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

Monday, January 2, 2012

Lucy Ferrars (Lucifer) Uses The Devil's Toothpick

Diane Reynolds wrote the following in Austen L and Janeites yesterday, about the passage in D.A. Miller's 2003 book about Jane Austen's writing style, fittingly entitled The Secret of Style, when Miller interprets Robert Ferrars's fastidious shopping for toothpick cases in a London shop as code for his being gay:

"Miller brought my attention to two places in the Robert Ferrars "saga:" in the first, Miller emphasizes that Robert Ferrars 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. The above are some scattered thoughts--I am wondering if Jill H-S dealt with RF's sexuality at all? " END QUOTE

Diane, here is what Jill Heydt-Stevenson wrote at P. 53 on this very topic--despite her occasional lapses into turgid academic jargon, she gets to the point, and explores it, pretty well:

"...[Nancy Steele's] comment divulges that such 'beaux,' like the Elizas in the novel, seem to be cropping up everywhere. Miss Steele herself appears rather 'nasty' when she exclaims that married men cannot be 'beaux' because 'they have something else to do." This statement humiliates Lucy, since it introduces the salacious question of what that 'something else" might be, especially since, immediately following this, Mrs. Jennings and Sir John Middleton make 'countless jokes' about the letter "f". (125).
Austen further parodies both [Steele] sisters: for the man-hungry Miss Steele to be preoccupied with beaux is nonsensical since they were associated with effeminacy, and effeminacy with homosexuality. Lucy ironically, though she believes triumphantly, propels herself into a marriage with a fop: her future husband, Robert Ferrars, is the beau who takes 'a quarter of an hour" "examining and debating....over every toothpick case in the shop" (220). Obvious of everyone in the shop, he 'seemed rather to demand than express admiration." (221). Austen's tone takes on a campy nuance in describing Robert's theatricality: ventriloquizing through his shopping that this is "the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the toothpick case" (221), "the puppyism of his manner" (221) impedes his ability to 'decid[e] on all the different horrors of the different toothpick cases presented to his inspection" (221). Partridge defines the word "puppyism" as "affectation or excessive care in costume or posture" (669). When he condescends to notice Elinor's and Marianne's features, he does so "impertinent[ly]" (221), asserting his masculine power over them while flashing effeminate traits, thereby trumping them as both a 'man" and a "woman". His affected femininity and male assertion of privilege illustrate Robert Stoller's argument that "one cannot be a male transvestite without knowing, loving, and magnificently expanding the importance of one's own phallus"...The 18th century audience would have identified the transvestite as a sodomite, whether he was or not. In presenting Robert as a fop, and then marrying him to Lucy, Austen in no way backs off addressing same sex love, but in fact makes a sly joke at the ambitious Lucy's expense, marrying her to a man who might be more interested in en than in 'conjugal duties'." END QUOTE

JHS might have derived her interpretation from Miller's book (published in 2003), and I just checked further in JHS's book and see that she did include in her Bibliography Miller's 1981 book, entitled Narrative and its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel. So she knew about his scholarship on JA, and therefore my guess is that JHS did also read Miller's 2003 book as well, including the passage about Robert Ferrars and his toothpick case, but simply forgot to acknowledge Miller for his priority on this interpretation about toothpicks and beaux.

But where Heydt-Stevenson (or Miller, for that matter) cannot think sufficiently outside the box to go, is to imagine what is obvious to me, i.e., that Lucy Steele is perfectly well aware of Robert Ferrars's sexual orientation, and that is precisely why she chose him in the first place! Her goal is not love, but to get to precisely the position of power within the very wealthy and influential Ferrars family that she set her sights on before the action of the novel has actually begun. Lucy is perfectly content to appear to be humiliated, as she knows what she has achieved for herself, and has demonstrated repeatedly that she could care less what some people think about her while she is getting there. Indeed, she has discovered the same kernel of wisdom that Miss Bates (and much later, Miss Marple) discovered---a position of _apparent_ weakness and humiliation is actually the _best_ position from which to operate covertly---like the spider-like Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects!

Exactly like her near-namesake, Charlotte Lucas (both not accidentally with last names beginning in "Luc-"), Lucy could care less which Ferrars son she winds up with, as long as it's the one who will inherit the family wealth.

And I will now unpack a key part of my additional interpretation of the symbolism of the toothpick, which I hinted at yesterday and also in my Subject Line for this post----i.e., Lucy Steele uses Robert and Edward Ferrars (_and_ her own sister) as her "toothpicks" to dislodge the wealth of the Ferrars family from between the teeth in the "jaws" of Mrs. Ferrars, jaws which have theretofore held both Edward and Robert firmly in their avaricious, vise-like grip!

Taking this piquant metaphor to its logical end, I further assert that Lucy discovers the perfect strategy to win the courtship game, which is to induce Mrs. Ferrars to do two things--to "expectorate" Edward into the "spittoon" of disinheritance, while at the same time carelessly unclenching her jaws, vesting in Robert free (and irrevocable) access to the family wealth---little realizing that Lucy already has swallowed Robert whole (metaphorically speaking), and that Robert---if Lucy allows him to survive, and not suffer an unfortunate "accident" or "fatal illness"----will be her creature, to forever do her bidding without realizing it, like a puppet on a string!

Or, to also pick up on Juliet McMaster's wonderful interpretation (expressed by her in the latest Persuasions Online)....

...of Lucy and Elinor fighting a metaphorical "duel" over Edward, but to extend it in a direction Juliet did not contemplate, I would argue for the deliciously wicked symbolism of Lucy using sharp objects like needles and toothpicks to fight her own version of duels with both Mrs. Ferrars and Elinor, and ultimately prevailing against both!

There is a reason why her married name is "Lucy Ferrars" ==> "Lucifer" (as I discovered in 2005)---exactly like the Devil himself, she does not achieve her goals by her own direct action, but by taking advantage of the foibles and weaknesses of others, in order to get them to do her dirty work for her, leaving her influence invisible. She wants power, and it is perfectly clear by the end of the novel that she has achieved it, when she wraps Mrs. Ferrars around her little finger. It is easy for me to imagine the Ferrars family twenty years later, with Lucy firmly entrenched as the all-powerful Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Mrs. Churchill of the family, and perhaps having the satisfaction of promoting her own daughter's wealth and power, at the expense of any daughters of her "sister" Elinor!

Not bad for an uneducated country girl whose grammar and spelling leave a lot to be desired. But Jane Austen well understood that for women coming from such a background, nothing would be given to them, they had to grab what they could on their own resourcefulness.

And I say, what's wrong with that? JA may seem to most Janeite readers to be presenting Lucy as deserving to lose in these duels, but I think JA was saying, on a deeper level, "If the deck is stacked unfairly against women in every way, then all's fair in love and war, for women to level the playing field using their wits and ingenuity. " And one can hardly feel sorry for Mrs. Ferrars, or for Robert Ferrars, if they turn out to be flies caught in Lucy's intricate web!

Cheers, ARNIE

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