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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

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

 As I told my friend Diane Reynolds a few hours ago, it has become increasingly clear to me during the past 2 days that she opened an entire new and very large Pandora’s Box of hidden allusion involving Jane Austen and Harriet Beecher Stowe, when she wrote the following the other night:
“Austen in P&P whitewashes and softens the reality of English aristocratic landowners like Mr. Darcy. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin--AND YOU COULD ALMOST THINK STOWE HAS READ P&P--Mr. St. Clare, a "good" slave owner caught up in a system he despises, likens all aristocrats to each other, particularly naming English aristocrats (and others) as similar to slave owners….”

This will be the third post I’ve written in response to Diane’s suggestion that Stowe might have been a closet Janeite, as I continue to take inventory of the astonishing interconnected treasures which lay hidden in Pride & Prejudice and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which are (in a positive sense) a literary Pandora’s Box. It’s positive, because now more than ever, the hoary Myth of Jane Austen to which I’ve been taking a hammer for a decade—the heretofore “universally acknowledged” notion that Jane Austen was a tame, pious, modest, straightforward, strait-laced, prudish, conservative lady---is, thanks to Stowe, in even greater danger of collapsing from the sheer weight of its numerous inconsistencies on all major fronts.
[For those following along, my fourth post about Stowe will be forthcoming tomorrow, and it will expand my investigation of the “Thomas Jefferson” subtext in Uncle Tom’s Cabin]

I begin this post by quoting Harriet Beecher Stowe circa 1869, i.e., nearly 2 decades after she (in the famous wartime words of Abraham Lincoln) “wrote the book that started this great war.”:

“[T]he position of a married woman ... is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband.... Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earned a fortune through her talents, he is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny....[I]n the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.”

This is EXACTLY the same view on legalized-slavery-disguised-as-marriage that I’ve long attributed to Jane Austen, the covert radical feminist, covertly championed in her novels as her fundamental principle.  But, being the ironic satirist that she was, Jane Austen presented her feminist manifesto parodically, via Henry Tilney’s famous rant which drives poor Catherine to tears. His rant has been mistakenly taken literally by 99% of Janeites over the past 2 centuries, when it was actually meant by JA to be read topsy-turvy:

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

I.e., Jane Austen’s actual answer is, YES!! English laws DID connive at these domestic horrors which were grotesquely unfair to women, and YES!! Those laws, and the actions taken to enforce them, WERE routinely perpetrated on women without being criticized, let alone repealed. 

But we may then ask the question---did Stowe interpret Henry Tilney’s rant the way I do? Given that she and Jane Austen were both of the opinion that women got the short end of the stick, can we infer from Stowe’s having alluded to Mr. & Mrs. Bennet in the characters of Mr. & Mrs. St. Clare, that Stowe was aware of JA’s covert feminist agenda? I think you know my answer, but let me show you the amazingly powerful evidence that my answer (again) is YES!!!!


First, it is a wonderful Austenian irony that, in one sense, we cannot imagine two women more UNLIKE than Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Bennet—and yet, what these two ladies had very strongly in common was a relentless, nearly fanatical drive to marry off their daughters to the right man selected, of course, by their mama. And…they also had something else in common----Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Bennet were strange protofeminist bedfellows---they both decried (in Lady C’s words) “entailing estates from the female line”---i.e., they were both critics of the customary deployment of the English law of inheritance and real property in ways which reduced women to powerless legal ciphers – which legal non-existence is, not so strangely, exactly the situation that Stowe depicted in UTC, and documented in her Key, as the plight of the African-American slaves!

So, again, we have a resonance in P&P to marriage as legal slavery, the theme Stowe took up as her principal hobby horse after the end of the Civil War. Women like Lady C and Mrs. B were so desperate to marry their daughters off, even though they knew that they were losing all their rights in marriage, because marriage was to many only the frying pan, and trying to survive as a single woman without financial resources was the fire.

So, was this another strand in P&P that caught Stowe’s eye? I think so, and here’s why! Now you’re finally ready to hear the nitty-gritty.

You may recall that in my immediately preceding post, I posted a quotation from Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which I identified Stowe’s sly disjointed allusion to the title “Pride & Prejudice” in the very chapter which discussed the character of Mr. St. Clare, whom I claim is Stowe’s version of Mr. Bennet:

“THE AUTHOR inserts a few testimonials from Southern men, not without some PRIDE in being thus kindly judged by those who might have been naturally expected to read HER BOOK with PREJUDICE against it.”

In the aftermath of my said post, I wondered what percentage of those who read it were skeptical of my inference that Stowe meant for her readers to connect that “pride” to that “prejudice”, and to thereby realize that “The author” and “her book” could refer as much to Jane Austen as it did to Harriet Beecher Stowe herself.

Well, for all of you diehard skeptics who didn’t buy what I was selling then, how (as Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting) about THESE apples, from the chapter in Stowe’s Key entitled “A COMPARISON OF THE ROMAN LAW OF SLAVERY WITH THE AMERICAN.”:    

“There are other respects, in which American legislation has reached a refinement in tyranny of which the despots of those early days never conceived. The following is THE LANGUAGE OF GIBBON:— “Hope, the best comfort of our imperfect condition, was not denied to the Roman slave; and if he had any opportunity of rendering himself either useful or agreeable, he might very naturally expect that the diligence and fidelity of a few years would be rewarded with the inestimable gift of freedom. * * * Without destroying the distinction of ranks, a distant prospect of freedom and honours was presented even to those whom PRIDE AND PREJUDICE almost disdained to number among the human species. The youths of promising genius were instructed in the arts and sciences, and their price was ascertained by the degree of their skill and talents. Almost every profession, either liberal or mechanical, might be found in the household of an opulent senator.” END QUOTE FROM STOWE QUOTING GIBBON

So….what are the odds that, purely by coincidence, in a very short space within her Key, Harriet Beecher Stowe would write TWO such passages: one with the words “pride” and “prejudice” within the same sentence and in Jane Austen’s word order, albeit separated; and the other a quotation from a very famous book that Jane Austen could very well have read, a quotation in which Austen’s exact title, “pride and prejudice” is stated?

Those odds are vanishingly close to zero! And…to take you all the way to zero, I wonder if any sharp elf reading Gibbon’s sentence containing the phrase “pride and prejudice” noticed ANOTHER distinctive Austenian echo, this one pointing to a passage IN the text of Pride & Prejudice? 


That phrase is “the distinction of ranks”, and here is the passage in Chapter 29 of P&P that Stowe had picked up on (I claim) in BOTH the Gibbon source, AND in the Austen veiled allusion to Gibbon:

Scarcely anything was talked of the whole day or next morning but their visit to Rosings. Mr. Collins was carefully instructing them in what they were to expect, that the sight of such rooms, so many servants, and so splendid a dinner, might not wholly overpower them.
When the ladies were separating for the toilette, he said to Elizabeth— "Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that ELEGANCE OF DRESS in us which becomes herself and her daughter. I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest—there is no occasion for anything more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you FOR BEING SIMPLY DRESSED. SHE LIKES TO HAVE THE DISTINCTION OF RANK PRESERVED."
While they were dressing, he came two or three times to their different doors, to recommend their being quick, as Lady Catherine very much objected to be kept waiting for her dinner. Such formidable accounts of her ladyship, and her manner of living, quite frightened Maria Lucas who had been little used to company, and she looked forward to her introduction at Rosings with as much apprehension as her father had done to his presentation at St. James's…”  END QUOTE FROM P&P

Still skeptical that Jane Austen had that sentence from Gibbon’s Volume I in mind when she entitled her novel, and put the above words about “the distinction of rank” in Mr. Collins’s mouth? Well then, check out the FULL context of the quotation from Gibbon, which Stowe failed to provide:

Gibbon 1776, Volume 1 of his History of the Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire:
“It was a maxim of ancient jurisprudence, that a slave had not any country of his own; he acquired with his liberty an admission into the political society of which his patron was a member. The consequences of this maxim would have prostituted the privileges of the Roman city to a mean and promiscuous multitude. Some seasonable exceptions were therefore provided; and the honourable distinction was confined to such slaves only as, for just causes and with the approbation of the magistrate, should receive a solemn and legal manumission. Even these chosen freedmen obtained no more than the private rights of citizens, and were rigorously excluded from civil or military honours. Whatever might be the merit or fortune of their sons, they likewise were esteemed unworthy of a seat in the senate; nor were the traces of a servile origin allowed to be completely obliterated till the third or fourth generation. WITHOUT DESTROYING THE DISTINCTION OF RANKS, a distant prospect of freedom and honours was presented, even to those whom PRIDE AND PREJUDICE almost disdained to number among the human species.
Ikt was once proposed TO DISCRIMINATE THE SLAVES BY A PECULIAR HABIT; but it was justly apprehended that there might be some danger in acquainting them with their own numbers!”

Aside from Gibbon’s epigrammatic cadences, which Jane Austen surely and subtly parodied with her own epigrammatism in phrasing like “It is a truth universally acknowledged”, the key point here is that in Gibbon’s very next sentence after the one referring to the preservation of “the distinction of ranks” in ancient Rome, we read that one of the Roman methods of preserving that distinction was by having SLAVES DRESS differently from free persons.

You get it now, right? What puts a hilarious spin on Mr. Collins’s usual pompous, smarmy condescension to Elizabeth, is that when he tells her not to worry about being dressed simply—what he’s saying, unwittingly, is that by dressing like a country girl, Elizabeth will be preserving the distinction of rank between herself, as a low-status quasi-“slave” visiting the court of a Roman empress, Lady Catherine!

And THAT, all Janeites must universally acknowledge, is precisely the kind of witty, withering satire that Jane Austen scattered in a thousand places in her writings!

So, in summary, then:

ONE: Jane Austen, in P&P, specifically alluded TWICE to that specific sentence in Gibbon’s great History, in order to subliminally hint that gentlewomen in England without resources were treated like slaves, even by other (wealthy) women; and

TWO: Stowe, in her Key to UTC, quoted that particular passage from Gibbon precisely so as to show that she had spotted, understood, AND SUPPORTED Jane Austen’s veiled feminist channeling of Gibbon on slavery in P&P.

And all of this was Stowe’s way of reiterating her later-life mantra about the metaphorical slavery of women in American society—and what better way to do it than to demonstrate, for those with eyes to see, that she was following in the sure footsteps of her literary and feminist mentor in absentia, Jane Austen. I.e., the main reason Stowe alluded to P&P in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was precisely to hint at this metaphorical resonance she detected in JA’s fiction, between the actual enslavement of Africans in the West Indies and the metaphorical enslavement of women in Great Britain—the latter being a slavery which was not even acknowledged except by a tiny fringe of radical progressives who were treated as lepers by the conservative sexist mainstream.

But now, finally, as the 202 year old secrets of Jane Austen, and the 163 year old secrets of Harriet Beecher Stowe, are finally coming to light, isn’t it long overdue that the United States finally takes another major step toward ending that metaphorical slavery Stowe and Austen were so appalled by, by electing a female President in 2016?

And then maybe, just maybe, all people of good conscience will finally begin to work together to accomplish the universal moral imperative of making all people of color, and all women, and all people whatever their sexual preferences—in short, all the victims of past and persisting slavery--truly equal citizens, entitled to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I hope you’ll say, Amen.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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