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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Searching for---and Finding—(the Shakespeare in) Jane Austen



In Austen-L and Janeites earlier today, Elissa Schiff wrote: "...there can be no doubt that Emma, with its constant shifting of light to shade, of perspective from outsider to insider and from high ground to low, from a character's backstory to present, from the public faces its characters present to society to the more true inner realities they grapple with, and from its often comedically presented shifts from misperception to reality for virtually all of its characters, is of all Austen's novels, the very one *most* like As You Like It." END QUOTE

...which prompted the above response from Elissa, was about the complex, intentional, and textually specific allusion I claim Jane Austen made to As You Like It in Pride & Prejudice.

However, I did also, in the first paragraph of my post, provide a link to my post earlier this year....






…in which I similarly laid out textual evidence I found for the complex, intentional, and specific allusion I claim Jane Austen made to As You Like It in Emma.

I can’t tell from what Elissa wrote, above, whether she realized that I wrote about that AYLI-Emma connection earlier this year, but no matter. It merely induces me to repeat what is factual, i.e., that I am the first literary scholar to note that allusion---unless someone brings forward a citation for an earlier “catch” that I somehow overlooked. Which does tend to suggest that the allusion was not only not obvious, the more plausible inference is that the allusion has been invisible to many generations of scholars whose day job is to write about such things when they find them.

Speaking of an earlier-generation scholar, in that post of mine from earlier this year, I did note that Lionel Trilling, in his influential 1957 discussion of Jane Austen’s fiction, suggested that Emma was part of the same literary “pastoral idyll” tradition as As You Like It. But Trilling did not make the next (crucial) leap of noting Jane Austen’s actual, intentional, specific allusion to As You Like It. They’re two very different things, and I think the distinction is worth discussing for a paragraph, since Triling’s is the much more common sort of claim by literary scholars than mine.

Put in terms of pastoral metaphor, Trilling claimed that Shakespeare and Jane Austen dipped their feet into the same vast “pastoral idyll” river of literary history, whereas I claim that Jane Austen intentionally dipped her “Emma” toe in Shakespeare’s “As You Like  It” rivulet. In Trilling’s formulation, JA is not particularly focused on any particular play of Shakespeare; in mine, As You Like It was one of her specific foci while writing Emma.

To make my much stronger claim, I of course know I need to do more than, as Trilling did, merely cite non-specific, general tropes, however insightfully, about the pastoral idyll. I need to make the case that Jane Austen intentionally left specific textual “bread crumbs” in Emma which point to As You Like It in such ways as to be clearly intentional, and not merely accidental or unconscious on JA’s part, or pointing to a tradition rather than a specific literary source.

In that context, I’d say that my 2005 discovery of Mrs. Elton’s inadvertently speaking the exact title of As You Like It spanning two sentences (immediately preceding the pastoral passage in Emma that Trilling quoted in his article, without his spotting the actual play title there) constitutes a quintessential example of such a probative “bread crumb” (and, as I also pointed out, an apparent Trojan Horse Moment for Trilling).  

And of course, then, the additional textual allusions in Emma  which I identified in that earlier post, provide the confirmation that the word game on the play title is not (as I initially thought it was from 2005-2010) just some devilishly clever wordplay without additional meaning. I’ve learned a lot since then, and now I know it was so much more than just that.

Next, very briefly on to a new but related Austen-Shakespeare subject---my claim yesterday about JA’s allusion to AYLI in P&P-----as I noted straight out, I am not the first to claim that allusion is real, far from it. But I am the first to explicate that allusion beyond the first step (taken by several previous and famous scholars) of noting the obvious resonance between Lizzy and Rosalind. What I am the first to show is that the allusion actually implicates pretty much all the major characters of P&P, in often surprising and at times disturbing ways. I think that’s a big deal. So, in a way, Lizzy as Rosalind in P&P is a little like the hidden title of As You Like It in Emma-the smoke that emanates from a large but concealed fire.

And now my third and last topic-- the Big Picture in all of this, I claim, is twofold: (i) Jane Austen alluded to specific Shakespeare plays repeatedly in several of her novels, and (ii) Jane Austen alluded to multiple  Shakespeare plays in each of her six novels. There’s a wonderful symmetry in those two aspects of Jane  Austen’s deep love of Shakespeare. And, I cannot overemphasize, this is not a Big Picture that is even close to being mainstream in Austen studies in 2013. For the most part, Trilling’s sort of generalized hit-and-run analysis of Shakespeare allusions in Jane Austen is still the norm.

But I aim to change that status quo over time. Only by my painstaking fleshing out of so many of these allusions as I have made public during the past 2 years….


…. has the full meaning of Henry Crawford’s famous discussion with Edmund Bertram begun to be brought into vivid focus:

[Henry] “…But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."
[Edmund] "No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree," said Edmund, "from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent."  END QUOTE

I believe that Henry Crawford is being totally disingenuous and falsely modest here---he knows damned well that his alleged instinctive mastery of Shakespeare is not merely something he fell into, and, more importantly to the story in Mansfield Park, he knows that Fanny knows he must be a genuine scholar of Shakespeare, under the mask of casual Shakespeare loiterer. Plus, he knows that literal-minded, straight-thinking Edmund will then promptly say it for him anyway! And I then say that this passage also reflects JA’s own honest pride in her own enormous accomplishment as a lifelong amateur Shakespearean scholar.

What  accomplishments? My excavations of her Shakespearean allusions demonstrate just how painstaking, comprehensive and persistent JA’s Shakespearean studies had to have been, over 2 ¾  decades---from age 14 to age 41-- in order for her to have repeatedly gotten to the essence of the significance of the jewels that Shakespeare left to be found by deep sea textual divers like her. I haven’t taken a full count recently, but I estimate that among the comedies, romances and tragedies, I can’t think of more than a few to which she did not allude repeatedly. And I believe my not finding more traces of his histories in her novels is merely a reflection of my own lesser familiarity with his histories, a gap I will one day fill.

So I believe Jane Austen knew Shakespeare as no other Shakespeare scholar up till her time ever knew him, and in many ways, her insights into the thematic nuances of his plays were more advanced even than that of most 20th and 21st century Shakespeare scholars who’ve had the benefit of two more centuries of accumulated literary knowledge. It is always a rare thrill for me to reach the stage, as I did after several hours of  intensive study yesterday, of reviewing all the allusions to AYLI I managed collect from P&P, and to then reflect on their totality. When I did that, I was fortunate to extract from them all the common denominator that I then articulated, i.e., that many of the allusions run against the grain of Janeite expectation, not with it. And that only reinforced my conviction in the rightness of my “seeing double” in Jane Austen’s fiction…and in Shakespeare, who anticipated such readings of his plays when he put these words in Antonio’s mouth at the end of Twelfth Night when everyone realizes for the first time that Sebastian and Viola-as-Cesario are two different people:


Each of his plays is such an  “apple”, and each of Jane Austen’s novels—but particularly Emma is, too.

And finally, in that same vein, since a suggestion has been made otherwise, I conclude by pointing out that I have indeed closely read As You Like It (and also all of Shakespeare's comedies, romances, and tragedies) multiple times since 2005 when I first learned of the paramount importance of Shakespeare in Jane Austen’s imagination. And….I have also taken advantage of the Internet and the Interlibrary Loan system by reading a very wide range of scholarly journal articles and book chapters about all of those plays, with my primary persistent focus being on the way Shakespeare used specific words and phrases subliminally and thematically. That’s my specialty, that’s what I love to do.

I often use word searches to assist my research, mainly to help me find leads, and to help me flesh out my own intuitions and find out if they are valid. But I would think it obvious (i) that such searches are only the beginning of good scholarship, not the end, and (ii) that there are so many subtle understated patterns of wordplay in both Shakespeare and Jane Austen, which are simply not detectable on a reliable basis by anyone who lacks a photographic memory or 200,000 hours to keep manually reading and rereading millions of words looking for hundreds of needles in two very large haystacks.

That is precisely why I keep finding so many allusions that have never been found before----why anyone who has access to such powerful tools would not want to be relieved from countless hours of drudgery is beyond me, when those hours could then be infinitely better spent analyzing the results of those quickly-performed searches, and discerning their meaning.

Just as new educational concepts like the Khan Academy and TED Talks are enabling education in which teachers are freed from teaching basics to students that they can learn themselves online, and therefore have much more time for individual spot mentoring to help students help themselves, so, too, I use technology to bring literary criticism into the 21st century, but never for one second forgetting my original goal of retrieving, and better understanding, the genius of centuries past.

Now, back to Jane Austen and Shakespeare one more time--- the subliminal thematic usage of specific words and phrases is exactly what Jane Austen did in all her novels, and that's why I have been convinced since 2005 that she was consciously emulating (but always in a creative, original way) Shakespeare in this authorial practice, and I’ve been scouring them both for the textual evidence of same.

And now I wonder whether the textually-sensitive Austen scholar Emily Auerbach chose as a title Searching For Jane Austen in part because she utilized computer searches to assist her studies. If she did, bravo to her for the meaningful pun!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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