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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jane Austen's Emma: An Encyclopedia of Literary Fantasy Allusions from Oedipus to 1,001 Nights



In response to my recent claims about all sorts of veiled allusions in Emma, centered on my claim that Mr. Perry is Mr. Woodhouse’s imaginary friend, a delusion fostered by everyone in his circle of friends other than Emma, who is just clueless about this, Diane Reynolds wrote:

Diane: “I have been thinking more about Arabian Nights as a source for Emma. I   wish we could know that Austen read these stories, though her (miss Bates's) Aladdin's lamp reference indicates that JA was aware of these  or similar "Orientalist" stories.”

Diane, it’s not just Miss Bates knowing about Aladdin’s Lamp, or about JA’s striking use of the same cluster of symbols (lenses, apples, transportation vehicles) as are central in the tale of Peri Banou, as I laid out in my recent post on this subject.  JA’s knowledge of 1,0001 Nights
is even more clearly demonstrated by the explicit reference to Scheherazde in Persuasion, as I outlined thoroughly here:


Plus, again, Arabian Nights two centuries ago was like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek & Star Wars today. It was the definitive European cultural matrix for fantasy literature. So do you really think that JA, who read so widely in both the highest and the lowest forms of literature, would have Miss Bates (her alter ego) and Anne Elliot (whom many also think is her alter ego)
make explicit references to that compendium of tales by accident?

I just this morning realized that JA also winks at Arabian Nights in Chapter 9 of Emma:

“In this age of literature, such COLLECTIONS ON A VERY GRAND SCALE are not uncommon. Miss Nash, head-teacher at Mrs. Goddard's, had written out AT LEAST THREE HUNDRED; and Harriet, who had taken the first hint of it from her, hoped, with Miss Woodhouse's help, to get A GREAT MANY MORE.  Emma assisted with her invention, memory and taste; and as Harriet wrote a very pretty hand, it was likely to be an arrangement of the first order, in form as well as QUANTITY.”

Of course the superficial reference is to a book of riddles and charades, but the all caps verbiage makes it clear, to me at least, that JA is winking at the most famous literary collection on a very grand scale of a great many more than 300 entries. Isn’t it obvious, once you put it in context?


Diane also wrote: “I have also, as some know, long  puzzled over Miss Bates's long speeches in chapter 27, so if they are  pointing to her specifically as one of Emma's "fairies," that makes a 
certain sense. “

So reread them again and focus on Miss Bates’s obsessive and otherwise nonsensical focus on those three symbols from Peri Banou (spectacles for telescope, apples, and carriage for magic carpet), at the very same moment she refers to Aladdin’s Lamp, and suddenly it all makes startlingly good sense!  


Diane also wrote: “But what really causes me to pay attention to this motif is how well it meshes with the fantasia of A Midsummer's Night  Dream, an overt source for this novel.”

Yes, of course, but it’s not just the fantasy of AMND and Arabian Nights, it’s also, even more strikingly and disturbingly, Pericles, Prince of Tyre….

…with its riddle about sex with a virgin which is so parallel to Garrick’s Riddle that Mr. Woodhouse tries to fully recall.

And it’s also The Tempest, as to which I will be posting an update on my interpretation of that allusion in Emma later today.  And….


Diane also wrote: “Another support is the "as you like it" phrase that Arnie pointed out years ago--a stretch, but not a  stretch once you start layering allusions. As Rene Girard points out  in his essay on As You Like It, the play is a  pastoral fantasy--and  Girard contends that the title refers to the audience: As YOU  (audience) like it: I will give you a complete fantasy along with  
happy endings that has little to do with reality. Girard contends that Shakespeare wrote this play, perhaps angrily, as a sop to audiences.  It's hardly considered one of his masterworks, and I have seen a  production of it that went over the top to liken it to a Watteau painting with its similarly fantastic universe of satin clad maidens  on swings in trees--Mrs. Elton's clueless strawberry picking is of a  piece with this in one of the most dreamlike chapters in the novel.”

Diane, you didn’t realize, I gave a detailed interpretation of the allusion to As You Like It in Emma almost exactly one year ago:


The wordplay in Mrs. Elton’s speech is just the tip of the iceberg. And there’s also the allusions to AYLI in P&P, S&S, the list goes on endlessly.

And…it’s not just Shakespeare’s fantasy worlds and Arabian Nights, it’s dozens of other literary antecedents, from Bluebeard to The Heroine, to The Female Quixote, to Don Quixote itself, all the way back to Oedipus Rex, and The Bible, etc etc etc.  Emma is an encyclopedia of veiled literary allusions with a particular focus on the universal human problem of cluelessness—how can we know if what we see is real?

Diane also wrote: “What Austen does is juxtapose a deeply realistically rendered novel in 
terms of time, place (Highbury can be mapped minutely) and detail with  a fantasia, a dream.”

An excellent summing up, you know I totally agree, indeed, I’ve been saying this for a decade.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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