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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Complete Change of Subject.....to Mr. Collins's Ordination! PART ONE

This post is the first of two posts in followup to my recent posts in Janeites and Austen L in which I suggested that Jane Austen had a curious love affair with the word "subject" in her novels, in particular the way I now see her references to _changes_ of subject as hints to look for a concealed, alternative meaning somewhere in that new subject.

In those posts, I responded to Nancy's mentioning JA's famous comment in Letter 79 about "a complete change of subject---Ordination", by pointing out how ambiguous this sentence is---it has been the subject of widely varying interpretations by more than a dozen Austen scholars, as well as by many ordinary Janeites.

Now I am back to point out _another_ wrinkle connected to that mysterious sentence. As I was browsing through the usages of the word "subject" in P&P, my eye was caught by the following extended blast of hot air emitted by Mr. Collins in Ch. 13 of P&P:

"My mind, however, is now made up on the _subject_, for having received _ordination_ at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England."

That is some major league bloviation! But my focus is not on Mr. Collins's high B.S. quotient, nor is it on my own interpretation of the concealed meanings in this speech. Rather, I direct your attention to the close proximity of the words "subject" and "ordination" in the same sentence--actually, they are separated by only three intervening words. I wondered, could JA, in writing, in Letter 79, about "a complete change of subject--Ordination", have had some reason for referring _back_ to Mr. Collins's little speech in P&P, which deploys those same two words?

The likelihood that this is not just a coincidence increases significantly, I suggest, when we look at the full context of JA's famous comment in Letter 79. I.e., she has _just_ gotten through a whole paragraph talking about.....the writing of P&P!!:

"There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but “I do not write for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.” – The 2d vol. is shorter than I cd wish – but the difference is not so much in reality as in look, there being a a larger proportion of Narrative in that part. I have lopt & cropt so successfully however that I imagine it must be rather shorter than S. & S. altogether. – Now I will try to write of something else; – it shall be a complete change of subject –
Ordination."

So, JA has suggested that she did not write her dialogue for dull elves who expected it to be "immediately clear", but for those readers who would work hard and ingeniously to figure things out. And then she turns around, _ostensibly_ after "a complete change of subject", and immediately writes about what appears to be the future Mansfield Park....but in doing so, she covertly points right back to P&P!

What does covert pointing mean? What it means, I think, is not immediately clear, but I suggest it is worth the effort to work hard and ingeniously to try to figure out what it means!

Cheers, ARNIE

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