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

Monday, January 28, 2013

Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation

To celebrate this bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice, I have a special post, one which goes to the heart of what I call the "shadow story" ...... 
[the above post is a quick summary of what I mean by a Jane Austen shadow story)

....of Pride & Prejudice. For all the wonders of this amazing novel that have already been recognized, I am very confident in asserting that this one has never previously been detected, and I predict it will help open the door to a yet deeper appreciation thereof. It will however  take me several paragraphs to introduce it properly, so bear with me.

My post today has to do with one of the many famous, memorable epigrammatical lines we find all over the place in the narration and dialog of Pride & Prejudice. The most famous of course is “It is a truth universally acknowledged…..”, but  there are actually about twenty of them, which are all instantly recognized by Janeites around the world.

This passage is one of them, and it has been a source of puzzlement for countless Janeites who have paused to wonder what Mr. Darcy really meant at the end of the following passage in Chapter 31:

 "Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers." END QUOTE

Can’t you just instantly hear Colin Firth’s mellifluous delivery in your mind’s ear, and see Jennifer Ehle’s puzzled, faintly agitated reaction in your mind’s eye?

What Darcy’s means regarding his own not performing to strangers does not raise many questions in the minds of ordinary readers of the novel, as the topic of his behavior in the presence of strangers is the very subject under discussion by the gathering in the Rosings salon. But what he means regarding Lizzy has raised significant questioning in the minds of ordinary Janeite readers everywhere for a very long  time. What sort of performance? Which strangers?

During the past few days, I’ve intensively browsed the Internet and various scholarly databases, and I have found, in group read archives, in scholarly books and articles, in blogs, etc., at least a dozen different interpretations of what Darcy meant by Lizzy not performing to strangers. I will not repeat any of them here, as it would make this long post much longer still, but I am sure that you could come up with a good one yourself if you tried. The sentence is very ambiguous and suggestive of many different meanings, and you may take my word that it is never explicitly explained anywhere else in the text of the novel. It is in effect an open invitation by Jane Austen to the reader, to figure out what Darcy means.

I’m here today to present you an interpretation of Darcy’s little speech which is completely outside the box--one which, to the best of my knowledge after thorough checking, no Austen scholar or ordinary Janeite has ever publicly suggested. It only occurred to me for the first time, by accident, upon what must have been at least my fiftieth reading or hearing of that passage during the past 15 years.

Such is the lengthy "gestational period" for some of Jane Austen's subliminal textual hints to blossom into a realization in a suggestible  reader's conscious  mind—an event which happens so often with her  writing  that I coined the term “Trojan Horse Moment” to describe it. I gave it that name because Jane Austen in effect sneaks a “horse” past the “walls” of the mind of the reader, undetected, which only opens up later to allow the alternative meaning to pop out and reveal itself to the conscious mind of the reader. That is the essence of the Jane Austen Code as I have excavated it.

With that long introduction,  then, here finally is my outside the box interpretation. The Beatrice-Benedick-like verbal sparring between Lizzy and Darcy that has been going on since their first encounter at the Meryton assembly reaches its first climax at Rosings in Chapter 31. During all that sparring, Lizzy has repeatedly, albeit inadvertently  and Freudianly, given Darcy a series of sexual come-ons, seeming to be engaged  in hot-cold sexual teasing in which she leads him on one moment, then pushes him away the next. The poor guy doesn’t know what to think, but it’s for sure that she has thereby unwittingly fanned the flames of his ardor.
And perhaps the two best examples of Lizzy’s inadvertent come-ons are both in Chapter 31. First we have Lizzy saying the following to Colonel Fitzwilliam in Darcy's presence, in a very provocative tone:

"You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."

In addition to the subliminal resonance of the above passage with the “in want of” phrase in the novel's famous first sentence, the word "partner" is ambiguous, referring potentially not only to a dancing partner, but also a marital partner or even....a sexual partner. And all the talk about a “ball” at which Darcy only “danced” four dances? If it were Mary Crawford speaking, you’d strongly suspect the last of those three choices for “partner”, and you’d  be thinking about  a very different sort of “ball”, the kind that went on chez the “vicious” (i.e., vice-ridden) Admiral Crawford.

Lizzy Bennet and Mary Crawford  share many attributes, most of all their light, bright, and sparkling wit. But it seems to me that whereas Mary is quite conscious of her sexual innuendoes, Lizzy is blissfully ignorant of her own, and, therefore, since Lizzy is the focal point of view in 99% of  the novel text, so too are most readers  ignorant of what she  is ignorant.

In short, the above speeches in Chapter 31 sound a lot like Lizzy sending Darcy a not so subtle coded message, wanting him to propose one or both of those last two forms of partnership to her. Just like the things that Emma says to Mr. Elton which are heard by him as a come-on for him to approach Emma herself romantically. Elizabeth, in her own way, is every bit as clueless as Emma, at least sexually speaking.

But let’s stay with Elizabeth Bennet. Not two minutes after she unintentionally leads Darcy to believe she wants him romantically in that way, she gives him a second unconscious, and even more suggestive come-on when she says:

"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."

As I have previously suggested....

....Darcy hears that as an over-the-top sexual come-on, requiring only that the literate Darcy hear “instrument” according to Cleland’s euphemistic use of that word in Fanny Hill—and otherwise Lizzy’s fingers literally do all the walking, so  to speak.

At this point, Darcy is no longer puzzled at Lizzy’s seeming deep ambivalence about him. He flashes on the notion that Lizzy is intentionally engaging in very audacious sexual repartee, and is strongly implying to him that she is not going to explicitly tell him how much she desires him sexually, so she is taking the next best step, and intentionally hinting at it repeatedly.

And that’s what he means by “we neither perform to strangers”---i.e., he smiles  because he gives her exactly what he believes she wants to hear, a coded acknowledgment that he  “gets” her coded sexual messages!  Their mutual coded exchange of sexual messages is for their mutual ears only, and is not intended to be understood by anyone else present, most of all the nosy matchmaking wannabe “stranger “ Lady Catherine, seated a dozen feet away.

And, final inspired touch, “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting” is a coded version of  “I, Darcy, by virtue of having finally taken all your hints, have now been admitted to the privilege of really hearing what your coded  innuendoes are saying to me, and now I know that I no longer  think anything wanting in terms of the sexual partner I want—you! 

The only problem is—Darcy’s wrong!  Lizzy is not consciously leading him on, she is only “leaking” her  intense attraction to him, which she is working overtime to repress.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should! This is a reiteration of what we read more than a dozen chapters earlier, when Mr. Collins proposed to Lizzy, and he  misinterpreted her negative response as a kind of conduct-book implication of acceptance. Some Austen scholars have previously noted veiled parodic parallels between Darcy and Collins as suitors—but this one tops them all!

And Darcy’s overconfident misinterpretation  of Lizzy’s  verbal repartee  is very one important reason why Darcy is so astonished when Lizzy rejects his first proposal in Chapter 34. Yes, he’s also shocked  in part simply because he is an arrogant jerk who just assumes that women will swoon for him—that’s his bad. But it’s also partly because Lizzy has been giving him so many unconscious come-ons, culminating in that Chapter 31  exchange, which cumulatively and reasonably lead him to believe she really wants him to make his move, and soon---and that’s her bad, even if she did it  unconsciously and without intent  to cause him pain---her actual words spoken to him when she  rejects his proposal, without understanding half of their full import.

Beyond the above sketch, it would take a dozen pages more to do full justice to this one radical new interpretation, which relates to some of the other previous, more normative interpretations, in fascinating ways, and which has major implications, I claim, for understanding the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice.  That is not for this post today.

So I will leave you with the observation I have often made about the so-called sexing up  of the novel by Andrew Davies, when he has Darcy jump in the water at Pemberley and emerge with his dripping blouse clinging to his manly physique. I  already had strong reason  to assert Davies was actually responding faithfully to the strong suggestions embedded in the  novel text itself, and he was actually being very very restrained in this regard.  But now, my above interpretation raises my level of certainty in that regard a great deal higher.  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A man "endued with one article more than commonly falls to the lot of man" WAS in want of a wife!

Apropos the wonderfully alliterative phrase "want of a wife" in the famous first sentence of Pride & Prejudice, it just occurred to me for the very first time (after reading that sentence a thousand times before) to check to see whether Jane Austen had invented it, or if perhaps she had perhaps adapted it from an earlier source for some satirical purpose.

Via Google Books, look at the promising snippet I just found, in the Scots Magazine, Vol. 37, (1775) at p. 53:

"Mr William Merrett, of the parish of Bishopstoke, in the county of Southampton, Yeoman, doth hereby advertise himself, that HE IS IN WANT OF A WIFE. He is a stout jolly man, fair skin, and his age about forty. He would be glad of a woman about the same age; is a man of good account, and endued with one article more than commonly falls to the lot of man. Any woman whom this may suit, may apply to the said Mr Merrett. None but those of good account will be looked upon."

I cannot help but suspect, in Mary Crawfordian ways, about Mr. Merrett's extraordinarily meritorious "article"-- I mean, really, if he was boasting about the size of his house, or of his carriage, wouldn't he just name it explicitly? Sounds to me like he was proud of the "good fortune" that Mother Nature bestowed on him, but he was prudent enough to know that he needed to be a little indirect about it,
or he'd never get the ad published!

Even if JA never actually read Mr. Merrett's ad, I do now suspect her of thinking of "a good fortune" as encompassing more possibilities than riches in money, and that suspicious reading would make the maritally desperate housewives of Meryton, like Mrs. Bennet, sound more like the Desperate Housewives of Whysteria Lane!

But even if you dont share my suspicion, it seems to me safe to claim that at the very least, JA deliberately chose that particular phraseology, precisely so as to subliminally trigger in the minds of her readers an association to the idea of reading a personal ad--which, when you think about it, is exactly the same mindset JA wittily attributes to the parents of an eligible young woman in that famous first sentence of Pride & Prejudice--that the single man, just by showing up, is in effect intentionally publishing a personal ad for himself--which fits perfectly with Mr. Bennet's witty
question replying to his wife's mentioning Bingley's marrying a Bennet girl:

   "Is that his design in settling here?"

Indeed, one places a personal ad with the design of finding a wife!

Now, anyone else skilled at Regency Era research, can you find any other examples of personal ads during JA's lifetime in which the phrase "is in want of a" is used in personal ads?  I bet there were lots of them, in ads looking for prospective spouses, but also (shades of the Tevya stories) looking for a horse or an ox to buy. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I also found the following in a 1740 jokebook:

"An old Man who had married a young Wife, complained to a Friend, how unhappy he had always been: When I was young, said he, I went abroad for want of a Wife; and now I am old, my Wife goes abroad for want of a Husband."

Worth a cynical chuckle, perhaps, but I see no particular reason to infer that JA might have been familiar with that joke, or one similar to it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nabokov's true love for Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and its allusive subtexts

I have previously written here on several occasions about my firm belief that Vladimir Nabokov, while he may have projected to the world—including friends and colleagues--a superficial dislike of Jane Austen's writing, was actually an extremely admiring Janeite, who peered deeply and insightfully into the shadows of Austen’s writing, and who even paid her several veiled homages in his own writing (such as Rachel Trousdale wrote a few years back, about the allusions to Mansfield Park in Ada).

Here are two of my most relevant posts in that regard, as background:

Today I revisit this topic, because I happened to come across a passage in Brian Boyd’s 1991 Nabokov: The American Years, as I was following up on a post I wrote earlier today about Jane Austen’s paired allusions in Mansfield Park to Sir Walter Scott’s poem "Lay of the Last Minstrel" in Mansfield Park:

The passage that caught my eye for the first time today was on P.184 of Boyd’s book:

“In late September 1950, Nabokov launched his new course with Mansfield Park. He had students read the works mentioned by the characters in the novel: Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel”, Cowper’s “Task”, some of Johnson’s Idler essays, Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and of course the play that the young folks rehearse at Mansfield Park, Lovers Vows. He also injected as much historical information as he could into the text. All this literary and historical background seems to have been a way of avoiding Austen herself as much as he could, while instilling in his students the need to read with the utmost precision. For although he tried to disguise it in class, Nabokov could never quite warm to the first writer in his course.” END QUOTE

This strikes me as an ill-suited application of reverse psychology to Nabokov’s teaching decisions, when a straightforward explanation would work perfectly fine. I.e., that Nabokov just loved Austen's writing, and in particular loved her allusive subtexts, and so he brought those allusive subtexts into the classroom, the better to study their meaning in the context of Mansfield Park.

To be more specific, Boyd is saying that Nabokov assigned to his students the task of reading not only Mansfield Park itself, but also several of the explicit or otherwise obvious literary sources alluded to in Mansfield Park, because, by this clever subterfuge, Nabokov could therefore spend as little time as possible actually talking too much about Mansfield Park itself, and instead spend more time about those other writers!

Whereas, the far simpler, more direct explanation is that Nabokov, an author who lived and breathed for literary allusions in his own writing----to an extreme extent even when compared to other great writers ---wanted to get across to his students that Jane Austen was a writer very much like Nabokov himself in this crucial aspect! And what better way for him, the master allusionist, to bring that point home to his students than to discuss Austen’s literary sources in relation to Mansfield Park, and to speculate about what Austen might have meant by inserting all those allusions.

Such as, e.g., the allusive subtext that I began to excavate in my above linked post earlier today, in which I speculate about various meanings that Austen may have intended in Fanny Price's allusions to Scott's poem.

But that's not all. Lucky me, I don't have to ride exclusively on the seat of my own pants on this point----look---here's what Nabokov himself wrote in 1950 in his book Lectures on Literature, in the chapter on Mansfield Park:

P. 25: At Sotherton, Fanny’s romantic conception of what a mansion’s chapel should be like is disappointed by ‘a mere spacious oblong room…..” She is disabused, she says in a low voice to Edmund, ‘This is not my idea of a chapel…’Here Fanny is quoting, though a little loosely, the description of a church from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), canto 2:
[10] Full many a scutcheon and banner riven, Shook to the cold night-wind of heaven…
And then comes the urn of the wizard:
[11] The moon on the east oriel shone, Through slender shafts of shapely stone, By foliaged tracery combined…
Various images are painted on the windowpane and
The moon-beam kissed the holy pane, And threw on the pavement a bloody stain.
[12] They sate them down on a marble stone A Scottish monarch slept below…
Etc. The sunlight pattern of Cowper is nicely balanced by the moonlight pattern of Scott.”END QUOTE

This passage in Nabokov's book demonstrates that he had very carefully considered the meaning of Scott's poem, not in isolation, as a way of thinking solely about Scott, but as Scott's poem functions in the subtext of Mansfield Park. And, being a close reader with insight into Austen's creative processes, as I believe Nabokov was, he came up with several useful insights about JA's allusion to Scott, and even went a step further and connected Austen's Scott allusion to Fanny's Price’s transparencies and to Austen’s allusion to William Cowper’s most famous poem, “The Task”.

Now, does all of that sound like a guy who is doing his best to avoid talking about Mansfield Park by bringing the alluded-to writings of other authors besides Jane Austen? It sounds like just the opposite to me!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Fanny Price's Poetic Soul: Her Two Misquotations of Scott's Lay of the Last Mistrel

The other day, I began looking into the allusions to Sir Walter Scott's famous and wildly successful 1805 poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, in Chapter 9 of Mansfield Park, when the heroine Fanny Price and her cousin Edmund Bertram are entering the chapel at Sotherton, the great estate of the Rushworth family:

"They entered. Fanny's imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. "I am disappointed," said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. "This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be 'blown by the night wind of heaven.' No signs that a 'Scottish monarch sleeps below.'"
"You forget, Fanny, how lately all this has been built, and for how confined a purpose, compared with the old chapels of castles and monasteries. It was only for the private use of the family. They have been buried, I suppose, in the parish church. There you must look for the banners and the achievements."
"It was foolish of me not to think of all that; but I am disappointed."  END QUOTE

What's particularly interesting here, and I suspected as much, is how JA tweaks the text she alludes to, by changing a word here, a word there. I knew that it would be worth the effort to unravel the tangled threads of this allusion, and I hope you all will agree.

First, here are the transformations from Scott's original to Austen's (mis)quotation:

Full many a scutcheon and banner riven,
SHOOK TO the COLD night-wind of heaven,
Around the screenëd altar's pale;


No banners, cousin, to be 'BLOWN BY by the night wind of heaven.'

I.e., Scott's banners shake in the cold night wind, while Austen's are blown in (no temperature specified) the night wind.

Then, as Deb pointed out, Scott's  "A Scottish monarch SLEPT below" becomes Austen's "No signs that a 'Scottish monarch SLEEPS below.'"

Factually speaking, Jane Austen did exactly this sort of slight misquotation over and over and over again in her novels and also, as I recall, in the letters, too.  I haven't gone back to collect them all in one place (yet), but I am certain there are between a half dozen and a dozen of them altogether.

Now, JA could (as the conventional wisdom would assert) have simply been misremembering slightly, and was not concerned with 100% exactness of quotation, as it was--so the conventional wisdom would suggest---irrelevant to the telling of her stories.

As always, I have the same initial response, which is that Jane Austen was obsessively meticulous about the tiniest of details, in regard to all aspects of her writing, including most of all the hidden calendars which undergird the action of all her novels. So why would she suddenly lapse into slovenly workmanship in her quotations? And as these misquotations occur in pretty much all the novels, it is also not convincing to suggest that these errors are the work of the printers, errors which JA for some mysterious reason overlooked while proofreading--even though literary quotations would, you'd think, be the parts of the text that JA would be most vigilant in correcting!

And as it happens, I suggest that there's an extra reason for asserting that errors in quotation of famous lines from literature would not be accidental in JA's writing. JA lived just before the advent of the mass publishing era, a time when great libraries were rare, and lots of literati routinely memorized significant quantities of the literary canon as part of their classical education.

So an error in a line in Scott's very famous (and relatively short) poem would be a particularly egregious error, the kind that would make a knowledgeable reader wince in embarrassment for JA's carelessness.

Is that your Jane Austen? It's sure not mine! What I see, again, is JA playing literary possum, adopting the persona of a female writer who could not be expected to be quite up to the task of exact quotation, as a male writer could be expected to be. After all, the writer is only a lady, what do you expect?

That's my Jane Austen, a snake in the literary grass, smiling to herself at her ability to run free under the radar of the men reading her novels, who underestimate her abilities.

But now on to the substance of these two misquotations from Scott's poem.  My previous analysis of all those examples of misquotations, a list to which I now add these two linked misquotations, has long since shown me that these seemingly "trivial" "errors" are always anything but--they are actually precisely calibrated alterations, designed to function as clues to some concealed meanings that the reader is meant to sleuth out.

So, in this case, what could these alterations of Scott's poem mean? Here's an opening shot on them.

First, Fanny's recall of Scott's lines in Stanza 10 represents a clear neutralizing of Scott's powerful imagery. Scott's banners shaking to the cold wind sound very ominous, as though the banners were quaking in fear--and then add to that the image of shivering in the cold.  Totally spooky Gothic atmosphere, that is the overwhelming mood of that portion of Scott's poem whence the quotations are both taken.

But from Fanny's version, one gets none of that sense of the ominous and fearful. Indeed, one could imagine a night wind of heaven (as opposed to hell) as being pretty benign, unthreatening, even balmy---sort of like a flag blowing in the breeze at a night game in a baseball stadium. No big deal, simply an object of sensual and visual beauty, like one of Fanny's transparencies.

So, Fanny seems to be ambivalent about her "Catherine Morland Moment" (as Diana put it), and therefore blunts her initial yearning toward the Gothic by diluting the Gothic from dense soup into very thin gruel, so to speak. Quintessential behavior for the deeply repressed Fanny.  So far so good, we can see a thematic basis for the changing of words.

As for the misquotation from Stanza 12, that is really interesting, when you think about it--by turning Scott's "slept" into "sleeps", it brings the reader away from Scott's tale, which harks back to the distant history of Scotland, to the "present" time in MP, i.e., during the action of the novel--and it leads to the very interesting question---who, among the characters of MP, might fit the description of a currently sleeping monarch?  This turns out to be a very fruitful line of inquiry.

Of course, the first candidate would be Mrs. Bertram, who seems to sleep her way through most of the novel!  At least, that is, until she is confronted with the crisis of Tom's near-fatal illness and Maria's elopement with Crawford! But during the Sotherton visit, Lady Bertram is still in her standard half-comatose mode.

But wait---isn't Sir Thomas the first person you'd think of as a "monarch" in MP? So, is Fanny's poetic imagination thinking of him, at the time of the Sotherton visit, "sleeping"  (shades of Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost) far far away in Antigua, unsuspecting, while the "serpent" Henry Crawford insinuates his way into Sir Thomas's eldest daughter, Maria Bertram's....heart?

But wait again. Fanny is making these quotations while in the chapel at Sotherton, not Mansfield Park--so what about Mrs. Rushworth, who, after all, is the reigning "monarch" of Sotherton? Does Fanny see her as also sleeping while Crawford, right under Mrs. Rushworth's nose, so to speak, does his devilish work, which will ultimately lead to the destruction of her son's marriage to Maria?  And....Mrs. Rushworth is also a widow, just like the Lady of Branksome Castle, the vengeful widow who sends Delomaine on his scary nighttime mission to retrieve the wizard's magic book, in order to exact her revenge!

And, while we're imagining Fanny imagining Mrs. Rushworth, let's see whether we can map more of Scott's poem onto Mansfield Park. Is there some sort of backstory between the Rushworths and the Bertrams, unknown to Fanny but well known to the elder generation (including Mrs. Norris, of course), which involved the same kind of Montague-Capulet family feud that is the spine of Scott's poem? That would turn the carefully choreographed courtship of Maria Bertram by Mr. Rushworth into an act with the potential to stir up long buried antagonisms---the proverbial sleeping dogs, if you will--between two great families in the neighbourhood?

Now I think, we're getting pretty close to what JA was about when she had Fanny misquote Scott...... All of these readings have some sense.

But, speaking of sleeping dogs, two other interpretations also spring to my mind upon further examination, which bring all of my interpretations full circle back upon themselves, in the kind of dense web of allusion that JA, the master literary craftsperson, revelled in creating.

First, focusing on the slept/sleeps transformation from Scott's Stanza 12, we repeatedly read in MP about how Fanny cries herself to sleep--sleep in her attic seems at various times to be Fanny's only safe haven during much of the action of the novel.  So, it makes it interesting that Fanny recalls a line of Scott's involving sleeping.

And taking that same line of inquiry one step further, there are two usages of the word "slept" (Scott's past tense, i.e.) in all of MP, and both of them, remarkably--indeed, extraordinarily---do not refer to a person sleeping, as would be expected in a realistic novel, written in JA's famously coolly rational, temperate prose, but to  feelings or perceptions anthropomorphized, as if we were reading......poetry!:

Ch. 16: "He went; but there was no reading, no China, no composure for Fanny. He had told her the most extraordinary, the most inconceivable, the most unwelcome news; and she could think of nothing else. To be acting! After all his objections—objections so just and so public! After all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent! Was he not deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas! it was all Miss Crawford's doing. She had seen her influence in every speech, and was miserable. THE DOUBTS AND ALARMS as to her own conduct, which had previously distressed her, and WHICH HAD ALL SLEPT WHILE SHE LISTENED TO HIM, were become of little consequence now. This deeper anxiety swallowed them up. Things should take their course; she cared not how it ended. Her cousins might attack, but could hardly tease her. She was beyond their reach; and if at last obliged to yield—no matter—it was all misery now."

So Fanny's doubts and alarms about whether she herself should act in Lovers Vows are seen by her as having "slept"!

And now, the other usage  of "slept" in MP:

Ch. 46: "She was deep in other musing. The remembrance of her first evening in that room, of her father and his newspaper, came across her. No candle was now wanted. The sun was yet an hour and half above the horizon. She felt that she had, indeed, been three months there; and the sun's rays falling strongly into the parlour, instead of cheering, made her still more melancholy, for sunshine appeared to her a totally different thing in a town and in the country. Here, its power was only a glare: a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward STAINS AND DIRT THAT MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE SLEPT. There was neither health nor gaiety in sunshine in a town. She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father's head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca's hands had first produced it. Her father read his newspaper, and her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, while the tea was in preparation, and wished Rebecca would mend it; and Fanny was first roused by his calling out to her, after humphing and considering over a particular paragraph: "What's the name of your great cousins in town, Fan?" "

Note that in both of these passages, we are deeply internal inside Fanny's mind and heart, as she is lost in reverie in both instances. Both are moments of great distress for Fanny, during which she feels betrayed or beset by her feelings and perceptions--in the former case, her doubts and alarms about acting in the play are almost like fierce dogs protecting a mythical castle, in the latter the filth of her ancestral home attacks her like sleeping dogs awakened into fierce attack.

Fanny Price is a lover of poetry, and JA, with her extraordinary gift for weaving allusions into the innermost fabric of her characters's souls, demonstrates, without ever using the word "poetry", how deeply poetic Fanny's soul really is.

And, needless to say, perhaps, after all of the above, it tells us of the depths of Jane Austen's own poetic soul, that she would respond to Scott's poem in such a rich, complex, suggestive, even audacious way, and yet, leave only two "winks" on the surface of her text, which must be recognized as wormholes into the web of poetic allusion that JA has spun.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kitty's Indiscreet Coughing in P&P: A Better Explanation


Nearly a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about Kitty Bennet's coughing in Chapter 2 of P&P, in which I provided an explanation for her coughing other than a physical ailment:

In the end of that post, I argued as follows that Kitty's coughing was an expression of sarcasm directed at her mother's carping about Mrs. Long:

"...Kitty’s coughing mysteriously begins, it seems, precisely at the moment when her mother called Mrs. Long “a selfish, hypocritical woman”. Kitty is clearly invoking, in so many words, the proverbial pot calling the kettle black! And that in turn explains Mrs. Bennet’s reaction—she
does not respond to Mr. Bennet’s droll comment, but instead lashes out at Kitty, not because she is afraid of her husband, but precisely because she has understood Kitty’s insulting innuendo was directed at Mrs. Bennet! But just as Kitty conveys her deeper meaning by implication, so too does Mrs. Bennet take her revenge by implication.
And here’s the best part--Mr. Bennet has also understood this subtextual duel between his wife and his daughter, and he weighs in with typical droll irony, pointing out ---with implied approval—that Kitty has been indiscreet in insulting her mother, and further approving of Kitty’s timing—it was “ill” timing only in Mrs. Bennet’s mind, but it was perfect timing from the point of view of delivering a real zinger. And then Kitty replies, in code, that she does not cough for her own amusement—but what she leaves unspoken, but nonetheless understood by her father, is that she did cough for his amusement---and she succeeded in amusing him, because he never misses a chance to laugh at his wife!"  END QUOTE

This morning, I realized that even though the above is indeed a plausible alternative explanation for Kitty's coughing, there is actually an even more elegant and fitting alternative explanation hiding in plain sight, which I missed  the first time around

The key was in look at the full context of the scene. What is going on in the beginning of Ch. 2, when Kitty coughs? From the very first word of Ch. 2, Mr. Bennet elegantly springs one of his patented, quasi-sadistic surprise "jokes" on his long suffering wife (and on his daughters, too, for good measure).

Note that it is he who revives the subject of Bingley at the beginning of Ch. 2, and then goads his nervous wife's into an irritated outburst, the better the "Gothcha!" when Mr. Bennet reveals that he has already visited Bingley.

The delight he takes in laughing at the expense of his female relatives is apparently enhanced when he treats the rest of them as puppets, drawing from them the exact responses he seeks, which of course depends  on their not  being in on the joke. He's quite the little stage director--in
other words, a real jerk.

But what I realized this morning is that there is actually at least one Bennet female present who is entirely onto Mr. Bennet's joke from the getgo, because she is actually, despite appearances to the contrary--and despite what Mr. Bennet says about her during the course of  the novel--a very sharp elf indeed.

She has her father's number, she recognizes the game he is playing from the moment he revs things up, but she chooses to be discreet about it, so as not to spoil his fun--of course I am talking about Kitty--that is the deepest meaning of her sarcastic coughing--she's in effect saying to him, "Come, now, papa, is this really  necessary?"

And  that best explains Mr. Bennet's final words---"Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you choose,"---which is his tip of the hat to his clever daughter who has been the only aware member of the audience at his little "family theatrical", starring Mrs. Bennett as the Fool.

Cheers, ARNIE
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jimmy Carter Would Have Been Jane Austen's True Christian Hero

Jane Austen wrote the following passage about the death of Sir John Moore serving in a campaign by the English army in a letter to her sister  written in early 1809:

"We were very glad to know Aunt Fanny was in the country when we read of the fire. Pray give my best compliments to the Mrs. Finches, if they are at Gm. I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a mother living, but though a very heroic son he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. Deacon Morrell may be more to Mrs. Morrell.
I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the hero in his death. Thank heaven! we have had no one to care for particularly among the troops -- no one, in fact, nearer to us than Sir John himself. Col. Maitland is safe and well; his mother and sisters were of course anxious about him, but there is no entering much into the solicitudes of that family."

There has been a great  deal of controversy as to what Jane Austen meant by "I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the hero in his death."  What was a "Chrisian hero" to her?

I don't know what JA meant by that, but reading the Internet this morning, I found a very clear example of a true  Christian hero whom Jane Austen would have cheered:

Here are Jimmy Carter's closing words:

"I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy - and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions - all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views."

To the above, Jane Austen, whose Christianity was, I believe, very similar to Carter's, would only have nodded and said,"Amen, brother".

Read more:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

George Crabbe & The Prince Regent: Different yet Similar

In Jane Austen's Letter 93 dated in late 1813, we read the following famous passage, which pertains to George Crabbe, the then famous English author/poet who today is largely unknown:

"No; I have never seen the death of Mrs Crabbe.' I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married. It is almost ridiculous. Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any."

It just occurred to me as I read the above passage in Letter 93, that it was strikingly, indeed unmistakably parallel to another passage in a letter Jane Austen wrote barely nine months earlier to close friend Martha Lloyd, in which JA referred to another, even more famous man and his wife: 

"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ``attached & affectionate'' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. --"

This striking parallelism of verbiage and sentence structure (just read them both a couple of times each) shows us first that JA enjoyed writing in mock high rhetoric when the subject was famous people, almost as if she were writing an op/ed piece in a modern newspaper.

But that striking parallelism of structure is vividly contrasted in tone. Whereas the passage about the Prince and Princess is remarkably irony-free, the passage about Crabbe and his wife has the unmistakably scent of heavy absurdist irony, with a distinct shade of gallows humor. It's as though the later passage was a conscious parody of the earlier passage.

I suggest that absurdist irony is the shade of tone that JA invariably turned to in her letters, when the veiled subtext was death in childbirth and serial pregnancy, and I believe that was the case in the Crabbe passage in Letter 93.

From what I've read about the Crabbe marriage, there were at least a half dozen pregnancies, probably more (with miscarriages), and poor Mrs Crabbe went mad in the last half dozen years of her life, and George Crabbe took good care of her.

From that set of facts, of which JA may well have been fully aware despite her disclaimer of background knowledge at the beginning of that passage, I infer that her long-standing anger about English wives as breeding cows was activated by the recent death of mad Mrs. Crabbe, apparently during a last visit to London.

And that's the key point in the comparison between the the above two quoted passages. It was a no-brainer that Jane Austen considered the brazenly dissolute prince as a marital villain. 

But the deeper more important story is that JA even had complicated negative feelings about good ordinary English husbands like George Crabbe, who surely  never cheated on his wife and provided for her to the best of his ability all of their married life.

Even in his case, Jane Austen attributed some of the fault for Mrs. Crabbe's breakdown to the cumulative stress of overloaded motherhood over several decades. And if the very moral and clever Mr. Crabbe had been more careful about the number of pregnancies he caused his wife to endure, JA apparently believed, with good cause I say, his wife might've lived a longer and saner life.

If you look back through the letters, the passages which have been considered most shocking for their apparent callous mockery, are pretty much all about the pregnancy and/or death of wives.

This one is right on that same strike zone. This is not, as some have claimed, JA's callous indifference to suffering of others. Rather it is the opposite – it is JA's righteous, bitter anger over Injustice cluelessly perpetrated on innocent English wives by their "innocent" English husbands.

So, once again, we see that Henry Crawford's famous rant in Northanger Abbey was meant by Jane Austen to be understood ironically:

 "If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" 

The answer is, Jane Austen herself had been admitting such ideas for a very long time before she wrote Letter 93!

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