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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mrs. Stent, Miss Bates……and Sir John Falstaff!

You will recall that we first made the acquaintance of Mrs. Stent (companion to Mrs. Lloyd) in the following immortal lines in JA’s Letter 26 to Martha Lloyd:

"With such a provision on my part, if you will do your's by repeating the French Grammar, & Mrs. Stent will now & then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks & Hens, what can we want?”

And we will be encountering her twice more in coming months:

In Letter 44 to CEA: "Poor Mrs. Stent! it has been her lot to always be in the way; but we must me merciful, for perhaps in time we may become Mrs. Stents ourselves...

And she makes her curtain call in Letter 77, this one written to Martha Lloyd three weeks before Mrs. Stent died: “Poor Mrs. Stent I hope will not be much longer a distress to anybody.”

It has been obvious to me ever since I first read JA’s letters that Mrs. Stent is an important allusive source for the character of Miss Bates. But only today did I become curious to know who was the first Janeite to detect this allusion, and here’s what I found. WAY back in 1893, Agnes Repplier did everything but take the final step of saying that Jane Austen intentionally alluded in this way when she wrote….

“…If we knew [Austen’s bores], we should probably feel precisely as did Emma Woodhouse and Maria Bertram and Elizabeth Bennet, — vastly weary of their company. In fact, only their brief appearances make the two gentlemen bores so diverting, even in fiction; and Miss Bates, I must confess, taxes my patience sorely. ….Miss Austen was far from enjoying the dull people whom she knew in life. We have the testimony of her letters to this effect. Has not Mrs. Stent, otherwise lost to fame, been crowned with direful immortality as the woman who bored Jane Austen ?" We may come to be Mrs. Stents ourselves," she writes, with facile self - reproach at her impatience, "unequal to anything, and unwelcome to anybody " an apprehension manifestly manufactured out of nothingness to strengthen some wavering purpose of amendment. Stupidity is acknowledged to be the one natural gift which cannot be cultivated, and Miss Austen well knew it lay beyond her grasp. With as much sincerity could Emma Woodhouse have said, "I may come in time to be a second Miss Bates."

But then, less than a decade later, in 1902, Henry Houston Bonnell nailed it:

"Poor Mrs. Stent ! " writes Miss Austen to her sister. "It has been her lot to be always in the way; but we must be merciful, for perhaps in time we may come to be Mrs. Stents ourselves, unequal to anything, and unwelcome to everybody." Here we see Miss Bates in posse….”

I have given the above Brief History of Mrs. Stent because of something _else_ I realized earlier today, as I was rereading another “History”---the History of Henry IV, Part One by Shakespeare--- in eager anticipation of going to the multiplex tomorrow night for a rare treat—watching a filmed performance of a Shakespeare play performed at the Globe!—and by the way, I believe it is playing at select Regal theaters all around the US (and perhaps Canada too?) at the same time, and this will be the case during upcoming months for several other Shakespeare plays—check for local listings where you live if you are interested.

Anyway, what I realized as soon as I read the first scene where Falstaff takes center stage, is that Falstaff reminded me _a lot_ of Miss Bates! And when, in Act 2, I came to the famous scene when Prince Hal humiliates Falstaff with his elaborate, and rather cruel, trick, in robbing the robber at Gad’s Hill, I knew instantly that this was _the_ scene that JA intentionally alluded to when she wrote the Box Hill scene in Emma! There are just too many obvious similarities---it is a public humiliation in front of the victim’s closest companions, it takes place on a “Hill”, and, most telling of all, it is a humiliation in which the victim is allowed to first hang him/her self with his/her own words, before being verbally pounced on by the much younger person who once looked up to that older person. An ultimate betrayal of love and trust.

So I checked to see who else has spotted this parallel before in print, and I found, to my surprise, that no critic (accessible online) has claimed that there was an intentional allusion by JA, although a couple have come very close:

First, John Bayley, in a 1974 article entitled “Character and Consciousness”:

“We must really want to be cruel to Miss Bates, as Jane Austen wants to, before we can see that it will not do; we must be seduced by Falstaff before we can really feel why the Prince has to throw him over…”

Then a few years later, Bayley expanded on that same line of thinking, but again, without speaking in terms of an intentional allusion:

“…one of the secrets of JA’s art is to deprive humor of the superiority of those who are continually aware of it. As with Falstaff, her sense of humor is the reason why the same sense is in others. It makes her modest rather than exclusive….Miss Bates is a famous figure. With educated people, at least, she leads, like Mr. Collins again, a quasi proverbial existence outside the book comparable to that of Falstaff—though not so grand. She is paradigmatic to the novel in being so known as the bore who entertains. “

And in 1979, Julia Prewitt Brown wrote: “There is something particularly moving and frightening about the rejection of the comic figure in art, such as the rejection of Falstaff or of the clown in a Charlie Chaplin film.”

And then skip ahead to 2003 when Bharat Tandon (who by the way also picked up on the Mrs. Stent- Miss Bates parallel) wrote the following:

“The Box Hill incident is just such a moment: “Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. 'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, …(looking round with the most good humoured dependence on every body’s assent)…...’You know’, ‘shan’t I’, ‘Do not you all think’; as if these prompts were not enough, Austen inserts the extraordinary bracketed stage direction in the middle of Miss Bates’s speech, one which, given Austen’s relative lack of adverbial qualifications, is all the more prominent. Miss Bates may be no Falstaff ('I am not only witty in my self, but the cause that wit is in other men’) but the stage direction…suggests she is at least partly aware of the ridiculous figure she makes, and that she has, therefore, partly pre-empted Emma’s joke at her expense, which makes it all the more embarrassing that Emma can then so completely misunderstand her cue. “

And now I will tie all of the above together with a neat shiny bow by pointing you to _another_ mention of Mrs. Stent in JA’s letters, Letter 28, which we discussed nearly two months ago, and which I intentionally held back for my finale:

"I have been here ever since a quarter after three on thursday last, by the Shrewsbury Clock, which I am fortunately enabled absolutely to ascertain, because Mrs. Stent once lived at Shrewsbury, or at least at Tewksbury.-"

So here we JA explicitly associating Mrs. Stent with Falstaff! The allusion is to Henry IV, Part One, Act 5, Scene, 4, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Shrewsbury, when Falstaff boasts to Prince Hal that he has slain Percy, and the Prince then wryly points out to Falstaff that he (the Prince) _himself_ killed Percy. Caught in this barefaced lie, the resourceful Falstaff thinks fast:

"Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath; and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valour bear the sin upon their own heads. I'll take it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the thigh: if the man were alive and would deny it, 'zounds, I would make him eat a piece of my sword. "

This scene is the bookend to the scene of humiliation at Gad’s Hill—once again, Falstaff is bragging about heroics he has not actually performed, and has been caught in his lie once more by Hal.

So isn’t it curious to think about JA writing the character of Miss Bates, and the Box Hill scene in particular, with _both of those Falstaffian humiliations in mind, as well as poor Mrs. Stent?

And I then take this one final step by repeating my mantra that Miss Bates is a self-portrait of Jane Austen herself. And that of course fits perfectly with everything I have written, above, including Emma Woodhouse’s fear of becoming a second Miss Bates, just as JA writes to CEA of her fear lest the two impecunious Austen spinsters both eventually become Mrs. Stents themselves!

All of which is, I claim, a remarkable matrix of allusion that demonstrates how JA’s letters echo her novels, and how JA’s own life was mirrored in her novels, and what a liar Henry Austen, JEAL and all the other biographers were who claimed that JA did not write fiction based on real people!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I hope at least some of you will also go see Henry IV Part One tomorrow evening, and then we can share our reactions!

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