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

Friday, August 17, 2012

England’s Jane Austen & Russia’s Pussy Riot: Sisters in Resistance to State/Church Oppression



My most central claim, which I’ve repeated a hundred times in one form or another, is that Jane Austen wrote her six novels to be _anamorphic_. This means that they are double stories, with _overt_ stories which have significant but not particularly radical feminist elements, but with _shadow_ stories which constitute an intense and radical feminist critique of the male power structure in England. Those powerful men superficially placed women on a pedestal, while hypocritically (and obliviously) oppressing women in a variety of ways, most of all in relation to women’s control over their own bodies—a life and death issue in many cases.

The epicenter of my above claims is the famous rant that Henry Tilney unleashes on (future wife) Catherine Tilney in the climactic scene in Northanger Abbey, when he (believes he) realizes what sort of Gothic horror Catherine has been imagining regarding the death of Mrs. Tilney at the hands of her husband, General Tilney:

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

See the following sampler of posts at my blog that elaborate on the ironic interpretation of the above rant, i.e., that the exertion of male power via church, state and familial custom was a lethal combination for women in Jane Austen’s world, which those powerful men all thought to be perfectly okay:



One of the counterarguments commonly presented to me by critics of my ideas is that Jane Austen had no reason to be covert in her feminist critique, she could have presented it openly if she had wished, because she would not have suffered significant adverse consequences. I have always been amazed by this particular response, and finally, today, I have a contemporary example to present, to illustrate the kind of risk JA would have run had she made her overt stories as radically feminist and subversive as I claim her shadow stories to be.

Just look at the hot world news of today, August 17, 2012, nearly 201 years after JA published her first novel, S&S, which shows that the French axiom “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” remains sadly apt. It illustrates that in all too many places in our “modern” world today, women who dare to speak out openly and publicly against the abusive male power structure are indeed still subject to unduly harsh punishment.

Of course I am referring to the sentencing of members of the all-female Pussy Riot music group in Russia to two years in prison for daring to challenge the truly unholy alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin’s government, which are joined at the hip in the suppression of justice and free dissent from political and religious orthodoxy in one of the world’s largest nations:


I was particularly struck by the demand in the Pussy Riot song that the Virgin Mary “put Putin away” and “become a _feminist”_---of course, I thought immediately of Jane Austen!  And I thought, that other adage is also true, i.e., history really does repeat itself, because Jane Austen herself was faced with a similar choice regarding the degree of openness of her critique of the patriarchy in 1815 when she was finishing the writing of her fourth novel, _Emma_.

As the masthead of this blog illustrates, it is incontrovertible, thanks to the remarkable discovery 6 years ago by my friend, Colleen Sheehan, that Jane Austen chose to _covertly_ satirize the gluttony of the most powerful man in England during the last decade of her life. That man was none other than the Prince Regent (and future King George IV), and her satire was achieved covertly by having his well known moniker, the “Prince of WHALES” (with an “h”),  be an alternative answer to the second charade in Chapter 9 of _Emma_, as more fully elucidated here:


And that brings us to the chilling resemblance to these infamous current events in Russia. While Sheehan noted that JA based her charade satire in part on the 1812 satirical “poem about the Prince published in the Examiner, the English periodical edited by James Henry Leigh Hunt and his brother John Hunt….entitled “THE TRIUMPH OF THE WHALE…”, Colleen did not mention the full history of the criticism of the Prince Regent by the Hunt brothers, as summarized here:  


“Along with his brothers John and Robert, Leigh Hunt edited and published the Examiner, a liberal weekly that did much to improve the literary quality of English journalism and did more to rile the conservative government of his time. Indeed, John and Leigh Hunt spent two years in prison, from January 1813 to January 1815, after being convicted of libel because they had called the Prince of Wales, among other things,  . . a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, a companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity!”

Sound familiar? Just think about the Pussy Riot’s ridicule of Vladimir Putin, whose body, ironically, was also all over the  news a few years back, not for morbid obesity, as was the case with the Prince Regent, but for Putin’s machismo, for being really ripped and buff for a man his age. In both cases, the character and politics of the man are inextricably tied to public perception of the body of the man.

So it is an awful repetition of history that we had, in 1813, the sentencing to _two_ years in prison, for libel, of two courageous journalists, for daring to speak out _truthfully_ about the most powerful man in England, and now we have, in 2012, in Russia, the sentencing of brave women to _two_ years in prison, for “hooliganism”, i.e., because they “crudely undermined social order".

If Jane Austen were alive today and living in England, where speech is now (mostly) free, I have absolutely no doubt that she’d be expressing her solidarity with her sisters in resistance, the Pussy Riot, by doing her elegantly subversive best to raise world consciousness about their heroic plight.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

Bill Maher brings these lsst two posts of mine together with humor that Jane Austen would have enjoyed:

"Akin on rape:'the female body has ways to try and shut the whole thing down'. Today he's claiming the medical term for that is "Pussy Riot" "