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

Monday, October 12, 2015

2015 JASNA “meating” in Louisville, Report #1: “One shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another down….”



I returned last night to Portlandia after attending another (my ninth since 2005) JASNA Annual General Meeting. This one just completed, in Louisville, was the second consecutive one held in the American heartland (last year was in Minneapolis), in apparent recognition of JASNA’s steadily growing inroads in geographical sectors where JASNA chapters have grown steadily during the past decade. By my rough count after skimming through the directory of attendees, nearly 40% of those present hailed not only from the home state, Kentucky, but also four closely adjoining  states: Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, & Missouri. That demographic will, I am sure, revert back to form during the next two AGMs---the 2016 AGM will be held in Washington DC (only two weeks before the voting for the US Presidency, so DC should be an amazing place to be at that instant!), and 2017 will be held in Huntingdon Beach (the first time an AGM I am attending will be held at a hotel on the beach!)—both of which AGMs were advertised with very witty promotional videos during the final luncheon yesterday, just before most attendees left town.
I had modest expectations for this particular 2015 AGM, given that it was the first one I’ve attended I can remember where I had almost no difficulty deciding which Breakout Sessions I wanted to attend. This was because, instead of feeling cheated for having to miss sessions I was really interested in, because I had to choose among several promising ones, there was only one (out of six or seven) per time slot that really piqued my (admittedly idiosyncratic) interest. Not that the ones I didn’t attend were inferior, they just were on topics I personally don’t care about, and didn’t seem likely to tell me something that would assist my research.
Fortunately, all seven of those I did attend turned out to be of high quality, and were well received and attended. So, in retrospect, I was very glad to have been there in Louisville---even though it meant I missed a reunion of college friends I really would have liked to be there for, and also even though this AGM lacked the star power & electricity of a few past AGM’s. In particular, I’m thinking of the 2011 AGM in Ft. Worth, when Andrew Davies held 750 Janeites in the virtual palm of his hand for 75 mesmerizing minutes- a true “Woodstock” moment in the history of JASNA.
The three plenary speakers at this AGM (usually there have been four, as I recall) were not spellbinding, but….they were all very good, very well prepared, and they all three presented many ideas worth hearing. The first was Inger Sigrun Brodey, who spoke about the cult of sensibility during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and in JA’s novels, mostly S&S. The second was Amanda Vickery, who spoke about portrayals of unmarried single women in popular culture and in JA’s novels, with particular emphasis on Miss Bates. The third was Rachel Brownstein, who spoke about JA as a satirist (and not merely an ironist), and suggested links between the caricatures of Rowlandson, Gillray, & Cruikshank and the satirical characterizations in JA’s novels.
The academics Brodey and Brownstein are not household names among ordinary Janeites, but Vickery, also an academic, but who has crossed over into public entertainment, with her witty and appealing persona (her voice sounds to me exactly as if she must have been the model the Texan Renee Zellweger used in practicing her Bridget Jones English voice!), has cornered the market as the host of BBC specials about Austen and the Regency Era. I also recall from archive searching that before I was a member of Janeites or Austen-L, there was a group read of Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter. In fact, the alternative entertainment each night after dinner consisted of well attended screenings of Vickery’s BBC2 special “At Home with the Georgians”, which, as I verified later, can be watched on YouTube.
On Saturday night, I passed on the Vickery video, and, for the first time ever, actually watched the Regency ball room dancing this time around. I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a good 200 participants, all dressed to the hilt in appropriate costumery, gamely learned the steps and kept going and going for hours on the dance floor. I had the easy part, like Darcy in the Netherfield salon---I just sat with friends and chatted and watched.
And finally, as usual, the real bonus, that makes attendance at AGM’s so worthwhile for me pretty much every year, were the many private spontaneous chats that are possible when 700 Janeites are thrown into close proximity and company for 3 days—I made several new friends, and the time flew, as it always does. The only regret for me was that due, I think, to the geography, many of my East and West Coast Janeite friends (like Diana) skipped this one, so there were not so many familiar faces as usual in the crowd, to make mixing easier during the many opportunities for mingling.
So much for my brief, no doubt prejudiced but hopefully not ignorant, history of the 2015 JASNA AGM. I now want to turn, during the remainder of this week, to the three or four intellectual highlights for me at this AGM, beginning in this post with the one I have hinted at in my Subject Line.
Vickery and Brownstein both addressed the way single women, especially those cruelly and unjustly deemed past their “bloom”, were viewed during JA’s lifetime, and in her novels. In particular, both pointed to the metaphor of courtship as a “meat market”, where women were depersonalized and ridiculed by male eyes and voices like Sir Walter Elliot’s, especially those negative portrayals in print and in caricatures. Vickery, I learned via Google earlier today, actually published an article on this topic a few years ago in the Journal of British Studies Vol. 523 #4 ppg 858-886, entitled “Mutton Dressed as Lamb? Fashioning Age in Georgian England”, that includes several telling images of such caricatures.
I hadn’t been aware generally of how prevalent these images were in the popular media of the Georgian and Regency Eras, nor, more specifically, did I realize, as Brownstein pointed out, that Bond Street in London became one lightning rod for this sort of public, venomous humiliation, mostly of women. If you want to see some of these Bond Street caricatures, go to Google Images and find these:
"High Change in Bond Street" - Gillray 1796
"All bond-street trembled as he strode" 1802
"Peepers in Bond Street" Isaac Cruikshank 1793

But most tellingly of all for my post today:

"A bill of fare for Bond Street Epicures" Rowlandson 1808, which depicted women as cuts of meat on Bond Street



As soon as Brownstein presented that last slide with her accompanying explanation, my mind leapt immediately to the following speech by Mrs. Jennings to Elinor in Chapter 30 of S&S, in which that extremely plain spoken and fearless lady was talking up Delaford and its many assets and advantages, as evidence for her prediction that Brandon would make the heartbroken Marianne forget all about Willoughby before too long:

“Oh! 'tis a nice place! A BUTCHER hard by in the village, and the parsonage-house within a stone's throw. To my fancy, a thousand times prettier than Barton Park, where they are forced to send three miles for their MEAT, and have not a neighbour nearer than your mother. Well, I shall spirit up the Colonel as soon as I can. One shoulder of MUTTON, you know, drives another down. If we can but put Willoughby out of her head!"
Ironically, despite having both correctly and implicitly zeroed in on the relevance of the “meat market” for understanding JA’s novels, neither Vickery in her article, nor Browstein in her presentation, realized that JA was herself so well aware of that metaphor of “mutton” as code for women’s bodies, that she used it in her very first published novel! They hadn’t consciously connected the dots from that repeatedly used  public visual metaphor to Mrs. Jennings’s speech. When I pointed out this connection during  Brownstein’s Q&A, it was well received by the room, and especially by Brownstein, who very graciously  responded positively to what I said.
I’ve now had a chance to look more closely at Mrs. Jennings’s speech, and I see that Jane Austen’s deployment of the metaphor of woman as a piece of meat to be sold in the marriage marketplace is even more multilayered than I at first realized. Mrs. Jennings doesn't just generate this "meaty" metaphor out of thin air, Jane Austen builds up to it, showing us Mrs. Jennings's Miss Batesian-like associative flow of ideas.
First Mrs. J mentions the butcher being right there very close to Delaford, in contrast to Barton Park, which has to import its meat from relatively far away. She then moves to the need to cheer up Colonel Brandon, and that’s what finally brings her to the old folk saying about the quickest recovery from lost love being the finding of new love.
What's really disturbing in this little speech, if you stop and think about it, is that Mrs. Jennings is equating Marianne to the mutton! I.e., she’s not talking about Marianne’s broken heart being mended by Colonel Brandon showing up in Marianne’s “meat locker”. Rather, Mrs. Jennings is clear in cheerily saying that it’s Brandon’s heart that will be mended by Marianne showing up in his kitchen!

And, there’s also the disturbing ease with which the arrival of the Dashwood women at Barton Park after their distant exile from Norland fits with the idea of Barton Park having to bring its “meat” in  from far away-this fits with the idea I have had for a very long time, when I had no idea whatsoever about this “mutton” interpretation, that a great deal of Sir John Middleton’s motivation in inviting them to stay in Barton Cottage is precisely so as to bring “fresh meat” to satisfy the hungry appetites for female flesh of Brandon and Willoughby—but with the older Mrs. Dashwood, however attractive she surely still is, being the “mutton” these two eligible bachelors will bypass in favor of the “lamb” meat represented by Marianne and Elinor!

And most telling of all, recall where it is that Mrs. Jennings and the Dashwood sisters are having little adventures while in London, at the very moment Mrs. Jennings makes this speech to Elinor. Think about where they go on that excursion to a shop where Elinor tries to pawn some family jewelry. These occur on…..Bond Street, the very street that, as Brownstein so brilliantly spotted, associated with the human meat market in London!

And there’s yet another layer of this particular allusive onion to be peeled back—think about how Robert Ferrars (whom the Dashwood sisters do not know by sight at the time) shows up by “coincidence” in that same shop, and spends forever ostensibly shopping for just the right toothpick case, all the while sneaking looks at our two heroines. What if there is no coincidence at all in his appearing there at that instant, to do some extended shopping? What if instead he has been brought there specifically so as to not so subtly ogle two prime pieces of “lamb”—Elinor and Marianne!

Food for thought, as they say…..

I will conclude this post by pointing out that the above was not the only point in JA’s novels where she revisited the popular degrading metaphor of women as “mutton”. In Mansfield Park, she revisited this motif, but this time much more subtly. Take a look at these two usages of “mutton”:

Chapter 22: In the moment of parting, Edmund was invited by Dr. Grant to eat his MUTTON with him the next day; and Fanny had barely time for an unpleasant feeling on the occasion, when Mrs. Grant, with sudden recollection, turned to her and asked for the pleasure of her company too. This was so new an attention, so perfectly new a circumstance in the events of Fanny’s life, that she was all surprise and embarrassment…

Chapter 41: Before they parted, she had to thank him for another pleasure, and one of no trivial kind. Her father asked him to do them the honour of taking his MUTTON with them, and Fanny had time for only one thrill of horror, before he declared himself prevented by a prior engagement.

According to the normative reading of these two passages seemingly accidentally related by using the word “mutton”, Fanny gets “an unpleasant feeling” about Dr. Grant’s invitation to Edmund to dine at the parsonage, because she feels a jealous pang about Edmund getting to spend intimate time with Mary away from the rest of the Bertrams; and Fanny feels “one thrill of horror” about her father inviting Henry to dine chez Price, because she is so ashamed of Henry seeing the squalor of her family of origin, and experiencing the cuisinary productions of Mrs. Price and “greasy” Rebecca.

However, isn’t it very curious that these two narrative passages about dinner invitations involving mutton as the entree, separated by 19 chapters, both refer to the brevity of Fanny’s having a fleeting bad feeling, before it is quickly canceled by an alteration of the outcome of the invitation, such that the outcome will  no longer be upsetting to Fanny? It’s obvious, isn’t it, that JA intended the rereader of MP with a retentive memory to recognize this subtle parallelism. But are the normative descriptions of why Fanny feels bad in both these instances the only plausible explanations for why JA created this subtle echoing?

I suggest that the key to decoding the veiled meaning of this hidden parallel is the usage of the word “mutton” in both passages. I.e., in MP, written 2 years after the publication of S&S. I.e., I say that with Mrs. Jennings’s graphic invocation of the Bond Street meat market in mind, JA meant, in subtly linking these two MP passages, to also invoke the marital meat market. I.e., in the Chapter 22 passage, Fanny fears that Edmund will learn to love the “taste” of Mary so much that he will want to have that dish every day of his life. Whereas in the Chapter 41 passage, it is Fanny who now (however much she tries to deny it to herself) wishes Henry to consider her as a prime cut of meat satisfying even to his jaded palate!

And now you fully grasp the groanworthy pun in my Subject Line---I am so glad I attended this past weekend’s annual general “MEATING”, so that I could properly savor the “meat” on the bone of the passages in S&S and MP that I analyzed, above, and, more seriously, to see more evidence for Marianne Dashwood as the "sacrificial lamb" offered up to Colonel Brandon at the end of the novel!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Jennifer Allan said...

Very nice roundup of the AGM. I had modest expectations as well, but came away with a lot of little tidbits for all my various projects. One of the most interesting talks I attended was on the importance of sheep in building the British empire. One of the things the speaker pointed out was that the word "mutton" was used interchangeably with "dinner" in the examples in MP. Whether JA was using this colloquial expression to point at Fanny being the sacrificial lamb, I'll leave you to decide.

I'm not sure I entirely buy your interpretation of the passage in S&S. Certainly it was a coup on your part to link the satirical print to that passage. I think JA was saying that men could as easily be seen as meat well, with Mrs. Jennings using one shoulder of mutton (Brandon) to push the other down (Willoughby). It fits with Mrs. Jennings constantly trying to shove food into Marianne as well in other parts of the novel. She's trying to get Marianne to "swallow" the idea of a courtship with Brandon. I think I would buy your interpretation if Brandon needed convincing about Marianne, but he doesn't. Mrs. Jennings is one of the few females in Austen that has the power to think about men in terms of being a commodity. Like I said, I think Mrs. Jennings has as much fun as any character in Austen. She clearly enjoys the game of brokering these deals and has dehumanized the participants in her mind.