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

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Many Echoes of Othello in Jane Austen's Novels

Diane Reynolds broached a very intriguing new topic today in Janeites & Austen L:

“I have just recently returned from seeing a staging of Verdi's Otello. I was struck watching the Verdi version, with how much this (Otello/Othello) is a middle-aged story, filled with middle-aged fears, anxieties and preoccupations. While a focus is often on Othello/Otello's fears and insecurities about having a young wife (a set of anxieties only a middle-aged spouse could have), we can also see Iago as a middle-aged man who perhaps feels he can't bounce back from the blow of being passed over for a promotion at a crucial moment in his career. A younger person might not take it in stride--there's always a tomorrow when you are young--but Iago might have considered it the end of everything when the younger Cassio is promoted over him. So, now I am wondering if there is a parallel theme anywhere in Austen of people acting out of the particular fears and anxieties that arise from middle age? Her novels seem to me to be more youth focused, and she herself was just entering middle age when she died, though we can, of course, argue, that middle age started earlier then and that she and Cassandra aggressively adopted middle age early on. We can certainly see it in Sir Thomas's recognition that marriage offers like the one Fanny has from Henry C are not in endless supply….”

Diane, I have two different responses to your highly pregnant suggestion.  I find your spin on middle aged angst over being passed by as being present in both Othello and in JA's novels to be both very original and very interesting. You are going to love my responses, I hope!

First, you are certainly correct that we must peer into the shadows to find those echoes in JA's fiction (and I am also glad to read Ellen so aptly using my terminology of reading against the grain). The character who leaped out at me in regard to middle-aged angster is Mrs. Norris! Seeing her as Iago is very very fruitful to contemplate. Mrs. Norris, exactly like Iago, has come in second in the race to garner Sir Thomas as husband. Her much more physically attractive, but seemingly much less intelligent, sister is the "Cassio" who got the "promotion" that Mrs. Norris clearly desired and believed she deserved. We can imagine that Miss Maria Ward was all flattery and deference toward the young suitor Sir  Thomas, whereas the younger version of Mrs. Norris perhaps was more assertive in a way that threatened Sir Thomas? In short, if any words describe both Mrs. Norris and Iago, they are bitterness, envy, and manipulativeness.

Of course, in Othello, we know how Iago feels, because Iago is the focal consciousness of the play. In fact, it is really HIS play, because he, like Richard III, is the villain who confides in the audience every step of the way. In Mansfield Park, even though Fanny is the primary focal consciousness, JA nonetheless gives us many opportunities to observe how Mrs. Norris has subtly wormed herself into a position of power and influence at Mansfield Park. Most of all, the extended tete a tete between her and Sir Thomas very early in the novel reveals with stark clarity how Mrs. Norris is going to continue to work on the clueless Sir Thomas in an Iagoish way until the penultimate chapter, flattering him, seeming to defer to him, even as she constantly manipulates him into all sorts of unfortunate decisions at Mansfield Park which mostly make Fanny’s life miserable. 

And when I did some brief Googling, I was glad to find that Ellen Moody, in 2003, came pretty close to recognizing Mrs. Norris as a latter day Iago, when she wrote the following insightful comments:

"...some of the most telling scenes [in MP], telling in the sense of offering the moral of the book which is an argument on behalf of the powerless, the vulnerable who are also good and worthy, are those in which Mrs Norris gets after Fanny and attempts to shatter her utterly.  Why? I've never liked Coleridge's word "motiveless" with malignity, because Mrs Norris does have some motives or at least we are given enough to invent some. I prefer gratuitous. It also means "motiveless" but it goes beyond that for it comes from the Latin /gratuitus/ meaning spontaneous and freely given. Some people simply enjoy hurting others; it is spontaneous, freely given, not earned (by Fanny for example, or Charlotte Lucas, or the Maria of the /Juvenilia/). My speculative guess is that some version of this scene of the ball and the snub, the mortifying display on the part of those one is connected to, the ejection, and the details of the carriage, the dress which is resented, the rain, the vicious grating voice exposing the victim to all happened to Austen to someone she held dear. Equally importantly, Austen saw in this pattern the essence of what Shakespeare's Iago also represented: in the words which come out of Sir Thomas's consciousness: "an hourly evil" in many of our daily lives about which we can do nothing, for many people are this way or don't mind it at all when it's not directed at them."  END QUOTE FROM ELLEN’S 2003 BLOG

Indeed, one other telling parallel between Mrs. Norris and Iago is the intensity of their malignant actions in hugely disproportionate comparison to the apparent cause of the resentment.

And your post is very timely for me, Diane, because I will be reprising my JASNA Montreal AGM talk of last month (about the hidden Shakespeare in Mansfield Park) in 3 weeks, when I will address the Portland Oregon JASNA chapter of which I am now very happy to be a member. In my talk, I will now be able to add “Mrs. Norris as Iago” (with due credit to Ellen for her early insight) to the long list of veiled Shakespearean allusions in JA's most Shakespearean novel (which, by the way, does name Othello among the list of plays considered and rejected by the group at Mansfield Park before Tom chooses and pushes through  Lovers Vows!  

And that's only the beginning of the Othello hidden in JA's novels--because, as with so many of Shakespeare's plays, JA knew them all so well that she repeatedly alluded to many of them in several of her novels as well.  The first Austen scholar I know of, who suggested that JA alluded to Othello in her novels, was Gene Ruoff, WAY WAY back in the late Stone Age of modern Austen criticism, in  1984:

The article is worth reading in its not-too-long entirety, and I certify it to be jargon-free. Ruoff rightly focuses on the strongest echo, which is Wentworth's boasting about the "dear old Asp" to Louisa who eats it all up, which is exactly like the recounting, in Othello, of how Othello boasted about HIS military exploits to Desdemona, who ate it all up, fell in love with him, and married him.

But on a more pervasive level, Ruoff rightly focuses on the theme of jealousy, which defines Othello, of course, and is also a major factor in Wentworth's arc during the novel. Fortunately, he does not murder Anne as a result of his jealousy of Cousin Elliot's seemingly imminent success in courting Anne, but maybe that's because others (like Admiral Croft and his wife) intervene offstage to avert that tragedy, and we get the happy ending instead.  ;)

I will also mention in passing that more than 2 decades after Ruoff,  Jocelyn Harris, in her excellent book  A Revolution Beyond Expression (2006), added insights into the Winter's Tale allusion in Persuasion, which also of course centered on the crazy jealousy of a husband.

The rest of this post will be my own ruminations sparked by my reflecting on other Austenesque aspects of Othello's being misled by Iago into misinterpreting supposed clues of Desdemona's infidelity, it's no coincidence that one of the literary quotations that Catherine Morland studies as a teenager is:

"Trifles light as air,
"Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
"As proofs of Holy Writ."

Once you recognize the veiled Othello allusion in Persuasion, the word "trifle" turns out to be part of the lexicon of the Jane Austen Code, as illustrated in the following textual examples:

"But neither Charles Hayter's feelings, nor anybody's feelings, could interest [Anne], till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by SUCH A TRIFLE; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her."  

This occurs in Chapter 10, only ONE chapter after Wentworth's Othello-ish  boasting to Louisa. Anne, for obvious reasons, is feeling extremely jealous of Wentworth at this moment, and so she does not yet dare to believe that Wentworth's taking the child off her back is  "confirmation strong" of Wentworth's still loving herself and not Louisa.  And…my subversive take here is that JA DOES mean us to question whether Anne is indeed reading too much into Wentworth’s apparent rescue

And here, much later:

"The rain was A MERE TRIFLE, and Anne was most sincere in preferring a walk with Mr Elliot. But the rain was also A MERE TRIFLE to Mrs Clay; she would hardly allow it even to drop at all, and her boots were so thick! much thicker than Miss Anne's;"

Of course, with Mrs. Clay, all "mere trifles" are actually "confirmation strong" of HER scheming and manipulation.

And, not surprisingly at this point, there seem to be several coded usages of the word “trifle” in NA itself, of which I now bring forward the two which seem to me most closely, but covertly, tied to the quotation from Othello about trifles which provide confirmation:

First, in Chapter 19, after Isabella has started flirting with Captain Tilney, we read Catherine the detective analyzing the evidence as to its significance and drawing a conclusion therefrom:

“A few days passed away, and Catherine, though not allowing herself to suspect her friend, could not help watching her closely. The result of her observations was not agreeable. Isabella seemed an altered creature. When she saw her, indeed, surrounded only by their immediate friends in Edgar's Buildings or Pulteney Street, her change of manners was SO TRIFLING that, had it gone no farther, it might have passed unnoticed. A something of languid indifference, or of that boasted absence of mind which Catherine had never heard of before, would occasionally come across her; but had nothing worse appeared, that might only have spread a new grace and inspired a warmer interest. But when Catherine saw her in public, admitting Captain Tilney's attentions as readily as they were offered, and allowing him almost an equal share with James in her notice and smiles, THE ALTERATION BECAME TOO POSITIVE TO BE PASSED OVER. What could be meant by such unsteady conduct, what her friend could be at, was beyond her comprehension. Isabella could not be aware of the pain she was inflicting; but it was a degree of wilful thoughtlessness which Catherine could not but resent. James was the sufferer…”

Second, in Chapter 22, we read this extremely famous passage with new Othello-informed eyes:

“…Instantaneously, with the consciousness of existence, returned her recollection of the manuscript; and springing from the bed in the very moment of the maid's going away, she eagerly collected every scattered sheet which had burst from the roll on its falling to the ground, and flew back to enjoy the luxury of their perusal on her pillow. She now plainly saw that she must not expect a manuscript of equal length with the generality of what she had shuddered over in books, for the roll, seeming to consist entirely of small disjointed sheets, was altogether but of trifling size, and much less than she had supposed it to be at first.
Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, cravats, and waistcoats faced her in each. Two others, penned by the same hand, marked an expenditure scarcely more interesting, in letters, hair-powder, shoe-string, and breeches-ball. And the larger sheet, which had enclosed the rest, seemed by its first cramp line, "To poultice chestnut mare"—a farrier's bill! Such was the collection of papers (left perhaps, as she could then suppose, by the negligence of a servant in the place whence she had taken them) which had filled her with expectation and alarm, and robbed her of half her night's rest! She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom? A corner of it, catching her eye as she lay, seemed to rise up in judgment against her. Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies. To suppose that a manuscript of many generations back could have remained undiscovered in a room such as that, so modern, so habitable!—Or that she should be the first to possess the skill of unlocking a cabinet, the key of which was open to all!
How could she have so imposed on herself? Heaven forbid that Henry Tilney should ever know her folly! And it was in a great measure his own doing, for had not the cabinet appeared so exactly to agree with his description of her adventures, she should never have felt the smallest curiosity about it. This was the only comfort that occurred. Impatient to get rid of those hateful evidences of her folly, those detestable papers then scattered over the bed, she rose directly, and folding them up as nearly as possible in the same shape as before, returned them to the same spot within the cabinet, with a very hearty wish that no untoward accident might ever bring them forward again, to disgrace her even with herself.
Why the locks should have been so difficult to open, however, was still something remarkable, for she could now manage them with perfect ease. In this there was surely something mysterious, and she indulged in the flattering suggestion for half a minute, till the possibility of the door's having been at first unlocked, and of being herself its fastener, darted into her head, and cost her another blush.”

The superficial meaning is that Catherine ignored the lesson of the quotation from Othello (which, by the way, is spoken by Othello, as he tells the audience how he will achieve his greatest and most evil achievement via the tell-tale handkerchief), because she allowed her imagination to run wild and concoct a deep hidden meaning in the papers she gathered in the darkness.

But….in the shadow story, as I have posted in the past, these laundry lists, seemingly trivial, are actually evidence of the shadowy game that Eleanor Tilney has played with the young man who will suddenly in the end of the novel pop up as her husband—these are his laundry bills!

And, on the metafictional level, the “papers” are the plays of Shakespeare himself, compiled in 1623 in the form of the First Folio, which constitute, in Catherine’s own thought words, a “manuscript of many generations back”, and the detective is the reader of Northanger Abbey  who penetrates to the realization that no single word in any of JA’s novels is a “trifle”—they only appear to be, to those who read too passively.

And all of the above is only the beginning, because all of Shakespeare’s plays are everywhere in JA's fiction, they collectively constitute the constitution that permeates and inspires her equally unique and immeasurable genius.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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