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

Monday, July 4, 2011

Jane Austen's Declarations of Independence

I watched the film version of one of my favorite Broadway shows on TV this afternoon--1776, which of course was on TCM to celebrate July 4.

As I watched, I decided to revisit the question of whether JA made any oblique references to the American Revolution in any of her novels, a question that goes back a long way, as scholars in the Seventies first wondered what that "strange business in America" was that Tom Bertram mentions to Dr. Grant. Knowing JA, it has been impossible for me to believe this was "background noise", but I've never before found or heard a compelling claim for a specific discovery in this regard.....till today.

We've had some discussion of the foundational documents of the United States here in the past, beginning, as far as I can tell, with the following in 2005...

Elissa: "Does anyone (hint, perhaps a person surrounded by gently swaying palm trees rather than the frigid blasts of windy snow currently whirling around my backyard) see any connection between the Christian name of the third US President Jefferson (President 1801-1809) and that of Sir Thomas?"

....and most recently last year when the following exchange occurred as an outgrowth of a thread about possible allusive sources of the famous beginning of P&P: "It is a truth universally acknowledged":

Elissa: "Interesting that the words "It is a truth universally acknowledged" are really a more formal way of saying the more blunt and direct "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..."

My response: "Yes, indeed, Elissa, and you also know as surely as I do that the author of Mansfield Park, with its shadowy colonial slave plantation, was fully aware of the sad irony that the document which in the year following her birth changed the world for the better, because it voiced such a noble truth so emphatically, nonetheless contained within it the unintended and tragic irony that the laws of half of those 13 colonies did not match the noble rhetoric in regard to the treatment of black people, and the laws of ALL of those colonies did not match the rhetoric in regard to the treatment of women of all colors. As JA was acutely aware of, and emphasized in her novels, words were very important, especially definitions, such as the definition of "man" in that opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence!"

Well, watching 1776 today inspired me to have another go at JA's novels, to see if I could spot any echoes of the Declaration of Independence in JA's novels, and here is the result, which I think is most apt to be brought forward on July 4:

First, here are the beginning and ending paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, with certain words in all caps:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are CREATED EQUAL, that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of HAPPINESS. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these STATES. To PROVE this, let facts be SUBMITTED to a candid WORLD.

…We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of THE WORLD for the rectitude of our INTENTIONS, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and DECLARE, that these UNITED colonies are, and of right ought to be free and INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political CONNECTION between them and the STATE of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract ALLIANCES, establish commerce, and to do all other ACTS and things which independent STATES may of right do. And for the support of this DECLARATION, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

I have put those particular words in all caps so as to make possible connections to capitalized words in the following passage readily visible.

In Chapter 9 of _Emma_, the following is the key portion of Emma's commentary to Harriet on the significance of the "courtship" charade which Mr. Elton brought to them....

"There is so pointed, and so particular a meaning in this compliment," said she, "that I cannot have a moment's doubt as to Mr. Elton's INTENTIONS. You are his object -- and you will soon receive the completest PROOF of it. I thought it must be so. I thought I could not be so deceived; but now, it is clear; the STATE of his mind is as clear and decided, as my wishes on the subject have been ever since I knew you. Yes, Harriet, just so long have I been wanting the very circumstance to happen which has happened. I could never tell whether an attachment between you and Mr. Elton were most desirable or most natural. Its probability and its eligibility have really so EQUALLED each other! I am very HAPPY. I congratulate you, my dear Harriet, with all my heart. This is an attachment which a woman may well feel pride in CREATING. This is a CONNECTION which offers nothing but good. It will give you every thing that you want -- consideration, INDEPENDENCE, a proper home -- it will fix you in the centre of all your real friends, close to Hartfield and to me, and confirm our intimacy for ever. This, Harriet, is an ALLIANCE which can never raise a blush in either of us."

...and then this description of Harriet's reaction:

"Harriet SUBMITTED, though her mind could hardly separate the parts, so as to feel quite sure that her friend were not writing down a DECLARATION OF. It seemed too precious an offering for any degree of publicity."

I do not believe that this dense cluster of verbal echoes of the Declaration of Independence in a single speech in Emma, together with a short sentence directly connected to it, is coincidental, and my interpretation is that the "courtship" charade is in fact a _parody_ of the Declaration of Independence! Whereas Emma is rhapsodizing to Harriet how great it will be for her to marry Mr. Elton, the reader may well wonder whether Harriet's life with Mr. Elton would have been the paradise that Emma predicts, or more likely the sobering reality of actual English marriage, which in most ways was a subjugation of women, making them wholly dependent on their husbands for every good in their lives--and for a woman like Emma, marriage would literally and legally be a radical shift from total independence to total dependence!

And, to take it one step further, I think JA wanted to hammer home the point that the charade was a parody of Jefferson's (edited) masterpiece, and so she added a wink in the charade itself, to wit, _another_ answer to the charade itself!:

First, for most of recorded human history, a "Declaration" was something _intangible_ that displayed the wealth and pomp of kings as much or more as _tangible_ riches like palaces, crowns, and armies---that's what kings _did_, they issued declarations telling the people what's what---at least, that is, until 1776, when the people of America threw off the yoke of tyranny and _reversed_ that age-old pattern, issuing a declaration _to_ the King of England, telling him that they were no longer taking "whats whats" from him. to the "monarch of the seas", well, take a look at this link:

Although we've all heard of the USS Constitution which defended our country during the War of 1812 and earned the famous name "Ol' Ironsides", apparently the USS _Independence_, constructed in 1812 and deployed to Algiers in 1814, was the _first_ ship of the line in the US Navy, and from what I gather, it played a significant role in projecting American naval power out into the wider world---and therefore it was, in 1814-5, as JA was writing _Emma_ literally (from an American perspective) the "Monarch of the Seas"!

And when these two words are "united" (as in the _United _States!), we have the Declaration of Independence!---and indeed the American _Revolution_ was the mother of all _reversals_ of the status quo in the history of the world!

But...even though I believe the above demonstrates JA's sympathy with the American cause, I believe even more strongly that this is (like the slavery subtext in MP) a metaphor that is subordinated to the fundamental metaphor of the charade, which is the quiet _reversal_ that JA depicted in _Emma_, in which woman declares _her_ independence and freedom from oppression by man, and "woman lovely woman", following the example of the rebellious American colonies, reigns over her own life, alone.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. There are, by the way, two other passages in JA's novels which I believe are also veiled echoes of the Declaration of Independence, which I will very briefly touch upon now:

1. Lizzy's revolt against the tyranny of Lady Catherine in the Longbourne wilderness (and wasn't a great deal of America still mostly a _wilderness_ in 1814-5, especially after the addition of the Louisiana Purchase?), in which Lizzy famously says, "

"I am only RESOLVED to ACT in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, CONSTITUTE my HAPPINESS, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly UNCONNECTED with me."

If the American Revolution were going to be summarized in one sentence spoken by all the American colonists to King George III, that sentence would be perfect!

2. Emma's and Knightley's argument about Frank Churchill's _dependency_ on Mrs. Churchill and whether he has the power to do his duty and visit his father in Highbury, including Emma's passionate assertion:

"You are the worst JUDGE IN THE WORLD, Mr. Knightley, of the difficulties of DEPENDENCE. "

P.P.S: None of the above has anything to do with the connection between JA and the United States which I mentioned earlier today which I am trying to get published in the near future--it just happens that these two discoveries came within a few days of each other.

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