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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jane Austen's Pleasure in Many Things and Mary Bennet's Whispers

And this was the post of mine in Janeites that preceded the one I just posted here a moment ago, in which I responded to a very interesting post in Janeites by Diana Birchall on the topic of Jane Austen's personality, in particular on the question asked by some as to whether Jane Austen was "always angry".

As usual, an interesting (and wide) range of opinion expressed by Diana, and those who've responded to her this morning, re: JA's personality (and it would be even more interesting, if even a few more folks would join in!).

I mostly agree with Diana's seeing JA's personality as a balanced one, and I wish to expand on what I think is Diana's sharpest observation:

"I think the key to that question is the word "mostly." I don't think she had a dark and depressive nature. I'm sure she did feel every one of those things at various times; but her sanity, balance and humor kept her from sinking into habitual misery. "

Because of my own harping on the darker side of her letters, in terms of veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) expressions of anger, frustration, contempt, cynicism vis a vis the behavior of family and friends, I have often noted that some misunderstand me to be claiming that JA was _always_ angry, frustrated, contemptuous and/or cynical.

That is _not_ how I see Jane Austen, not at all. I harp on these alternative readings because they have been neglected for 2 centuries, and I want to give them their proper place in the sun in Austen-related discussions. But they are not _all_ that JA was about as a writer or as a person.

Yes, I do think was a permanent stance that JA adopted early on, as that of social and psychological critic vis a vis the people in her life. She was filling a void, because others around her were not expressing such views, and as a result, I perceive that she regularly expressed her negative feelings when she felt justified.

And I am completely convinced that she saw her writing as her calling, a sacred duty to tell the truth as she saw it, to pierce the stupidity, hypocrisy, and foolishness of "common sense" in a misogynistic society.

But...even prophets take time off from their ministry, and enjoy themselves, and there is no question in my mind that JA enjoyed her good times when she had them--the exhilaration expressed in her Emma-era letters, written while living her dream in London, finally getting the recognition she had been struggling to achieve for 25 years, is palpable. We see Jane Austen high on life, little realizing that death lurks around the corner to prevent her from living to enjoy the fruits of her labors.

And one more point about the idea of "mostly" as opposed to "totally", when talking about a person's personality or behavior. Among the manifold targets of JA's irony in P&P is the very common human silliness of exaggeration in how we characterize other people who behave in ways that unsettle us (something that JA, the sharp poker, did to many people she met).

Look at how Caroline Bingley engages in this, when she, being a person who has never developed her own mind by extensive reading, is unnerved by seeing Lizzy (gasp!) reading one book:

"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."

Caroline's exaggeration betrays her own insecurity. She finds the idea of Lizzy reading even _one_ book so troubling, in vivid contrast to her own _never_ being seen with a book in hand in a group setting, that her psychic defenses kick in immediately. She paints a caricature of Lizzy as a grotesque nerd who _always_ hates having fun with less intellectual pursuits. This caricature is an unconscious attempt to reduce the anxiety Caroline feels over her own lack of intellectual achievement.

But Lizzy, in her usual quick charming epigrammatic way, utterly undoes Caroline's absurd exaggeration in a single sentence:

"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."

But......here is where JA's deeper layer of irony kicks in---Lizzy fails to realize that she herself is guilty, in a more complicated way, of exactly the same offense as Caroline Bingley, in her own misjudgment of sister Mary! Lizzy, unwittingly aping her father's own misogyny toward Mary, can only see Mary as a nerd who always has her nose buried in a book, but who fails to derive wisdom from her reading.

As I have written on numerous occasions during the past year, and also spoke about at the recent Austenmania event at FIU, Mary Bennet is actually a veiled self-portrait by Jane Austen, her way of skewering those around her who looked at her (JA's) bookishness and judged it to be nerdy sanctimoniousness.

If Lizzy had taken the trouble to find out what sister Mary has actually been reading, and had actually listened to her sister, she would have been shocked to learn that Mary understood Lizzy's life a lot better than Lizzy did herself!

And because Lizzy's enduring impression of Mary is so offbase, so too is that of most Janeites--and this misjudgment is epitomized in the way all the film adaptations of P&P depict Mary as preaching to the entire Bennet family about the brittleness of female reputation, when actually Mary _whispers_ this warning to Lizzy, because Mary is not talking about Lydia's reputation, but Lizzy's......

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: The above post by me led to an even more interesting thread of conversation with various folks, which I will post highlights from later today.

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