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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Repplier's Subtle Conceit on Novels and Nerves as Old Friends: Exploring Mrs. Bennet's Nooks

Last night, I came across the following elegant, laudatory comments about Jane Austen's novels (including a passing mention of Mr. Rushworth's famous two-and-forty speeches, which supports my claim earlier this week that they are what many Janeites fondly think of first when Mr. Rushworth is
mentioned) in a published essay from 120 years ago by the American essayist Agnes Repplier:

"...Miss Austen is likewise the best of midnight friends. There stand her novels, few in number and shabby with much handling, and the god Hermes smiles upon them kindly. We have known them well for years. There is no fresh nook to be explored, no forgotten page to be revisited. But we will take one down, and re-read for the fiftieth time the history of the theatricals at Mansfield Park; and see Mr. Yates ranting by himself in the dining-room, and the indefatigable lovers rehearsing amorously on the stage, and poor Mr. Rushworth stumbling through his two-and-forty speeches, and Fanny Price, in the chilly little schoolroom, listening disconsolately as her cousin Edmund and Mary Crawford go through their parts with more spirit and animation than the occasion seems to demand. When Sir Thomas returns, most inopportunely, from Antigua, we lay down the book with a sigh of gentle satisfaction, knowing that we shall find all these people in the morning just where they belong, and not, after the fashion of some modern novels, spirited overnight to the antipodes, with a breakneck gap of months or years to be spanned by our drooping imaginations...."  END QUOTE

The author of these wonderful reflections on JA's writing was Agnes Repplier, who (Wikipedia informed me) published the above comments while still in her early forties, but then was lucky enough to live till the age of 95, meaning that Repplier perhaps deserves an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for most rereadings of Jane Austen's novels!

What especially caught my eye, and, I am sure, caught some of yours as well, in the above passage, was the way Repplier quietly demonstrated herself to have been a true Janeite, by her understated imitation of one of JA's most famous lines.

I.e., when Repplier wrote...

"There stand her novels, few in number and shabby with much handling, and the god Hermes smiles upon them kindly. We have known them well for years.",

..all Janeites should hear immediately that Repplier was personifying JA's NOVELS in exactly the same manner that Mr. Bennet personified Mrs. Bennet's 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."

How Austenian of Repplier!

First we have the ironic contrast between Repplier's sincere description of JA's novels as her dear old friends, on the one hand, and Mr. B's ironic description of his wife's nerves as not-so-dear old friends, on the other. And yet, behind the contrast there really is a deeper parallelism, in that throughout the twists and turns of a long life, we come to know well certain repeated experiences which are very pleasurable, but also some which are quite unpleasant, and together they provide the complex and dissonant harmonies of a full life. And maybe also Mr. Bennet's feelings about Mrs. Bennet's frequent ejaculations about her nerves were not entirely negative, as it is part of the perversity of human nature that we often do come, in a strange way, to cherish even the things which irritate us the most? Because both the good and the bad that play a significant role in our lives come to be woven together inextricably, and so Mr. Bennet
finds in his wife's nerves fertile ground for the highly enjoyable  (at least, to him!) sport of making fun of her!

Second we have the wordplay, as "novels" and "nerves" are both words which begin with the letter "n", and have the letter-pair "ve" in the middle. So there is that poetic subconscious pleasure in manipulation of words to deepen substantive resonance.

And finally third, I also detect a very subtle sexual innuendo, when Repplier writes of "midnight friends" and "no fresh nook to be explored"---there are echoes of the sexualized folds, crevices, keys, and locks that Catherine Morland examines so intently at the Abbey, and so I do very much suspect Repplier of meaning to link pleasure derived from reading very familiar novels while in bed, with sexual pleasure derived from more carnal forms of knowledge with a very familiar partner while in bed.

And maybe....Repplier is thereby also suggesting that Mr. Bennet himself is partly speaking in code when he  refers to Mrs. Bennet's "nerves" as his frequent companions--i.e., perhaps he misses the early years of his marriage to the beautiful young Mrs. Bennet, when (from the evidence of 5 daughters born in 6 years) we can infer that he regularly enjoyed handling Mrs. Bennet's "pages" and exploring Mrs. Bennet's "nooks".

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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