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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Was Charles Dickens a Closet Janeite?

An old question has been raised again in another group---could Charles Dickens have been a closet Janeite?

Here's what I wrote about Dickens allusions to Jane Austen in yet another online venue over 5 years ago:

My acquaintance with Dickens is still relatively small, but I became aware last year of a curious bit of textual evidence which I'd like to invite comment on from you all who know Dickens very well.  I wonder whether Dickens had Austen's Mansfield Park very specifically in mind when he wrote the following passage in Martin Chuzzlewit:

Ch. 17: "Another little trait came out, which impressed itself on Martin forcibly. Mr. Bevan told them about Mark and the negro, and then it appeared that all the Norrises were abolitionists. It was a great relief to hear this, and Martin was so much encouraged on finding himself in such company, that he expressed his sympathy with the oppressed and wretched blacks. Now, one of the young ladies--the prettiest and most delicate--was mightily amused at the earnestness with which he spoke; and on his craving leave to ask her why, was quite unable for a time to speak for laughing. As soon however as she could, she told him that the negroes were such a funny people, so excessively ludicrous in their manners and appearance, that it was wholly impossible for those who knew them well, to associate any serious ideas with such a very absurd part of the creation. Mr. Norris the father, and Mrs. Norris the mother, and Miss Norris the sister, and Mr. Norris Junior the brother, and even Mrs. Norris Senior the grandmother, were all of this opinion, and laid it down as an absolute matter of fact. As if there were nothing in suffering and slavery, grim enough to cast a solemn air on any human animal; though it were as ridiculous, physically, as the most grotesque of apes, or morally, as the mildest Nimrod among tuft-hunting republicans!"

Why I ask is because, for those familiar with the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris is a kind of metaphorical overseer tormenting Fanny Price the metaphorical house slave of the novel. So the surname Norris and the institution of slavery is linked in both Martin Chuzzlewit and in Mansfield Park. However, perhaps someone who does not believe this is an allusion by Dickens to Austen will argue that Dickens, like Austen, must have known about the very famous 18th century real life slave ship captain turned abolitionist Robert Norris, and therefore claim that Dickens was alluding only to Robert Norris, not to Austen's Mrs. Norris, in the above passage, and that he had no idea about Jane Austen's covert "spin" on the Norris surname. However, I say that where's smoke, there may be fire, and I find some very thick "smoke" in the following passage from 2 paragraphs later in Martin Chuzzlewit, when Dickens wrote:
"In order that their talk might fall again into its former pleasant channel, Martin dropped the subject, with a shrewd suspicion that it would be a dangerous theme to revive under the best of circumstances".

So we have the narrator referring to an abrupt but tactful termination of the unpleasant subject of slavery and racism. Which reminds me an awful lot of the following passage from Mansfield Park: Edmund Bertram says to Fanny Price: "Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle."

And then Fanny replies as follows:   "But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?"

And then Edmund says this:  "I did-and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther."

And then Fanny says this (and this is the "punchline" for my claim of a Dickens allusion to Austen):  "And I longed to do it-but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like- I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel."

I think that such a passage in Mansfield Park would have appealed to Dickens's anti-racist idealism, because he'd have realized from it that Jane Austen was in fact very much concerned with slavery and racism, but was extremely covert in her allusions, as opposed to his own forthright allusions.   END QUOTE

As I reread the above for the first time in a few years, I still stand by what I wrote then.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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