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Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Secret of....Robert Ferrars's toothpicks!

Diane Reynolds started a new thread in Austen L and Janeites today about the 2003 book about Jane Austen by Miller entitled The Secret of Style:

[Diane] "In the first chapter, Miller engages in an extended discussion of Robert Ferrars and the toothpick case, which we recently covered on the lists, though I have entirely forgotten why we were talking about it."

Diane, Aside from my own joking response about a house of toothpicks last week.....

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/search?q=toothpick

...what you're half-remembering is that the topic of Robert Ferrars's effeminacy came up last month during a discussion of "beaux" in S&S in Austen L. Miller's interpretation could not be more relevant to that discussion, thanks for bringing it forward now.


[Diane] "Miller, who begins his book with being a male reader of JA and the inherent alienation of that--and then of the attraction of JA to the gay reader--understands the toothpick case as almost too crude a symbol for
Austen of a homosexual man (RF) living outside of the economy of marriage and family that so dominates the novels. The toothpick case is perhaps the only piece of jewelry or ornament in any of the novels that isn't about cementing or signaling family or marital relationships. It's a bit of excess that underscores RF's "unheterosexual" status--perhaps a bit too crude for Austen and hence a "trace" of where author intrudes on Stylist."

I think Miller is being way too fastidious (a word that Bingley says to Darcy in a witty epigram, but that Elinor also says or thinks in relation to both Edward and Marianne, but not Robert!) in his insistence that Style not be "crude"--a point I will expand on before the end of this post, when I argue that Miller has missed the boat on JA's sly authorial gamesmanship.

I certainly agree with Miller's take on Robert Ferrars as gay, it fits Robert like one of the elegant gloves Robert would have bought in that same London shop----and JHS does indeed pick up on the gay subtext of "beaux"
and "toothpicks" on p. 53 in her book (perhaps she even got the idea from Miller, whose book came out several years before hers).


"Miller brought my attention to two places in the RF "saga:" in the first, Miller emphasizes that RF bestows on Elinor and Marianne "three or four very broad stares." Miller interprets this as angering Elinor by reducing her to insignificance in merely staring at her and offering no other notice. However, I began to wonder why he would bestow as many as "three or four" stares. The three don't, at this point , know each other--why would RF look at the women so many times? Is there a suggestion that they are familiar to him? And if so, how? Miller also reads the astonishment at Lucy marrying RF as more than simply Elinor's surprise that Lucy had not married Edward. This lends credence to the idea that JA was knowingly painting RF as gay--not only does Elinor consider the match "one of the most extraordinary and unaccountable circumstances she has ever heard" and "beyond her comprehension to make out," but "unceasing and reasonable wonder" is the general consensus. Of course, these statements can all be read on several levels--the unceasing and reasonable wonder might just be at how someone of Lucy's status nabbed RF--but Miller makes a compelling case for an alternative reading."

That is indeed excellent close reading, both with _and_ against the grain, by Miller. It is a great example of the doubleness of _all_ of JA's writing, not just that passage!

Apropos that doubleness, I actually think that the toothpick symbolism in S&S is an example of _tripleness_ in JA's writing, as I see an _additional_ very interesting symbolic level in regard to Robert Ferrars and his toothpicks, which I will address in my book. If Miller had picked up on that additional covert symbolism, he might have retracted his indictment of JA's "crudeness" in that toothpick symbolism, because that additional layer is extremely subtle, elegant, and hiding in plain sight--the very essence of JA's quicksilver mysterious Style!

Miller takes unusual risks in being so opinionated in his book, which I like a lot--no one will accuse him of being mealy-mouthed or overly careful in his aesthetic judgments, like so many scholarly books and articles written about Jane Austen, where the interpretation is ridiculously conservative, so much so that the most significant inferences raised by the discussion are left _unstated_, for fear, apparently, of "going too far"!

But when you take risks, as Miller did, sometimes you miss badly. That is what I recall from one other thing I recall from reading Miller's book a few years ago, i.e., he was_totally_ clueless about something he detected in the text of_Emma_ which he found very weird and odd, but ultimately concluded was just a mistake by Jane Austen, i.e., the fact that JA ends Chapter 20, and begins Chapter 21, with the same sentence, describing Emma's thoughts about Jane Fairfax:

"Emma could not forgive her."

Miller apparently never heard of an "anadiplosis", of which I think JA's repetition is an extension:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anadiplosis

I think it's entirely intentional on JA's part that she did this--as for what it means, well, that is not an easy question to answer--but it is a valid question that begs to be asked!

I am always amazed at how readily even close, astute readers of Jane Austen like Miller are ready to conclude that Jane Austen made a mistake when she does something in her writing that does not fit that reader's preconception of what JA would have done, instead of being ready to revise their preconception to fit the evidence in front of their eyes.

JA did not create Miss Bates as a veiled self portrait by accident---JA seduced her presumptuous readers into concluding she was less than she was, and left her deeper secrets to be decoded by those who operate on the principle that if it's there in her writing, it's there for a reason!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Did you ever wonder whether Anthony Trollope, the great Janeite, noticed that anadiplosis in _Emma_?:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Can_You_Forgive_Her%3F

If he did--and I think his choosing to entitle the first of his many Palliser novels as "Can you Forgive her?" is a huge clue to that effect--then you may be prompted to realize that the heroine Glencora is in some ways strikingly reminiscent of Emma Woodhouse--and makes you wonder if Palliser is Mr. Knightley and Burgo is Frank Churchill!

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