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

Monday, March 3, 2014

"South or north, I know a dark Austenian subtext when I see it…”

In Austen L, Anielka Briggs wrote the following manifesto of her beliefs about Jane Austen:

“We assume that Jane Austen was a proto-feminist because.....she was a she ...... but there is actually no evidence whatsoever form the novels that she deliberately examined and promoted this line of thought. She examined people as a moral Anglican and parsed their faults, male or female accordingly so that we have both highly flawed men AND women in her novels, neither being exculpated from their behaviour by a patriarchal hierarchy. Rather they are held accountable for their own sins to themselves and their (Anglican) God. The concept of feminism was so much in infancy that Austen lacked both a vocabulary and a framework in which to examine this issue. The conscious understanding of patriarchal domination did not emerge for some years and many of the papers we read considering Austen as a feminist suffer from being 'clever with hindsight" and simply imposing a modern view on a historic text illustrated with isolated anecdotal selections from the Austen canon.
We would like to think of Jane Austen as being tolerant of all religions but in fact this is most unlikely. The fundamental Anglican Protestant belief since the reformation was that the Church of England was Right and the Church of Rome was Wrong and corrupt. Jane Austen's cousin Edward and her brother Henry both wrote sermons with anti-Semitic messages and believed, in the standard, patronising way of the average self-righteous eighteenth-century Anglican minister, that Jewish people should be converted to Christianity and Catholics should renounce the pope and become Protestants….And finally we come to homophobia. We know for a fact that Jane Austen both understood homosexuality and thought it was a topic worthy of derision from her joke on a carr-pet (James I's homosexual patronage of Carr) in the juvenilia…. It would be lovely to think that Jane Austen "grew out of this view" and became a tolerant adult with a wide variety of friends of differing sexual orientations but homosexuality was illegal and the prevailing social view was homophobic. This is the premise of the "catamite" solution to "Kitty a fair but frozen maid". It was something to be hidden and laughed at covertly.”   END QUOTE

Anielka, first, while I gladly acknowledge the succinctness, wit, and clarity of your summary of your position, you are of course not surprised to hear that I 100% disagree with your position. And I am also glad to note that you (who, like me, sees many shadowy subtexts, hints, and riddles in all aspects of JA’s writing) nevertheless takes a position diametrically opposed to my own, as to what all those shadows mean, in terms of our understanding of Jane Austen’s own personal beliefs and advocacies. Why?

Partly because, aside from our profound differences in what we infer from what we see in her writing, I strongly believe that it advances the cause of Austen studies overall, to show that even two Austen scholars like you and I, who disagree profoundly about Jane Austen’s morality, religiosity, and gender-related opinions and attitudes, can nonetheless be in deep agreement that Jane Austen, for some implied purpose, did in fact leave all those subtexts, hints and riddles in her writing, to be detected by the ingenuity of sharp elves.

That attribution to JA of such a motivation and m.o. of course flies in the face of the still conventional wisdom about Jane Austen, which is that such subtexts are merely the product of 20-21st century anachronistic confabulations—as I earlier today illustrated that very point, by showing that JA’s sexual innuendoes were grounded in contemporary allusions two centuries before the Internet enabled these amazing Jane Austen virtual book clubs.

I.e., while I see these subtexts as so many magnetized iron filings all pointing toward the North Star of radical feminism, you (if I have understood you correctly) see them as a double bluff, in which Jane Austen, for all her radical writerly innovations in fictional techniques such as these subtexts, was still, in your view, still, morally and religiously speaking, pretty much as orthodox and conservative a social commentator as most Janeites still see her. (If I have inadvertently mischaracterized your position in the latter half of that last sentence, feel free to correct it. )

The paradox of our being so much alike and parallel in our approach to decoding or interpreting Austen’s subtexts, and yet so different in what we take away from Austen, is epitomized in our respective opposed interpretations of Garrick’s Riddle. We both see a strong sexual subtext in her decision to bring Garrick’s Riddle into the matrix of meaning in Emma, and yet your inference from that sexual content, as you framed it, above, is the diametric opposite of mine, in terms of the social attitudes we ascribe to the inscrutable Aunt Jane.

And I am certain that JA meant to create precisely this sort of subtle moral ambiguity, so as to generate opposite interpretation of her writing by different readers. And I now also suspect that this had this authorial process in mind, metafictionally, when she wrote the following exchange between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price, in which Mary very slyly and intentionally channels Hamlet (and which I believe came to my mind, subconsciously, two moments ago, when I wrote about the “North Star”, etc.):

[Mary] “…Those clouds look alarming."
"But they are passed over," said Fanny. "I have been watching them. This weather is all from the south."
"South or north, I know a black cloud when I see it…”

The way JA causes Mary Crawford, who is in her own way as verbally brilliant as Hamlet, to channel that tragic hero, and seamlessly combine two of Hamlet’s most famous verbal riddles--teasing Guildenstern with “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” in Act 2, Scene 2, and then similarly teasing Polonius with “Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?” in Act 3, Scene 2. It’s just breathtaking, this particularly fine example of how JA had so thoroughly absorbed Shakespeare deeply into her imagination.

But that’s not my main reason for pointing to that allusion, which is to pick up on a metafictional resonance of Mary’s subtly erudite bon mot. My point is that Jane Austen, as a very conscious author, knew a good subtext when she created it, one which could (like Mary’s and Hamlet’s ambiguous clouds) be correctly perceived as “black” (i.e., pregnant with multiple meanings, ready at any moment to burst upon readers like a hard summer rainshower), whether that black cloud was believed to be moving “south” (i.e., conservative, as you see it) or “north” (radical feminist, as I see it).

So… how does this relate specifically to our diametrically opposed interpretations of the presence of Garrick’s Riddle in Emma?

It is clear to me that Jane Austen understood the difference between, on the one hand, consensual homosexual behavior and relationship between adults (which I assert she, for the duration of her adult years, at least, considered a normal part of the human spectrum of sexuality) and, on the other hand, pedophilia, rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in which a powerful person (usually a male) forced sex upon a vulnerable victim (usually a female), which she considered the worst sort of depraved horror, especially when it was perpetrated in the deeply clueless belief that no harm was being done, it was, in Edmund Bertram’s words describing Sir Thomas’s ogling on Fanny’s blossoming female body, “but an uncle”.  What’s the problem?  EVERYTHING! screamed back Jane Austen through her subtext.

It is the trademark of modern homophobia to conflate the two—you can find a thousand examples of this primitive, cruel and ignorant sort of false equivalency on the Internet in the desperate ravings of fanatical right wing homophobes. But my research tells me that Jane Austen made it very clear that this was a grotesquely cruel, immoral and ridiculous confusion, which had fatal consequences for those in her world unfortunate enough to get caught up in its gears.

In a nutshell, JA had the luxury of satirizing James I’s well known homosexual acts, because James I’s life was not endangered when he kept boy toys at his court---because he was King—as Mel Brooks so correctly observed, it’s good to be the King, you can do what you want. James I was exerting his power, not seeming to be too concerned about the power differential between himself and his pets, and so he richly deserved the satirical skewering that the youthful JA administered to him.

But now in contrast, consider the sailor in the Royal Navy who dared to seek a moment of physical intimacy with a shipmate on a long, lonely voyage that he had not voluntarily chosen to go on in the first place, could find himself hung that same day if one of his homophobic shipmates witnessed this, and gave him up to the captain.  Or the midshipman hungry for advancement in a patronage-racked Royal Navy, who perhaps had to pay a bodily price for that advancement—hence William Price’s having to submit to the will of Admiral Crawford, a terrible price that Mary Crawford (again, the voice of forbidden truth in MP) satirized with her “Rears and Vices” witticism.

You really begin to see that Mary, more even than her brother, or Tom Bertram, is the true Hamlet of MP, the one who exposes the corruption in the “court”, Mansfield Park, ruled by its morally bankrupt “king”, Sir Thomas Bertram. And in this case, she is there to wave a brightly colored flag, pointing to the most foul evidences of that corruption, and calling “Foul!”—even though nobody at MP seems to be listening, not even Fanny.

So JA, even as a teenager, but certainly as an adult, knew the hawk from a handsaw, morally speaking, as per these two very different cases.

So, in that clear context, I believe that the sodomy subtext of Garrick’s Riddle (which I DO agree with you is part of the mix of meanings swirling around inside it, along with the usual form of intercourse---and, guess what! so did Susan Allen Ford, in her 2007 article I quoted from in my preceding post) is there NOT to mock all homosexuality with a broad brush, as you assert, but to expose to moral condemnation all forms of power-based, sexual abuse, which sometimes was of the same-sex variety, but more often was male-against-female.

And finally, I learned earlier today from an inspired Google search (asking the right question is, I find, 90% of the battle) that, just after Garrick’s Riddle was re-published in the 1771 New Foundling Hospital Wit miscellany collection (in which, as JHS pointed out, the Hellfire Club was well represented among the contributing authors), in 1772, David Garrick himself threw Isaac Bickerstaffe under the proverbial bus, as it were, when Garrick desperately tried to distance himself from public whispers that Garrick himself was gay, as elucidated here:

Rictor Norton, "The Macaroni Club: Homosexual Scandals in 1772", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 19 December 2004, updated 11 June 2005

Although the first article at the above link is interesting in its own right (you’ll never hear the word “macaroni” in “Yankee Doodle” again the same way again after reading that!), it is the second article, entitled “Isaac Bickerstaffe and David Garrick” which is relevant to this post of mine.  Why?  

Because, presuming the accuracy of Norton’s account of that very sad bit of gay history, which sounds an awful lot like the McCarthyite  witchhunt of the early 1950’s in the US, it makes me wonder whether Garrick’s having been the public target of such innuendoes, in his homophobic world, somehow informed JA’s choice of Garrick’s Riddle as the particular bit of wordplay recalled by Mr. Woodhouse.  I think it did! But as to its meaning in that context, that is open for interpretation.

And there I will cease my own riddling for the time being.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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