of his soul, and trying by prayer and _reflection_ to calm them.....They had looked forward and arranged every thing before the others began to _reflect_."

And isn't it interesting that JA ends two consecutive chapters in this parallel fashion, first with Anne's reflections on the irony of her preaching about a foible she herself was prey to, and then with Wentworth's seeming to Anne to be trying to meditate to calm himself, although I wonder if Anne's perceptions are accurate.

Chapter 13 [Anne thinking about Louisa's recovery]: "A few months hence and the room now so deserted, occupied but by her silent, pensive self, might be filled again with all that was happy and gay, all that was glowing and bright in prosperous love, all that was most unlike Anne Elliot! An hour's complete leisure for such _reflections_ as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell's carriage exceedingly welcome..."

Chapter 13 [the scene I discussed above with Admiral Croft's serious _reflection_ while looking at Anne]

Chapter 15: [Cousin Elliot's disingenuous comments about his younger self's diffidence] "The notions of a young man of one or two and twenty," said he, "as to what is necessary in manners to make him quite the thing, are more absurd, I believe, than those of any other set of beings in the world. The folly of the means they often employ is only to be equalled by the folly of what they have in view." But he must not be addressing his _reflections_ to Anne alone: he knew it..."

Chapter 17: [Anne thinking about Mrs. Smith] : "Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? She watched, observed, _reflected_, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only."

Chapter 18: [Anne thinking about Louisa and Benwick]: "She saw no reason against their being happy. Louisa had fine naval fervour to begin with, and they would soon grow more alike. He would gain cheerfulness, and she would learn to be an enthusiast for Scott and Lord Byron; nay, that was probably learnt already; of course they had fallen in love over poetry. The idea of Louisa Musgrove turned into a person of literary taste, and sentimental _reflection_ was amusing, but she had no doubt of its being so."

Chapter 21: [Anne talking to Mrs. Smith]: "Pray," said Mrs. Smith, "is Mr. Elliot aware of your acquaintance with me? Does he know that I am in Bath?" "Mr. Elliot!" repeated Anne, looking up surprised. A moment's _reflection_ shewed her the mistake she had been under. She caught it instantaneously; and recovering courage with the feeling of safety, soon added, more composedly, "Are you acquainted with Mr. Elliot?"

Chapter 22: [Anne thinking about Mrs. Clay]: It was bad enough that a Mrs. Clay should be always before her; but that a deeper hypocrite should be added to their party seemed the destruction of everything like peace and comfort. It was so humiliating to _reflect_ on the constant deception practised on her father and Elizabeth; to consider the various sources of mortification preparing for them!

Chapter 23: [Anne reacting to Wentworth's letter]: "Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from. Half an hour's solitude and _reflection_ might have tranquillized her; but the ten minutes only which now passed before she was interrupted, with all the restraints of her situation, could do nothing towards tranquillity. Every moment rather brought fresh agitation. It was an overpowering happiness. And before she was beyond the first stage of full sensation, Charles, Mary, and Henrietta, all came in. ...

"In his preceding attempts to attach himself to Louisa Musgrove (the attempts of angry pride), he protested that he had for ever felt it to be impossible; that he had not cared, could not care, for Louisa; though till that day, till the leisure for _reflection_ which followed it, he had not understood the perfect excellence of the mind with which Louisa's could so ill bear a comparison, or the perfect unrivalled hold it possessed over his own. ....."I found," said he, "that I was considered by Harville an engaged man! That neither Harville nor his wife entertained a doubt of our mutual attachment. I was startled and shocked. To a degree, I could contradict this instantly; but when I began to _reflect_ that others might have felt the same -- her own family, nay, perhaps herself -- I was no longer at my own disposal..."

I also became curious to know if I was the first to spot this pun, and, after an online search, I do believe I was, although I am not 100% certain. I am not certain because my search brought me to Lauiie Kaplan's excellent article in the 2004 Persuasions Online, "Sir Walter's Looking-Glass, Mary Musgrove's Sofa, and Anne Elliot's Chair: Exteriority/Interiority, Intimacy/Society"....

....which explores the symbolism of various domestic objects in Persuasion, including Mary's sofa and (of course) Sir Walter's mirrors.

What is fascinating to me is that during the course of the article, Kaplan uses the word "reflection" or a variant of same SIX times, but, while evidencing a clear understanding of the symbolic meaning of the word as it relates to Sir Walter's narcissism....

"What is _reflected_ back to the man is a vision hermetically sealed off from truth—the same vision that he gleans from the pages of the Baronetage. In both the book and the mirror, Sir Walter sees a very fine man whose heritage and bearing give him the pride of place. As Sir Walter looks at himself, never pausing for _self-reflection_, he sees, I think, a youngish, handsome, slim, elegant man, but the reader sees the reality..."

...and also while quoting the same above-quoted passage from Chapter 13 including the Admiral's 'serious reflection" , Kaplan does _not_ mention its being a pun!

And, what's more, she then uses the word, seemingly inadvertently, several times.

First, in referring to Mary's sofa as an allusion to Cowper: "We have learned to value The Task for Cowper’s philosophical _reflections_ on Nature and on man."

Then, in a later comment about the sofa scene, she quotes the same passage I quoted, above, from Chapter 9, about Anne's flutter.

Then in a summarizing statement: "Chairs, looking-glasses, sofas, beds—I am not providing here a symbolic reading of all the furniture in Persuasion; as Mrs. Swann says in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, “sometimes a vine is only a vine” (68). In Persuasion, I think, a sofa is simply a sofa and a chair is simply a chair. But I have focused on the furniture in this book because Jane Austen _reflects_ the preoccupations of the Regency world while creating scenes that provide highly dramatic confrontations and psychological insight..."

And finally in a footnote: "The Crofts’ opinion on this great looking-glass is uncannily Victorian: one of the first tasks in the Victorian renovation of a great estate was to remove and dismantle the overpowering looking-glasses that _reflected_ the rooms back at them. (Harewood House brochure)..."

So I am pretty sure that Kaplan did not consciously notice the pun about Admiral Croft's "serious reflection", because if she had, she would have mentioned it--not for vanity's sake, but, I assert, the way I did, by fleshing out the full dimensions of her argument in the article!

And I think those are enough "reflections" for one blog post!

Cheers, ARNIE

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