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

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Way THEY Were

The topic has recently been raised, and discussed in Janeites by several people, about natural, i.e., illegitimate, children, and how they were viewed and treated in JA’s era. I have also just written a long post that culminates in drawing various aspects of the parallel between Brandon and the illegitimate Eliza Williams, Jr. in S&S, vis a vis Warren Hastings and the allegedly illegitimate Eliza Hancock.

One aspect of this subject of illegitimacy that never ceases to puzzle me is the argument that is made so often in regard to moral judgments in JA’s time, which is that things were so different back then, that we today cannot really fathom how normal it seemed to people then that criminals were hung on poles along highways, that married women were dropping like flies during childbirth, and a dozen other ways of handing matters that today would seem utterly unacceptable, and even barbaric.

And to me, I find utterly unacceptable, and even barbaric, that the mere fact of a child being born illegitimate in JA’s day made it okay to treat that child as fundamentally less human in so many important ways than other children born legitimate. I do not accept that this is just the way _they_ were back then.

My thinking about these questions was given a jolt into my current awareness by reading, nearly 5 years ago, the following article by Linda Walker (whom I contacted and became good friends with), in Persuasions, entitled “Why Was Jane Austen Sent away to School at Seven? An Empirical Look at a Vexing Question”:

I have cited it with great approval before and do so now again—it was my wakeup call to stop uncritically accepting the notion that people in JA’s day were so different than they are now, in terms of the basics of human suffering. I realized that while some things _have_ changed in 200 years that could alter people’s sense of the morality of a given situation, still and all a 7 year old in 1782 would feel pretty much just as traumatized as a 7 year old in 1982, upon experiencing the kind of emotional trauma that is described in that article.

I recognize that, and I have a strong feeling that Buddha, Jesus and Hillel would have agreed on this point, too—if this were not so, how could it be that the great ancient religious texts, with all their moral and spiritual lessons, can still provide nourishment and guidance to us today, 2 millenia later? It seems completely obvious that sophisticated moral systems were not invented by modern people, people have understood the basics of right and wrong for millenia—and actually, if we look around at the world in 2011, we can wonder how many of the people alive today, especially those with political and economic power, have any sort of moral sense at all!

Anyway, what originally prompted me to want to write this post in the first place was the discussion at the end of last week in which several people expressed horror at what JA wrote in her letter to CEA about the cause of Mrs. Hall giving birth to a dead baby.

So it occurred to me that it would be easy to talk about Jane Austen’s own moral sense in a simple way, by using a moral scale from 1 to 10, and ranking the degrees of immorality or wrongness of different actions, with 10 the most immoral, and 1 a clearly moral action.

As best we can judge, what can we discern from JA’s letters and novels as to what she considered a 10 and what she considered a 1?

And one situation that immediately came to my mind was the question of what a person should say or do when they see wrong being done by one person to another.

And I thought about how Lizzy, Jane, and Darcy decide not to tell the world about Wickham’s near success preying on Georgiana, and their silence nearly leads to catastrophe for the Bennet family. But they all rationalize their silence as a social necessity, even though Darcy makes it clear later that he used his regret for not speaking as fuel for his intervention to right the wrong he had suffered to happen on his watch. So, I think JA gives that "proper" silence a 5, not very well done at all, regardless of whether it was proper or not according to conventional mores.

And I thought about Knightley intervening at the Crown Ball when Harriet was dissed by Mr. Elton, by asking Harriet to cance. I thought, if he had not intervened, that would have been a 3, if Knightley had not intervened.

And I thought about Knightley taking Emma aside after she has dissed Miss Bates, and pointing out that Emma’s sin was particularly egregious because of Miss Bates’s vulnerability and impecuniousness. Emma's attack on Miss Bates gets a 5, I think JA is telling us.

That told me that JA believed that it was the highest form of action to intervene when wrong was being done, and not to stand back and respect the privacy of a bad person who might do wrong again.

And then I thought about the underlying theme of Northanger Abbey that I have excavated, in which JA expresses her outrage at the plague of deaths in childbirth among her married English “sisters”, and how she said the same thing over and over in her letters, and I thought, bravo, Jane Austen, you have spoken out as best as your circumstances permitted, to protest injustice. And I thought, that society-wide plague upon married English women was 1,000 on a scale of 1 to 10--i.e., completely off the charts horrific!

And I thought about her positive comments about the great abolitionist Clarkson, and that made me realize that she must have had a high opinion about the Quakers who had no problem whatsoeover discerning right and wrong according to standards we would accept today, in terms of equality of the races and sexes.

And then I turned to the harsh joke about Mrs. Hall and her husband in Letter #10, and to my mind, it was only a 2—why? First because it was utterly private, it was just between JA and CEA. Second because JA was not (as Emma did at Box Hill) attacking a weak person—properly understood, she was attacking Dr. Hall, who was, to her mind, the perpetrator of the real evil in that case. All JA was doing was privately venting her outrage over a system of living in which such things could happen with total legitimacy in the eyes of the law, the church and everyday morality.

I recall that about 6 years ago, I went to Poland and made the difficult trip to Auschwitz with my eldest son, to pay our poor respects to the millions who died there, including, I believe, numerous members of my grandparents’s families of origin. Afterwards, we went to Krakow to reflect on our experience that day, and while there we happened by serendipity to meet, and spend several hours talking to, a half dozen young Israelis who worked at Yad Vashem, and had come to Auschwitz as part of a cooperative ongoing collaboration between these two great institutions dedicated to the memory of the murdered. And I will never forget the shining spirit of these people, who devote their lives to working at a job that is often a terrible burden, but one that we can be glad is being done by good people who take their jobs seriously .And _they_ were the ones who told me that on particularly sad and difficult days, they find, among themselves, that humor can help them get through the day—which rang true with the common observation that in the US, a disproportionate percentage of the greatest comedians have been Jews, Blacks, and women, because humor is a vital release for those who suffer most.

So, to conclude, I not only do not judge JA for her macabre private joke about Mrs. Hall’s miscarriage, I see it as a reflection of her sincere outrage, which fueled her dedication to her craft, so that she could do what she could do to help right wrongs in her world.

Cheers, ARNIE

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