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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The “Little People” who are (yet aren’t) there in Jane Austen’s Novels: Nurse Rooke, Mr Perry… and Mrs. Bennet’s Nerves!

In 2010, the ever fertile mind of  Diana Birchall (whose playlet about JA meeting Lord Byron I look forward to reading soon) produced a witty little poem in honor/satire (25%/75%?) of the  kinds of dark, often sexually-tinged, radical feminist, shadow story interpretations of Jane Austen’s novels that I’ve been generating since 2002.

Diana called her poem “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”, and one of the stanzas read as follows:

Persuasion's surely nightmare free
Autumnal, full of elegy.
Except the veneries of Nurse Rooke.
I hastily shut up the book.

Of course, Diana’s clever conceit was that some of the interpretations I make about “veneries” (sexual activities) are “not there” in the texts of Jane Austen’s novels, but exist only in MY imagination.

Well….apropos Nurse Rooke’s “veneries”, I’ve got something to tell you all, that is, ironically, neither venereal nor nightmarish, so much as it is fantastical---and, I think, also pretty fantastic. Something extraordinary became very clear to me just two days ago:


By ‘imaginary friends’ of course I refer to characters who are imaginary within the fictional “reality” of the novels. And my Subject Line tells you that Nurse Rooke and Mr. Perry are the “figments” I am talking about.

Yes, I know this one is WAY outside-the-box, even for me…and yet, paradoxically, I claim that it’s also pretty obvious, IF (a giant “ if”) you allow yourself to take a very specific but offcenter point of view (as with Holbein’s famous anamorphic painting The Ambassadors). That’s when the “imaginariness” of these two characters comes into crystal clear focus, and you realize that this alternative perspective is in place from the moment these characters are first mentioned in their respective novels.

The tale of my literary epiphany does not start with Nurse Rooke--it starts in Highbury with the mysterious Mr. Perry. I had actually first glimpsed this possibility in May 2008, when I suspected that Mr. Perry might be Mr. Woodhouse’s imaginary friend.


I tried different angles of attack, but my preliminary sleuthing was inconclusive, so I put it aside, then just forgot about it, and moved on to other sleuthing leads. But  when I rediscovered it on Sunday, this time I was able to land the plane, because I realized one crucially significant new fact. I could not recall Mr. Perry ever actually speaking in real time in the novel! Nor, similarly, did I recall the narrator (when not reporting Emma’s subjective thoughts and perceptions) ever speaking about Mr. Perry at all!

Was my memory accurate? Did he really only exist in the novel through the indirect reports of characters other than Emma? Did he really never speak to Emma, or appear in person to Emma?

When I searched the entire novel later that day,  moving through each of the many scenes in which Mr. Perry is mentioned, I confirmed my hunch—indeed the reader never “hears” Mr. Perry speaking--instead, we hear tons of his speech being quoted by other characters—mostly Mr. Woodhouse, but also Miss Bates and Frank. There’s only one single scene in the entire novel, actually, where there’s even a question on this crucial point—in Chapter 45, when the narrator reports that Mr. Perry visits Hartfield, and that Mr. Perry talks about Jane’s condition---and we hear that Emma listens to what Mr. Perry has said—but  the key question Jane Austen (deliberately and diabolically) leaves uncertain, is the identity of the speaker to whom Emma listens—is it Mr. Perry who speaks to Emma about Jane, or is it Emma’s father (who after all, has been the reporter of almost every other word spoken by Mr. Perry) to whom she listens? It’s totally ambiguous.

I have since then gathered a variety of additional textual evidence to support this interpretation, but it would take several more pages to lay it out properly, so, for now, I will leave the presentation of same for the future.  Except I do want to mention in passing that one of the tales told by Scheherazade (whom Anne Elliot thinks about) is about a spirit or fairy, the Persian word for which is “PERI”!

But now I want to move on to….

Nurse Rooke, the other Austenian imaginary friend!

It was when I tried to think of another important Austen character besides Mr. Perry who never speaks, and is never seen by the heroine, that I thought immediately of Nurse Rooke—and imagine my excitement that another novel-wide search revealed her to also be a character who is referred to glowingly by a sick (or hypochondriac) character whom the heroine is very close to.

But here it is completely different. Mrs. Smith is no Mr. Woodhouse-she’s no demented hypochondriac who hallucinates an imaginary medical advisor who confirms all of his worst fears about his health. Instead, Mrs. Smith is a calculating manipulator who invents Nurse Rooke deliberately, so as to be able to present to the gullible Anne Elliot a “reliable” source for false information that assassinates the character of Cousin Elliot, with the successful goal of inducing Anne Elliot into not considering him as a suitor.

And here’s where two Persuasion shadow story streams unite—you may recall that five months ago, I wrote a series of posts in which I claimed that Anne Elliot had very poor vision, and one of the ways this was  taken advantage of, was when sister Mary Musgrove convinces Anne that it is Cousin Elliot down in the street outside the White Hart Inn, even though it is not.

Well, I realized on Monday that Nurse Rooke pulls the same trick on Anne, but even more audaciously. She convinces Anne, based on nothing at all, that the woman who let Anne into Mrs. Smith’s lodgings at Westgate Building was Nurse Rooke!

And actually, there is a parallel in Emma to this sort of deceit as to Mr. Perry. While Mr. Woodhouse actually believes Mr. Perry is real, Miss Bates, Frank and the rest of the Highbury folk who mention Mr. Perry are not similarly hallucinatory—no, they simply refer to Mr. Perry as a kind of shared joke, the way adults speak about Santa Claus in front of small children—but in this case, the roles of gullible small child are played by the demented Mr. Woodhouse and the cluelessly naïve Emma!

And…Nurse Rooke as an imaginary friend also fits uncannily well with a third shadow motif in Persuasion. Five months ago, Anielka pointed out the name of the devil hidden in the following passage describing Nurse Rooke:

"It was my friend Mrs Rooke; Nurse Rooke; who, by-the-bye, had a great curiosity to see you, and was delighted to be in the way to let you in. She came away from Marlborough Buildings only on Sunday; and she it was who told me you were to marry Mr Elliot. She had had it from Mrs Wallis herself, which did not seem bad authority. She SAT AN hour with me on Monday evening, and gave me the whole history." "The whole history," repeated Anne, laughing. "She could not make a very long history, I think, of one such little article of unfounded news."

For the answer to Anielka’s question about why Jane Austen might hide the devil’s name in this passage, just think about Mr. Perry the Peri (spirit), and then consider what Hamlet says after he (thinks he) sees the ghost of his dead father:

“The spirit that I have seen May be a devil; and The Devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape!”

So….here we have Jane Austen with a “sat an”-ic wink at Nurse Rooke as a spirit to whom Mrs. Smith has given a pleasing shape, and has convinced poor Anne that Nurse Rooke is a real person!

And now we come finally to… Mrs. Bennet’s Nerves!

As I was sussing out all the textual references to Mr. Perry and Nurse Rooke as imaginary friends, another imaginary character in Jane Austen was tickling my memory—but who was it? It was something about old friends in one of the novels I was remembering, but as I ran through characters in my mind, I just could not think of which one it was. What other character associated with disease and medicine was there? And then it hit me! - JA had in 1813 made her first foray into this realm, and had laid a textual template for the verbiage she would later use to establish the mirages known as Mr. Perry and Nurse Rooke, when she wrote the following passages in P&P:

Ch. 1: "Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for MY POOR NERVES."
"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. THEY ARE MY OLD FRIENDS. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least."

Ch. 2: "Don't keep coughing so, Kitty, for Heaven's sake! Have a little compassion on MY NERVES. You tear them to pieces."

Ch. 20: "Pray do, my dear Miss Lucas," she added in a melancholy tone, "for NOBODY is on my side, NOBODY takes part with me. I am cruelly used, NOBODY feels for MY POOR NERVES."

Now you can see the progression of this motif through three novels. JA, via Mr. Bennet’s immortal witticism, makes explicit what is later left implicit re Mr. Perry and Nurse Rooke. Mrs. Bennet’s nerves are imaginary “friends” of Mr. Bennet, they are feelings personified. But in her final two completed novels, JA took a giant leap, and managed to hide in plain sight the actual personification of her characters’s feelings!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: If you want to read some firstrate litcrit by an Austen scholar who does well to pick up on the strong similarities between Mr. Perry and Nurse Rooke, but who is not quite able to get outside the box far enough to make that similarity meaningful, read  Jane Austen and the Body: 'The Picture of Health  by John Wiltshire at ppg. 110 et seq. Wiltshire was so close, and so sharp in his intuition, that his entire discussion about Mr. Perry and Nurse Rooke functions as an excellent gloss on my claim of their being phantoms closely related to each other!

P.P.S: Look at how Jane Austen uses the word “nobody” in her novels, and think about how that might fit with my claims.

P.P.S.: And finally, of course, there’s also Shakespeare looming in the background in all of this, as I will one day soon explain.

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