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

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why serious crossword puzzle solvers should read Jane Austen’s novels

For those of you reading this post who are unfamiliar with Jane Austen’s fiction, and therefore totally unaware of my theories about her novels, here is a brief summary I wrote last year about my decoding of what I call “the Jane Austen Code” , which is a necessary introduction before I then immediately get to the main point of this post, which is to explain to you why serious crossword puzzle solvers unfamiliar with Jane Austen have a special reason to read her novels:

“since 2002, I’ve become the Arch Heretic of Jane Austen studies, an independent scholar approaching her novels and life story from far outside the “proper” litcrit box. I’ve been the staunch (and often lonely) originator of, and advocate for, a seemingly preposterous theory about Jane Austen’s fiction, which is that each one of her six published novels is actually a double story, and that Jane Austen was actually a radical feminist, far more so than has previously been recognized.

By “double story”, I mean that Austen’s novels are anamorphic, i.e., they can each be read as depicting two parallel fictional universes---one which I call the “overt story”, being the reality that most readers of her novels perceive, by uncritically assuming the narration to be straightforward and objective. But the other reality, which I call the “shadow story”.

This shadow or alternative story is accessed by reading much of the narration of the novel against the grain, realizing much of that narration is subjective, i.e., from the prejudiced, flawed point of view of the young and often clueless heroine-and not just the famously “clueless” Emma Woodhouse, either.

Jane Austen masterfully exploited the potential of a severely restricted point of view, forcing readers to work to spot what is “really” happening under the noses of her highly intelligent, yet clueless, heroines. And the primary purpose of Jane Austen’s shadow stories, beyond the artistic satisfaction in pulling off such an amazing literary stunt six times, was the covert venting, to those capable of decoding her shadow stories, of Austen’s radical feminist outrage at how women were so casually and unreflectively treated like domesticated farm animals or pets.

The cover of deniability provided by this shadow story structure—an analog of Jane Austen’s brilliant surface ironic wit-- kept Jane Austen personally safe from detection by disapproving male eyes two centuries ago in England. She lived in a sexist hypocritical society (sorta like we see in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere where women have little real power) where powerful men might have smeared her reputation with impunity, just as they smeared the reputation of her contemporary, the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, for explicitly challenging male domination.” END QUOTE

Okay, so what does all of that have to do with crossword puzzles? The full answer is both complicated and interesting, but I’ll give you a brief answer for now. First of all, I am certain that I would never have discovered Jane Austen’s shadow stories in the first place in 2002, had I not first spent decades solving hard crossword puzzles, especially since 1992 when Will Shortz took over as editor of the gold standard of American crossword puzzles, at the NY Times.

As all who do the NY Times puzzles know, Will Shortz revolutionized the Times puzzles by changing them from tests of knowledge of extremely obscure and arcane trivia, to tests of mental flexibility and ingenuity, being able to think outside the box (literally) to flash on a non obvious answer which at the same time had that “Doh!” quality of having hidden in plain sight all along.

And that’s exactly the skill that is required in order to interpret the Jane Austen Code I have described above, and to “solve” the shadow stories of her novels. I see all this now with perfect 20:20 hindsight, and it is most applicable when we are talking about solving one of Will Shortz’s hard puzzles (meaning, Thursday, Friday, & Saturday puzzles)—recognizing double meanings, puns, and other forms of wordplay, in which the first meaning that one sees is not the answer sought (as would be the case in a Monday or Tuesday puzzle). Instead, it’s the non-obvious meaning—especially those suggested by crossword clues which end with a question mark—which you need to see in order to gain access to the shadow story interpretation.

Let me give you one prototypical example. I’ve raised a few thousand Janeite eyebrows during the past decade with my claim that Jane Fairfax, the mystery woman of ;Emma, is, in the shadow story of the novel not concealing a secret engagement to Frank Churchill, but is instead concealing a pregnancy during the last 2/3 of the action in the novel.

Now, the narrator never tells us this explicitly, and that is why the novel has been read for 2 centuries by millions of readers without anyone before me coming out publicly and saying that she’s not just sickly, but she is pregnant. So, how does Jane Austen paint this subliminal portrait of Jane F. as pregnant? That’s what the Jane Austen Code is all about—she does it in a hundred different ways—but one of the most important ways is through puns and double meanings. So when we hear, late in the novel, that Jane has exclaimed to her aunt, Miss Bates, that “it must be BORNE”---it sounds on the surface like she’s wailing that her difficulties in finding her way through her courtship difficulties must be “endured”---but “borne” is also is a homophonic clue to the reader sensitive to puns that “it” can also refer to a baby in utero who “must be BORN”!

There are over a thousand such puns scattered throughout Jane Austen’s novels (you will find a number of them covered in the multitude of posts at this blog, which I invite you to browse in), and that is why it has taken me over a decade to collect so many of them—it’s been like solving a crossword puzzle a thousand times more challenging and satisfying than even the best Will Shortz puzzle—because it truly never ends, and so that feeling a solver gets during the last stages of solving a very difficult puzzle, when clues which have resisted dozens of attempts to solve them finally surrender to an “Aha!” moment, is repeated over a period of years, not hours!

I could go on endlessly with details just like that, but instead will leave it to anyone interested in hearing more to reach out to me with specific questions and comments, which I will welcome. I want to finish with a final thought experiment that just occurred to me, as a result of my experience competing in the National Crossword Puzzle championship in the year after the hit documentary Wordplay first brought the world of crossword solving to the wider public.

At the end of the competition, all the participants were given the same crossword grid, but the ordinary mortals (like myself) were given a set of clues that were of the same difficulty as a really hard NY Times Saturday puzzle, while the 3 finalists who were competing for the championship were given a different set of clues that were ten times harder to solve than the rest of us had been given. Even though the filled-in grid for both sets of clues was identical. I.e., each answer was derived from two completely different clues. It was really something for the rest of us to watch the astonishingly rapid progress of each of the 3 finalists in their respective grids projected onto large screens at the front of the hall.  

I give you all this detail because I only realized last night how closely that final round of competition  parallels Jane Austen’s double stories. In effect, imagine her novels, and all the words in them, as a filled-in grid of a puzzle, as, collectively, the “answers” to a good crossword puzzle. Following that analogy to its conclusion, we can see the overt story, the one that ordinary readers take from the novels, is derived from the less diabolical clues that the mass of contestants had to solve. Whereas the shadow story consists of the set of truly diabolical clues which only a reader skilled in decoding them will be able to solve.
This is how one text can tell two different stories, using the identical words. The fictional reality behind those words involves all the same characters, but they are all different as between the two realities.

This analogy begins to explain why I can see things in the novels that other Janeites, even those who’ve read the novels dozens of times, cannot see. It’s not that I am a delusional schizophrenic who has a “beautiful mind” imagining patterns that don’t exist. It’s that Jane Austen’s novels are like very hard crossword puzzles, and we find no mystery whatsoever in the fact some people look at them and cannot see the answers, while others can see them right away. Someone who has become hard wired into seeing her puzzles as Monday or Tuesday puzzles simply cannot shift their minds so as to let in the other reality.

And my final point is that because the skill set is so similar between decoding shadow stories like Jane Austen’s (she is not the only author to have created them, I think she learned how to do it from reading Shakespeare), and doing hard crossword puzzles, it follows that getting better at one will tend to help you get better at doing the other, going in both directions.

So, for those crossword devotees, especially the guys, who have been misled by the Myth of Jane Austen into thinking there is nothing interesting in an Austen novel for you, rest assured that the opposite is the case—her novels are the best puzzles ever created, bar none! And, conversely, to those Janeites reading this post, maybe you want to begin to try your hand at doing NY Times crossword puzzles. You might just find that it brings you, paradoxically, to a better understanding of Jane Austen’s novels.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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