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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jane Austen’s Wizardry at Fictional Theme & Variation: Brandon becomes…..Benwick?



This latest post is a further elaboration on the train of inquiry I began while exploring the parallels in 3 of JA’s novels (S&S, P&P, and Persuasion) having to do with the breaking of bad news.

Okay, now so which Austen novels am I thinking of now?:

There is a military man with a melancholy disposition in part caused by his persistent mourning of the tragic death of his beloved.

The military man strongly connects—and we aren’t sure for a while if it this connection will remain  merely Platonic---with the heroine of the novel, who winds up marrying her first choice instead.  

There is also a young woman full of Romantic passion and energy, who sustains an injury during a fall.

When the young woman’s life appears to be in danger, the news is carefully relayed to her parents.

The melancholy military men spends a great deal of time with the young woman while she recuperates.

The young woman’s exuberance is tempered by her life-threatening experience, and by her time with the military man, and they get married.

Of course, I am thinking of two Austen novels: S&S (Brandon and Marianne) and Persuasion (Benwick and Louisa). Have you ever noticed all these strong parallels between these two secondary love stories? I can’t recall that I ever did, nor can I find any indication in the group archives or elsewhere online that any other Janeite has done so either. And yet, a contemporary reader in 1818 (who had already read S&S, and therefore knew that Marianne and Brandon wind up together) who then read Persuasion, might have guessed, from these parallels alone, that Louisa would end up with Benwick.

Of course there are certain key differences---Marianne seems to be superior in intellectual and artistic accomplishment to Louisa, while Louisa brings a substantial dowry to her husband which Marianne does not. Conversely, Brandon is a rich man, while Benwick is not.  But the outcome is strikingly similar.

And let’s look more closely at one of those apparent differences. We see and hear much more of Marianne in S&S than we do of Louisa in Persuasion. That is how we know that Marianne is gifted, brilliant, and cultured—it is shown to us, not merely told to us.

But what about Louisa? I suggest that JA has given us a key clue, at the moment we first hear about Louisa, that Louisa may have much more on the ball than Anne gives her credit for:

“…Henrietta and Louisa, young ladies of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry. Their dress had every advantage, their faces were rather pretty, their spirits extremely good, their manner unembarrassed and pleasant; they were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad. Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.”

In this narration, we don’t have to be too suspicious, in order to realize that it reflects Anne’s subjective unconscious judgments on the Musgrove girls---and these judgments do not reflect well on Anne. We read not only a casual, catty dismissal  of “the usual stock of accomplishments” and “like thousands of other young ladies”, but even more so Anne’s self-deluding fantasy of her own objectivity and immunity from snobbery (“Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but…”). Anne, in her internal self-talk, is protesting way too much, it seems clear to me that she feels very threatened by, and envious of the Musgrove girls, particularly Louisa. And so we must be extremely careful in looking for extrinsic evidence to free us from the prison of Anne’s jealous thoughts, and to see Louisa more as she actually is.

For all we know, Louisa may well be much more like Marianne, in terms of intellect and culture, than we ever get to see. And here’s some key additional evidence in that very regard. I have noted previously my own shadow story interpretations…
…that (1) Louisa and Wentworth carry on a coded conversation, ostensibly about Wentworth’s naval exploits but covertly about Anne’s attractiveness, that passes right over Anne’s head, exactly as (2) Marianne and Edward carry on a coded conversation, ostensibly about the beauty of wild landscapes but covertly about Edward’s leading Elinor on, that passes right over Elinor’s head. So, while Louisa gulls Anne into seeing Louisa as a mindless coquette flattering Wentworth’s ego, Louisa is actually using her wits and savvy to talk past Anne to Wentworth about their own romantic potential. And similarly, Marianne allows herself to be seen by Elinor as going off on another of her Romantic rants, so as to be able to safely communicate with Edward about Elinor.

So, back to my main point--- now I see that Jane Austen successfully hid in plain sight these numerous significant echoes of Brandon-Marianne in Benwick-Louisa, and in part, I believe this was an exercise for her own benefit---she tested her own ability to misdirect readers’ attention from a great deal of similarity between characters and relationships in two of her novels, just by varying one or two key elements. And in this, Jane Austen (who was an accomplished musician) was like a great classical music composer, writing a theme and variations thereon, which amazes the sophisticated listener with the ease with which  enormous variation can be developed without every straying from the same theme.  

Because, when you think about it, life itself is nothing but theme and variation.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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