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

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Jane Austen’s Radical Critique of the Anglican Clergy in her Newly Discovered 1814 Scrap & Her 1807 Rose Poem: Prayers Repeated By Clergymen Without Thorough Understanding & Feeling

Yesterday in The Telegraph, Sam Marsden reported that:
[a] newly uncovered manuscript in which Jane Austen writes of men reciting prayers unthinkingly could shed light on the gestation of one of her novels. The scrap of paper features a fragment copied out by the author from a sermon written by her brother, the Rev James Austen...The passage in Austen’s handwriting, dating from 1814, states:
"Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps WITHOUT THOROUGHLY UNDERSTANDING – CERTAINLY WITHOUT THOROUGHLY FEELING THEIR FULL FORCE & MEANING.” 
This reflects a theme that she wrote about in her novel Mansfield Park, which was published in the same year. The small piece of manuscript is glued into a first edition dating from 1870 of The Memoirs of Jane Austen, by the novelist’s nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh. David Dorning, a conservator at West Dean College…has the job of removing it from the book so the passage on the back can also be seen. “When I initially read it, I thought it was the sort of thing that Jane Austen might write. Then I realised that it was a sermon by her brother. I thought maybe all the Austens felt like that about men,” he joked.”   END QUOTE

Another article by Alison Flood, also about “The Scrap”, ran in The Guardian, and added a comment by the curator of the Jane Austen House Museum: "What especially intrigued us about this fragment is its apparent date, 1814, and the evidence that offers of the cross-currents between Austen's family life and her literary reflections on prayer in Chapter 34 of Mansfield Park, published the same year…” END QUOTE

For reasons I will outline below, the above-quoted newspaper articles epitomize a deep and widespread misunderstanding of Jane Austen’s attitude toward the Anglican clergy---based in part on a failure of competent, thorough scholarship, and in part on the incredible persistence of the Myth of Jane Austen, which still prevails worldwide nearly two centuries after her death. It is an agile myth, which dances on the head of a pin, so as to see this most satirical and individualistic of fiction writers as, nonetheless, a pious, humble, obedient, orthodox believer in patriarchal, Tory, Anglican Church doctrine.  As you’ll see, that Myth obstructs the ordinary Janeite’s understanding of The Scrap, and also of the religious thematics of Mansfield Park!

For starters, these two major English newspapers both unashamedly relied (for the claim that the actual author of The Scrap was not really Jane but instead was her elder clergyman brother James) upon an unfounded, offhand, joking guess by the man charged with the technical task of separating the precious document from the book it was stuck in. This was not a starting point that promised much in terms of leading the reader to genuine insight about this recent discovery, an event of significance to Janeites hungry for even a new sentence of her writing.  And after all, it wasn’t a laundry list dug out of a linen trunk at an abbey, it was an important reflection on the lack of correlation between spoken prayer and felt belief.

The failure of scholarship I allege is easily demonstrated by the following embarrassing fact ---nobody involved, either at the Museum, the College, or the two newspapers, knew or thought to connect the dots between The Scrap and the 8-line poem Jane Austen wrote in 1807 (as part of a friendly family female poetry competition rhyming every line with the word “rose”), the subject of the second half of which is….the inside story on a rustic parishioner’s tenuous grasp of the meaning of a Sabbath sermon!:

Happy the lab’rer in his Sunday clothes!
In light-drab coat, smart waistcoat, well-darn'd hose,
And hat upon his head, to church he goes;
As oft with conscious pride, he downward throws
A glance upon the ample cabbage rose
Which, stuck in button-hole, regales his nose,
He envies not the gaiest London beaux.
In church he takes his seat among the rows,
Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Lists to the sermon in a softening doze,
And rouses joyous at the welcome close.

You must notice the almost 100% parallelism between:

ONE: the country laborer who “ [l]ikes best the prayers whose meaning least he knows” in the “Rose Poem”, which has been universally acknowledged, since its first publication in 1884, to have been composed by Jane Austen no later than 1807,  


TWO: “"[m]en [who] may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning”, in The Scrap, composed, so the cited “experts” assert, not by Jane Austen, but by her brother, James, and merely transcribed by Jane, at a time roughly coinciding with her publishing of Mansfield Park in 1814.

The extreme parallelism I cited between ONE and TWO makes it very clear that Jane Austen herself not only wrote but also authored not only the 1807 Rose Poem but also The Scrap (including whatever additional text on the back is eventually recovered, as we all hope it will be). 

In the rest of this post I want to focus on why it fit so much better with the Myth of Jane Austen, for experts to concoct a theory out of thin air that one of the world’s greatest novelists would act as a mere scrivener for one of her clergyman brother’s sermons, rather than to dare to think that she’d have written The Scrap herself. After all, it bears another repetition that THE SCRAP IS IN JANE AUSTEN’S OWN HANDWRITING! So the burden of proof sufficient to shift authorship from her to anyone else should have been heavy, right? And yet, the shift was passed off by all concerned without the slightest hesitation, or even acknowledgment of anything questionable having been done.

This is no accident, no mere carelessness. As you’ll see, beneath the apparent cluelessness is an indictable sleight of hand, born of desire, dating back to the dawn of modern Austen studies, on the part of generations of a determined coterie of conservative Austen scholars, to conceal her true, subversive, radical feminist critique of every aspect of her patriarchal society, and in particular of the Anglican church which, I am certain she felt, was an arch-conspirator in that patriarchy when it ought to have been its strongest critic.

And here’s where the orthodox dogma about Jane Austen’s personal Christianity comes in. Almost all Janeites assume that Jane Austen would never have written an even faintly sacrilegious word about the Anglican church, an ancient institution in which both her father and her eldest brother were clergymen, and her third eldest brother in turn became a clergyman later in his life, and her two sailors and sister were all known for their piety.

Somehow ignored in all of this is the fact that some of the biggest fools, opportunists, and gluttons (all of the deadly sins well represented) in her novels are clergymen—Mr. Collins, Mr. Elton, Dr. Grant—and even some of the “heroes” are clergymen who don’t show a great deal of spine or character in a pinch—Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram, to name the two worst clergyweenies.  Only one of the six lead clergymen in her novels is free of any significant bad scent, and is actually heroic--- Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.  16% is not a percentage that suggests a healthy respect on Jane Austen’s part for the clergy as they actually were, on the ground.

Why am I so focused on clergymen in Austen’s novels? Because The Scrap refers to those who REPEAT the words in prayers without apparent comprehension of their true meaning---well, it would be the men giving the sermons who would be leading the flock in the repetition of those words! And what would the Janeite world think, if word spread that Jane Austen, in a random scrap found in a desk at her death, was being very satirical about clergyman talking the talk, but not walking the walk?  Shocking!  So a great deal is at stake in this seemingly small issue—hence the need to stonewall.

So, e.g., the only two Austen scholars to have ever published commentary on the 1807 Rose Poem I quoted above, David Selwyn & Laura Mooneyham-White, are two of the most conservative of Austen scholars---and no surprise, both of them interpret it as completely vanilla, unthreatening, unsubversive, trivial silliness, a chuckling portrait of country manners which don’t really matter one way or the other.

Whereas, 5 months ago, when I first became aware of the Rose Poem’s existence (nearly a decade into my long, intense research, precisely because this poem was invisible, i.e., it had never been treated as worthy of serious study), it was immediately clear to me that it was actually, under the mask of a trivial bit of mildly satirical wordplay, a wide portal deep into the allusive, subversive depths of Jane Austen’s radical Christianity, as well as further evidence of her virtuosic allusions to Shakespeare.

I have long seen Jane Austen as espousing a radical Christianity, very personal and eccentric to herself,  one which actually took a concern in the weak and the poor as did Jesus himself, and which was a searing critique of every one of the varied forms of patriarchal hypocrisy and self-deception which characterized both the men in the pulpits and the men in the pews with equal sharpness.  Here is my blog post from over 4 months ago, where I spelled out my interpretation of the Rose Poem in great detail:

But today I am focused on The Scrap. What these two newspaper articles also fail to alert the reader to is the presence of a massive conflict of interest in their presentation of the meaning of The Scrap, another factor which dictated the preference for James Austen as casually presumed author thereof, instead of the true author, sister Jane.

To wit: as the two recent newspaper articles both disclose, but without realizing the significance thereof, The Scrap was found glued into a first edition of the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen’s life and writing, authored by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh (or JEAL)—who just happened to be the only son of the Reverend James Austen, as well as the sole heir of the fortune of Jane Austen’s Mrs. Norris-like Aunt Leigh-Perrot!

So in effect we have an ageing son ascribing authorship of the skeptical opinion about some men’s sincere feeling for and understanding of Christian doctrine to his own long-dead clergyman father. Whereas, if these lines were authored by Jane Austen herself, then we might wonder whether the “men” whose religious sincerity and comprehension is questioned in The Scrap might include not only the male parishioners sitting in the pews on Sunday, but also the male clergymen—like brother James Austen!!--who delivered the sermons to them! I.e., was this a stinging satire of the shepherds as much or more as of the sheep under their spiritual care?

Well, if the author of The Scrap was himself a “shepherd”, then the implication would be that he was sermonizing, preaching to, and talking only about, the “sheep”. But if the author of Tthe Scrap was a “sheep”—and a female one, at that---then, well, maybe, all bets would be off. Maybe the effectiveness, or relevance, of the “shepherd”’s meaning as he “repeated” spiritual verses in his sermon, might be at fault.

And the conflict of interest is even more salient when I tell you that I have over a period of years  documented numerous other cases in which JEAL, in the 1870 Memoir, whitewashed and bowdlerized facts about Jane Austen and/or her family—especially Jane Austen’s angry veiled critique of her brother James and his and his wife’s treatment of both Jane Austen herself, and also her beloved niece Anna (James’s daughter)….

…all in order to propagate the myth of a pious conservative Jane Austen who deeply loved and respected her brother James (again, JEAL’s father)—you can see this is a propaganda campaign that succeeded so well that even almost a century and a half later, the Myth of Jane Austen still rules the ethereal waves of Austen scholarship. And these recent articles are proof of the longevity of that reign.

So I conclude by giving you a quick tour of my alternative vision of Jane Austen, one which does not require closing one’s eyes to obvious meanings in the texts that survive, both Jane Austen’s novels and also her other writings (such as The Scrap), and I direct you, ironically, to the most powerful evidence for the notion that Jane Austen wrote The Scrap as a parody of the kind of hypocrisy exhibited by James Austen himself—and those are the words of the “bad guys”, Mary and Henry Crawford, in Mansfield Park.

The Myth of Jane Austen would have you believe that pious, frightened, strict believer Fanny Price represents Jane Austen’s point of view on religious matters in Mansfield Park, her most overtly religious novel; and that the Crawfords (especially witty, outspoken Mary) represent the fashionable, modern, secularized dismissal of organized religion that Jane Austen supposedly abhorred.  But I suggest to you that it was Mary Crawford who would have written the Rose Poem and The Scrap, and not Fanny Price—see if you agree as you read the following excerpts from Mansfield Park! I’ve given the full passages for maximum context, but have put in ALL CAPS the lines which relate most directly to the Rose Poem and The Scrap. NOTE IN PARTICULAR the repeated expositions of the theme of hypocrisy in the clergy, the apparent lack in most men of the cloth of understanding of and feeling for the meaning of the sermons and prayers they repeat! I.e., The Scrap could easily have been an epigraph for Mansfield Park itself!

Chapter 9: "It is a pity," cried Fanny, "that the custom [of twice daily chapel services] should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one's ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!"
"Very fine indeed," said Miss Crawford, laughing. "It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and SAY THEIR PRAYERS HERE TWICE A DAY, WHILE THEY ARE INVENTING EXCUSES THEMSELVES FOR STAYING AWAY."
"That is hardly Fanny's idea of a family assembling," said Edmund. "If the master and mistress do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom."
"At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way—to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time—altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes; and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy. Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs. Eleanors and Mrs. Bridgets—STARCHED UP INTO SEEMING PIETY, BUT WITH HEADS FULL OF SOMETHING VERY DIFFERENT—especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at—and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now."
For a few moments she was unanswered. Fanny coloured and looked at Edmund, but felt too angry for speech; and he needed a little recollection before he could say, "Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch, and human nature cannot say it was not so. We must all feel at times THE DIFFICULTY OF FIXING OUR THOUGHTS AS WE COULD WISH; but if you are supposing it a frequent thing, that is to say, a weakness grown into a habit from neglect, what could be expected from the private devotions of such persons? Do you think the minds which are suffered, which are INDULGED IN WANDERINGS IN A CHAPEL, would be more collected in a closet?"
"Yes, very likely. They would have two chances at least in their favour. There would be LESS TO DISTRACT THE ATTENTION FROM WITHOUT, and it would NOT BE TRIED SO LONG."
"The mind which does not struggle against itself under one circumstance, would find objects to distract it in the other, I believe; and the influence of the place and of example may often rouse better feelings than are begun with. The GREATER LENGTH OF THE SERVICE, however, I admit to be sometimes TOO HARD A STRETCH UPON THE MIND. One wishes it were not so; but I have not yet left Oxford long enough to forget what chapel prayers are."

"You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can TWO SERMONS A WEEK, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair's to his own, do all that you speak of? GOVERN THE CONDUCT AND FASHION THE MANNERS OF A LARGE CONGREGATION for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit."
"You are speaking of London, I am speaking of the nation at large."
"The metropolis, I imagine, is a pretty fair sample of the rest."
"Not, I should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality….

Chapter 11: "I have been so little addicted to take my opinions from my uncle," said Miss Crawford, "that I can hardly suppose—and since you push me so hard, I must observe, that I am not entirely without the means of seeing WHAT CLERGYMEN ARE, being at this present time the guest of my own brother, Dr. Grant. And though Dr. Grant is most kind and obliging to me, and though he is really a gentleman, and, I dare say, a good scholar and clever, and OFTEN PREACHES GOOD SERMONS, and is very respectable, I see him to be AN INDOLENT, SELFISH BON VIVANT, who must have his palate consulted in everything; who will not stir a finger for the convenience of any one; and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humour with his excellent wife. To own the truth, Henry and I were partly driven out this very evening by a disappointment about a green goose, which he could not get the better of. My poor sister was forced to stay and bear it."
“…A man—a sensible man like Dr. Grant, cannot be in the habit of TEACHING OTHERS THEIR DUTY EVERY WEEK, cannot go to church twice every Sunday, and PREACH SUCH VERY GOOD SERMONS in so good a manner as he does, without BEING THE BETTER FOR IT HIMSELF. It must make him think; and I have no doubt that he oftener endeavours to restrain himself than he would if he had been anything but a clergyman."
"We cannot prove to the contrary, to be sure; but I wish you a better fate, Miss Price, than to be the wife of A MAN WHOSE AMIABLENESS DEPENDS UPON HIS OWN SERMONS; for though HE MAY PREACH HIMSELF INTO A GOOD-HUMOUR EVERY SUNDAY, it will be bad enough to have him quarrelling about green geese from Monday morning till Saturday night."
"I think the man who could often quarrel with Fanny," said Edmund affectionately, "must be beyond the reach of any sermons."

Chapter 34: "A SERMON, WELL DELIVERED, is more uncommon even than PRAYERS WELL READ. A sermon, good in itself, is no rare thing. It is more difficult to speak well than to compose well; that is, the rules and trick of composition are oftener an object of study. A thoroughly good sermon, thoroughly well delivered, is a capital gratification. I can never hear such a one without the greatest admiration and respect, and more than half a mind to take orders and preach myself. There is something in THE ELOQUENCE OF THE PULPIT, when it is really eloquence, which is entitled to the highest praise and honour. The preacher who can TOUCH AND AFFECT such an heterogeneous MASS OF HEARERS, on subjects limited, and long worn threadbare in all common hands; who can say anything new or striking, anything that rouses the attention without offending the taste, or WEARING OUT THE FEELINGS OF HIS HEARERS, is a man whom one could not, in his public capacity, honour enough. I should like to be such a man."
Edmund laughed.
"I should indeed. I never listened to a distinguished preacher in my life without a sort of envy. But then, I must have a London audience. I could not preach but to the educated; to those who were capable of estimating my composition. And I do not know that I should be fond of preaching often; now and then, perhaps once or twice in the spring, after being anxiously expected for half a dozen Sundays together; but not for a constancy; it would not do for a constancy."
Here Fanny, who could not but listen, involuntarily shook her head…”

And here I voluntarily shake MY head, and conclude this post with the hope that I’ve convinced you (a) that the Myth of Jane Austen lives on, continuing to obscures truths like (b) Mary Crawford speaking in the true voice of Jane Austen in these spirited debates about preachers and the disconnect between their own sermonizing and their own adherence to the morals they repeat and preach to others, as Jane Austen remembered both her 1807 Rose Poem and The Scrap as she LOL’ed to herself while writing Mansfield Park.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

ADDED Feb. 5, 2014 at 11 am EST my followup post responding to several responses to my initial post:

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