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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jane Austen the Supreme Literary Critic with a Wicked Sense of Humor

In Janeites & Austen L, Diana Birchall wrote: "Jane Austen was not a lit crit person and was no more a genius at lit crit than she was at poetry."

Diana, I strongly disagree. I can't even begin to count the number of examples I've collected over the past decade, in which it is clear from an allusion by JA to a subtly thematic Shakespearean motif, that JA had not only recognized and understood it, she also then (as John Wiltshire has put it) reacted playfully and creatively to that motif. And then when I go into the databases, I find modern scholarly lit-crit articles by professors with impressive resumes, that show a level of understanding of that same Shakespearean motif inferior to the insight implicit in JA's allusion.

In particular, she left the supposedly greatest Shakespearean scholar of her era, Samuel Johnson, in the dust--he often showed a shocking lack of sense of humor in his interpretations of Shakespeare, particularly the Bard's many bawdy passages--whereas JA not only "got" them, she emulated, and at times even surpassed Shakespeare in that department. Which is funnier, the war of words between Beatrice and Benedick or Lizzy and Darcy? I think it's a draw. Shakespeare's is  more brilliant and over the top, but JA's is, I think, more subtly funny.

Jane Austen was an unbelievably insightful and powerful reader of literature, whether she was reading fiction, poetry or nonfiction. She saw through literature, just as she saw through people. But, in each case, she rarely telegraphed her insights in some heavy handed explicit way, out of fear  that they would be missed. Quite the contrary, she often masked her insight, and beguiled the reader into UNDERestimating her insight--hence the famous faux modesties about her writing abilities in her letters to James Stanier Clarke and James Edward Austen Leigh. JA was so secure in her genius, and in her insight, that she never felt the need to show off. But the insights are there, on every page, for the sharp elves who have learned to expect that extraordinary level from her, and dig underneath the modest surface.

And I freely acknowledge that this aspect of JA's writing has barely been recognized by modern Austen scholars, but that is their deficiency and error, not hers. I'll be presenting examples of this in my talk at the next JASNA AGM in Montreal 2 1/2 months from now, demonstrating all the hidden Shakespeare in Mansfield Park, the stuff that the other Austen scholars have not seen.


Ellen Moody wrote: "I don't call word play fun either."

Diana's reply: "This is such a massive subject for disagreement perhaps there's no use going over it at all, but I'll try briefly.  Word play is, by  definition, fun, and has been so for centuries; and Jane Austen's  books are overflowing with wit, fun, humor and amusement, to a higher degree  than with almost any other great author. That you can say cautiously "Sheer  fun can include certain kinds of dancing -- when it's not aggressive" (what?)  and follow that with a statement so staggering I cannot possibly believe you  mean it in literal truth, "The only passage of fun I can think of in Austen  is the passage over gruel in _Emma_", indicates either than you are using  some abstruse definition of fun that I am not understanding,  or are somehow impervious to or unaware of humor. I certainly  hope (and believe), that it's merely the former!"

Ellen: "I do not find Austen's books funny"

Diana's reply: "If true, that is so shocking a statement as to constitute almost a  tragedy in itself, it's like saying you don't find the greatest romance  romantic, or the greatest work of imagination imaginative, or are trying to  describe Van Gogh when color blind.  Again, I can only suppose that you  are using some different definition of "fun" and "funny" that I am simply  not getting."


No, Diana, you're getting what she's saying. This explains hundreds of posts that Ellen has written over the years in these groups. When it comes to ironic humor, Ellen is almost entirely deaf to it. And Jane Austen had the perfect riposte to someone like that responding negatively to her piercing ironic wit:

"...it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as vanity and pride."
"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile."

But the funny thing is, when Darcy is not in narcissistic injury mode, as in that quoted passage, he actually has a quick, dry and satirical wit of his own, such as:

 "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."
"Thank you—but I always mend my own."

and

"I have not the smallest objection to explaining them," said he, as soon as she allowed him to speak. "You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."

and, of course, his greatest riposte:

 "There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."

and....perhaps HIS most subtle, enigmatic, coded wit:

Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."




 To not feel the humor of these passages--and a thousand others in JA's novels and letters--is indeed nothing to laugh at, it is very sad. And it certainly is a particularly disabling defect when it comes to understanding JA's writing.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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