ABOVE: The 1813 Cruikshank caricature of The Prince of Whales: The Fisherman at Anchor.................. Read Colleen Sheehan's articles (including the footnotes) for the amazing Jane Austen connection:



...Halloween, 2010, when I addressed the JASNA AGM in Portland re: "Remember the country and age in which we live": The Covert Death-in-childbirth Anti-parody in Northanger Abbey"



...to various JASNA chapters re: “The Shadow Story of Emma: Jane Austen, the Secret Feminist”:

In NYC....


...and also in Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Gainesville, Atlanta, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.


I want to present to other JASNA chapters. Email arnieperlstein@myacc.net if you're interested!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Margaret Doody's misguided review of Margaret Kirkham's Pioneering, Prescient & Spot-On 1982 book Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction

Ellen Moody wrote earlier yesterday and today in Austen L:

"I've found a review of Kirkham's book by Margaret Doody...Doody also thinks Kirkham's whole discussion over-reliant on this parallel, a distortion caused by Kirkham's desire to say something new. Many of Kirkham's ogres (Richardson, Johnson) are not ogres at all; to defeat Marilyn Butler's reading of Austen as reactionary you need to close read the novels....Anyone interested in the review, I could send it on by attachment. Doody may seem a bit harsh, but she is correct."

And I disagree with Ellen in every way, I find Doody's review as wrong as it can possibly be about the most important aspects of JA's writing. I wonder if Doody has changed her mind about these things since she wrote these book reviews 26 years (and hundreds of essay of feminist criticism of JA) ago. Doody in this article is really "Marilyn Butler Lite".

First Doody takes an extended potshot at Jan Fergus's book _Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel_ and faults Fergus for not making a strong case for Fergus's central claim that "Austen's intentions" were "primarily didactic." I have not looked at Fergus's book in a while, but in general I have found her to be pretty sensitive to JA's feminist undercurrents. And the point that Doody does not get is that Fergus’s central claim is clearly correct.

I suspect that Doody was stung by Fergus's opinion of the relative worth of Richardson's novels vs. Jane Austen's novels, from the following barb thrown by Doody at Fergus:

" It never seems to have occurred to this critic for even a moment that there are some readers-some now alive-who think Sir Charles Grandison a greater novel than Pride and Prejudice. I do not mean that Fergus ought to share such a view, merely that she should be capable of acknowledging its possibility. But the earlier works are simply treated as outdated Model T novels."

There's a reason why only literary scholars still read Sir Charles Grandison, and why everyone reads Jane Austen, but Doody wants Fergus to waste time explaining why. Anyone who has attempted to read more than 20 pages of Sir Charles Grandison can see the answer with their own eyes--Richardson needed an editor to cut 2/3 of his endless verbosity, so as to get the worthy material at the core of his novels.

But now let's get to what Doody says about Kirkham's book, with my comments interspersed:

[Doody] "It is absurd to assert that the author of Pamela and Clarissa had no sympathy for female rebellion. Kirkham believes that Austen rejected Grandison and patriarchs together: [Quoting Kirkham]"She does this by showing patriarchal figures as at best defective, like Mr. Bennet, and at worst vicious, like General Tilney" ...Ah, but what about the vexing case of Mr. Knightley? On this Grandisonian figure Kirkham is nearly silent."

[Me]: Doody is the one who has missed the boat, and even if Kirkham's analysis of Richardson is not elegant, Kirkham has gotten to the heart of the matter, which is JA's rejection and covert satire of patriarchal sexism. And then what irony that Doody throws Mr. Knightley in Kirkham's face, as if Doody has proved that JA was a big fan of Knightley. But I have repeatedly argued that Knightley is the very epitome of the sexism that JA satirized covertly. And those who recall what I wrote a few months ago in that regard will also recall that I argued repeatedly that Knightley is a portrait of Samuel Johnson, and that it is not a flattering portrait, when viewed from the proper angle.

[Doody again] "The case against Dr. Johnson is even harder to make. Johnson, in Kirkham's view, was until late middle age an unreconstructed Tory patriarchalist and a despiser of women. Chief proof is his approbation of Richardson. By 1779, however, in his Life of Milton, a regenerate Johnson shows that he "had himself benefited from the moral debate engendered by the novel" (p. 16). Kirkham has evidently not read Johnson's Irene, the work of his youth, a play in which the central moral debates and action are given to the women, who are independent moral agents as well as the central characters. It is hard to believe in Kirkham's gallery of ogres. The arguments are repeatedly shaky."

[Me]: And I say that in 1982, Kirkham, working from scratch with almost no prior scholarship to give her comfort, was an incredible pioneer in grasping the feminism at the core of JA's writing. She deserves only praise for her courageous and brilliant insights.

[Doody] "Any jocular reference by Austen to another writer is to be taken as a symptom of deep dislike. Kirkham really wants Austen to be a pure Wollstonecraftean feminist."

[Me]: Because JA was even more than a Wollstonecraftean feminist, she was even more radical than that! But Doody is, as I said, “Marilyn Butler Lite”, and so she draws the line at the “crazy” notion that JA might have been a strong feminist.

[Doody again] "She goes as far as she can in insisting that Austen probably read Wollstonecraft: "the young woman of Cassandra's sketch looks as though she might" have read the feminist's works. 'Jane Austen may well have profited from consideration of both novels [Mary and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman], which would not have been unattainable in Bath" (p. 37). There are "similarities . . . worth noting": Marza touches on whether or not a woman, who has no legal or constitutional rights, may be said to have a country. In Northanger Abbey, the laws and customs of England are overtly held to protect a wife ... but the ironies of the novel undermine this and raise doubts as to how far all is well in the Midland counties of England. In Maria the heroine is literally imprisoned by her husband; she says, "Marriage had bastilled me for life...." In Mansfield Park, Maria sees Sotherton as a "dismal old prison . . ." (p. 37) The awkward tracing of such "similarities" ignores the texture and tropes of novels of the period, as well as a whole history of fiction and of social ideas that had affected Wollstonecraft in her turn."

[Me] Again, Doody is dead wrong, Kirkham has actually gotten to the heart of the deep complex allusions to Wollstonecraft by JA, for which Kirkham deserves the highest praise. Doody is the one ignoring what JA had to say _in her novels_!

[Doody one last time] "Kirkham refuses to acknowledge the variations of feminism or social thought among women writers of the conservative and liberal as well as radical positions. Writers such as Charlotte Smith and Jane West are scarcely referred to; Austen seems to exist on an ideological island previously settled once and once only by Mary Wollstonecraft. "

[Me, one last time] And again, Doody blames Kirkham for not covering the entire field of Austen's feminist allusions, at a time when no other Austen scholar (other than the brilliant Allison Sulloway in the mid Seventies). I will rectify Kirkham’s excusable failure to cover everything, and show, as I have very recently written, Charlotte Smith was as big a source for JA as Wollstonecraft--and I am certain Kirkham would agree with that statement!

Cheers, ARNIE

Catherine Morland's name anagram

Earlier today, in Janeites and Austen-L, Anielka Briggs wrote: "Those of you who can see what I am on about and think they know Austen's "real" answer to the "Catherine Morland" anagram/homophone, please put me out of my misery and tell me. Can you see the name of a heroine contained in the letters of "Catherine Morland"? Those of you who just see a funnier anagram ("See more land : And Reclaim throne?? "A calm rodent in her"???) I dearly love to laugh and look forward to reading your suggestions."

Here is my reply:

Anielka, I have something even funnier and more misery-relieving than I think even you, with your first-rate puzzle solving talents, have imagined:

The answer to your question as to the anagram contained in Catherine Morland's name is that it is........

(scroll down)

it is.......

(scroll down)

it is......

(scroll down)

it is......

(scroll down)

it is.....

(scroll down)

it is....

(no more scrolling down)

....in Mr. Elton's charade......

......and yet, strangely, that answer is in Mr. Elton's charade in two completely different, and yet wonderfully complementary, ways.

How can this be?

Think about it, and surely someone will realize how, and come forward to explain--otherwise, I will do so myself, tomorrow a.m (EST).

Last hint: one of those two answers can be found without reading anything other than this message.

Cheers, ARNIE

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jane Austen, the inveterate punster, outdoes herself

OK, I have a small quiz for those Janeites who enjoy wordplay.

In the following statement by Lady Catherine during her momentous showdown with Lizzy at Longbourn, I have just discovered the literal English translation of a two-word idiom in a foreign language, an idiom which was frequently used by English speakers in JA's time, and which is still frequently used in our own time:

"My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this I shall certainly not depart from it."

Please note that the two words in English which together constitute a translation of the foreign idiom are NOT next to each other in Lady Catherine's statement.

And, to further add to JA's clever hiding of this common idiom in plain sight, Lady Catherine's statement also contains a punning hint as to which foreign language the idiom is from!

I believe someone is going to quickly guess the correct answer in each of the online venues where I am posting this little quiz, but if no one does by Friday at 5 pm EST, I will post the answer everywhere.

Happy hunting! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

The Unsettling Shades of a Charlotte Smith “Romance of Real Life” cast on Pemberley & Mr. Darcy

For over two years, I have been firmly convinced that Charlotte Smith....


....was the novelist who was most important to Jane Austen, in terms of inspiration for the covert radical feminism that I detect in JA’s novels. Of course, Richardson, Burney and Radcliffe’s novels were all hugely important, multiple allusive sources for JA. And there would have been very few significant English novels of the 18th and early 19th century that JA would _not_ have been very familiar with. But, I suggest, her engagement with Smith’s fiction was qualitatively different—something unique and special. Whereas with all the others, there are strong elements of parody and irony, I perceive that JA’s take on love and marriage was very very similar to Smith’s forthright radical feminist critique of male mistreatment of women.

I mention all this because today I came upon a particularly smoky “smoking gun” that illustrates how strong Smith’s influence really was on JA. It goes to the heart of Jane Austen’s fiction-- the character of Mr. Darcy--and, as you will read below, it casts very unsettling shades on the way JA wished her readers to see her most romantic hero, suggesting that the worst “pollution” may have come from within the walls of Pemberley.

Read on if you dare, gentle readers…..

In 1787 (when JA was 12), Charlotte Smith published “Romance of Real Life”, a series of vignettes drawn from a French book describing a number of “Causes Celebres”, accounts of trials for infamous crimes. The title of Smith’s book is thus immediately seen to be extremely ironic, even macabre, in light of the extraordinarily UNromantic nature of her stories!

The first such horrid real life story is that of “The Marchioness de Gange”, and it is the reason for my post today. It begins with the following extraordinary paragraph:

“It has been asserted, that there is in human nature a propensity to every kind of evil; and that persons of the best disposition, and most liberal education, may find themselves in such situations as will, if their passions are suffered to predominate, betray them into the most frightful excesses, into crimes which cannot be related without horror. Under the dominion of such dreadful passions the Abbe and the Chevalier de Gange must have been, when they committed the inhuman cruelties which are the subject of the following narrative.”

I called that passage “extraordinary” because most Janeites will immediately hear an echo of the above passage in Mr. Darcy’s very famous summation of human nature:
"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil -- a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."

At first these two statements might seem not to be expressing a particularly unique opinion about human nature. Therefore, such opinion might be independently arrived at and asserted by various authors unknown to each other. However, upon more minute inspection, the repetition of the identical words “disposition”, “education”, and “evil”, coupled with the very specific (and disturbing) claim that even a good or liberal education, and/or a good disposition, was no guaranty against an outburst of evil under provocative circumstances, make it extremely likely that JA had Smith’s statement in mind when she put those specific words in Darcy’s mouth.

That likelihood increases markedly when one sets it alongside the many _other_ allusions to various of Charlotte Smith’s novels (Celestina, The Old Manor House, Emmeline, etc.) which have been detected by other scholars, as well as additional allusions I have personally discovered during the past two years.

So I feel safe in arguing that JA intended to allude to The Marchioness de Gange in Pride and Prejudice. But what does this allusion mean?

Read on if you dare…..

In the above quoted paragraph, Smith makes it clear that it is the Abbe and the Chevalier de Gange (who are brothers of the second husband of the tragic heroine of the story) whose “dreadful passions” are the persons being referred to by her aphorism about propensities to evil. I will focus today on the Abbe.

Shortly after he is introduced into the narrative, Smith chillingly describes the Abbe’s character as follows:

“…this diabolical spirit he had art enough to conceal, with the profoundest dissimulation, and could assume the appearance of the most amiable, benevolent, and honest man in the world, while his heart was the receptacle of every vice that disgraces human nature.”

We have seen these men before in JA’s novels, have we not? And in Pride and Prejudice, the name “Wickham” would immediately come to mind as a perfect example. The Abbe being, ostensibly at least, a man of God, fits perfectly with Wickham’s hypocrisy in claiming to have wished to be a giver of sermons himself.

And yet….is it that simple? If JA is only thinking about Wickham as a representation of Smith’s Abbe, why is it, then, that it is _Darcy_ who makes that comment about disposition to a particular evil, in connection with _his own_ character, in a rebuttal to Elizabeth’s zinger?:

“"Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."

Darcy is scrambling to justify _his own_ resentful character, and only a few moments earlier in their battle of words, he has also made a claim which seems to directly contradict Smith’s dictum:

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride -- where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."

“always under good regulation”…..hmm…..why would JA make a specific allusion to an authoritative statement by Charlotte Smith which suggests that “good regulation” of character can sometimes vanish, when strong passions have been aroused? Is JA thereby suggesting that Darcy is deluded as to his own character, and that his pride is _not_ always under good regulation?

And anyway, why would JA want to suggest a parallel between Darcy and the sociopathic Abbe from Smith’s story? If you read the story all the way through, as I have done, it is never in doubt that the Abbe is indeed a moral monster, a depraved sadist who justifies and rationalizes all manner of bestial and horrific actions, over an extended period of time--most of all, the savage, unprovoked, and premeditated murder of the saintly heroine of Smith’s story, who happens to be his sister in law! It is only at the very end of Smith’s account that the Abbe (in one of the two translations Smith relied upon) expresses any remorse at all. And by then, all the awful damage of his machinations has occurred, and is irreparable.
But, you might respond to me, at that early stage of P&P when Darcy’s first defends his own character, Lizzy is mistaken in her very bad opinion of Darcy, and also in her very good opinion of Wickham. And therefore, this logic goes, when Lizzy later undergoes her “conversion” after reading Darcy’s self-justifying “epistle” (and I now detect a very strong scent of epiphany and sudden religious conversion in the way that Lizzy’s opinions of Darcy and Wickham flip topsy turvy from that moment forward in the story), we readers are meant to revisit Darcy’s self-defense in our mind, and to bring our opinion in line with Lizzy’s, and to see the evil as really being in Wickham, not in Darcy.

But…(and you knew I had another “but” or three up my….sleeve), consider then the following excerpt from Smith’s story, describing how the Abbe is strongly attracted to his sister in law from the moment he first sees her:

“The uncommon charms of the Marchioness de Gange made an immediate and deep impression on the heart of this bad man, nor did the consideration of her being his brother's wife deter him a moment from forming designs upon her honour.”

You may well say that this is also Wickham picking up somehow on Darcy’s attraction to Lizzy, and therefore zeroing in on Lizzy himself. And that would be quite plausible.

But….how then to explain the very next sentence?:

“Scorning to put any restraint on his inclinations, however unwarrantable, he determined to attempt seducing Madame de Gange; and for this purpose, knowing the influence of gratitude on such a heart as hers, he began by endeavouring to oblige her.”

Hmm….at no point does Wickham ever seek to make Lizzy feel gratitude toward him. Pity, yes, but not gratitude. Whereas….to a cynic, this might sound very much like what Darcy does in the second half of P&P, when he takes extraordinary actions on behalf of Lizzy and her family. These all have the effect of generating a feeling of enormous gratitude in Lizzy.

But no, you retort, Darcy does not reveal his good deeds to Lizzy, she only discovers them by accident when Lydia blurts out that Darcy attended Lydia’s and Wickham’s wedding.

I will leave the explanation of that point (and I do have a good one) for another time, and instead return to Smith’s “Romance” and its account of how and why the Abbe reveals his good deeds to his sister in law, with my comments interspersed:
“As soon as an opportunity offered, [the Abbe] took care to tell her, that [her theretofore abusive husband’s] present attention, and kindness, was in consequence of what [the Abbe] had said in her favour—and he gave her at the same time to understand, that the heart of his brother was so entirely in his hands, that her treatment must depend wholly on him.—Disgusted at such a declaration, the Marchioness answered coolly, that she thanked him. — The Abbe was a good deal disappointed at the reception she gave him on this occasion. —He had flattered himself that she would have accepted with more vivacity his proffered services, and that, by first engaging her gratitude, he should in time create in her breast warmer sentiments in his favour.”

In terms of arrogant presumption, does this speech by the Abbe not remind us of Darcy’s first proposal to Lizzy? And so it is not surprising that it generates a response from the Marchioness which reminds us even more of Lizzy’s response to Darcy’s first proposal:

“But though a man of abilities, such as he possest, who determines to make himself agreeable, and has such continual opportunities of doing so, is above all others the most dangerous object a young woman can encounter; it happened that the dislike, even bordering on antipathy, which Madame de Gange had conceived, on the first sight of the Abbe, was an invincible obstacle to his designs. — Her manner towards him was civil, but so cold and distant, that he could very seldom find an occasion to speak to her apart.—And after some time, as he saw she studied to avoid him, and that all his assiduities made no impression on her, he determined to speak plainly, and to acknowledge his passion, in terms that she could not misunderstand.”

And we’ve only just begun, because here’s where the allusion becomes painfully obvious:

“The Marchioness had engaged herself to pass some days at the country residence of a friend,—Thither the Abbe followed her, and, as his conversation was extremely agreeable, he was received with pleasure by the whole party.—“

Just as Darcy shows up at Rosings just as Lizzy arrives at Hunsford visiting Charlotte Lucas!

And speaking of Charlotte Lucas, as I was writing this post, I realized that perhaps JA named her Charlotte as a way of pointing to Charlotte Smith herself! After all, Charlotte Smith survived a loveless debt-plagued marriage, and wrote as a matter of economic survival as much as artistic expression. And perhaps we might then see another tip of the hat to Charlotte Smith, hiding in plain sight in Charlotte Lucas’s most famous statement:

“I am not _romantic_, you know; I never was.”

Neither, I would suggest, was the author of , as I suggested, the extremely ironically titled “_Romance_ of Real Life”!

But there’s even more, as we next hear of how the Abbe, not being able to take no for an answer, has yet another go at the Marchioness:

“…A hunting party being proposed, at which every gentleman was to attend on a lady, the Abbe offered himself to escort Madame de Gange; which she accepted, with her usual cool civility, as a matter of perfect indifference.—As soon as the company began to disperse in the woods, the Abbe, who now saw the opportunity at hand that he had so long wished for, led Madame de Gange into the most unfrequented spot he could find, and then, with very little preface, made the confession he had meditated—but so abruptly, and with expressions so strong and ardent, that they inspired Madame de Gange with terror rather than pity —who turning _pale with surprise and anger_, could not immediately form any reply;”

In addition to reminding us of how Darcy repeatedly runs into Lizzy in various unfrequented spots in the vicinity of Hunsford and Rosings, do we not also recall first Darcy’s first words as he proposes?:

“You must allow me to tell you how _ardently_ I admire and love you."

And then the Abbe’s change of color unmistakably recalls the narration after Lizzy _coolly_ rejects Darcy’s first proposal?:

“Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantlepiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than _surprise_. His complexion became _pale with anger_, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature.”

And then we have even _more_ parallels to Lizzy’s reaction to Darcy’s proposal:
“…while the Abbe continued to declare himself with such violence of manner, and in terms so unequivocal, that she could not doubt of his being very much in earnest—and she saw, that to endeavour to laugh it off, as she would have done such a declaration from a less resolute lover, would have availed her nothing: assuming therefore an air more reserved than before, me said—" I will not, Monsieur l'Abbe, affect to misunderstand you; —but you must know how I ought to receive such a confession as you have presumed to make. “

Is that not echoed by Lizzy’s immortal reply to Darcy?:

“"In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot…”

As an aside, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love the way that JA, with her far greater genius than Smith as a composer of words, translates Smith’s rather pedestrian prose into immortal dialog equal to the immortal repartee of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing!

And this suggests to me that JA loved Smith’s thinking, but was not a big fan of her actual writing, and so JA took it upon herself to package Smith’s worthy feminist ideas in the kind of first rate writing that would survive in the world, as JA’s novels have, even as Smith’s have long since faded into obscurity.

But back to Darcy and the Abbe. Here is the final telling allusion, as we first read of the Abbe’s response to rejection:

“The manner in which she pronounced these words, made them infinitely more mortifying to the Abbe, than the words themselves. Stung to the soul, his dissimulation entirely forsook him, and he fiercely answered—" Know you not, " Madam, when you brave my vengeance thus, that your fate is entirely in my hands? Have you forgotten that it is in my power to make you the most miserable of women—and that I will do so if you refuse to listen to me? In declining to return my passion, you risk having your life embittered by the severest trials. Love me, Madam, suffer me at least to hope that you will, and all my power shall be dedicated to your happiness and tranquillity."

Is this passage not the kissing cousin of Darcy’s outburst at Lizzy, in which he takes off the gloves and smears the entire Bennet family?

And now we have the twin of Lizzy’s reply:

“The Marchioness, still making an effort to command her indignation, replied—" As you affect to love, learn now to esteem me.—Be assured, Monsieur l'Abbe, that the dread of evils worse than death, shall never induce me to commit a wicked action."—"But," added she, as if to mortify him still more—" if I were indeed capable of such weakness, _you are the last man on earth who could influence me to be guilty of it._" So saying, she rejoined her company, leaving the Abbe overwhelmed with rage and confusion. — His pride so severely humbled, his love hopeless, irritated him almost to madness ; and, incapable with all his art of commanding his temper, while his heart was corroded by such uneasy sensations, he took a sullen leave of the lady of the house, and returned in the evening to Avignon, nobody but Madame de Gange being able to guess the cause of this sudden access of ill-humour, which all his complaisance and dissimulation did not enable him a moment to disguise.”

Of course, Lizzy mortifies Darcy with “…I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

So….I finish by repeating the question I posed at the beginning of this post, as to whether JA’s allusion to Smith’s “The Marchioness de Gange” was meant to draw a parallel between the abominable serpent-like Abbe and Wickham? Or Darcy?

The romantic interpretation would certainly be “Wickham”, but perhaps JA, like Charlotte Smith and Charlotte Lucas, was _also_ never romantic?

Before you give your final answer, I have kept for last, to convince the wavering skeptics among you, the most disturbing echo of Smith’s story in P&P, which occurs in Chapter 58, as Darcy and Lizzy debrief the course of their tempestuous courtship together. Darcy is in high confessional tone as he says:

“Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing -- to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
What reader’s heart does not melt when reading this extraordinary admission by an ardent but humbled lover?

Well, if you have a good ear, you will have picked up, in Darcy’s confession, an unwitting echo of the first passage I quoted, above, from Smith’s “Romance”:

“…this diabolical spirit he had art enough to conceal, with the profoundest dissimulation, and could assume the appearance of the most _amiable, benevolent_, and honest man in the world, while his heart was the receptacle of every vice that disgraces human nature.”

Smith makes it clear from the beginning of her account that the Abbe merely “assumes the appearance of the most amiable, benevolent and honest man in the world.” If JA means for us to understand that Darcy really has been “taught a lesson” by Lizzy, why (in the world) would JA have Darcy refer to his father as “all that was benevolent and amiable”, thereby causing the reader familiar with Smith to associate Darcy and his father with the Abbe?

Cheers, ARNIE

International Readership

As I monitor my blog statistics from time to time, I am always fascinated by how international my readership is--yes, about 2/3 of the "hits" originate in the United States, and another 1/9 come from Canada, the UK and Australia (which is exactly what one would expect), but that still leaves over 20% from other countries where English is a second (or even less primary) language, and that is what I am curious about.

So....if you are a regular or sporadic reader of this blog, and come from one of those other countries (those with the most hits overall are, in order, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Denmark, South Korea, Sweden, Spain, Ukraine, Slovenia, China, Iran, Brazil, France and Greece), I would love it if you would respond to this post (preferably with your real name but that is not absolutely necessary), tell what country you hail from, and say something about Jane Austen in relation to your country, or about how you think my main theme of Jane Austen as a radical feminist plays out in 2011 in your country?

Don't be shy, I think it would be very interesting to see how people from around the world respond to Jane Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE

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

Letter 22: The Wetness of the Wafers, the Littleness of the Clues, and Suspicion of the Truth

A Janeite friend who read my post yesterday....


[speculating about the mystery of what Jane Austen meant when she wrote about "the wetness of the wafers" (i.e., dried glue) which closed the letters from Cassandra to Edward's small children taken along on the trip to Bath]

....came up with a very ingenious explanation for the meaning behind JA's reference to "the wetness of the wafers" which never occurred to me, and which I will share with you now:

"I am wondering if Cassandra did not send individual letters to the children but to save money posted all of them in one package, Jane may have separated them out and put on wafers which were then still moist when Fanny received her letter. If the wafers had been put on by Cassandra they could not still be moist or there would be a danger that the letters would come open. "

Spurred by my friend's very clever suggestion, I immediately took it one logical step further, as I responded to her as follows:

"I would only suggest one further possibility, that fits really well with the JA I know---i.e., that the letters to the children were really written by JA in the first place! Why? Because we know that postage costs were almost always an issue for CEA and JA, and I think it was based on weight, as it is today, so that it would have been cost prohibitive for CEA to include additional letters to the children [especially if the letters were adult-length, which of course would have been especially pleasing to the children]. And little kids would never have been able to notice that JA was simulating CEA's handwriting, and no adult present would have blown JA's cover (it would have been like telling kids today that there's no Santa)."

In other words, it would have been easy to pull off, and a completely harmless deception of the children, because done for the sole purpose of giving them joy they would never know was manufactured out of thin air by a loving aunt. Plus, the children would have been spared several days of waiting for the actual post to arrive!

To which my friend replied:

"Actually your suggestion - that JA wrote the letters herself also occurred to me. And so she was actually warning CA know that she should expect the kids to write and thank her for the letters."

"Yes!" is my reply, indeed it would rather spoil the whole thing if Aunt Cassandra drew a blank upon the return of the children to Godmersham bubbling over with thanks for their special letters from Aunt Cassandra!

And, for now, that is the explanation that works best for me, in particular because I think JA applied that same principle of stage-managing her readers's reality in writing her novels, too! I.e., I have found that many readers of JA's novels express some surprise, from time to time, at small details they spot in the novels which don't quite fit their conception of what is supposed to be happening at a given moment in the story, but...I have also noticed that this almost always does _not_ "lead to any suspicion of the truth."

One other relevant point. In my first reply to my friend, I had also written, "I now imagine how crazy some other Janeites must think I am, to even ask this question in the first place!"

To which my friend wrote this lovely and very apt reply:

"I dont think that anything is too little to examine for clues. "

And I could not agree more with that statement, indeed, I have often found that solving clues which have seemed most trivial and tiny have sometimes been the portal to major transformative insights. And I think this little tale of "The Wetness of the Wafers" is a perfect example of that, and also of the synergistic power of group discussions like those we have in these groups.

As I freely acknowledged to the JASNA Chapter in Atlanta when I addressed the group 9 days ago, I seriously doubt that I would ever have come up with my shadow story interpretations of JA's novels (and now also Shakespeare's plays, and some other authors's novels as well) if not for my participation in the Janeites group from 2000 onward. It took 2 1/2 years of give and take for the first spark to ignite in my mind in July 2002, and it's been a wild ride ever since. So I will be eternally grateful to Nancy for her wise stewardship of Janeites.

Cheers, ARNIE

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Wetness of the Wafer, Bluebeard, and other matters "en mystere"

Letter 22 is short, but it still contains some interesting matters to decipher:

"The children were delighted with your letters, as I fancy they will tell you themselves before this is concluded. Fanny expressed some surprise at the wetness of the wafers, but it did not lead to any suspicion of the truth."

I was bewildered by "the wetness of the wafers", until I learned from Le Faye's _JA: The World of her Novels_ that the "wafer" was not something edible, but the small circle of dried glue which was placed on the letter after it was all folded up, to seal it shut. That leaves open the meaning of JA's clearly playful suggestion that the 6 year old Fanny did not suspect the true explanation for why the wafer was wet. I would guess that saliva was the source of the wetness, which does not seem particularly interesting, even to a 6 year old---or is there a joke there that I am

"John Lyford's history is a melancholy one. I feel for his family, and when I know that his wife was really fond of him, I will feel for her too, but at present I cannot help thinking their loss the greatest."

That sounds like JA channeling her inner Charlotte Lucas, operating on the presumption that a marriage based on genuine love, especially on the part of a wife in desperate search of security, was a rarity.

"Edward has not been well these last two days; his appetite has failed him, and he has complained of sick and uncomfortable feelings, which, with other symptoms, make us think of the gout; perhaps a fit of it might cure him, but I cannot wish it to begin at Bath."

I hear heavy sarcasm in the suggestion that an attack of gout might cure Edward's vague "sick and uncomfortable feelings", the sarcasm reinforced by JA's last comment, i.e., that he should not suffer the gout attack until _after_ JA makes her escape from Bath, where she clearly feels trapped.

"He made an important purchase yesterday: no less so than a pair of coach-horses. His friend Mr. Evelyn found them out and recommended them, and if the judgment of a Yahoo can ever be depended on, I suppose it may now, for I believe Mr. Evelyn has all his life thought more of horses than of anything else."

And here we have a real life model for John Thorpe, plus clear evidence that JA had Gulliver's Travels at the tip of her pen.

"The play on Saturday is, I hope, to conclude our gaieties here, for nothing but a lengthened stay will make it otherwise. "

Le Faye tells us it was Kotzebue's _The Birthday_, but she does not reveal that she bases this i.d. on Margaret Kirkham's elaborate and utterly convincing identification of that play, in her 1982 book, and I believe Le Faye does not mention Kirkham's book because Le Faye does not want anyone to read Kirkham's excellent pioneering book about Jane Austen as a feminist.

Kotzebue's play is undoubtedly a source for _Emma_--an identification that is obvious when you actually read Kotzebue's play (as I have)--it is clearly a very important subtext for Emma, especially, I would suggest, with respect to the backstory of _Emma_.

Le Faye also mentions that on the program was the 'romance' Bluebeard--which fits perfectly with my claim that Perrault's Bluebeard tale was a major covert allusion in Northanger Abbey.

Cheers, ARNIE

Friday, April 22, 2011

P.S. re Opening Pandora's Royal Box at the Abbey

As I reflect upon my post yesterday entitled "Opening Pandora's Royal Box...", I realize that I did not flesh out one aspect of my argument, which was the notion of Northanger Abbey as being, in important part, a retelling of not only the Bluebeard story made famous by Perrault in 1701, but also the Greek myth of Pandora opening her famous box.

Jane Austen makes it clear, subliminally, that Catherine Morland's "transgressive female curiosity" is what, in the shadow story of the novel, leads her to the central mystery of the novel, which is the abuse of the ordinary English wife by the ordinary English husband. How does she do this? Austen's most powerful tool are textual "bread crumbs", hints left in the form of keywords which alert the reader who already suspects the subtextual allusion that the allusion is indeed intentional.

The keyword of the Pandora myth is the word "hope"--if you follow that word during the scenes when Catherine is snooping first in the chest in her room, and later in Mrs. Tilney's room, the word "hope" pops up with remarkable (and telling) frequency and aptness.

Check out, e.g., the following passages from Chapter 21 of Northanger Abbey:

"Again, therefore, she applied herself to the key, and after moving it in every possible way for some instants with the determined celerity of HOPE’s last effort, the door suddenly yielded to her hand: her heart leaped with exultation at such a victory, and having thrown open each folding door, the second being secured only by bolts of less wonderful construction than the lock, though in that her eye could not discern anything unusual, a double range of small drawers appeared in view, with some larger drawers above and below them; and in the centre, a small door, closed also with a lock and key, secured in all probability a cavity of importance.
Catherine’s heart beat quick, but her courage did not fail her. With a cheek flushed by HOPE, and an eye straining with curiosity, her fingers grasped the handle of a drawer and drew it forth. It was entirely empty.....The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction; it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give HOPE to the rekindling breath."

I would suggest that Pandora's Box is in some ways the _central_ subtext of the shadow story of the novel, because JA, as an author, is emulating the mythological Pandora, by tearing off the covers which conceal all the evil which festers in the ordinary "general" English marriage. In a sense, then she "releases" those evils into the world, in the sense of making them visible to all those who were blind to them. That is the service which I claim Catherine Morland unwittingly provides to Henry Tilney, opening his eyes to the injustice of English marriage.

In Pride and Prejudice, much of the plot turns on the key question that various characters grapple with, which is whether it is better to reveal their knowledge of someone else's wrongdoing to third parties, or to conceal that knowledge out of a desire not to gossip or slander someone's reputation.

It is clear to me that Jane Austen felt it was her ethical responsibility, as an enlightened woman, to share her insight into the evils of English marriage, which is a way of opening Pandora's box, because she understood that it was only in this way that there was any _hope_ of expunging those evils!

In short, the overt story of the novel seems to argue that opening Pandora’s Box is a bad thing, but the deeper shadow story makes it clear that this is a delusion, and that opening Pandora’s Box as (like eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge) is a good thing!

Cheers, ARNIE

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Opening Pandora’s Royal Box at the Abbey: “…in suspecting General Tilney (and the Prince Regent).....

....of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”

(For those who enjoy what I do, this one is really special, you’re gonna love it!)

In the following-linked 2007 Persuasions article, Colleen Sheehan presented conclusive evidence that Jane Austen satirized the Prince Regent (the future King George IV, whom I will henceforth refer to as the “PR”) in the longer charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, by pointing to a _second_ secret answer to the charade which Emma (convinced the only answer is “courtship”) never imagines, but which Harriet Smith points toward in her “wrong” answers: the “Prince of Whales” (with an “h”):


As significant as Sheehan’s discovery was in the realm of Austen studies----and as hugely validating as it was for me personally in the second year of my own research into Austen’s shadow stories, in particular seeing Frank Churchill as a representation of the PR)---- Colleen was not the first scholar to detect satire of the PR by Jane Austen.

Way back in 1996, Roger Sales, in _Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England_ , made an ingenious extended argument that the PR was represented by Tom Bertram in _Mansfield Park_:


and there was one other claim I came across last year, suggesting another satire of the PR in Austen’s novels, being the following 6/25/09 blurb at an online Austen-related site by an insightful amateur going by the Swiftian moniker “Stella”, who clearly had done her homework and had read both Sheehan and Sales, and saw an extension of their insights into Northanger Abbey:


“At the other end of the Regency social ladder was the wildly extravagant Prince Regent, a well documented gourmand and glutton. The poor begged for bread, but the Prince and his entourage feasted far into the night at lavish banquets that routinely lasted four hours. While the average working man earned £29 a year, the Prince Regent paid his French chef £2,000 annually and spent around £700 a month on meat and fish. In 1811, the Prince celebrated his elevation to Regent status with a dinner for 2,000 of his closest and most intimate friends. It is a massive understatement to say that the Prince ate to excess. He dined on lobster twice a day, and one of his favorite dishes was roasted peacock. The Prince consumed so much that on occasion he became sick or passed out in front of his appalled guests. Eventually, the Regent grew so fat that he was referred to as the Prince of Whales, w-h-a-l-e-s, and he took to wearing a whale-boned corset to hold his enormous girth in check. Northanger Abbey’s General Tilney shares many of the Prince Regent’s personal weaknesses. The General’s reputation for gluttony precedes him with John Thorpe: “I should like to dine with him; I dare say he gives famous dinners” (96). Like the Prince, General Tilney has expensive greenhouses, and a lavish kitchen with the most up-to-date stoves and hot closets, whether he can afford them or not. Built with borrowed money, the Prince Regent’s elaborate kitchens at Brighton Pavilion and Carlton House in London were especially constructed in order to lure the best chefs away from France. "

And that is how things stood up till this afternoon, when my usual combination of obsessive thoroughness and serendipity led me to a dramatic realization of just how spot-on “Stella” was in her perception of strong parallels between General Tilney and the Prince Regent. As you will read, below, I found the “bread crumb” which JA hid in plain sight in Northanger Abbey, which pointed unmistakably to the Prince Regent. Read on to find out what it is!

My realization arose because of a chain reaction in my head, triggered by, of all things, the answer to one of the clues in today’s NY Times crossword puzzle:

“It stayed in Pandora’s box”

At first, I had no idea of the answer, but the answers to the surrounding clues led me to the answer, which was “hope”. This made me realize that I never knew any details about the mythological Pandora, and, as soon as I started reading Wikipedia’s entry on that topic, it also helped me connect the dots between the Pandora myth, with its ancient Greek origins, and the Bluebeard story, which took center stage in Europe at the start of the 17th century in Charles Perrault’s enormously famous Mother Goose story collection.

Both had to do with (as the academics would put it) “transgressive female curiosity”, and both obviously had enormous Freudian implications.

But why the connection of Pandora’s Box to Bluebeard was of special interest to me was that I had in my presentation at the JASNA AGM last October in Portland made the case for a brilliant covert allusion by JA to Perrault’s tale, in Northanger Abbey, consisting of the following three elements:

General Tilney being JA’s ultrasly version of Bluebeard;

Mrs. Tilney’s being the last (deceased) wife of Bluebeard, having been “murdered” by her husband by his making her pregnant; and

Catherine Morland being in danger of becoming the next wife of Bluebeard, before being rescued from that dire fate by Bluebeard’s own son!

In short, I claimed that General Tilney was an English everyhusband, Mrs. Tilney an English everywife, and that JA was venting her outrage at English husbands ‘in general”, who were (unwittingly) murdering their wives!

But….here is where the serendipity came in. Although I knew from my prior research that I was the first person to see General Tilney as a Regency Era Bluebeard, I decided to Google “Tilney” together with “Pandora’s Box” to see if anyone else had previously connected Pandora’s Box with any member of the fictional Tilney family. I quickly found out that at least one scholar had, Robert Miles, who in his 2003 edition of NA quoted from the passage in Ch. 21 with Catherine’s hilariously hesitant and frequently interrupted attempts to open the mysterious trunk in her room, and then wrote:

“Catherine is, and is not, Pandora. Catherine is clearly not Pandora, in that she discovers clean linen, rather than evils; but equally, the reader cannot help thinking of Pandora as Catherine is caught rummaging in a forbidden chest, even if forbidden by nothing more than good manners..."

Had that been all I found, it would have been a great day at “the office” for me, because it would have added another non-trivial literary allusion to all those which I have found in JA’s novels. But because I am like Catherine Morland, I “open” every “trunk” I find via Google and other means, always curious to know what might be in the next one. So I kept browsing among the Google hits, and I came upon something when I opened the next link that blew my mind:

In a 1905 book entitled _Mrs. Fitzherbert and George IV, Volume 1_ by William Henry Wilkins, in Chapter 17 entitled “The Prince’s Will—1796”, I found the phrase “Pandora’s Box” in the middle of a long essay which did not at _any_ point make any mention of the Tilneys, or indeed of Northanger Abbey or Jane Austen. But I could not resist skimming through it anyway, because it was a discussion of the life of Mrs. Fitzherbert during 1796—most Janeites know that she was the famous “secret wife” of the PR—and the subject of the PR was always of interest to me, especially if it had to do with his love life:

“For some time after the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Mrs. Fitzherbert lived in retirement at Marble Hill. She suffered much in health and spirits; "her heart," she told a friend, "was almost broken." Her position as "wife yet no wife" was a difficult one truly, and had she followed her inclination, she would have continued in seclusion, or have left England for a time. But her retirement from the scene, as her friends and well-wishers reminded her, would be liable to misinterpretation. Why should she hide her head as one ashamed? After all she had done no wrong, the wrong had been done to her, and to withdraw altogether from the world would be to play into her enemies' hands, and give colour to the many baseless rumours circulated against her. So, upon reflection, she resolved to act in the same way as she had done after Fox's denial of her marriage in the House of Commons—to make no difference in her mode of life, to go about exactly as if nothing had taken place, and to let people say what they would. But it was easier in 1787 than in 1795; then she had her husband by her side, now she was alone. Nevertheless she braced herself to the effort, and the summer of the following year (1796) found her once more in London. Her house in Pall Mall had been given up, and in place of it......”

Before reading further, I already found myself thinking “Mrs. Tilney”, and getting more and more excited, wondering where the “Tilney” was in this passage that Google had found, and that’s exactly when I read the next section, at which point my eyes nearly popped out of my head:

“...she bought another, at the corner of TILNEY STREET and Park Lane. The entrance was in TILNEY Street, but the house fronted Park Lane, separated from it by a tiny strip of garden.....”

Tilney Street! _That_ was why Google had brought me to this passage! _That_ was the breadcrumb that JA left all over the place in Northanger Abbey, that would alert any of her readers who knew about Mrs. Fitzherbert’s personal life, that the Royal Family was being concealed in the “basement” of Northanger Abbey!

And suddenly it all came to me in a rush----General Tilney was the PR, Mrs. Tilney was Mrs. Fitzherbert, and Eleanor Tilney was Princess Charlotte, the PR’s high spirited well read daughter (who, we know from her letters, identified passionately with Marianne Dashwood!).

And just as Eleanor Tilney married the man she loved instead of the man her father wanted her to marry, here is how that all went down between the PR and his daughter:

“After a failed attempt to force his daughter into a marriage with the Prince of Orange, whom she loathed, the Regent married his daughter and the heiress to the throne, Charlotte, to Leopold George Christian Frederick of Saxe-Coburg- Saalfield, (pictured right) her own choice as a husband.”

That wedding took place in 1816, exactly when JA was doing her final revision of Northanger Abbey, the novel she wrote the first version of, Susan, right around the time that Princess Charlotte was born!

So it turns out that “Stella” was so on the money with her intuitions about General Tilney and the PR, but she did not dream of the full extent of the veiled allusion to the Royal Family in Northanger Abbey, which itself is a literary Pandora's Box filled with "evils" needing to be exposed to the world!

I finish this post with a quotation from an 1837 letter written by a certain Lady Morgan, who knew Mrs. Fitzherbert very well:

"I spent two hours with [Mrs. Fitzherbert] yesterday, in her house in Tilney Street, tete-a-tete—the house, observe, of Mrs. Fitzherbert. What a causerie .'.... Tilney House is full of reminiscences of its celebrated, but, I suspect, unhappy late mistress—the true, legal wife of that type of heartless roue, George IV…”

And perhaps the most poignant irony of all is that Princess Charlotte, after marrying the husband of her own choice, became pregnant shortly before JA’s death in July 1817, and herself died giving birth at the end of only her first pregnancy in December 1817, thereby becoming herself another real life Mrs. Tilney, symbol of all English wives who died in childbirth.

Cheers, ARNIE

Letter 21: Jane Austen the Itch Witch

Ellen Moody responded in Austen L to some of my comments as follows:

[Ellen] "The next paragraph again aligns them with John and Fanny Dashwood: it seems that Elizabeth was at first not keen to that Edward accepted Mr Evelyn's invitation (I see from the notes this family included high officers of a county, sheriffs and the like), but when Evelyn called, she liked his manners. IS this not Fanny Dashwood approving of Lady Middleton? So "The Biggs would call her a nice woman" is code for dull and boring and snobbish? But alas, "Mr Evelyn .. indisposed yesterday, is worse today & we are put off." Again we are in the world of Walter and Elizabeth Elliot. The Austens are the eager ones chasing after others."

Yes to all of that, Ellen, nicely put. But it is important to be explicit about the cast of characters in the transposition from real life to fiction. Elizabeth Elliot represents Elizabeth Austen, a phony snob born to money but without intellectual accomplishment, in contrast to Anne Elliot who of course represents JA, who is a bemused observer of the absurd pretensions of the rest of her family, particularly those of Edward and his wife, but also of JA's own mother, who goes along with the program of empty pretense when in the presence of wealth.

If you read ahead to Letter 22, you see that Mr. Evelyn is the prototype of John Thorpe, interested only in horses, pushing Edward Austen to buy a new horse. So JA herself, after 5 minutes in his company, is surely _not_ lusting after this man's company thereafter.

[Ellen] "Edward wants this for breakfast. (The big man.)"

Yup, JA _never_ misses a chance to toss a zinger in Edward's direction.

[Ellen] "Back to Jane's puzzle over why Cassandra wants them to stay in Bath. What could be going on in Hamsphire beyond the "Itch" from which Cassandra wants to keep them....I also found time to read through some of Arnie's postings -- made curious by what was the Biblical allusion. I don't see an allusion to the Bible and suggest that if by "itch" Arnie is suggesting some sexual double entendre which violates sexual taboos, it's not probable since such talk would make Cassandra very angry. On "impurities" though -- yes"

Ellen, you need to take it all as a totality. What makes the Biblical allusion come alive is the _combination_ of "impurities", "altar" and the strong echo of "the itch which" from that Deuteronomy passage, it is beyond the realm of coincidence when you find all of these Biblical terms all focused on one person--Mary Austen. And the deal is sealed by the way the Biblical allusion fits thematically with JA's feelings about Mary Austen, the butt of this sophisticated Biblical raillery. What better way to skewer a moralizing prig--as I imagine Mary Austen to have been--who was negligent of Anna Austen, Mary's young stepdaughter, whom JA and CEA loved dearly. And now Mary has her own biological child, who is getting _all_ the attention and love, at the expense of Anna. And so it makes perfect psychological sense that JA, angered by all of this but powerless to do anything about it, would lash out in the one place it was safe to do so, in her letters to CEA. The spark that ignites the flame of sarcasm comes when JA is given the task of buying a veil for Mary while at Bath--a veil being another object with significant Biblical overtones--both positive and negative. It does not surprise me in the slightest that JA would effortlessly conjure up a darkly satirical spin on the punitive aspects of the Bible, and to paint a veiled portrait of her unbeloved sister in law as an adulteress, and her baby therefore as illegitimate. It is the one privilege of a powerless young spinster like JA that cannot be taken away from her--the privilege to mock those with real power. JA was a benign witch, casting her literary curses at those who had earned them.

I think that CEA was very ambivalent about JA's often wicked and even sacrilegious sense of humor--CEA could not help but laugh, even as she shook her head disapprovingly--and part of what won her over in the end was that JA was mocking those who deserved to be mocked--Mary Austen, Edward & Elizabeth Austen--the hypocrites, the narcissists, the snobs. JA was no Emma, she did not ridicule the Miss Bateses of her world in a cruel way, she reserved her sarcasm for those who were powerful, and who exercised that power in selfish, hypocritical, and/or snobbish ways.

CEA was timid and ultra-careful herself, but my sense is that she agreed with many of JA's moral judgments of the people in their lives, and so derived a strange sort of vicarious release from JA putting into words what they both were thinking, even if she herself would never voice those feelings herself.

Cheers, ARNIE

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Letter 21: The Itch From Which CEA Wanted to Keep JA, and the Fruity Offering upon the Altar of Sister-in-Law Affection

There is one other part of Letter 21 that has, upon further examination, caught my eye, for a couple of reasons, which quickly led me to an extraordinary satirical Biblical allusion! It is the first paragraph on p. 4 of Letter 21:

" "On more accounts than one you wished our stay here to be lengthened beyond last Thursday." There is some mystery in this. What have you going on in Hampshire besides the _itch_// from which you want to keep us?"

There was something about the phrase "the itch from which" which sounded like Ogden Nash to me, and I also had a flash of our own Internet discussions of JA, when JA actually quotes a sentence from CEA's previous letter (I cannot recall JA doing that in any other real life letter, or in any of the letters which her characters writer in her novels), and then comments on it. And it seems like JA is just horsing around with "There is some mystery in this", suggesting that CEA might have some mysterious intrigue going on at Steventon that would benefit from a few more days of privacy. All standard JA absurdist fantasy.

But, as I always do when I get a hunch, I asked Google to tell me if there might be something more, and look where Google took me, a modern version of Deuteronomy, 28:27, stating one of the many curses for disobedience of God's laws:

"The LORD will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with _the itch, from which_ you cannot be healed."

Wow! Now that is interesting, because it fits so well--if JA is playfully suggesting that CEA may be engaged in some mysterious activity which constitutes disobedience of God's laws, then the joke is expanded by JA suggesting that CEA wants to keep JA and the rest of the family from returning home and somehow getting involved in CEA's miscreancy, so that they won't be cursed with the itch from which you can't be healed!

There is one caveat, which is that in the language of the Bible contemporary with JA's time (following the King James version in this regard), 28:27 was translated as follows:

"The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed."

But I think that JA, whether she rewrote the Biblical verse on her own to create a rhyme, or read this alternative phrasing "itch from which" somewhere else, was indeed making a veiled and satirical Biblical reference to Deuteronomy 28:27.

And what makes that a certainty in my mind, and perhaps in yours as well, is the completely hidden, multi-layered connection between the above quoted lines from JA's Letter 21, and the following lines which she wrote later in that same Letter 21:

"Now I will give you the history of Mary's veil, in the purchase of which I have so considerably involved you that it is my duty to economise for you in the flowers. I had no difficulty in getting a muslin veil for half a guinea, and not much more in discovering afterwards that the muslin was thick, dirty, and ragged, and therefore would by no means do for a united gift. I changed it consequently as soon as I could, and, considering what a state my imprudence had reduced me to, I thought myself lucky in getting a black lace one for sixteen shillings. I hope the half of that sum will not greatly exceed what you had intended to offer upon the altar of sister-in-law affection."

So we are back on Mary Austen again, this time with JA's sarcasm about the gift of a fruity hat to their not-very-beloved sister-in-law, which JA and CEA are going halves on. The connection back to "the itch from which" is in that last phrase "offer upon the altar of sister in law affection".

Check out what it says in Deuteronomy 27:6-7, which is when the section about curses for disobedience actually begins:

"You shall build _the altar_ of the LORD your God of uncut stones, and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the LORD your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God."

Is it just a coincidence that JA concocts a metaphor of an offering of fruit upon an altar a few sentences after mentioning "the itch from which" CEA wants to keep JA? I don't think so!

And the icing on the cake (or should I say instead, the Orleans Plum on the hat?) is the following in Deuteronomy 28: 30 (i.e., only three verses after "the itch from which"!):

"You shall betroth a wife, but another man will violate her; you shall build a house, but you will not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but you will not use _its fruit_.

This is JA having a wickedly good time painting a satirical portrait of her sister in law Mary Austen, who, I would imagine, was a sanctimonious prig, by casting Mary as the Lord to whom the rest of the Austen family, being mere Israelites, must offer fruity peace offerings to appease Mary's wrath and avoid her curses! And it is even more edgy, because the curse of 28:30 seems to refer to Mary as a recently betrothed wife, suggesting not very nice things about the siring of baby James Edward Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE

Letter 21: Which one can't wonder at _somehow_---scour'd to nothing with perpetual motion

Derrick Leigh responded in Janeites to my previous post about Jane Austen's Letter 21 rebutting my claim that Jane Austen was somehow alluding to Mrs. Thrale's horrible life experience while married, in terms of serial pregnancy and deaths of eight babies:

"I think that JA was referring to Mrs Piozzi's writing style, so it's good evidence that JA had read something written by her. It couldn't have been her journal, because if I remember correctly Thraliana wasn't published until 1942. It was most likely to be Observations and Reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy and Germany, published in 1789. I think JA was satirising her own limited travels."

I have now responded as follows:


I beg to differ. Check out the following eloquent passage in _Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D_, published in 1788, in Letter CXXXIX (at ppg. 212-3) written by (then) Mrs. Thrale in 1775 to Samuel Johnson, which JA, I claim, read and obliquely alluded to in Letter 21:

"You ask, dear Sir, if I keep your letters—to be sure I do; for though I would not serve you as you said you would serve Lady ______, were you married to her,—live a hundred miles off, and make her write once o'week (was not it?) because her conversation and manners were coarse, but her letters elegant: yet I have always found the best supplement for talk was writing, and yours particularly so......."

[And _here's_ the "punch line" in terms of what JA could have known from published sources (in addition to whatever gossip JA might have heard via, e.g., from connections at Great Bookham) about Mrs. Thrale and her feelings about being serially pregnant and also losing so many babies:]

"...My only reason to suppose that we should dislike looking over the correspondence twelve or twenty years hence, was because the sight of it would _not_//revive the memory of cheerful times at all. God forbid that I should be less happy then than now, when I am perpetually bringing or losing babies, both very dreadful operations to me, and which tear mind and body both in pieces very cruelly. Sophy is at this very instant beginning to droop, or I dream so; and how is it likely one should ever have comfort in revising the annals of vexation?

[That is 100% congruent with JA's often expressed feelings about serial pregnancy and childbirth in the "normal" English gentry family. And then Mrs. Thrale takes it a big step further:]

You say too, that I shall not grow wiser in twelve years, which is a bad account of futurity; but if I grow happier I shall grow wiser, for being less chained down to surrounding circumstances, what power of thinking my mind naturally possesses will have fair play at least. The mother or mistress of a large family is in the case of a tethered nag, always treading and subsisting on the same spot; she hears and repeats the same unregarded precepts; frets over that which no fretting can diminish; and hopes on, in very spite of experience, for what death does not ever suffer her to enjoy. With regard to mental improvement, Perkins might as well expect to grow rich by repeating the Multiplication Table, as I to grow wise by holding Watt's Art of Reading before my eyes. A finger-post, though it directs others on the road, cannot advance itself; was it once cut into coach-wheels, who knows how far it might travel? When Ferguson made himself an astronomer, the other lads of the village were loading corn and pitching hay,—though with the same degree of leisure they might perhaps have attained the same degree of excellence; but they were _doing_//while he was _thinking_//you see, and when leisure is obtained, incidents, however trifling, may be used to advantage..."

[Johnson clearly struck a deep nerve when he sneered at Mrs. Thrale's intellect, and got the tongue-lashing he deserved! And then here Mrs. Thrale shows her erudition:]

"...besides, that 'tis better, as Shakespeare says, to be eaten up with the rust, Than scour'd to nothing with perpetual motion. So if ever I get quiet I shall get happy; and if I get happy I shall have a chance to get wise. Why, wisdom itself stands still, says Mr. Johnson, and then how will you advance? It will be an advancement to me to trace that very argument, and examine whether it has advanced or no. Was not it your friend Mr. ___ 1 who first said, that next to winning at cards, the greatest happiness was losing at cards? I should feel the second degree of delight in assuring myself that there was no wisdom to be obtained. Baker's Reflections on Learning was always a favourite book with me, and he says, you have all been trotting in a circle these two or three thousand years—but let us join the team at least, and not stand gaping while others trot. The tethered horse we talked of just now, would beg to work in our mill, if he could speak; and an old captain of a ship told me, that when he set the marine society boys to run round the hoop for a pudding in fine weather, to divert the officers, those who were hardest lashed seldom lamented; but all cried, ready to break their hearts, who were left out of the game. Here is enough of this I believe."

I imagine that JA knew that passage by rote, and was thinking of Mrs. Thrale's "tethered horse" when she described Anna Austen Lefroy as a "Poor Animal" in exactly the same circumstances that Mrs. Thrale described 40 years earlier. And note that Mrs. Thrale has managed along the way not only to read some serious literature (Shakespeare), but to read it with sufficient insight and imagination so as to be able to quote a passage relevant to her own life. She quotes (accurately) from Henry IV, Part 2, Act 1, Scene 2, when Falstaff, as he always does, waxes eloquent, in this instance to the Lord Archbishop who has just warned him to stay out of mischief, because he's no longer a favorite of the Prince:

"If ye will needs say I am an old man, you should give me rest. I would to God my name were not so terrible to the enemy as it is: I were better to be eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion."

Mrs. Thrale brilliantly translates Falstaff's lament to her own life as a serially pregnant wife and mother, which she sees as being "scoured to nothing with perpetual motion".

So, yes, JA's "cover story" in that paragraph was to seem to be talking about Mrs. Thrale gossipping about her travels (JA underscores the word "wonder" because Mrs. Piozzi did use that word about a million times in that travel book), but I have no doubt that CEA well understood the _subtext_ of that paragraph, which was about Elizabeth Austen as a comrade in suffering with a sadly similar experience to that of Mrs. Thrale, both in regards to serial pregnancy _and_ the secondary harm to mothers from raising a litter of children, which was the stunting of their intellect and creativity. Mrs. Thrale was evidently so gifted a person as to be able to overcome her circumstances and to develop her intellect to a high degree, but I suspect that Elizabeth Austen was _not_ gifted enough to rise above her stunted life as a bird in a gilded cage.

Cheers, ARNIE

Monday, April 18, 2011

Letter 21: A Dismal Ride of it....which one can't wonder at SOMEHOW.....

Letter 21 is turning out to be a veritable La Brea Tar Pits of hidden meaning, and I am still only in the second paragraph:

"Edward has been pretty well for this last week, and as the waters have never disagreed with him in any respect, we are inclined to hope that he will derive advantage from them in the end. Everybody encourages us in this expectation, for they all say that the effect of the waters cannot be negative, and many are the instances in which their benefit is felt afterwards more than on the spot. He is more comfortable here than I thought he would be, and so is Elizabeth, though they will both, I believe, be very glad to get away-the latter especially, which one can't wonder at somehow. So much for Mrs. Piozzi. I had some thoughts of writing the whole of my letter in her style, but I believe I shall not."

So we return to the topic from Letter 20 of Edward Austen (not yet Knight) taking the Bath waters. Aside from factual reportage of the uncertain effects of this treatment, this at first seems straightforward and unironic. However, there a distinctive edge in ""He is more comfortable here than I thought he would be"---which sounds exactly like the way JA, in Letter 20, wrote about her mother's suddenly and mysteriously having the strength to climb stairs. Is it any wonder that JA could so vividly capture neurotic hypochondria so well in Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mary Elliot?

I am even more intrigued by "the latter especially, which one can't wonder at somehow". It seems clear to me that this is a continuation of the following passage in Letter 19, written nearly four weeks earlier, describing the trip _to_ Bath:

"Poor Elizabeth has had a dismal ride of it from Devizes, for it has rained almost all the way, and our first view of Bath has been just as gloomy as it was last November twelvemonth."

And so I continue to take this as veiled references to Elizabeth being in the early stages of yet _another_ pregnancy, while coping with a full nursery already. Edward's hypochondria turns from irritating quirk to tremendously selfish cluelesssness, when we consider that when he thinks he feels bad (remember he is a 33 year old man who wound up living till a very ripe old age!), he uproots his wife and drags her to Bath for a month in search of relief from his symptoms, even as she suffers _real_ physical distress caused entirely by Edward making her pregnant, virtually continuously, for over 6 years! She has pretty much never known what it feels like to be married and _not_ pregnant! And that renders even the seemingly unironic description of Edward's condition ironic as well--by giving the hypochondria several lines, before touching on Elizabeth's condition almost in passing, JA is pointing out that this is the way the conversation goes in the rented premises at Bath--it's all about Edward, no room to consider Elizabeth!

What I hear here is the same moral computations that we see in JA's famous letter to Martha Lloyd about Princess Caroline--which is that JA is not a particularly big fan of the Princess and her blundering indiscretions, but her guilt is mitigated by the fact that she is married to the biggest jerk in the entire kingdom who has treated her abominably. (any echoes of Emma are entirely intentional!). Similarly, I think that JA and Elizabeth Austen were hardly a mutual admiration society, and yet, JA could have compassion for her unlikable snobbish not very well educated sister in law, because of what she had to put up with as wife of the "Prince" of the Austen family--Edward!

That's what that very "pregnant" "somehow" means, I claim.

And what's most tantalizing is that "So much for Mrs. Piozzi"---before writing this message, I knew quite little about Mrs. Piozzi's (aka Thrale's) letters or other writings, but I just had a very strong feeling of dissatisfaction with McMasters/Copeland's suggestion that it was the gossipy tone of those first few paragraphs that JA was suggesting to be an emulation of Mrs. Piozzi . Knowing JA as the trickster she was, and knowing how much meaning JA could pack into a single underlined word--in this case "somehow"----I was certain that there was a good deal more to it than that.

And, given that JA had just made a veiled reference to Elizabeth Austen's succession of Groundhog Days of morning sickness, my guess was that JA must have had in mind comments by Piozzi in a similar vein.

So I Googled "Piozzi childbirth" and look what I found:

"[Mrs. Thrale's journals manuscript] was begun 17 September 1766 and continued until the close of 1778. It is very much a record of the domestic life of the Thrales, containing an emotional and often painful account of Thrale's frequent [thirteen] pregnancies, the illnesses of her children, and the deaths of eight of her children before even attaining youth."

Like I said......

I can't even imagine what other wonders await in the _rest_ of Letter 21--JA is in rare form!

Cheers, ARNIE

Letter 21: The Impurities of Deane....and Gracechurch Street

Just as Letter 20 began with the little vignette about Mary Austen's letter and the Pigeon Basket which we discussed last week.....

"I am obliged to you for two letters, one from Yourself & the other from Mary, for of the latter I knew nothing till on the receipt of yours yesterday, when the Pigeon Basket was examined & I received my due.-As I have written to her since the time which ought to have brought me her's, I suppose she will consider herself as I chuse to consider her, still in my debt.-I will lay out all the little Judgement I have in endeavouring to get such stockings for Anna as she will approve..."

....so, too, Letter 21 begins with _another_ reference to James Austen's family:

"Your letter yesterday made me very happy. I am heartily glad that you have escaped any share in the impurities of Deane...."

What could this mean? And why would Jame's wife be the "headline" of two consecutive letters?

At first I was utterly mystified by the phrase "Impurities of Deane"--was it referring to an infectious fever? No, that was unthinkable, that JA would so blithely celebrate CEA avoiding dangerous illness, without a care for a potentially dangerous illness already afflicting James's young family. But what else could it mean?

So first I turned to Google for help, but a quick search revealed absolutely _no_ online-accessible commentary on this passage by any scholar or biographer.

And then, in my usual obsessive way, I next checked to see if JA had ever used any variant of the word "impurity" in any of her fiction, or elsewhere in her letters. That yielded only one "hit", but it was the jackpot! It is the following well known exchange between Lizzy and Aunt Gardiner, which most careful readers of P&P will instantly recognize:

"My dear aunt, how could you think of it? Mr. Darcy may perhaps have _heard_//of such a place as Gracechurch Street, but he would hardly think a month's ablution enough to cleanse him from _its impurities_, were he once to enter it ; and depend upon it, Mr. Bingley never stirs without him."

I immediately recalled, with happy excitement, all the unmistakable echoes of Pride & Prejudice (and NA) in the Rowling series of letters we discussed during previous months of this group read, and realized this must be yet another one--so this strongly suggests to me that JA still has P&P very much on her mind (and surely in her quill pen) in June 1799!

And, just as I have previously claimed that the echoes between P&P and NA, on the one hand, and the 1798-9 letters written while composing the earliest versions of those novels, are thematic, so too is this one. That comic turn in P&P turns out to be the key to unlocking the mystery of the "impurities" described in the first sentence of Letter 21. In that passage from P&P, we have Lizzy's mockingly hyperbolic send-up of Darcy's snobbery toward the _social_ impurities of those beneath him on the social scale. Of course, JA is _not_ making a similarly snobbish commentary on the Deane parsonage.

But Darcy's social snobbery is not what is driving this echo. The key parallel inheres in the notion of a place where, _for whatever reason_, justified or snobbish, a given person would never be caught dead, given a choice! Here is the _entire_ first paragraph of Letter 21, the context of which makes it clear that JA is saying, in so many words, that the Dean Parsonage is the _last_ place in the world where CEA would want to pay a visit, and JA therefore rejoices in CEA having somehow ducked the duty to go there:

""Your letter yesterday made me very happy. I am heartily glad that you have escaped any share in the impurities of Deane, and not sorry, as it turns out, that our stay here has been lengthened. I feel tolerably secure of our getting away next week, though it is certainly possible that we may remain till Thursday the 27th. I wonder what we shall do with all our intended visits this summer! I should like to make a compromise with Adlestrop, Harden, and Bookham, that Martha's spending the summer at Steventon should be considered as our respective visits to them all. "

JA is not only glad for CEA to have avoided a visit to Deane, she is also glad for herself to be held over in Bath long enough to also be unavailable to visit Deane. And then, unable to repress her absurdist bent, her imagination leaps from CEA avoiding a single visit with Mary Lloyd, to CEA _and_ JA both avoiding _all_ dreaded duties of visitation for an entire summer---Adlestrop (the home of members of JA's mother's family), Harden (later, Harpsden--the awful Edward Cooper's then curacy), and Bookham (the Cookes).

And now i see why no previous commentator has written about this passage---I suspect I am not the first to understand this passage, but that some biographers/scholars---Le Faye above all---have understood JA's rather hostile innuendo about various and sundry family and friends of the Austen, and would rather _not_ bring this sort of thing to the attention of Janeites, so as not to tarnish the (truly absurd, yet oddly persistent) notion that JA was always--or even often-- dutiful, reticent, and obliging to everybody.

And there's more...As I reread that opening salvo in Letter 21, I also understood what I had failed to understand last week about the opening of Letter 20, i.e., that JA concocted that little (faux) conceit about Mary's letter lying unnoticed for a day or two in the Pigeon Basket (archaic term for a mail box) until JA receives CEA's letter, so as to be able to declare Mary in _debt_ to JA for failure to send JA a quid pro quo for JA's letter to Mary, and then to "cash in" that "debt" for money that JA will promptly sign back to Mary _if_ Mary will lay out the money necessary to buy Anna some stockings.

What I _now_ see in that passage is very thinly veiled anger toward Mary Lloyd Austen, reflecting, I am guessing, JA's fear/awareness that 6-year old Anna is getting left out in the cold, in terms of expense of money for creature comforts, in favor of Mary's own biological child, the 6 month old James Edward Austen (not yet Leigh). And I also think that the idea I tossed out last week, about pigeon poop getting on letters, was _not_ offbase after all, but is a reflection of what JA actually thinks Mary's letters are good for, i.e., to sit unread for a few days while serving a useful fuction as lining for a birdcage, to accumulate bird poop on it!

What a wicked wicked wicked sense of humor JA had!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Before I sent this message, I checked the archives of Janeites and Austen L, to see if any of the above had ever been discussed there, and I saw something I myself had written 2 1/2 years ago about that passage in P&P which I had forgotten:

"In reference to that specific phrase "a month's ablution enough to cleanse him from its impurities", I merely point you back to one of the tidbits I included in my message to Janeites, about the medieval Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, that was discovered in 2002 in the Jewish area near Cheapside in London. I was not aware that it was part of Anglican religious practice to engage in monthly ablutions to cleanse away moral impurities, and so I think you'll agree that this is a rather curious metaphor for Lizzy to conjure at that moment? ;)"

But, much as I would enjoy it if were so, even I do _not_ mean to suggest that there is some hidden reference to Jewish ritual baths at the Deane parsonage in Letter 21!

There’s More Ways To the Woods Than One: John Barth and Reading More Out of Jane Austen’s Fiction

In The Sot-Weed Factor, the picaresque mock-epic novel by John Barth written in the Sixties and set way back in the late 17th century, the hero and eternal innocent Ebenezer Cooke (who, now that I think about it, reminds me a lot of Emma!) dreams of becoming the Poet Laureate of the colony of Maryland. I’ve made it the subject of this blog post today, because it came up in conversation a few times this weekend just past, during a long-overdue reunion of myself and four old and dear college friends (with a few wives in the mix as well) in the beautiful mountain country outside Atlanta.

Our well-oiled conversations pleasingly oscillated between the personal and the intellectual, and literature was prominent---not surprisingly given our homes are all overrun by books. The Sot-Weed Factor had, from age 16 on (when JA was still unknown to me), been a particular favorite of mine and of my college buddy Dusty (a lifelong journalist and fellow word junkie).

As we bathed in nostalgia, we repeated our favorite line from The Sot-Weed Factor: “There’s more ways to the woods than one”. That is a mantra in the novel, which, like so much else in it (and, per my interpretations, in JA’s novels, also) is a joinder of the bawdy and the intellectual, something along the lines of Hamlet’s “more on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, i.e., that the world, and in particular great literature, admits of multiple worthwhile interpretations.

I tell you all this now, because in the aftermath of our reunion, yesterday I drove straight to Buckhead in Atlanta to give a talk to the JASNA Atlanta chapter, which, you know from Nancy’s post last night, was enjoyed by the small but very astute group who attended. My talk was about Austen’s shadow stories in general, with special focus on Sense and Sensibility.

Anyway, as my college buddies and I exchanged emails gushing about our weekend together, I gave a brief report on my JASNA talk, and Dusty responded by quoting from another passage in The Sot-Weed Factor, which struck me in amazement, because, despite its aptness, I had never previously connected it to my literary sleuthing in Austen and Shakespeare’s writing.

I quickly reread the passage that Dusty’s quote came from, and decided to quote the whole passage here, because it’s so relevant to the varied ways that Janeites respond to my theories. And perhaps some of you who aren’t familiar with Barth’s writing will fall under his spell and read this amazing novel.

To set the scene: the hero, Ebenezer (Eben) encounters a tobacco (‘sot-weed”) planter named Sayer who engages Eben in a lively debate about the interpretation of literature, after Eben reads Sayer a poem that Eben recently wrote. Sayer urges Eben to read him another poem—specifically, the first poem that Eben wrote, while still a schoolboy, which begins as follows:

“Not Priam for the ravag’d Town of Troy, Andromache for her bouncing Baby Boy, Ulysses for his chaste Penelope, Bare the Love, dear Joan, I bear for Thee!”

My comments, in brackets, pertain to the passages I find most relevant to issues in Austen studies, in particular the following questions:

(i) How does knowing Austen’s Juvenilia and biography enhance our reading of her novels?;

(ii) how do the covert allusions in JA’s novels enhance our understanding of her stories?; and

(iii) how do we determine whether apparent puns and allusions in JA’s novels were intentional or not?

[Eben] “Nay, ‘tis but a silly quatrain I wrote as a lad—the first I ever rhymed. And I’ve but three lines of’t in my memory.”

[Sayer] ‘A pity. The Laureate’s first song: ‘twould fetch a price someday, I’ll wager, when thou’rt famous the world ‘oer. Might ye treat me to the three ye have?”

Ebenezer hesitated. ‘Thou’rt not baiting me?”

“Nay!” Sayer assured him. “Tis a mere natural curiosity, is’t not, to wonder how flew the mighty eagle as a fledgling? Do we not admire old Plutarch’s tales of young Alcibiades flinging himself before the carter, or Demosthenes shaving half his head, or Caesar taunting the Cilician pirates? And would ye not yourself delight in hearing a childish line of Shakespeare’s, or mighty Homer’s?”

“I would, right enough,” Ebenezer admitted. “But will ye not judge the man by his child? ‘Tis the present poem alone, methinks, that matters, not its origins, and it must stand or fall on one’s own merits, apart from maker and age.”

“No doubt, no doubt,” Sayer said, waving his hand indifferently, “though the word _merit’s_ total mystery to me. What I spoke of was interest, and whether ‘tis good or bad in itself, certain your Hymn to Innocence is of greater interest to one who knows the history of its author than to one who knows not a bean of the circumstances that gave it birth.”

“Your argument hath its merits,” Ebenezer allowed, not a little impressed to hear such nice reasoning from a tobacco-planter.

Sayer laughed. ‘A fart for thy _merit_! My argument hath its _interest_, peradventure, to one who knows the arguer, and the history of such debates since Plato’s time.”

“Yet surely the Hymn hath some certain degree of merit, and hath nor more nor less whether he that reads it be a Cambridge don or silly footboy—or for that matter, whether ‘tis read or not.”

“Belike it doth,” Sayer said with a shrug. “Tis very like the schoolmen’s question, whether a falling tree on a desert isle makes a sound or no, inasmuch as no ear hears it. I’ve no opinion on’t myself, though I’ll own the quarrel hath some interest: ‘tis an ancient one, with many a mighty implication to’t.”

“This _interest_ is the base of thy vocabulary, “ Ebenezer remarked, “as _merit_ seems to be of mine.”

“It at least permits of conversation,” Sayer smiled. “Prithee, which gleans more pleasure from the Hymn? The footboy who knows not Priam from Good King Wenceslas, or the don who calls the antients by their nicknames? The salvage Indian that ne’er heard tell of chastity, or the Christian man who’s learned to couple innocence with unpopped maidenheads?”

“Marry!” Ebenezer exclaimed. “Your case hath weight, my friend, but I confess it repels me to own the muse sings clearest to professors! ‘Twas not of them I thought when I wrote the piece.”

[I hear in that line a slyly professorial allusion by Barth to Orlando’s riposte to grumpy Jaque’s not liking Rosalind’s name, in As You Like It: “There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christen'd.”]

“Nay, ye mistake me,” Sayer said. “This no mere matter of schooling, though none’s the worse for a little education. Human experience is what I mean: knowledge of the world, both as stored in books and learnt from the hard text of life. Your poem’s a spring of water, Master Laureate—‘sheart, for that matter everything we meet is a spring, is’t not? ……

[And I could not agree more with the following claim by Sayer]

…..That the bigger the cup we bring to’t, the more we fetch away, and the more springs we drink from, the bigger grows our cup. If I oppose your notion ‘tis that such thinking robs the bank of human experience, wherein I have a considerable deposit. I will not drink with any man who’d have me throw away my cup. In short, sir, though I am neither poet nor critic, nor e’en a common Artium Baccalaureus, but only a simple sot-weed planter that hath read a book or two in’s time and seen a bit o’ the wide world, yet I’m confident your poem means more to me than to you.”

“What! That are neither virgin nor poet?”

Sayer nodded. “As for the first, I have been one in my time and look on’t now from the vantage-point of experience, which ye do not. For the second, ‘tis but a different view ye get as author. Nor am I the dullest of readers. I quite appreciate the wordplays in your first quatrain, for instance.”

[And this is the part that relates to the question of the intentionality of the wordplay I so often attribute to JA, where some others think I am imagining it!]
“Wordplays? What wordplays?”

“Why, chaste Penelope, for one,” Sayer said. “What better pun for a wife plagued twenty years by suitors? ‘Twas a clever choice!”

“Thank you,” Ebenezer murmured.

[I just checked, and saw that “chaste Penelope” was a commonplace in English translations of Homer going back a very long time---which I think Barth (correctly) perceived as an inadvertent pun by all the translators, which he finds funny, and I agree with him!]

“And Andromache’s bouncing boy,” Sayer went on, “that was pitched from the walls of Ilium—“

“Nay, ‘tis grotesque!” Ebenezer protested. “I meant no such thing!”

“Not so grotesque. It hath the salt of Shakespeare.”

[What is crucial here is that while the fictional Eben Cooke did not intend to write these puns, his creator, John Barth, a learned but also sly real-life novelist, like JA, _did_ intend them! And Barth is so sly, he leaves one other bawdy pun _un_mentioned by Sayer—“Bare the love” when Eben means to write “Bear the love”!

And now we come to the “punch line” of this passage, which I have alluded to in the title of this post]

“Do you think so?” Ebenezer reconsidered the phrase in his mind. “Haply it doth at that. Nonetheless _you read more out than I put in_.”

“’Tis but to admit,” Sayer said, “_I read more out than _you _ read out_, which was my claim. Your poem means more to me.”

[To which I only add, “Amen!”]

“I’faith, I’ve not the means to refute you!” Ebenezer declared. “If thou’rt a true sample of my fellow planters, sir, then Maryland must be the muse’s playground, and a paradise for poets! Thou’rt indeed the very voice and breath of Reason, and I’m honored to be your neighbor. My cup runneth over.”

Sayer smiled. “Belike it wants enlarging?”

“Tis larger now than when I left London. Thou’rt no mean teacher.” END OF QUOTED PASSAGE

The scene ends shortly thereafter when the apparent stranger Sayer turns out to be Eben’s longtime mentor, Henry Burlingame, in disguise. Throughout the novel, Burlingame, the Satanic tempter, tries to show Eben, by means of various disguises and stratagems, that the world is a mysterious place, and that also makes it an infinitely interesting place! And that is exactly what I claim about JA’s novels
I had never connected the dots between my own youthful obsession with The Sot-Weed Factor (and Barth’s other novels) and my current (and far more intense) Austen obsession. It took my schoolmate’s brilliant insight to point out the connection to me by pointing me to the above passage.

So, Dusty, this one’s for you!

Cheers, ARNIE