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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mary Bennet & Jane Austen, Students of Thorough-Bass & Human Nature

An interesting thread of discussion has developed in Janeites, arising out of a report of a recent piano recital at which music actually played by Jane Austen was performed and discussed, and then the conversation turned to the famous narration in Pride & Prejudice about Mary Bennet's musical studies.

Nancy Mayer wrote: "In the 17th and 18th century some composers didn't write the bass part of a piece but just hinted at it and gave the number of some chords. I gather that there was a book in which the various chords were numbered. It wasn't a study for the unintelligent."

Nancy, that is accurate, this was indeed a study for the most intelligent. That's the first clue that the following narrative comment....

"They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature; and had some extracts to admire, and some new observations of threadbare morality to listen to.

...admits of two opposite, but equally plausible, interpretations:

The first interpretation is that the narration is objective, and may be relied upon as an accurate description of Mary as a clueless pedant, who, for all her erudition, cannot distinguish between what really matters and what doesn't.

The second interpretation is that the narrative is subjective, written from Elizabeth's prejudiced point of view, and is completely unreliable as a description of Mary. Rather, it provides the reader with a perspective on Lizzy herself, i.e. that Lizzy, who prides herself on being the best "studier of character" among the Bennet sisters, has dismissed Mary as a pedant, because Lizzy feels threatened by Mary's vastly superior knowledge and insight. And I would also toss in some musical jealousy as well. It is a pretty safe bet that if (as Lizzy herself acknowledges to Darcy at Rosings) Lizzy does not practice piano enough to play really well, you can be darned sure that Lizzy does not study thorough bass, as Mary does!

A couple of years ago, I wrote several posts about Mary Bennet's talents and knowledge, which, in a similar vein with the above, show that Lizzy consistently, unfairly, & prejudicially dismisses Mary's accomplishments, and also consistently mishears what Mary is actually saying, because Lizzy is ignorant of the erudition Mary is drawing upon.

Here are a few of those earlier posts:

So it should come as absolutely no shock that Jane Austen played sophisticated piano music that required her to be deep in the study of thorough bass. And every Janeite already knew from her novels how deep was Jane Austen's study of human nature!

Then Michael Chwe, author of a new and very interesting book about Jane Austen entitled Jane Austen, Game Theorist, chimed in as follows:

Michael: "My own interpretation is kinder to Mary. Music notation is a "technical" way to understand music (according to Alfred Crosby, the music staff was "Europe's first graph"), and indeed Mary's studying of it seems to indicate her geekiness. My take is that by placing thorough bass together with human nature, Austen suggests the possibility of understanding human behavior using a technical, mathematical approach (as in game theory)."

Bravo, Michael, you did cover that topic very well in your book, and I heartily endorse your final sentence, above, without qualification.

I would only add a variation on your theme (ha ha), to the following effect: i.e., that Jane Austen _also_ suggests the possibility of better understanding her novels themselves, if a reader can sensitize him or herself to the metaphor of the "thorough bass" structure of her novels. What do I mean by this?

That beneath the "melodic" surface of her novels, ie., the stories as gleaned from the light, bright and sparkling "high notes" of the story that all readers/listeners read/hear without effort, there is a layer of
meaning submerged in the "lower notes", i.e., the aspects of the story that require great study in order to "fill in" those "harmonies" only abbreviated in the musical staff.

And, to also show Jane Austen's self-reflexive writing, a great example of such a "thorough bass" hint is my above alternative interpretation of Mary Bennet's character in the novel, which can only be ascertained by following the textual hints pointing to it.

I have spent the past 10+ years in study of that "thorough bass", following the hints in Jane Austen's novel texts which function exactly like those musical notations of the thorough bass line.

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Has anyone (have you) considered that Austen might have meant "thorough-base" - as in human nature being base - below acceptable - and therefore unacceptable?
Just a curious thought - but man's 'base nature' would eliminate any sophistication or elegance, being low or below standard. Might she have meant that? Mary would certainly enjoy reading THAT as apposed to a musical insight - which she clearly has not.