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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Jane Austen’s Art of Ingeniously Tormenting Her Readers: No Need for the Johnsonian Rod in the End

Four months ago, I summarized a large number of sly covert allusions to Samuel Johnson in Northanger Abbey….
…and now, thanks to Diane Reynolds’s last comment in Janeites & Austen-L, I see another one, and it’s a really good one:

Diane wrote: "...As for education and the upbringing of the child…Samuel Johnson, among others, defended corporal punishment in schools as, while unpleasant, the only way to compel children to learn. He and others defended it as long as it caused no lasting damage to the body--no maiming, no blinding, no visible scars. It was seen as transitory suffering far outweighed by the enduring quality of an education. Pain went away, but the knowledge wrought by pain--reading, writing, etc--lasted a lifetime. Though many people were highly uncomfortable with this logic, having endured horrors themselves, it took more than a century of case building to establish the enduring psychological harm caused by corporal punishment, and, also important, the fact that the mass of children could learn effectively without being beaten."

Diane, when I read your above comments, I was immediately reminded of the following dialog between Catherine and Henry in Chapter 14 of NA:

“You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the TORMENT of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person’s courage that could sit down on purpose to do it.”
“That little boys and girls should be TORMENTED,” said Henry, “is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to TORMENT readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb ‘to TORMENT,’ as I observed to be your own method, instead of ‘to instruct,’ supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous.”
“You think me foolish to call instruction a TORMENT, but if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that ‘to TORMENT’ and ‘to instruct’ might sometimes be used as synonymous words.”
“Very probably. But historians are not accountable for the difficulty of learning to read; and even you yourself, who do not altogether seem particularly friendly to very severe, very intense application, may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worth–while to be TORMENTED for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it. Consider — if reading had not been taught, Mrs. Radcliffe would have written in vain — or perhaps might not have written at all.”

In a recent Persuasions Online article….
…Susan Allen Ford picks up on the above scene about “tormenting” children for their own good (which, when you think about it, is extra funny because of the actual, physical tortures which abound in the Gothic novels which are parodied, but also celebrated, in NA), by requiring them to read long, boring history books. Ford also notes that this scene at Beechen Cliff is, in part, Jane Austen’s sly covert allusion to Jane Collier’s [a protégé of Richardson] best-selling 1753 parody of a conduct book, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, which “advise[d] readers how to manipulate relationships and wield power at home and in society”.

However, Diane’s comment made me realize that the above scene in NA also alludes, even more slyly,  to the (in JA’s era, famous) passages Diane spoke about in Johnson’s writing, which I just found in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

“Indeed, Johnson was very sensible how much he owed to Mr. Hunter. Mr. Langton one day asked him, how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time ; he said: "My master whipped me very well. Without that, sir, I should have done nothing." He told Mr. Langton, that while Hunter was flogging his boys unmercifully, he used to say: "And this I do to save you from the gallows." Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod :' "I would rather," said he, "have the rod to be the general terror to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's an end on't; whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other."
When Johnson saw some young ladies in Lincolnshire who were remarkably well behaved, owing to their mother's strict discipline and severe correction, he exclaimed in one of Shakspeare's lines a little varied,
"Rod, I will honour thee for this thy duty." [fn re Johnson to Burney] "There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end, they lose at the other."

Johnson’s Dictionary refers twice to words in Collier’s famous book, so it would suggest some familiarity of Johnson with Collier’s parodic play on “torment” for someone’s own good. I almost wonder whether Collier’s parody got under his skin a bit, and that’s why he protested so much in favor of corporal punishment.  And then, I assert, in NA, JA engaged with both Collier and Johnson, in the Beechen Cliff passage, as I will now expand upon same.

I am very clear that JA’s idea of education was profoundly different from Johnson’s—she was firmly in the camp of covert forms of education, where you seduce a young reader into enjoying a great story in a novel, and, along the way, the reader educates him or herself by rereading the novel and, without any conscious effort, and certainly without having to be flogged, learns what great writing is, learns about their own life from reading carefully constructed stories like JA’s, learns many good things without being coerced.

Ironically, in Ford’s otherwise excellent article, Ford fails to fully articulate how Northanger Abbey itself is a profoundly didactic text--- not the kind of conduct book that Collier mocked, but the kind of novel that uses a delightful sort of “torment” and “torture” of a challenging story to educate, by enlisting the reader’s unwitting cooperation in digging deeper into the words they read, trying to figure out what is meant, and in so doing strengthening their minds. To paraphrase Johnson’s risqué pun,  JA found a way to give her readers learning at their top end, without their having to suffer pain at their “bottom” end!

I suggest that JA wrote her novels to educate her readers in a way that is teasing but not tormenting, except in the good sense that a challenge to understand something significant can feel like teasing, when the author withholds obvious clues to the answers, so that the reader will be teased and provoked into
figuring things out themselves-which is, actually, the only form of instruction—by NOT instructing---which teaches anything worth learning, as Elizabeth Bennet comes to realize at the end of P&P. That’s why JA referred to leaving so much ambiguous in P&P, so that the sharp elves (which mainly means, those who wish to apply their ingenuity to resolve, or at least, better understand, these ambiguities) will be instructed.

There is an element of truth in this, because it is a kind of torment or torture---anyone who’s ever done hard puzzles, whether crosswords or sudokus or other mental-tests—no pain, no gain, applies to the development of the mind as well as the body.

So, in a way, NA really is a self-referential gothic torture chamber – readers are teased and tantalized by JA, and are led to make all sorts of assumptions—but just as Catherine seeks to solve the mysteries of the  Abbey, so too are JA’s readers forced to ferret out the hidden secrets of the novel itself. Rereading, focusing on different themes, word usages (such as I am doing in this very same post!) are forms of detective work that readers undertake at JA’s teasing prompts.

Just as Henry teases Catherine by playing up her assumptions about the Gothic world of NA that she expects to find, so too does JA tease her readers. And JA provides volumes which readers would willingly look into—by means of wit, humor, irony, suspense and other devices at the disposal of a great writer, she makes sure that readers will keep reading her stuff. In a way, it’s like Mr. Miyagi who induces Daniel to practice the karate moves he will need, by repetition—so JA seeks to induce her readers to learn the karate of reading a novel ingeniously, by seducing us into rereadings during which our subconscious recall will cause us to recognize more of  what is going on in the novel than the last reading. So JA turns us all into students who voluntarily return to our lessons often, and enjoy the torments and tortures that JA subjects us to. 

Even today, having reread NA so many times, as I collected all the usages of the words of pain and torment in NA, I found two sentences I had never before paused to parse and understand:

Here’s the first, in all caps in Ch. 26:

"We are not calling [Woodston] a good house," said [General Tilney]. "We are not comparing it with Fullerton and Northanger—we are considering it as a mere parsonage, small and confined, we allow, but decent, perhaps, and habitable; and altogether not inferior to the generality; or, in other words, I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good. It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it from me to say otherwise; and anything in reason—a bow thrown out, perhaps—though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than another my aversion, it is a patched-on bow."
Catherine did not hear enough of this speech to understand OR BE PAINED BY IT; and other subjects being studiously brought forward and supported by Henry, at the same time that a tray full of refreshments was introduced by his servant, the general was shortly restored to his complacency, and Catherine to all her usual ease of spirits. “

Why would Catherine have been pained by the General’s speech if she had heard enough of it? And why didn’t she hear enough of it?  A lesser writer would have felt compelled to explain, for fear of the reader not attending and understanding. But JA had an opposite agenda—she was constantly creating these sorts of blank spaces in her fiction, and then deliberately NOT explaining, but instead leaving it up to the reader to recognize that there is a blank, and then work to fill it in.

In this case, the implicit explanation is clear upon brief examination. Because Catherine’s head was full of her very positive impressions of Woodston, she was not listening to the General. Had she heard what he was saying, she’d have realized that the General was dissing Woodston in favor of (his entirely inaccurate idea of the supposed grandeur of) Fullerton, based on what he heard (we learn later) from John Thorpe. Ironically, Fullerton was actually itself a parsonage, less impressive (or so Catherine seemed to think) even than Woodston!

And here’s the second, from Chapter 29:

... The only offence against him of which she could accuse herself had been such as was scarcely possible to reach his knowledge. Henry and her own heart only were privy to the shocking suspicions which she had so idly entertained; and equally safe did she believe her secret with each. Designedly, at least, Henry could not have betrayed her. If, indeed, by any strange mischance his father should have gained intelligence of what she had dared to think and look for, of her causeless fancies and injurious examinations, she could not wonder at any degree of his indignation. If aware of her having viewed him as a murderer, she could not wonder at his even turning her from his house. But a justification so full of TORTURE to herself, she trusted, would not be in his power.

What I never noticed before is that, even as Catherine is trying very hard, in the immediate aftermath of Henry having castigated her for imagining the General to have been guilty of bad behavior, to feel properly guilty for her imaginings, she doesn’t really feel it. That “But” is a perfect ironic bookend to all the reasons she tries to muster to justify the General’s having kicked her out of the Abbey and set her on a long solitary carriage ride back to Fullerton. She calls it “a justification so full of TORTURE to herself”, thereby conjuring up the very same Gothic imaginings that she believes Henry was so angry at her about, and that “But” is saying, no, the General did NOT have a justification worthy of making her feel guilty for imagining him a Gothic monster!  I.e., sharp readers picking up on this subliminal cue would not be surprised when we read at the end of the novel that “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.”  

So I expect to spend the rest of my life being frequently tormented by JA’s infinitely ingenious literary constructions, including her subtle, complex send-up of Samuel Johnson’s primitive notions of a good education.

[Added a few minutes later]

 It's no accident, I just realized, that one of the only two places in all of JA's published novels where Samuel Johnson is mentioned explicitly just happens to occur RIGHT BEFORE Henry Tilney's /bon mot/ about tormenting little girls and boys into education (and that also reminds me of the equally droll line in /Emma /about Mrs Goddard's boarding school where girls would not be "screwed out of health..."):

"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word `nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."

Indeed, Henry wastes no time in "overpowering" Catherine with his sly parody of Johnson's education-by-flogging philosophy! And the word "overpowering" itself is parodic, in a light yet disturbing way, as it carries a definite connotation of brute force, which of course was Johnson's recommended method of instruction--i.e., the rod was the instrument by which Johnson believed children's resistance to education was to be beaten down.

All of which makes my sense of this being a covert allusion to Johnson all the more certain.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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