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Monday, January 2, 2012

Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style: Jane Austen's Indirect Boasting in Pride & Prejudice and in her famous epigram about it

Apropos Diane Reynolds' having brought forward D.A. Miller's book on JA's writing style, and our focus on the word "beau" in S&S, it was suggested in another online Austen venue that the word "beau" was not understood by everyone in JA's era to be code for "gay". I responded as follows:

Why does it have to be been either universally understood to mean gay, or universally understood to mean something else? That sort of sharp dichotomy might be a necessity in computer programming, where clarity is paramount, but in human language, _especially_ slang, and even more especially, _sexual_ slang, what we find instead is a great of fluidity and ambiguity of meaning in words. And so, in such a chaotic linguistic environment, at any given moment during the Regency Era, I would guess that a linguist would have found that there was a whole spectrum of response to the word "beau", ranging from people who were certain it only meant "gay", to other people equally certain it only meant "fastidious in dress", to others who had never heard the word, to others (which last group clearly included JA herself) who understood that the word meant different things to different people in different contexts. And I suggest that JA was exactly the kind of writer who reveled in that zone of ambiguity, and seized the opportunity it presented, because it allowed her to convey multiple meanings using a single word, and it allowed her to replicate the ambiguity of actual moment-to-moment lived experience in society. And she had become, by her mid thirties, a master of this technique, in full command of the possibilities, an imaginist drunk on words, and yet--wonderful paradox of her genius!-- sober enough to control them.

The reason "first impressions" can be so misleading, is that so much of what we see in the world of people is ambiguous--not just the definitions of words, but also the motivations and intentions that people conceal from each other, and even from themselves. Life is ambiguous in every way, as philosophers, moralists, and authors have all long known.

And the key point with the word "beau" in S&S is how often it is repeated by Nancy Steele. Yes, we can understand that as JA creating a comic effect, by a stupid character engaging in a stupid repetition of a pet word. But in DA Miller's framework, there is something rather crude about that kind of humor, it does seem beneath a consummate, tasteful artist like JA to go for such a cheap laugh. That repetition becomes much more interesting, though, when we think about it as a way JA makes certain that her readers will not glide by this particular word "beau" without noticing its prominence in the text. This is a species of authorial economy that would do Mrs. Norris proud, squeezing maximum literary benefit out of the fewest words.

Which is partly why the world of P&P seems so incredibly complex and mutifarious, despite the fact that it is a _much_ shorter novel than "the Big Three"---S&S, MP & Emma. When JA talked about lopping and cropping P&P, she was, I think, playfully yet seriously making an indirect boast---she knew she had performed a miracle of condensation and compression in her editing of P&P to that much shorter length, and she was justly proud of her achievement. And the key to that complexity is the ambiguity---which is why JA added this famous caveat to that indirect boast:

"...a 'said he' or a 'said she' would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear--but 'I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'"

So, to apply the above dictum to S&S, she is saying that she could have clarified that she meant "beaux" to refer to fastidious but hetero dressers, or to gay men, but she preferred _not_ to "make the Dialogue more immediately clear", because she was writing for readers who would enjoy exercising some ingenuity in sorting out what that ambiguity might mean.

And, now that I think about it, I think JA was also playing with this very same indirect boast in the following passage where she allows Darcy to define.....an indirect boast, and which, I suggest to you, not only works in the wonderful repartee of the ensemble of characters gathered in the Netherfield salon, but also works as a sly meditation by JA on her own authorial artistry!:

[Caroline] "...But do you always write such charming long letters to [Georgiana], Mr. Darcy?"

[Translation: "long letters" is a nice metaphor for a novel!]

[Darcy] "They are generally long; but whether always charming it is not for me to determine."

[Translation: JA playfully not wishing to claim that her novels--her "darling children"--are charming, realizing that this determination is for her readers]

[Caroline] "It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill."

[Translation: Very sly self-compliment, especially given that P&P is _not_ as long a "letter" as it was before she lopped and cropped.]

[Bingley] "That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline," cried her brother, "because he does /not/ write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?"

[Translation: Just as some of her early readers complained about JA's ambiguous pronomial references, I am certain that others were intimidated by her amazingly diverse vocabulary, which, as all Janeites know, included _many_ words of four syllables!]

[Darcy] "My style of writing is very different from yours."

[Translation: Notice that we are now _explicitly_ into D.A. Miller's zone of inquiry, that of writing _style_!]

"Oh!" cried Miss Bingley, "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest."

[Translation: And here is a description of the careless writer---and I am reminded by this of the readiness so many Janeites show to be willing to dismiss anomalous passages in JA's novels as the result of carelessness!]

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."

[Translation: This is the very antithesis of JA as a writer--she found a way to channel her abundant flow of ideas, so that they always conveyed a wealth of ideas to her readers!]

"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."

"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast."

"And which of the two do you call /my/ little recent piece of modesty?"

"The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.

[Translation: As I said at the start of my quoting of this passage, I think this is JA making a very indirect boast about the perfection of her own performance in intentionally leaving many apparent defects in her writing, which must be understood by the reader to be intentional, in order to realize that they are clues to alternative meanings which are "highly interesting"!]

Cheers, ARNIE

================================================================
Austen-l Archives: http://list2.mcgill.ca/archives/austen-l.html

Part 1.2
Subject:
JA, or the Secret of Style: JA's Indirect Boasting in P&P and in her famous epigram about it
From:
Arnie Perlstein
Date:
Mon, 02 Jan 2012 12:23:53 -0500
To:
AUSTEN-L

Apropos Diane's having brought forward D.A. Miller's book on JA's writing style, and our focus on the word "beau" in S&S, it was suggested in another online Austen venue that the word "beau" was not understood by everyone in JA's era to be code for "gay". I responded as follows:

Why does it have to be been either universally understood to mean gay, or universally understood to mean something else? That sort of sharp dichotomy might be a necessity in computer programming, where clarity is paramount, but in human language, _especially_ slang, and even more especially, _sexual_ slang, what we find instead is a great of fluidity and ambiguity of meaning in words. And so, in such a chaotic linguistic environment, at any given moment during the Regency Era, I would guess that a linguist would have found that there was a whole spectrum of response to the word "beau", ranging from people who were certain it only meant "gay", to other people equally certain it only meant "fastidious in dress", to others who had never heard the word, to others (which last group clearly included JA herself) who understood that the word meant different things to different people in different contexts. And I suggest that JA was exactly the kind of writer who reveled in that zone of ambiguity, and seized the opportunity it presented, because it allowed her to convey multiple meanings using a single word, and it allowed her to replicate the ambiguity of actual moment-to-moment lived experience in society. And she had become, by her mid thirties, a master of this technique, in full command of the possibilities, an imaginist drunk on words, and yet--wonderful paradox of her genius!-- sober enough to control them.

The reason "first impressions" can be so misleading, is that so much of what we see in the world of people is ambiguous--not just the definitions of words, but also the motivations and intentions that people conceal from each other, and even from themselves. Life is ambiguous in every way, as philosophers, moralists, and authors have all long known.

And the key point with the word "beau" in S&S is how often it is repeated by Nancy Steele. Yes, we can understand that as JA creating a comic effect, by a stupid character engaging in a stupid repetition of a pet word. But in DA Miller's framework, there is something rather crude about that kind of humor, it does seem beneath a consummate, tasteful artist like JA to go for such a cheap laugh. That repetition becomes much more interesting, though, when we think about it as a way JA makes certain that her readers will not glide by this particular word "beau" without noticing its prominence in the text. This is a species of authorial economy that would do Mrs. Norris proud, squeezing maximum literary benefit out of the fewest words.

Which is partly why the world of P&P seems so incredibly complex and mutifarious, despite the fact that it is a _much_ shorter novel than "the Big Three"---S&S, MP & Emma. When JA talked about lopping and cropping P&P, she was, I think, playfully yet seriously making an indirect boast---she knew she had performed a miracle of condensation and compression in her editing of P&P to that much shorter length, and she was justly proud of her achievement. And the key to that complexity is the ambiguity---which is why JA added this famous caveat to that indirect boast:

"...a 'said he' or a 'said she' would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear--but 'I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'"

So, to apply the above dictum to S&S, she is saying that she could have clarified that she meant "beaux" to refer to fastidious but hetero dressers, or to gay men, but she preferred _not_ to "make the Dialogue more immediately clear", because she was writing for readers who would enjoy exercising some ingenuity in sorting out what that ambiguity might mean.

And, now that I think about it, I think JA was also playing with this very same indirect boast in the following passage where she allows Darcy to define.....an indirect boast, and which, I suggest to you, not only works in the wonderful repartee of the ensemble of characters gathered in the Netherfield salon, but also works as a sly meditation by JA on her own authorial artistry!:

[Caroline] "...But do you always write such charming long letters to [Georgiana], Mr. Darcy?"

[Translation: "long letters" is a nice metaphor for a novel!]

[Darcy] "They are generally long; but whether always charming it is not for me to determine."

[Translation: JA playfully not wishing to claim that her novels--her "darling children"--are charming, realizing that this determination is for her readers]

[Caroline] "It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill."

[Translation: Very sly self-compliment, especially given that P&P is _not_ as long a "letter" as it was before she lopped and cropped.]

[Bingley] "That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline," cried her brother, "because he does /not/ write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?"

[Translation: Just as some of her early readers complained about JA's ambiguous pronomial references, I am certain that others were intimidated by her amazingly diverse vocabulary, which, as all Janeites know, included _many_ words of four syllables!]

[Darcy] "My style of writing is very different from yours."

[Translation: Notice that we are now _explicitly_ into D.A. Miller's zone of inquiry, that of writing _style_!]

"Oh!" cried Miss Bingley, "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest."

[Translation: And here is a description of the careless writer---and I am reminded by this of the readiness so many Janeites show to be willing to dismiss anomalous passages in JA's novels as the result of carelessness!]

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."

[Translation: This is the very antithesis of JA as a writer--she found a way to channel her abundant flow of ideas, so that they always conveyed a wealth of ideas to her readers!]

"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."

"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast."

"And which of the two do you call /my/ little recent piece of modesty?"

"The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.

[Translation: As I said at the start of my quoting of this passage, I think this is JA making a very indirect boast about the perfection of her own performance in intentionally leaving many apparent defects in her writing, which must be understood by the reader to be intentional, in order to realize that they are clues to alternative meanings which are "highly interesting"!]

Cheers, ARNIE

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