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

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Every savage can dance” --“the most illiterate are in some measure able to perform it.”

In followup to my recent posts about the unseen Miss Owens in Mansfield Park, I was checking to see if the name “Owen” might in some way also be a veiled allusion to the famous Scottish utopian socialist, Robert Owen, and an archive search in Janeites reminded me that the seed for that thought was planted in 2008, when the following exchange occurred between Nancy and me: 

Nancy: "Though Jane Austen would not have known about Socialism, as the term wasn't invented yet, she would have known about Robert Owen. Owen was one of the first to whose philosophy the word "socialism" was applied. He was very active from 1800-1817, so Jane would have read about him."

Me in reply to Nancy: “I read somewhere (for some reason the name of some unrecognized literary scholar named Christie comes to mind) that JA was less interested in the Robert Owen than in the U.N. Owen.”

Today, following up on the above, my search serendipitously led me to the intersection of pedagogy and class, a topic of interest to both Owen and JA, but, more promisingly, to a surprising allusion hidden in plain sight in Pride & Prejudice. Read on for the details.

In an article entitled  “"Living Machines": Performance and Pedagogy at Robert Owen's Institute for the Formation of Character, New Lanark, 1816-1828”  by Cornelia Lambert in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Volume 4, Number 3, Fall 2011, pp. 419-433, the following comment caught my eye [see  the ALL CAPS]:

“The statements of commentators like Southey and M’Gavin illustrate the ambiguity of Owen’s project: while Owen felt that cultural accomplishments like singing and dancing were signs that the children had responded positively to education, to some it only magnified the materialist character of his project. What evidence, after all, was the performance of a dance?  Just as JANE AUSTEN’S MR. DARCY responds to the sanguine Sir William Lucas that “every savage can dance,” so did one contemporary critic say of reels and strathspeys, that “the taste for the country dance” comes not from its “elegance,” but from the fact that “it is so simple, that the most illiterate are in some measure able to perform it.”  When opening the doors of his Institute to the visiting public, Owen believed himself to be demonstrating the efficacy of his project to the world, but he also exposed his project to scathing criticism from those who did not share his faith in the meaning of cultural participation.” END QUOTE

I immediately followed Lambert’s footnote to its source, the passage that was so startlingly resonant with Mr. Darcy’s famous sarcastic epigram (“Every savage can dance”):

A Treatise on Dancing; and on Various Other Matters, which are Connected with that Accomplishment; and which are Requisite to Make Youth Well Received, and Regulate Their Behaviour in Company [first published in The Commercial Gazette (1802, Boston); republished prior to 1813 in England] at ppg. 83-84 [under the pseudonym Saltator]:

“Country dance is the most common of all dances, now practiced. The taste for the country dance arises from the agreeable party, not from the elegance of the dance. It is so simple, that the most illiterate are in some measure able to perform it.”

First, bravo to Lambert for spotting the resonance with Mr. Darcy’s sarcastic diss of dancing, which  might at first  seem coincidental, until we also realize that there is an ongoing debate in P&P about the worthiness of  country versus city  society and  culture, which extends far beyond the relative merits of country vs. city dancing.   

And when one closely examines some other passages from Saltator’s Treatise, we see even more resonance with P&P. For starters, this one:

P. 15: “The greatest care should be taken in making choice of those persons, for our companions, with whom we shall find the most durable pleasure in associating. For according to our choice of them, our disposition and character will receive a tincture. This is a truth so universally received, that it has become a proverb both in the natural and the moral world, “a man is known by the company he keeps.” “

The resonance is more than that of a similar turn of phrase, it’s also that the friendship of Darcy and Bingley, two very different personality types, and in particular Darcy’s strong influence over Bingley, is a topic for repeated discussion in P&P.

And now I leave you with the following open question--- what would Darcy’s and Lizzy’s reactions have been to the following passage in the Treatise, and also what would JA ‘s own opinion about it have been about it?:

P. 96 et seq: MANAGEMENT IN AN ASSEMBLY OR BALL:  When we are invited to the honors of an Assembly or Ball, we must either politely decide the compliment or go with a fixed resolution to please and be pleased. In order to accomplish this, preeminence of any kind, except preeminent civility and good behavior, must be banished, all party concerns must be left behind; each individual stands in equal freedom and an equal partaker of the pleasures of the circle. In this situation, room is given for the full display of good breeding. In the choir of the dance, every one should shew content with the lot of chance, if it fall not on the person of his voluntary choice. Civil salutes on the lots of chance, as on the partners of voluntary election, mark the accomplished Gentleman or Lady.
It ought to be considered, as an indispensable obligation in assemblies, or balls, that easy and modest address be made to partners on meeting and separating in the choir of dance. As these assemblies are more or less frequented by strangers, at the first sight of whom, we generally form such ideas, as we are scarcely ever persuaded to pay aside afterwards; on this account, it is of importance, that a person should have nothing disagreeable, or uncomely in his first approaches, and to be able to enter a room with a good grace, and even among the most intimate acquaintances, this rule of conduct, or law of decorum, should never be broken down. Familiarity without respect with friends will quickly run into contempt, then all the sweets of social intercourse will be annihilated. Whatever boldness a person may have about him in company, it must never arise to impudence, nor be dragged down to sheepishness. There should in carriage be shown an open, cheerful, modest independence, softened by an easy suavity of manners and address. Wit and pleasantry, raised by the depression of another, though for the time, it may be broken in the end, leaves a bitter sting, which generally brings  its author into disrepute, if not  into contempt; or at least into ill will. And if merry wags are invited into company, it is to be the subject of jest, for they are universally looked on as mean and worthless. If any one have wit, always avoid making the subject of it personal. The true gentleman will avoid it, as he would avoid putting a burning torch on a person.” END QUOTE

In conclusion, I do believe it very likely that JA consciously alluded to the passages in the Treatise quoted above in P&P, and meant to include P&P  in the ongoing public discourse on these very topics. Once again, beneath its light, bright and sparkling surface, P&P shows itself to be a work of outstanding, but covert, erudition.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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