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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reading Jane Austen’s “a few typical errors--& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ “ like a sharp elf

In response to my post providing a dozen links to posts of mine during the past year about the dark Darcy of the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice, my friendly and polite skeptic Nancy, pithily observed:
I don't think you will convince many that Darcy , KNIGHTLEY  and Wentworth are villains. “

To which I reply, at least let's be clear on what I do wish to convince anyone to believe. I claim that there are two Darcys, two Knightleys, two Brandons, etc.—i.e., in each case, an Austen character is either a hero or a villain—and both are plausible interpretations of their characters, fully intended and skillfully created by Jane Austen. Each has a full life, independent of the other, in their respective fictional worlds.

So, I am not trying to convince anyone that the "normal" way of seeing these characters as heroes is wrong, merely that this is not the exclusively correct interpretation. As I’ve said a thousand times, Jane Austen was all about giving the reader a direct experience of the ambiguities of human cognition and perception, the better to enable each of us to teach ourselves how to be more flexible in interpreting our own real lives.  This is best exemplified by Jane Austen’s famous comment to Cassandra about the recently published P&P in January 1813:

“There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves as have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'”

I have long believed that many Austen scholars and lay Janeites have missed the irony undergirding this passage, and have understood Jane Austen to sincerely mean that any immediate unclarity of reference to characters in P&P was such a “typical error”. However it was only today that I realized they are actually misreading her actual syntax, as I will demonstrate, below.

The following is a typical misreading by Anne Toner in her 2012 Persuasions article: “What we seem to see in this letter is both anxiety and justification about missing said hes and shes, or rather anxiety swiftly followed by justification. Austen's thoughts run from printer's errors to a potential authorial misjudgment, but she concludes by shifting responsibility to the less able of readers. Fascinatingly, Austen seems to be grappling here with the risks she took with the dialogue of Pride and Prejudice, dialogue that would become celebrated for its vivacious dramatic qualities.”

But go back and carefully reread the above quotation. What Toner describes as “anxiety” about “a potential authorial misjudgment” is NOT what Jane Austen actually wrote! She said there were a few typical errors---by which we may all fairly infer she was referring to what we today call “typos”---but then that dash, followed by an ampersand, was NOT Jane Austen calling the occasional lack of clarity (in identification of speakers in dialogue) an error!

Parse the syntax carefully, and you will see that Jane Austen was actually giving two independent examples of instances in which she expected her readers to be sharp elves applying ingenuity:

 --- the first example was the lower-grade ingenuity required in order to recognize and then mentally correct any typos caused during the printing process;

---the second was the higher-grade ingenuity required in order to figure out who said what in certain passages, and to be ready for the possibility that Jane Austen deliberately wrote some of her dialogue so as to be plausibly interpretable in two different ways!

I.e., JA was not saying that unclarity was her own misjudgment, but was instead saying it was her own deliberate outside-the-box authorial strategy!

I am also certain that Jane Austen deliberately wrote this famous bons mot about her fiction to NOT be “immediately clear”, and therefore so as to be easily misconstrued. In other words, she creates an epigrammatical matrioshka, in which her saying itself invites the same sort of misreading as she describes vis a vis her novel! She writes so that any careless reader of her letter (especially one who did not accord her sufficient respect) would jump to the erroneous conclusion that she was cheerfully acknowledging that she was a careless editor of her own “darling child”, a novel which she had revised so many times over 15 years before final publication. To which I say, “Nonsense!”

This is the same Jane Austen who put into Lizzy Bennet’s mouth the startling Zen Buddhist aphorism I’ve so often quoted: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.” Her comment to Cassandra is a perfect example of the paradox of a sort of teaching what is worth knowing by a kind of  “not teaching”. In the act of navigating the narrow channel between the Scylla of that dash and the Charybdis of that ampersand, the alert reader teaches him or her self how to read very carefully and flexibly. Such a careful flexible reader avoids the temptation of lazy reading based on the assumption that Jane Austen was the kind of writer who would have cheerfully accepted producing a slovenly product with errors that first time readers (of much inferior intelligence to herself) would immediately spot on first reading. To which I again say, “Nonsense!”

In short, it requires one level of ingenuity to spot typos and to figure out the correct word—that is merely the job of a skillful editor. But it requires an entirely different, and higher level of ingenuity to spot deliberate ambiguities in dialogue (and narration, for that matter) and then to discern both plausible “right” answers that a sly, riddling author might have left behind to be found—like “courtship” and “Prince of Whales” as (two out of several plausible) answers to the Chapter 9 charade in Emma..

In checking the archives of Janeites, I see that Elissa wrote the following relevant comment in relation to the above quote from JA’s 1813 letter:  “…this reminds me of Dr. Johnson's famous quip when he was compiling his Dictionary "'Tis a dull mind, truly, that can think of only one way to spell a word."

At first, I got excited when I read that, as it appeared very promising as a common ancestor of both Austen’s famous quote, and also of Scott’s line in Marmion. However, when I checked via various online resources, I could not find that Samuel Johnson actually wrote this, or anything close to it. If he did, I’d love it, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. But he did address, in the Preface to his great and influential 1755 Dictionary, the issue of spelling variation, not as a witty epigram, but  in the following lengthy discussion:

“When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules. Wherever 1 turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated. Choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection. Adulterations were to be detected, without any settled test of purity, and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority. …In adjusting the Orthography, which has been to this time unsettled and fortuitous, I found it necessary to distinguish those irregularities that are inherent in our tongue, and perhaps coeval with it, from others which the ignorance or negligence of later writers has produced. Every language has its anomalies, which, though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things, and which require only to be registered, that they may not be increased, and ascertained, that they may not be confounded: but every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.
In examining the orthography of any doubtful word, the mode of spelling by which it is inserted in the series of the dictionary, is to be considered as that to which I give, perhaps not often rashly, the preference.  I have left, in the examples, to every author his own practice unmolested, that the reader may balance suffrages, and judge between us: but this question is not always to be determined by reputed or by real learning; some men, intent upon greater things, have thought little on sounds and derivations; some, knowing in the ancient tongues, have neglected those in which our words are commonly to be sought…In this part of the work, where caprice has long wantoned without control, and vanity sought praise by petty reformation, I have endeavored to proceed with a scholar’s reverence for antiquity, and a grammarian’s regard to the genius of our tongue. I have attempted few alterations…”

If I may attempt a very brief summary of Johnson’s elegant formulations re spelling, he seems to be saying that his monumental effort in determining proper spelling was an art as much as a science. And given his enormous influence, it is ironic the case that from 1755 onward, his influence was so great that spelling in English became more of a learning standardized spelling, rather than creating it.

But…Elissa’s quotation did not spring from her imagination-as best as I can ascertain from Google, the actual quotation was spoken in a different form by some famous figure (who was George Washington, or Andrew Jackson, or Horace Greeley, depending on who was repeating it) ---it more or less went like this:
“I didn’t suppose that you were one of those damned fools, who think that there is only one way to spell a word.”

For me, the significance of all of this is the same when it comes to an accurate understanding of what Jane Austen meant about unclarity in her fictional dialogue---we all need to break the chains of slavish rigid adherence to a belief in objective, unitary meaning, and to use our imagination to see many worlds of possibility of meaning, and then use ingenuity to make difficult and subtle judgments about how to balance multiple perspectives, and proceed more effectively in daily life.

And so, to come full circle, I say that the ability to see both the shadow Darcy and the overt Darcy, and to recognize that neither is the only “right” answer, is the ingenuity I have worked hard to develop over the past 13 years, and that I believe Jane Austen hoped her “darling children” would receive from her best readers.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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