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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Samuel Parr, Jane Austen & Whatever Bears Affinity to Cunning…and Corruption

On Monday, Anielka wrote the following in Janeites and Austen L:

“ Samuel Parr wrote of Sense, Sensibility, Pride, Prejudice and Persuasion in his sermon treating on that particular quote on Galatians. His sermon also treats on superstition….”

A few years ago I came across something Parr wrote which resonated to an interesting turn of phrase in S&S, and I thought at the time that Parr was the kind of liberal theologian/public intellectual whom JA would have greatly admired. However, I did not know about his (apparently famous) sermons which you refer to, or the possibility that JA alluded to them in her novel titles, and so I thank you for the reference.

By coincidence today, I came upon another “footprint” of Samuel Parr which I believe JA took special note of. Here is how I found it.

Just after I posted “The Wetness of the Wafers” , I checked to see whether JA had ever used the interesting phrase “suspicion of the truth” (used by JA in Letter 22 to refer to Edward’s small children) in any of her novels as well.

And sure enough, she did, twice—once in S&S and once in P&P. A closer look at all the usages of “suspicion” and its variants in P&P followed, which made me realize that “suspicion” was a subliminal drumbeat in the novel, constantly feeding and sustaining an aura of uncertainty, confusion and error—everybody in the novel suspects something about somebody else, and often these suspicions prove false or incomplete, or at least, remain uncertain.

But as I was looking at “suspicion” in P&P, I was struck by another distinctive and famous aphoristic turn of phrase by Darcy:

“Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable."

My first thought was that this was a beautiful hiding in plain sight of a “bread crumb” pointing to the veiled allusion in P&P to Goethe’s famous novel _Elective Affinities_, which I wrote about previously:

I quickly verified that there was actually a _second_ such “bread crumb” in Ch. 36 of P&P, as Lizzy struggles to digest Darcy’s letter and its shocking revelations about Wickham:

“But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham, when she read with somewhat clearer attention a relation of events which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which _bore_ so alarming an _affinity_ to his own history of himself, her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition.”

How beautifully JA uses this word "affinity" from the world of chemistry to bring out how hormones are driving Lizzy’s reactions to both Darcy and Wickham, and also to point the reader back to Goethe for more background on the subject!

But I did not stop there, I also Googled “Whatever bears affinity to” to see if this phrase might also point to some earlier source, and sure enough, look what it took me to--Samuel Parr’s (apparently famous) “A free translation of the Preface to Bellendenus” (1788), in which he first wrote:

“With respect to the Three Books, in my opinion, their intrinsic merit sufficiently justifies their introduction to the Public. I have no doubt but they will amply recommend themselves to every more intelligent person, as well from the dignity of the subject they discuss, as from their perspicuous mode of argumentation, their beauty of sentiment, their variety and elegance of style. Bellendenus has, in the first, brought to light, from the most remote antiquity, many curious facts which had been buried in the gloomy darkness of oblivion….”

Sounds interesting enough, just the kind of book that a serious, bookish intellectual like Darcy would have read, right?. But then here is the passage which proves that Darcy read it, because Darcy’s characterization in P&P is filled with echoes of this one short passage:

“In the second book [Bellendenus] shews, that whoever desires to exercise authority over others, should first of all learn the government of himself; should remember and be obedient to every thing which the laws command; should, on all occasions, be ready to hear the sentiments of the wise; disdaining...

...whatever bears affinity to corruption, and abhorring the delusions of flattery...

....he should be tenacious in preserving his dignity, and cautious how he attempts to extend it; he should be remarkable for the purity of his morals, and the moderation of his conduct; and never direct his hand, his eye, or his imagination, to that which is the property of another.”

Is this not the challenge facing Darcy in the novel? He wants to exercise authority over others, but he cannot govern himself; “abhorrence” is a favorite word of his, e.g., in another famous aphorism: “But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.” And Elizabeth frets “With his notions of dignity, he would probable feel that the arguments which to Elizabeth had appeared weak and ridiculous contained much good sense and solid reasoning.” And Mrs. Gardiner writes that Mrs. Yonge “would not betray her trust… without bribery and corruption, for she really did know where her friend was to be found.”

So it seems to me that both Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy were avid readers of a variety of Samuel Parr’s writings.

Cheers, ARNIE

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