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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

More re Jane Austen's Letter 91, Fancy and Imagination, and Miss Bates

 Diana Birchall responded to my last two posts in Austen L and Janeites:  "I also don't buy Arnie's deduction that Jane Austen is turning the household objects into the female reproductive system, nor that Miss Bates is a self-portrait; but that is neither here nor there."

Well, no, I'd say that issue is here and there, in fact, it's the heart of the matter. I've given a single explanation for all that (as you aptly call it) "determined unintelligibility"  and, what's more,  I've pointed to the very passages in Emma which have that exact same quality of "determined unintelligibility" ---either Miss Bates is talking about total trivial nonsense that the reader can safely ignore--that is Emma's reaction, and that has been the reaction of most readers of the novel for two centuries. Or...the reader can ask why Jane Austen went to the trouble of giving all this detail about what appears to be total trivia and nonsense, in both Miss Bates's speeches, and also in that passage of Letter 91. And (most important), why JA winks toward the well-established debate about fancy and imagination, which clearly is directing CEA to pay close attention to this apparent nonsense, and to decode it.

Remember, CEA is not the only person who would be reading Letter 91, so JA decided to convey this particular message in code, whereby only CEA would take the time and effort to decode it.

Diana: "What we have here is one of the most determinedly unintelligible passages in the letters, made all the more complex by the introduction of these delicate pre-Coleridgian definitions.  Let's look again: < I knew there was Sugar in the Tin, but had no idea of there being enough to last through your Company. All the better. - You ought not to think this new Loaf better than the other, because that was the first of 5 which all came together. Something of fancy perhaps, & something of imagination." What ever can the woman mean! Is she being playful with the fancy and imagination terms, teasing Cassandra for saying one loaf was better than the other when they are all identical? The trouble is that we simply have not seen what it was Cassandra said that she is responding to."

I suggest you can't provide a compelling alternative explanation because mine fits everything JA was doing as a novelist at the time.

Diana: "Ellen helpfully puts the fancy/imagination issue in historical intellectual context: < She mentions the then growingly common opposition of fancy and imagination. Until later in the century people, writers, philosophers opposed reason and judgement to fancy and the imagination and on either side of the equation the terms were blended. It was Lord Kames who was a central member of the school who began to distinguish forms of imagation and praise some. Johnson is among those who still see in imagination much danger: delusion, that way madness, egoism, and Austen reflects this in her portrait of Marianne Dashwood. To be literal...could it be, Austen is saying that her "idea" that there wasn't enough sugar to last, is "fancy," while Cassandra's thinking one loaf better than another, "imagination"? What the terms meant to her is rather subtle; but she might be making the two word-illustrations, as a playfully philosophical joke. Yes, that would at least make some sense, and be in character. "

That doesn't ring true for me.  JA, like Shakespeare, grew up in the country near animals, and not in a privileged life, so she was extremely familiar with what went on in the barnyard, and in the kitchen and the washroom, among other home industries.  So her novels and letters are saturated with earthy metaphors derived from that youthful rural experience. So I suggest that the female body, as reflected metaphorically in the country world she knew grew up in, was never far from her focus.

But yes, of course, she also was too brilliant and learned, in her autodidactic fashion, not to be up on what Lord Kames and other philosophical types had opined about imagination and fancy. But...she was always putting her own personal earthy feminist stamp on all those debates.  She was never content to passively echo what these men had written on these weighty topics, and I can hear the deflating mockery of her teenage History of England in her sentence about fancy and imagination,  her laughing at pompous pontifications about imagination and fancy from men who thought women could not understand such "subtle" distinctions.

Which is the reason for the existence of Miss Bates--give the sexists a character who appears too stupid and uneducated to understand what matters, but endow that character with real poetic genius, imagination, and (most telling) subtle insight into human nature.

I believe JA examined the ideas of male scholars like Lord Kames who engaged in high-flown flights of intellectual argument in distinguishing between "fancy" and "imagination", and she realized that these were useless categories for people living real life, because nothing in their pontifications would provide assistance to someone trying to determine the aesthetic or moral value of a given work of literature, such a a poem or a novel.

I.e., they were all begging the question, because they assumed that it was obvious as to which particular writings were the produce of "fancy" and which were the product of "imagination".  That determination is not an objective process, it is deeply subjective, i.e., one person's masterpiece is another person's hackwork.

And..(here's the key point), JA was well aware that the gender of the author was a major prejudicial factor in determining how a given work of literature was judged, in the real world, by a given reader.  I.e., a female author was assumed by male readers to be writing about domestic trivia, while a male author was assumed by all to be writing about "the meaning of life".

So....that's why Miss Bates is such a radical feminist character--JA, in her typical audacious way, has chosen to tackle the deeply sexist prejudice against women head on, by giving the sexists a woman who can safely be ignored.

And it is clear to me that the passage in question in Letter 91, with all its domestic trivia, and it's excited tone about loaves of bread, and sugar in the tin, is pure satire. JA is writing a passage which a man reading it will skip right past, saying, "Women's trivia".  She's deliberately writing what appears to be the product of "fancy", but actually, she is using a surface "fanciful" appearance to mask a deeper "imaginative" meaning.  That's exactly why she alerts CEA to look for both fancy and imagination in what JA writes. Beneath the surface jumble, there is real meaning.

That is exactly what she did in all her fiction, masking imagination with surface fancy.

Finally, I am reminded of one other point---there is an extraordinary correlation between the mock-obsequious tone of JA's letters to James Stanier Clarke, on the one hand, and the Miss Bates speeches in Emma, on the other.

Cheers, ARNIE
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