A couple of years ago, I wrote a short fanciful post in which I united my love of two of my three favorite British icons--the Beatles and Jane Austen (Shakespeare being the third, of course):
Among the absurd scenarios I imagined was "Emma and Mrs. Elton doing a
raucous duo rendition of Strawberry Fields Forever".
Of course, I was prompted to that absurd pairing by the strawberry
picnic scene at Donwell Abbey, and in particular, the following famous
"The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was
expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her
apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready
to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and
only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—"The best fruit in
England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds
and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of
really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every
sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly
eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour
of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple
Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly
different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their
way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to
cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering
strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no
longer—must go and sit in the shade."
What occurred to me this morning, was that maybe--just maybe--John
Lennon was a sharper elf than I had even given him credit for, and that
perhaps the lyrics of one of his most famous songs were in some way
inspired by that very same passage in Emma:
Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry fields Nothing is
real And nothing to get hung about Strawberry fields forever
Living is easy with eyes closed Misunderstanding all you see It's
getting hard to be someone, but it all works out It doesn't matter much
to me [chorus]
No one, I think, is in my tree I mean, it must be high or low That is,
you can't, you know, tune in, but it's alright That is, I think it's not
too bad [chorus]
Always, no, sometimes, think it's me But, you know, I know when it's a
dream I think, er, no, I mean, er, yes, but it's all wrong That is, I
think I disagree [chorus]
I must start with a caveat----I have previously looked, and never could
find any published indication that any of the Beatles took any
particular interest in Jane Austen. And...according to Wikipedia, there
was an actual place called "Strawberry Field" in Liverpool, which was a
childhood memory of Lennon's, so there is already a plausible
explanation for where Lennon got the idea for the song.
Nonetheless...as I mulled over the possibility that John Lennon might,
in some poetic way, have been paying tribute to Emma in "Strawberry
Fields Forever", it occurred to me that there was a likely candidate as
a kind of literary "matchmaker", who might have turned John Lennon on to
the absurdist side of Jane Austen's writings, at that critical moment,
in early 1967, and that matchmaker's name was Joe Orton:
It is an undisputed fact that Joe Orton--notorious bad boy of the
theatre of the absurd in early Sixties London-- was a huge Janeite, who
particularly loved (not surprisingly) the mad energy of JA's juvenilia,
and also the way JA played with the Gothic in Northanger Abbey.
So, is it just coincidence that in Joe Orton's Diary, we find an entry
from Jan. 20, 1967 in which he says he is going to meet the Beatles?
Apparently, negotiations had begun, for Orton to script the Beatles's
next film (which of course became Magical Mystery Tour). And I refer to
this as a coincidence, because the single "Strawberry Fields Forever"
was released a month thereafter, in February 1967, and the references to
"Strawberry Fields" were only added during that intervening month!
So it seems an intriguing possibility that when Joe Orton met the
Beatles, it would have been Lennon and Orton in particular, who would
have gravitated to each other---they were both "bad boys", whose shared
deep love of the absurd in words would surely have resulted in some
spontaneous combustion of absurdist poetic interaction between them--and
so I think it quite likely that Orton would at some point have turned
the subject to Jane Austen--the way all of us Janeites invariably do
when given any leeway--and Orton might've said to Lennon something like
"You've got to read Emma, it will blow your mind. Jane Austen was not
who you think she was. She was the Queen of the Absurd."
And so my hypothesis is that Orton turned Lennon on to Emma in
particular, and perhaps even directed Lennon to one of the most
experimental passages in Emma---the disjointed, mysterious dialog which
Emma, her eyes closed as she lies on her back in the summer heat, and
hears, through a heat-induced anagogic dream state, the spoken words
which I quoted above. And perhaps that was all Lennon needed to inspire
him to crystallize his immortal lyrics.
Certainly, I cannot think of a better description of Emma Woodhouse than
"Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. It's
getting hard to be someone, but it all works out, it doesn't matter much
to me." That's Emma to a tee!
And as to Jane Austen's supreme achievement in creating multiple layers
of reality in Emma, what more poetic description could be given of her
timeless fictional world than to call it "Strawberry Fields Forever", "
a dream" place where "nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about".
And I must conclude on a tragic note, because Orton, at age 34, was
murdered in a crime of passion in August 1967, only six months after his
meeting with the Beatles (the last year of his life was the subject of
the great film, Prick Up Your Ears, with amazing performances by Gary
Oldman and Alfred Molina). And we all know that Lennon also died a
violent death at the hands of a madman at age 40. And we all know that
Jane Austen died a tragic death, apparently of natural causes, at age 41.
Food for thought on a Christmas morning, when the imagination runs free.
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