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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Tara Bergin’s “Appointment with Jane Austen”: “Painful sensation of restraint or alarm!”



I came across a very interesting poem this morning. I thought it would be fun to give my reactions, and then read what others see in it.

“Appointment with Jane Austen” by Tara Bergin  (2013)

Blushing in a manner out of keeping with my age
(my graying hair, my falling face)
I entered Greyfriar’s Inn.
I was blushing, and out of keeping with my age.
In I went, making my foolish entrance,
folding down my umbrella self-consciously — 
aware of the locals at the bar with their gin
and their small talk — 
and walked right up to the barmaid,
somewhat brazenly, I thought. One glass of beer,
I said to her, and she, smiling kindly,
pulled it. I stood and waited.
I waited for them all to stop their fond,
drunken reminiscences,
for them to stop putting forth their opinions,
and to turn to me and say — in an accusatory way — 
What are you doing here? On a Wednesday night?
Unaccompanied?
With an accent we can’t quite identify?

I waited ready:

Why am I here? I would say.
I am here as an imposter, an outsider,
a reluctant admirer of your lovely daughter Jane — 
I am here for my Lecture in the Picturesque,
to learn of sidescreens and perspectives,
to learn of window tax and syntax — and “ha-has” — 
for harmless gambling in the parlor,
wearing mittens and handworked collars and a pretty amber cross — 
I am here to steal a pistol and a spoon found underground,
to rob the peacock feathers streaming from the silly boy’s crown — 
I am here, I would say, for sensation — 
For sensation? they would say, and I would say:
Yes! Painful sensation of restraint or alarm!
Oh ye patrons of Greyfriar’s Inn, I would exclaim,
I am here to meet your high-waisted Jane,
to embrace her as my comrade; as my brother-in-arms!

I stood and waited. But the good patrons of Greyfriar’s Inn,
they never said a thing; just continued talking amongst themselves,
quietly reminiscing. I paid the barmaid and turned my head.
I looked out at the wet; I looked out at the southwest rain,
and the redbrick houses. I watched the famous silhouette,
gently swinging back and forth above the gate.
I raised the glass to her impassive, sideways face.
Nothing ventured. Nothing gained.

Google confirmed that “Greyfriar’s Inn” is a real inn doing business in the village of Chawton, but Google Images revealed no gate, or silhouette of Jane Austen hanging over it which is visible from the bar inside? Does anyone know if it also exists in real life, or was it a creation of Bergin’s imagination?

The second stanza seems to be the heart of the poem, most of all her quotation (tagged by its being in italics), which is from the last line of Mansfield Park:

“On that event [Dr. Grant’s death] they [Fanny and Edmund] removed to Mansfield; and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.”

According to the webpage where I found the poem, Bergin is from Dublin, Ireland, but lives in the North of England, and that fits with her emphasis on her otherness---at first subtly, with her reference to her own accent which the local English pub patrons “can’t quite identify”; and then calling herself “an imposter, an outsider”  who (again, like Fanny Price, blushes, and feels foolish making an entrance into Chawton, the central shrine of Janeism. And that subtext fits perfectly with the quotation from MP, which is about how Fanny Price, the ultimate blushing Austenian outsider, finally came to feel truly at home at the Mansfield Parsonage.

So Bergin by this subtext seems to allude to the “painful sensation of restraint or alarm” (with exclamation point) which I imagine many Irish people still feel in England, especially if they live there. And yet, at the same time, Bergin has come to Chawton, as she tells us,  because she has identified herself as a “reluctant admirer” of Jane Austen as a “comrade” and “brother-in arms”--- that last being an interesting choice of word, given my belief that Jane Austen, and several of her female characters, were not strictly heterosexual. Is Bergin’s reluctance due to her Irishness, or some other reason?

In that second stanza are also a rapid-fire series of Austen allusions, with a heavy skew, again, to Mansfield Park----in which the Picturesque, ha-has, gambling in the parlor, a pretty amber cross, and the window-tax are all significant themes or symbols. And there are also the sidescreens and perspectives from the Beechen Cliff scene in Northanger Abbey.

But what to make of the following?:

“wearing mittens and handworked collars…”  

“I am here to steal a pistol and a spoon found underground”

“to rob the peacock feathers streaming from the silly boy’s crown”

As to the last of those three cryptic lines, Mrs. Gardiner writes to Eliza about Mr. Gardiner being glad to give an explanation of Darcy’s behind the scenes generosity which would “rob” Mr. G of the  “borrowed feathers” of credit for resolving the Wickham-Lydia fracas, but the rest is mysterious to me. Any thoughts?

The end of the poem suggests that Bergin found no answers in Chawton—like Fanny Price, like the real life Jane Austen when in company with the rich, powerful, and titled in the Godmersham set, she was invisible—a strange woman with graying hair—a Miss Bates.

But does this lack of answers extend to Jane Austen’s novels as well? I.e., is Bergin in the end referring to Jane Austen’s silhouetted face, or to her writing, as “sideways” and “impassive?—or maybe, both?

MORE OF MY THOUGHTS ADDED at 6:30 PM PST:
 
Nancy, thanks very much for providing that image....  https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?tab=wm#inbox/1511c809c38c6848?projector=1  ... of a button with peacock feathers in a crown, it turns out to be a clue, I think, to Bergin’s meaning, beyond the very oblique allusion to Mr. Gardiner and his borrowed feathers. I Googled, and found a number of independent sources which essentially all state that Krishna, a widely revered and popular Hindu deity, is sometimes pictured in Hindu symbology with a crown of peacock feathers, either as a little boy or a young man playing a flute.

Let me take a tentative stab at this---one thing I think Bergin is doing here, is subtly blending two symbols of Krishna together, and connecting them to Jane Austen. Is she suggesting, perhaps, that she “is here” (physically in Chawton, metaphysically in Jane Austen’s fictional worlds) to “meet” and “embrace” Jane Austen, a goddess of the fine art of fiction, revered throughout the world for her depictions of the mysteries of love and the heart?

I also love the way Bergin circles in, starting with the realm of ideas, theories, and everyday life, then getting poetical and metaphorical, and finally arriving at the center---sensation, and in particular painful sensation, which she has (correctly) in my view discerned in that final paragraph of Mansfield Park, which lulls the passive reader into a dream of happy ever after, but inserts a reminder with the words “painful” and “alarm”:

I am here for my Lecture in the Picturesque,
to learn of sidescreens and perspectives,
to learn of window tax and syntax — and “ha-has” — 
for harmless gambling in the parlor,
wearing mittens and handworked collars and a pretty amber cross — 
I am here to steal a pistol and a spoon found underground,
to rob the peacock feathers streaming from the silly boy’s crown — 
I am here, I would say, for sensation — 
For sensation? they would say, and I would say:
Yes! Painful sensation of restraint or alarm!
Oh ye patrons of Greyfriar’s Inn, I would exclaim,
I am here to meet your high-waisted Jane,
to embrace her as my comrade; as my brother-in-arms!

I believe Jane Austen would have loved Bergin’s poem, and would have embraced her back as her comrade!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


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