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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

P.S. re The distinction of ranks, the distant prospect of freedom, and pride & prejudice: Stowe, Austen & their famous but unrecognized common source

In Janeites & Austen L, Diane Reynolds wrote me a wonderful response to my latest post about Stowe's allusions to Pride & Prejudice, and this is my point by point reply to her.

First Diane wrote: “I love that Stowe brings us around again to Austen, through Gibbon. What a fabulous quote from Stowe and I agree that it is a strong contender--to me a convincing contender, other uses of "pride and prejudice" in 18th century lit. notwithstanding--as a source quote for Pride and Prejudice's title”

Diane, my sense is that one or both of Gibbon (Decline and Fall) and Paine (Common Sense), both published in 1776, were sources for Burney (Cecilia), and then for Jane Austen, who had “collected” all of them, and then alluded to all of them in P&P, each for a different important thematic purpose. With Jane Austen, the right answer, I’ve found, is not either/or, but BOTH.

Here, by the way, is Paine’s 1776 usage:

“The PREJUDICE of Englishmen, in favour of their own government, by King, Lords and Commons, arises as much or more from national PRIDE than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly safer in England than in some other countries: but the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the formidable shape of an act of parliament. For the fate of Charles the First hath only made kings more subtle — not more just.
Wherefore, laying aside all national PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in favour of modes and forms, the plain truth is that IT IS WHOLLY OWING TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE PEOPLE, AND NOT TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE GOVERNMENT that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.
An inquiry into the CONSTITUTIONAL ERRORS in the English form of government, is at this time highly necessary; for as we are never in a proper condition of doing justice to others, while we continue under the influence of some leading partiality, so neither are we capable of doing it to ourselves while we remain fettered by any obstinate PREJUDICE. And as a man who is attached to a prostitute is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.”

Don’t you hear the famous first sentence of P&P, with its topic being the choice of a wife by a “single man of good fortune”, in Paine’s sexualization of his political argument in that last sentence? Read it again, it’s very crude and jarring, isn’t it?  Paine is not pulling ANY punches, no wonder it got the American colonists fired up---Paine was risking a hangman’s noose for sure with that kind of provocative in-your-face flaming rhetoric.

So….if Darcy is the “single man” we think of first and foremost in P&P, then what is JA hinting at if she is pointing to Paine’s usage as well as Gibbon’s and Burney’s?  I say she’s suggesting that Darcy’s ability to choose a good wife has been tainted by his having been attached to a prostitute. Hmm…….is this what Colonel Fitzwilliam is hinting at when he reports to Lizzy that Darcy has boasted of having saving Bingley from a very unfortunate attachment?  That’s not the only hint I’ve found in P&P that suggests an offstage life of Jane’s which Lizzy is utterly unaware of. I’ve accumulated a great deal of evidence in that vein, and I spoke about it in my presentation to the JASNA Los Angeles chapter in 2011. This adds another piece of that puzzle.

But back to Gibbon….I started thinking about Jane Austen first reading Gibbon in her father’s home library in 1790, as background reading for her teenage parodic History of England. And then, two decades later, I can see the 37 year old Jane Austen revisiting Gibbon, and this time enjoying his epigrammatism, which was a reflection of real witty (rather than solemn) history. And I believe JA had by then heard about Gibbon having been a Hampshireman (and friend of Revd. Austen?), and was now looking at Gibbon very different—she was focused on the parallels between the Roman Empire and the British Empire, and (as your intuition alerted you) it’s no coincidence that the Gibbon “pride and prejudice” occurs in the discussion of Roman slavery.

Think about Darcy and the Bingley sisters—when they arrive in Meryton, they could easily be bored Roman courtiers, passing time in a provincial backwater in Gaul. And then here comes an exotic barbarian temptress—Elizabeth Bennet—dark, sensual, simply dressed—and that’s why they treat her as if she were an uneducated slave girl from the provinces—or Sally Heming to Darcy’s Tom Jefferson!

Diane also wrote: “Clearly, when we think of Catherine de Bourgh we think of a woman who, in regards to Lizzie, through "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE almost disdained to number among the human species." It is not too much of leap to see this as JA's shout out against the people who separated her from Tom Lefroy. I can understand this as a cry of the heart from Austen, who felt perhaps not to number of among human species in Tom's relatives stampede to get him away from her. And I am sure that was not the only time she felt dehumanized by her lack of fortune.”

Interesting speculations, Diane, but, I think somewhat differently. I think JA, by the time she was finalizing P&P, was no longer thinking about her own victimization—that was ancient history for her, she had moved on long ago to finding her love from women, not men---so I believe JA was thinking MUCH bigger, as she had finally gotten S&S published, and she foresaw a writing career for herself which would enable her to sustain herself financially. So, she saw herself as the voice for ALL women living in virtual servitude in England—whether they were married or single—she was going to use her personal success to make things better for women everywhere.

Diane also wrote: “And yes, I agree that Austen reinforces the allusion to that same Gibbon passage… These are great catches. They speak compellingly to a deep, bitter undertone beneath the bright, sparkling surface.”

Thanks! And yes, that is exactly what I think, too, about the bitter undertone. The shadow story of P&P that I see is very very dark—there’s a reason why Mary tries to warn Elizabeth, repeatedly—“The men shan’t come between us”---but Elizabeth is not listening, and walks voluntarily into the lion’s den.

Diane also wrote: “I also very very much like the idea of Lady Catherine and Mrs. B as alike in their blindered, single-minded determination to marry off their daughters--both are women blighted by a marriage market that isn't too far removed from a market for human flesh--it WAS that. My students can't get over how mercenary Austen's marriage market it (i think we are just used to it.)  It is completely consistent with Austen's sleight of hand as well to slide that kind of parallel between two matriarchs in.”

Yes! And dontcha see, that’s exactly what Stowe describes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her Key therefor—the slave market, the literal buying and selling of human beings as if they were farm animals—and especially the female slaves of childbearing age---because so many of the slave owners used the slave women they owned as “breeding women” (that was actually Thomas Jefferson’s terminology!). Jefferson not only sired children himself on Sally Hemings, he also treated the fecundity of his female slaves as a financial asset. And we know Jane Austen knew Jefferson’s terminology, that’s why in her letters, she referred to pregnant women she knew as “breeding again”, and her own (psychological) “daughter”, Anna, as a “poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty”.

And so kudos once more to Stowe, who, like Auden, recognized in JA’s writing Austen’s utter lack of innocence about “the economic basis of society”.

Diane also wrote: “It would be interesting to put their speeches side by side and see how much Mrs. B's excoriation of Charlotte for marrying Mr. C--stealing him away from her own daughters, who had a rightful claim to him!-- mirrors Catherine de Bourgh's outrage at LIzzie stealing HER rightful son-in-law out from under her nose.”

I can only say one word in response to that---brilliant!!!!!!!!!

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