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
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.
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George Washington's Diamond Eagle, 1784
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