(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Answers to My Best Austen Quiz Yet: Jane Austen the Greatest English Scheherazade

“Okay.....I'm thinking of a _very_ (i.e., _world_) famous work of literature (let's call it "The Mother Lode") written _well_ over a century before Jane Austen was born (I am deliberately being vague as to the time frame I am talking about), that Jane Austen alluded to _covertly_ in one of her six published novels. When properly understood, this covert allusion--which is wittily hidden in plain sight by Jane Austen in two very short passages linked across two chapters---goes to the heart, to the deepest core, of Jane Austen's confident and courageous sense of herself as a feminist author who has assumed the onerous and dangerous task of educating all the people of her society as to the many grave perils of men having too much power and too little wisdom to wield it justly vis a vis women. “

Although I had a feeling that the above description _alone_ would be sufficient for at least some of you reading this to guess the real title of what I am temporarily calling The Mother Lode, in fact it did not, as no one who responded to me was able to guess the correct answer. So here is the answer, along with the answers to the clues I provided:

Hint#1: There is an _explicit_ allusion to the main character of the Mother Lode in a _different_ one of Jane Austen's six published novels, which explicit allusion has been analyzed in a scholarly journal article written during the past few years, but as to which the scholar had absolutely no clue as to the _covert_ allusion to the Mother Lode, and, indeed, never even mentions the Austen novel containing that covert allusion.


In Chapter 23 of Persuasion, we read: “One day only had passed since Anne's conversation with Mrs. Smith; but a keener interest had succeeded, and she was now so little touched by Mr. Elliot's conduct, except by its effects in one quarter, that it became a matter of course the next morning still to defer her explanatory visit in Rivers Street. She had promised to be with the Musgroves from breakfast to dinner. Her faith was plighted, and Mr. Elliot's character, LIKE THE SULTANESS SCHEHERAZADE’S HEAD, MUST LIVE ANOTHER DAY.”

So the main character of the Mother Lode I’ve been hinting at is the Sultaness Scheherazade from A Thousand And One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights), whose head famously lives another 1,001 days, by means of her storytelling talents which charm, and eventually transform the sultan Scharyar from Bluebeard to loving husband and father.

That explicit allusion to Scheherazade in Persuasion is the topic of “The Power of Storytelling and Deferral: Anne Elliot, Jane Austen, and Scheherazade” in Persuasions Online, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spr. 2008) by Prof. Kuldip Kuwahara. Prof. Kuwahara does a competent job of plausibly arguing that Anne Elliot is a Scheherazade, but it does not occur to her that there might be _another_ Scheherazade lurking in the shadows of the text, as suggested by the following textual hint in Chapter 17, which Kuwahara did _not_ detect:

"Westgate Buildings!" said [Sir Walter], "and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; and who was her husband? One of five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you. But surely you may put off this old lady till to-morrow: she is not so near her end, I presume, but that SHE MAY HOPE TO SEE ANOTHER DAY. What is her age? Forty?"

So JA once more uses one of her fools to reveal something significant, in this instance, the notion of Mrs. Smith as a storyteller who uses guile to survive. I am sure you can see, as I see, the way that opens up a way of thinking about Mrs. Smith’s telling tales about Cousin Elliot as having a strategic purpose not revealed to the reader. It also picks up on my own and other scholars’s prior speculations about Mrs. Smith as a covert _self_ portrait by Jane Austen, with Nurse Rooke (in my opinion) as Martha Lloyd.

I also note in passing that the explicit reference to Scheherazade in Chapter 23 was added by JA when she revised the ending of Persuasion, and discarded the “cancelled chapters”, which contained no such reference. However, it is precisely because of that _veiled_ allusion to Scheherazade in Chapter 17, that we can know that JA did not add that explicit allusion to Scheherazade at the last minute, out of nowhere, but instead that JA _always_ had the allusion in mind as she wrote the entirety of Persuasion, but only decided as an afterthought to give her readers an _explicit_ hint of it. Why? Because, I suspect, she was by 1816 realizing that most of her readers were not picking up on her many textual hints, and it was important to her that the readers of Persuasion think of Scheherazade while reading it, for reasons which I will explore, below. Now on to my answer to Hint #2:

Hint#2: There is a famous bestseller written during the past decade which explicitly refers _both_ to the Mother Lode _and_ to the Austen novel containing the _covert_ allusion to the Mother Lode, but....the author of this bestseller never asserts or even implies that Jane Austen intentionally alluded to the Mother Lode in the Austen novel containing that covert allusion!


The famous bestseller is none other than Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (2003)! The covert women’s reading group that Nafisi ran in Tehran had a reading list that began with A Thousand And One Nights and moved on quickly to Pride & Prejudice! Nafisi discusses both of them in terms of their feminism. However, Nafisi was apparently totally unaware of the allusions to Scheherazade in Persuasion and, more important, was not consciously unaware of the covert allusion to Scheherazade in…..Pride & Prejudice itself, which is the main point of this quiz!

And without further ado, here is the core of that allusion to Scheherazade in P&P:

In Chapter 43, Lizzy and the Gardiners debrief their meeting Darcy at Pemberley, and the primary topic is Darcy’s shocking civility:

"But perhaps [Darcy] may be a little whimsical in his civilities," replied her uncle. "YOUR GREAT MEN OFTEN ARE; and therefore I shall not take him at his word, AS HE MIGHT CHANGE HIS MIND ANOTHER DAY, and warn me off his grounds." Elizabeth felt that they had entirely misunderstood his character, but said nothing.
And then in Chapter 44, Lizzy, who has clearly been upset by her uncle’s cynical suggestion that Darcy’s civility might be short-lived, nervously observes Darcy for signs that her uncle might be right:
“It was not often that she could turn her eyes on Mr. Darcy himself; but, whenever she did catch a glimpse, she saw an expression of general complaisance, and in all that he said she heard an accent so removed from hauteur or disdain of his companions, as convinced her that the improvement of manners which she had yesterday witnessed HOWEVER TEMPORARY ITS EXISTENCE MIGHT PROVE, HAD AT LEAST OUTLIVED ONE DAY.”
The smoking gun is the phrase “OUTLIVED one day”!

It would appear from this veiled allusion that JA intended her knowing readers to identify Lizzy with Scheherazade. However, as in Persuasion, my belief is that while Darcy takes pains at the end of the novel to make Lizzy believe she has played the role of Scheherazade to his Scharyar, I believe the allusion is much more complex and subversive than that. To explain that is far beyond the scope of a blog post, but I will properly expand on that point in my book. Suffice for now to say that I see _other_ Scheherazades in P&P besides Elizabeth.

And that brings me back to Nafisi’s “Trojan Horse Moment”—if you read her ruminations on A Thousand and One Nights, and also on P&P, you see that she is _so_ close to realizing that Jane Austen had the former in my mind while writing the latter, but as Nafisi is not a textual sleuth, she fails to land that plane.

As far as I can discern online, no one else has ever spotted the specific textual “bread crumbs” in Chapters 43 & 44 of P&P (and there are _other_ less obvious textual hints to A Thousand And One Nights scattered in P&P, which I will write about in a future post) that point to Scheherazade.

However, I am _not_ the first to feel the aura of Scheherazade in P&P, and I will now give credit to two scholars who went much much further than Nafisi’s Trojan Horse Moment in this regard.

The first is Dahra Latham who wrote the following in Sept. 2002 in Austen L:

“Sharazad is an interesting example of a female hero. Confronted with an inability to connect (the king who has been betrayed by his first wife and more or less gone crazy) she uses her abilities as a storyteller to heal him, and, in the process, saves the kingdom. Not to mention winning herself a husband. Elizabeth Bennet, with her wit, reminds me of this a little.”

Dahra, if you’re out there, as you can see from the passages I quoted in Chapter 42 the above, you were right to associate Scheherazade with Lizzy!

And second and more significantly, I found a fantastic, insightful, rich discussion of this whole topic in a 2004 dissertation entitled “Echoes of Scheherazade’s Voice in England: The Influence of The One Thousand And One Nights in the Works of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and Mary Hays” by Bita Hazel Zakeri.

Even though Zakeri writes that “Austen does not mention Arabian Nights in Pride and Prejudice”, she comes oh so close to seeing the covert allusion I detected in Chapters 43&44 of P&P, when Zakeri writes about Darcy’s politeness to the Gardiners and Lizzy!:

“Just as Scheherazade guides Schahriar towards benevolence of character and realization of his flaws through her narratives each night, Elizabeth guides Darcy to his realization of his character flaws. During their encounter at Pemberley, Darcy is most civil and polite to Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.”

But more important to me, Zakeri analyzes the relationship of P&P to Arabian Nights in ways that strongly point to the significance of this allusion for my claims that Jane Austen was a radical feminist. E.g., I could not agree more with Zakeri when she writes about

“the influence of the Arabian Nights in eighteenth century English literature and draws a comparison between the Nights’ Scheherazade and Dinarzade and the heroines of Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in women’s education, intellect, and power to affect social change through challenging the conventions of the patriarchal society.”

But even Zakeri does not think sufficiently outside the box to see what I see, which is that JA most of all sees _herself_ as an author, in the character of Scheherazade! Zakeri writes the following wonderful feminist analysis of Scheherazade:

“…Scheherazade…volunteered in order to save the lives of the other innocent females of her country….through her sacrifice and her success, she is also freeing her father, the visier, from committing a murder ordered by Schahriar every morning. In the same token, she is also freeing the fathers, as well as the mothers in the country from the pain and suffering of losing their daughters in the most brutal and unjust manner. In additions, Scheherazade educates her sister about women’s power and politics through her stories by keeping her actively involved in serving her political agenda. Thus, Scheherazade is not only saving the maidens, but she is rescuing the whole nation from barbarity that results from Schahriar’s overreaction to his first wife’s infidelity. Once the importance of Scheherazade’s character and narrative power is established by the framing narrative voice near the end of the frame story, Scheherazade assumes the leading role in the whole collection and her success comes to bind all the stories together. “

Seeing JA as I do, I read every word that Zakeri wrote in the above paragraph as being directly applicable not only to Scheherazade, as Zakeri argues, but _also_ to Jane Austen herself! She saw herself as volunteering to save the lives of all the innocent females of her country, both the married Mrs. Tilneys dying in childbirth and the unmarried Jane Fairfaxes coping with pregnancy outside marriage. JA saw herself as rescuing England from the barbarity of its patriarchal sexism. Her novels are themselves the literary equivalent of the 1001 stories that Scheherazade tells, and their ultimate goal is to allow English gentlewomen to”survive another day”! And it’s for certain that Jane Austen saw the obvious parallelism between the Bluebeard story of Perrault, and one of the 1001 stories that Scheherazade tells, which involves a gender reversal of Bluebeard, i.e., where it is _men_ who lose an _eye_ as a result of their curiosity driving them to open the door to a forbidden room.

Speaking of those 1001 stories, there is also one of them which (as Arthur Weitzman suggested in response to Darla Lathan back in 2002 in Austen L) was severely Bowdlerized in the English translations that JA would have had at her disposal, but which is actually loaded with heavy sexual innuendo, i.e., the Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies, told on Nights 28-31. Nonetheless, somehow, JA read between the lines of the Bowdlerized text and detected the sexual innuendo there, and here are the ‘bread crumbs” that evidence same:

The Porter who lucks into a day and night of licentious revelry with not one but _three_ stunningly beautiful ladies says the following at a climactic moment right around the time things get really steamy in the uncensored version:

“Even I am sensible that I am unmannerly to stay longer than I ought; but I hope you will he so good as to pardon me, if I tell you, that I am astonished to see that there is no man with three ladies of such extraordinary beauty; and you know that a company of women without men is as melancholy a thing as a company of men without women.' To this he added several other pleasant things to prove what he said, and did not forget the Bagdad proverb, 'That one is never well at table, except there be four in company and so concluded, that SINCE THERE WERE BUT THREE, THEY HAD NEED OF A FOURTH.”

Now read this famous passage in P&P, Chapter 10: “Then taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, [Miss Bingley] left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness, and immediately said: "This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue." But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered:
"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be SPOILT BY ADMITTING A FOURTH. Good-bye."

For many years, it has been recognized that in this passage, Elizabeth is slyly alluding to Gilpin’s famous wisdom about the placement of cows in a picturesque painting, and there is no doubt that this is one correct interpretation. However, now that I have seen the above passage in Scheherazade’s Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies, I realize that JA has, spectacularly, _also_ alluded to that source as well!

What Elizabeth can be understood to be saying, whether wittingly or unwittingly, is that she is not willing to become the “third lady” who will “walk” with Darcy, i.e., she is not a slut like Caroline (or her sister Mrs. Hurst, who probably is not a paragon of fidelity, I suggest), who would want to play a role in a ménage a quatre with Darcy!

There is so much more to be said on this allusion in P&P, that will have to wait for the proper time and venue. Suffice for now to say that it is of the hugest importance in understanding Jane Austen’s self image as an English Scheherazade. And now, finally, for my answer to Hint #3.

Hint #3: There is a very famous movie made sometime within the past few decades (again, I am deliberately being vague as to the time frame involved) which movie itself is based, at _its_ heart and deepest core, on an allusion to the Mother Lode, even though, as far as I can tell via Internet searching, no one has ever noted this covert allusion before. By the way, you may be interested to know that I realized this connection for the very first time when I awoke very early today at 6:00 am.


I stumbled across the passage in Chapter 44 of P&P two days ago, while following up another allusive lead entirely. Then, yesterday, as I began writing up my quiz, it popped into my head without any prior prompting that the story of Scheherazade—told from the point of view of the sultan Scharyar--was actually hiding in plain sight in one of my most favorite films—Groundhog Day (1993) directed by Harold Ramis, with screenplay by Ramis and Danny Rubin.

Of course there are differences, but the essence of both A Thousand And One Nights and Groundhog Day is a narcissistic, woman-hating man who learns, only after a thousand or more experiences of himself in relation to other people, to become a good man. Or we could say that it takes Scharyar 1001 nights to learn to love Scheherazade and not wish to kill her, but it takes a few eons for Phil Connor to become a spiritual avatar capable of transforming the entire world.

It is evidence of how rarely people think about this sort of veiled allusion in literature and story telling that I am apparently the first person to note this striking parallelism in print, in the nearly two decades since Groundhog Day was released, and has been seen by countless people who are also at least passingly familiar with the central conceit of A Thousand And One Nights.

Anyway, that was the basis of my Final Hint….

Final Hint: Although you'll have to take my word for this last point that I did not plan it this way, there could not possibly be a more appropriate time for me to present this quiz than today, and this Final Hint is directly connected to _one_ of the above three Hints. ;)


And now you see from my answer to Hint #3, just above, that my Final Hint pertains to my having presented my quiz to you all on February 2, which of course, as you all probably heard or read something in the news at some point yesterday, was Groundhog Day. It doesn’t affect the validity of all of my above claims one way or another, but this really is a coincidence, improbable as it may seem, although I do suspect that in the back of my mind I had already registered that it was Groundhog Day, and so when I fortuitously stumbled across the P&P connection to Scheherazade and started writing about it, it was not so big a leap to connect these dots.

And there I will end, with a promise to return to certain secondary aspects of this topic in due course, and hoping that I will now receive some interesting feedback from you all.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Susan Ardelie said...

Fascinating post, especially for the serious Janeite. Your literary sleuthing is well done!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you very much, Susan, I could tell from browsing in YOUR blog that you were also someone who reads between the lines of great literature.

For those who might be curious to take a look at your ruminations, here is the link to your rather psychic blog post about Mr. Darcy which led me to you in the first place:


Bita said...

Just a quick correction that my work, "Echoes of Scheherazade's voice in England: The influence of the "One Thousand and One Nights" in the works of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Mary Hays" was completed in 2008.
I enjoyed browsing through this blog :)
Bita Hazel Zakeri

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you very much, Bita, I knew you would enjoy it, your work and mine are in synch on what matters most.

Cheers, ARNIE