(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mrs. Oliphant and her "modern" take in 1870 on Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen

One comment that is often made to me when I make one of my subversive interpretations of a Jane Austen irony, is that I am imposing a 21st century sensibility on a late 18th century writer.

The following is a strong example to the contrary. Margaret Oliphant, a critic, write a famous article in March, 1870, in response to publication of James Edward Austen Leigh's Memoir about Jane Austen, and Oliphant had the following interesting comments.

First, she quoted JA's famous comments in Letter 79 about Elizabeth Bennet being "as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print", and then herself (Oliphant) referring to Mr. Collins as follows: "Whether it is not too cruel to make the wife of this delightful Mr. Collins share so completely in his creator's estimate of him is a different matter."

Oliphant then went on to rain on the romantic parade of Pride & Prejudice:

It was not so much that she thought Darcy deserved better than Lizzy, so much as it is of Oliphant thinking neither is special, they both deserve each other. Here are her exact words:

"....Elizabeth and Darcy, the one a young woman very much addicted to making speeches, very pert often, fond of having the last word, and prone to hasty judgments, with really nothing but her prettiness and a certain sharp smartness of talk to recommend her; and the other a very ordinary young man, quite like hosts of other young men, with that appearance of outward pride and /hauteur /which is so captivating to the youthful feminine imagination, though it must be admitted that he possesses an extraordinary amount of candour and real humility of mind under this exterior. It is curious to realise what a shock it must have given to the feelings of the young novelist when she found how little her favourite pair had to do with the success of their own story, and how entirely her secondary characters, in their various and vivid
originality, carried the day over her first."

That was a bit harsh on Lizzy, and yet it reflected an ability to read against the grain, and see Lizzy in a more objective way than is typical.

But then Oliphant was completely spot-on in what she says about James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian who corresponds with Jane Austen about _Emma_ and also makes suggestions for her next book's plot and characters.---Oliphant was way ahead of the curve way back in 1870 pointing out how Jane Austen dealt with the Mr. Collins-like Jame Stanier Clarke, I will let Oliphant say the rest herself:

"There is, however, one quaint instance of appreciation, recorded in the Memoir, which took place in her lifetime. The Prince-Regent admired Miss
Austen's novels much, and sent her word through her doctor that she might go and see Carlton House with all its riches—a permission which we cannot but think must have been more honourable than delightful. She took the trouble to do it, however, and there met a Mr. Clarke, librarian to his Royal Highness, who forthwith took her in hand. This gentleman, so far as can be judged by his letters, was a personage altogether after Miss Austen's heart, and who might have stepped out of one of her own books. He gives her permission unasked to dedicate one of her books to the Regent—a permission, by the way, which we do not clearly understand if she ever availed herself of; and, in addition, he
proposes to her a subject for a book. "I also, dear madam," writes this ingenious gentleman, "wished to be allowed to ask you to delineate in some future work the habits of life and character and enthusiasm of a clergyman who should pass his time between the metropolis and the country, who should be something like Beattie's minstrel—'Silent when glad, affectionate though shy. And in bis looks was most demurely sad; And now he laughed aloud, though none knew why.'

Neither Goldsmith, nor La Fontaine in his 'Tableau de Famille,' have, in my mind, quite delineated an English clergyman, at least of the present day — fond of and entirely engaged in literature, no man's enemy but his own. Pray, dear madam, think of these things."

This tempting, not to say solemn' suggestion did not move the novelist, which must have seemed a strange fact to Mr. Clarke. She answers him with admirable gravity, demurely setting herself forth as "the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress," and consequently quite incapable of "drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of. . . . Such a man's conversation," she adds, "must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing, or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving.''......

[And here's the best part]

...How Miss Austen must have chuckled secretly over this wonderful suggestion! how deeply tempted she must have been to transfer the librarian himself, if not his "enthusiastic clergyman," to her canvas! But even this answer does not discourage Mr. Clarke. Some time after he was appointed English secretary to Prince Leopold, who was then about to be married to the Princess Charlotte; and he does not lose a moment apparently in venturing a new suggestion, which was that "an historical romance illustrative of the august house of Cobourg would just now be very interesting." Mr. Collins himself could not have done better. His clever correspondent exults over him; she gives him the gravest answers, and draws her victim out . She is quite inferior to the undertaking, she tells him with comic composure. Mr. Austen Leigh, however, does not seem
to see the fun, but gravely comments upon it, observing that Mr. Clarke should have recollected the warning of the wise man, "Force not the current of the river," a conclusion scarcely less amusing than the preceding narrative. It appears, however, that this was by no means a singular occurrence...."

So even though Oliphant deserves a small black star for her failure to see any
immortality of the battle of the sexes between Lizzy and Darcy, I think she is at least partially redeemed by so beautifully skewering the completely cluelessness of both James Stanier Clarke _and_ JEAL--and perhaps that is not surprising, given how well Oliphant "got" Mr. Collins!

But...what never occurred to Oliphant is the possibility that Mr. Clarke _did_ make an unheralded appearance in JA's novels after all.

Cheers, ARNIE


mockingbird said...

Oh yes I have always had a soft spot for Mrs Oliphant, a very very clever woman... And perhaps the reason why she didn't quite complete the circle was because she was creating her own works of genius.....

I always loved the part in HESTER, where an elopement doesn't happen because of strawberry jam, in both PHOEBE JUNIOR and KIRSTEEN where the unmarried daughter sees the mess the fathers etc have made of life and in spite of years of having been put down as females it is they and their money who save the families...

Not to mention this quote from SALEM CHAPEL:

'Many a time before this, the widow had been compelled to submit to that female tribulation – to be shut up apart, and leave the great events outside to be transacted by those incautious masculine hands, in which, at the bottom of her heart, a woman seldom has perfect confidence when her own supervising influence is withdrawn'

and are you familiar with this bit from her autobiography where she is comparing herself to George Eliot...

'How handicapped I have been in life! Should I have done better if i had been kept, like her, (George Eliot)in a mental greenhouse and taken care of? ... It is a little hard sometimes not to feel that the men who have no wives, who have given themselves up to their art, have had an almost unfair advantage over us.'

And from the same book the father is critical of one daughter Mab trying to earn money from painting...'It is nonsense she must stay where she is, and make herself happy. A good girl is always happy at home' (Then follows a brilliant authorial comment that I am sure JA would have approved of.....)‘What a pity that children and women are not always convinced when the head of the household thus lays down the law.’

Arnie Perlstein said...

Mockingbird, you have just raised my Mrs. Oliphant level 1000%, as I did not know ANY of the interesting things you wrote about--you're better than Wikipedia! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

mockingbird said...

Praise indeed from a grand master.... but see I have my uses too...!!