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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Jane Austen, as an AUTHOR, “played a great deal better” than other writers, “was giving pleasure only to herself”, & “had been always used to feel alone in the world”

At the core of my countless claims about Jane Austen’s shadow stories is my assertion that they are hidden in plain sight, readily visible only when the reader assumes the proper off-center point of view. The great example of this in the visual arts is Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors, in which you can only see the incoherent thin diagonal blob at the bottom center of the painting…

 …as a skull only when you observe the painting from a specific angle from the far left:

Perhaps the most common rebuttal given to me by other Janeites is that if the “skull” in JA’s novels were never observed by other Janeites during the nearly two centuries before I started writing about them, i.e., if it occurred only to such a tiny percentage of Janeites to view the novels from that off-center perspective, then why in the world did Jane Austen go to so much trouble to create elaborate coherent shadow stories in all her novels? What was her purpose if not to have the “skull” be seen, enjoyed, and understood by readers?

I have always believed that JA initially grossly overestimated her readers’s ingenuity—if we look at the order of publication of her novels during her lifetime, you can see a definite progression from 1811 to 1816, at the end of which Emma is hinting much more overtly at secrets and mysteries than Sense & Sensibility did. Even though my research shows that S&S is filled with secrets and mysteries in the same way as Emma, it is no accident that it is the latter which famously has been called a detective story without a murder, not the former.

I am convinced that JA was experimenting, novel by novel, and was observing the reactions of readers very carefully each time, to learn what they saw and what they didn’t see. And when they kept not seeing the shadows with each successive publication, she increased the “illumination” the next time, striving to reach the optimal balance of concealment and clueing.

If you read the opinions of MP and Emma that JA collected from family and friends, there is, with the exception of the brilliant observations by Mrs. Pole and Lady Gordon, precious little else there evidencing any sort of deeper grasp of JA’s great genius. Those opinions are, sadly, almost a Regency Era version of man-on-the-street interviews on the Letterman Show, when, to the great amusement of the viewing audience, those interviewed reveal shallow ignorance coupled with blithe assurance of  knowing what they’re talking about.

It was clearly crucial to JA not to be too obvious---she valued deniability above all, because of the real risk of retribution by the powerful men who were the primary butts of her covert savage satires. She wanted to be deeply understood only by the special victims of her world, the women who might benefit from that understanding by better protecting themselves in their dangerous daily lives.

 And that is why Emma, the last novel published in JA’s lifetime and therefore the last we can be sure that JA herself considered it completely finished, is the only Austen novel with a giant "Gotcha!” ---the revelation that there has been a covert romantic relationship between Jane and Frank from the beginning of the novel onward, which Emma (and therefore the ordinary reader in the first reading) has failed to understand.

The most significant implication of such a “Gotcha!”, if you think about it, is that JA as a writer proved she could pull off such an elaborate stunt of hiding in plain sight over the course of a long intricate novel. But literary history shows that it still took almost two centuries for someone (me) to see that there is another “Gotcha!” hidden right behind the one that is (or seems to be) revealed in Chapter 49.

Which brings me to the primary point of this post. After publication of Emma, we have a period of several months in the first half of 1816, during which JA is finishing Persuasion while at the same time monitoring reactions to Emma, in particular the famous anonymous review (later revealed to have been written by Walter Scott) primarily of Emma.  So by the time JA was finalizing the following passage in Persuasion, she had already learned that her shadow stories, her great secret hidden in plain sight, alas still remained hidden to all her readers.

And so it is at that precise moment near the very end of her writing career, that JA wrote the following passage about Anne Elliot’s piano playing:

“She played a great deal better than either of the Miss Musgroves, but having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents, to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation. Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste. In music she had been always used to feel alone in the world; and Mr and Mrs Musgrove's fond partiality for their own daughters' performance, and total indifference to any other person's, gave her much more pleasure for their sakes, than mortification for her own.”

Of course we all know that Anne Elliot’s love of, and skill at, the pianoforte was an extremely autobiographical authorial performance on JA’s part----JA played a very similar role in the Austen family circle. She played all her life, and she was a great student of music, both the great and the popular. I’ve also always thought that JA shared Mary Bennet’s study of thorough-bass.

But I think JA in the above passage was also speaking, from the heart but, as usual, in code, about her own writing—if we read “music” as “novel writing”, and we see the Miss Musgroves as the other novelists of her era, then we see JA very matter of factly asserting her own vast superiority over all her writing contemporaries. We see a mature genius who has finally come to terms with not often knowing the happiness of having her greatest achievements as a writer be really understood, other than, perhaps, by a very tiny select few, such as the charming Mr. Haden and the erudite Mrs. Pole.

But the above passage also accords strongly with my sense that JA was not just rationalizing away a bitter disappointment about not being understood. A great deal of JA’s motivation really must have been internal—even if there had been no one else in the world to read her novels, I believe she would still have wanted to write them, because she was in no small part writing them for the sheer exhilaration of the artistic achievement, and then taking great pleasure in the results, which must have astonished even herself with her success.
So it fits really well that JA, as a writer, “had always been used to feel alone in the world” and no longer, as a mature writer, felt mortification for her own sake when pompous fools like James Stanier Clarke gave her writing advice! She learned to channel her own Mr. Bennet, and make the best of a bad situation by at least deriving acute pleasure from provoking such absurd self-satirizing responses from such readers.

And speaking of towering geniuses creating for their own pleasure and satisfaction, I am also reminded of the mystery of the origin of Mozart’s final three symphonies---unlike many of his other masterpieces, these were not written on commission for a fee, and I can recall reading critical commentary a while back in which it was speculated that Mozart wrote them just for himself. And they are all three of course in the pantheon of the greatest music ever written.

And then finally as I considered the poignancy of Anne Elliot’s mourning her mother’s death, which was also the end of “the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste”, I was reminded again of Mozart and the praise his father received from Haydn in 1785, not long before Mozart’s own premature death, after Haydn had just listened to a performance of three of the six string quartets which Mozart had dedicated to the much older master:

“Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name; he has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

I am guessing from that passage in Persuasion that JA, alas, never heard or read anything approaching such meaningful praise from a fellow author whose opinion she really valued, and so she had to content herself with Scott’s somewhat mixed praise, but mostly with her own pleasure, like Anne Elliot.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Haydn later revised his opinion of who was the greatest composer of all. Like Beethoven, he considered Handel the greatest composer of all time and better than Mozart.

After hearing Handel's Messiah Haydn exclaimed "Surely he is the master of us all".