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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The reason why the Gardiner children don’t come to Longbourn at Christmas

In the Janeites group, Jane Fox raised a very interesting question over the course of three posts last week, which I’ve been waiting to respond to, until I could really think it all through:

First Jane wrote:  “When Mr. and Mrs. Gardener visit the Bennets at Christmas, they do not bring their children. The novel does not need the kids to be there, and I know Christmas did not become a huge family occasion in England until Victorian times. Still, I wondered whether leaving your children at Christmas would have been a bit odd. What festivities did occur in England in families of this class at the time?”
After receiving a few replies, Jane then wrote: “Yet the Gardeners did bring their young children to Longbourn when they went on their excursion with Elizabeth.”
And after another reply, she then finally wrote: “The notion that when she wrote P&P, Austen was not yet used to children being around, makes sense to me. In E and in P children even have bit parts to play in the story. But now that I think of it, in S&S children also play bit parts that illuminate character, and most unpleasant children they are. The Gardener children are not unpleasant, but is it only in E and P (the Harvilles rather than the Musgroves) that we see relatives who are affectionate toward small children but not destructively indulgent?”

Jane, after thinking your interesting question through, I now see that there’s a very simple explanation that works perfectly within a mainstream interpretation of the novel (i.e., one that doesn’t require delving into the shadow story)---an explanation derived from the text of the novel itself.

And that’s significant, because any explanation based on speculations about customs of the Regency Era involving traveling with young children would, as your second comment suggests, have to negotiate between the Scylla of the Gardiner children not coming at Christmas, and the Charybdis of the Gardiner children coming to Longbourn in July! Seems like a rhetorical shipwreck in the making, avoidable only if there was a very specific custom not to travel with children to visit close family at Christmas---which is, after all, a family holiday!---yet there would be a custom to drop four young children off in the summer while taking an excursion? That’s a very small head of a pin on which to dance.

Whereas my explanation occurred to me when I thought about what changed in the circumstances of the Bennet family between Christmas and March—and here is the textual evidence that tells you exactly what changed….in one of the characters. I begin with the following passage in Chapter 27, taking place in early March, when Eliza stops in London for a night en route to Hunsford:

“It was a journey of only twenty-four miles, and they began it so early as to be in Gracechurch Street by noon. As they drove to Mr. Gardiner's door, Jane was at a drawing-room window watching their arrival; when they entered the passage she was there to welcome them, and Elizabeth, looking earnestly in her face, was pleased to see it healthful and lovely as ever. On the stairs were a troop of little boys and girls, whose eagerness for their cousin's appearance would not allow them to wait in the drawing-room, and whose shyness, as they had not seen her for a twelvemonth, prevented their coming lower. All was joy and kindness. The day passed most pleasantly away; the morning in bustle and shopping, and the evening at one of the theatres.”

This passage tells us two important facts:
first, that Eliza must have been very concerned about Jane’s health when Jane left for London 2 months earlier, and knew that Jane would never complain, in a letter, about feeling unwell, and therefore Eliza was relieved to see, with her own eyes, Jane’s face seeming “healthful and lovely as ever”. Eliza’s concern comes as no surprise, given that Jane (as we all recall) fell ill at Netherfield in mid-November, and then, before Christmas, suffered the devastating emotional blow of Bingley’s abrupt departure at the height of their budding romance; and
second, that the Gardiner children, in March, had not seen Eliza for a year. Note that this caveat does not apply to Jane—and so we might reasonably speculate that Jane might well have paid a visit to London in the summer of the previous year without being accompanied by Eliza then, either.  So this already hints to us that Jane has a much closer relationship with the Gardiner children than Eliza.

But the real proof of the pudding re the decision to bring the Gardiner children is revealed in the following passage in Chapter 42, which takes place in early July:

“Four weeks were to pass away before her uncle and aunt's arrival. But they did pass away, and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, with their four children, did at length appear at Longbourn. The children, two girls of six and eight years old, and two younger boys, were to be left under the particular care of their cousin Jane, who was the general favourite, and whose steady sense and sweetness of temper exactly adapted her for attending to them in every way—teaching them, playing with them, and loving them.”

I claim that the reason we hear so much from the narrator about Jane being the general favourite of the children, and how she is the perfect caretaker for them, yada yada yada, is, by negative implication, to explain why the children were not brought to Longbourn at Christmas—i.e., Jane was in a really bad way, both emotionally and physically, at Christmas, and the family powers-that-be decided not to leave it to Elizabeth to care for the kiddies during the Christmas visit, when their “general favourite” was in no condition to give them the usual TLC.

Now, isn’t that a clean, plausible, character-driven explanation for the little mystery that Jane brought to our attention? And all credit to Jane on provoking this process, because, while other Janeites have raised this question before, it was Jane who persisted, and also raised that excellent observation about the contrast between Christmas and March, and that’s what I required in order to solve the puzzle!
[The following added a few hours later, after I received the following response from Diane Reynolds]

Diane wrote: "While I like my explanation that Jane Austen was less interested in children during the early novels :), Arnie's very nonsubtextual explanation makes good sense too. But what strikes me on rereading both passages, both, I believe expressing Lizzie's pov, is her disinterest in the children: she hasn't seen them for a year, and we're told she spends the day in London pleasantly doing adult things, such as shopping and going to the theater. The children don't take up much of her time or attention. And while I am sure Jane was the perfect mother to her nieces and nephews while Lizzie was traveling in the summer, that passage also speaks of how easily Lizzie rationalizes away or puts a self serving spin on her chance to go on a holiday while her beloved sister gets stuck at home with four children and Mrs. Bennet. Of course, the two older sisters seem to take turns with the travel ops, but we don't see Lizzie ever left in charge of young children. This is a difference between her and Emma."
Diane, your second explanation (about Lizzy's pov) and mine are actually perfectly aligned and complementary, each is a buttress supporting the other! You are spot-on in noting that the dearth of discussion of the children by the narrator is a reflection of Eliza's own utter lack of interest in those children, which at least in part arises from her own selfish focus on her own concerns. And you are in particular spot-on re Eliza's selfish disregard for Jane's burden in taking care of those kids.
As you know, our first grandchild has now been in the world for over 8 months, and he is more than capable of absorbing the caretaking energy of four adults during the course of a day. I can't even imagine the job of one adult primarily watching four young children for 18 days!

And this relates to your observation about Jane Austen's real life ---I do believe that Cassandra bore a greater portion of the burden of the auntly caretaking at Godmersham, as between her and Jane--so perhaps this subtextual thread in P&P was Jane's way of acknowledging to Cassandra that she was grateful for all the times when Cassandra provided unpaid governess services at Godmersham, and allowed Jane to stay at Chawton and write, write, write.
And finally, a note on Austen scholarship--this interaction among Jane, me, and Diane illustrates why there is more firepower in this "amateur" setting than is given credit by the academic establishment. This sort of textual discovery happens a great deal in this group, and used to happen in Austen-L as well, when it was more active, precisely because of the creative thinking that occurs when an idea bounces from one person to the next to the next, each keeping the idea moving in the direction of solution. In no time flat (okay, less than a week), a perfectly toasted answer pops up in the intellectual toaster!

Cheers, and a Happy New Year to all,
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Samuel Johnson’s inadvertently bawdy Dictionary: Jane Austen’s vehement innuendoes

On p. 153 of Samuel Johnson’s supremely influential 1768 Dictionary of the English Language, we read the following consecutive definitions:

Orgasm: a sudden vehemence
Orgies: frantic revels, rites of Bacchus

Subsequent lexicographers in the late 18th century, perhaps concerned that some might be prompted by the close proximity of the word “Orgies” to read Johnson’s definition of “Orgasm” as sexual, hastened to eliminate that implication by citing Derham’s 1723 Physico-Theology, in Book IV about sound, for the following proposition re the effect of music and melody received via the miracle of the human ear:
“By means of the curious lodgment and inoculation of the auditory nerves, the orgasms of the spirits should be allayed, and perturbations of the mind quieted.”

Those lexicographers had reason to be  nervous because, according to, “The term [orgasm] appears to have first been used in its modern meaning in French during the late 17th century as orgasme. Orgasm then entered the English language in the early 18th century to refer to female sexual climax. By the 20th century, orgasm was used to refer to both male and female sexual climaxes.”

Which brings me to an explanation of my curious Subject Line—what do I mean by “Jane Austen’s vehement innuendoes”? Because I have long since been aware that Jane Austen, like Shakespeare, never met a sexual pun she did not put to clever use, it occurred to me when I learned about Samuel Johnson’s definition of “orgasm”, that I ought to check to see whether Jane Austen ever exploited it for comic use.

I found a very small total of seven usages of the word “vehement/vehemence” in all of JA’s fiction combined, and out of them, two leapt off the page at me. I will present them to you in reverse chronological order, as the earlier of the two is the more spectacular—but not by that much, as you will see.

In Chapter 47 of P&P, Mrs. Bennet amplifies on her three earlier appeals for pity for her “poor nerves” as follows:   "… And, above all, keep Mr. Bennet from fighting. Tell him what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frighted out of my wits—and have such TREMBLINGS, such FLUTTERINGS, ALL OVER ME—SUCH SPASMS in my side and pains IN MY HEAD, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day….”

In this breathless account of her recent, chronic state of acute distress and its effect on her body, we find both an innocent meaning clearly in line with Derham’s neurological definition, but it is no great stretch of imagination to read these same symptoms incongruously, and to take them as Jane Austen’s satire on Mrs. Bennet, by framing her somatic complaints as if she were having all the symptoms of a veritable daisy chain of orgasms—Masters and Johnson could not have described one more descriptively!

Now, many of you will say, “There you go again, Arnie, with your dirty mind.” And my answer is to send you twelve chapters further into P&P, to Chapter 59, when we read the following, right after Eliza and Darcy finally resolve their mutual angst, and he proposes, and she accepts:

“During [Eliza’s and Darcy’s] walk, it was resolved that Mr. Bennet's consent should be asked in the course of the evening. Elizabeth reserved to herself the application for her mother's. She could not determine how her mother would take it; sometimes doubting whether all his wealth and grandeur would be enough to overcome her abhorrence of the man. But whether she were VIOLENTLY SET against the match, or VIOLENTLY DELIGHTED with it, it was certain that her manner would be equally ill adapted to do credit to her sense; and she could no more bear that Mr. Darcy should hear THE FIRST RAPTURES OF HER JOY, than THE FIRST VEHEMENCE of her disapprobation.”

“The first vehemence” does not particularly hint at a sexual orgasm, but note the verbiage in all caps, in particular “violently delighted” and “first raptures of her joy”. It’s clear to me that Jane Austen has hereby created another artful double entendre, by seeming to describe Eliza’s fears about her mother’s embarrassing nervous explosions of emotion, while at the same time planting a seed of subversive sexual wit right beneath that innocent meaning.  

Unconvinced?  Then let me move on to what I consider the more convincing example. In Chapter 37 of  S&S, we read the following reactions to Mrs. Ferrars disinheriting Edward, and irrevocably conferring her estate upon Robert:

“ "If [Edward] would only have done as well by himself," said John Dashwood, "as all his friends were disposed to do by him, he might now have been in his proper situation, and would have wanted for nothing. But as it is, it must be out of anybody's power to assist him. And there is one thing more preparing against him, which must be worse than all—his mother has determined, with A VERY NATURAL KIND OF SPIRIT, to settle THAT estate upon Robert immediately, which might have been Edward's, on proper conditions. I left her this morning with her lawyer, talking over the business."
"Well!" said Mrs. Jennings, "that is HER revenge. Everybody has a way of their own. But I don't think mine would be, to make one son independent, because another had plagued me."
Marianne got up and walked about the room.
"Can anything be more galling to THE SPIRIT OF A MAN," continued John, "than to see his younger brother in possession of an estate which might have been his own? Poor Edward! I FEEL FOR HIM sincerely."
A few minutes more spent in THE SAME KIND OF EFFUSION, concluded his visit; and with repeated assurances to his sisters that he really believed there was no material danger in Fanny's indisposition, and that they need not therefore be very uneasy about it, he went away; leaving the three ladies unanimous in their sentiments on the present occasion, as far at least as it regarded Mrs. Ferrars's conduct, the Dashwoods', and Edward's.
Marianne's indignation BURST FORTH as soon as he quitted the room; and as her VEHEMENCE made reserve impossible in Elinor, and unnecessary in Mrs. Jennings, they all joined in A VERY SPIRITED critique upon the party.”  END QUOTE

Now, you may well ask, why did I put the word “spirit” in all caps in each of its three appearances in this passage? What could “spirit” have to do with sexual orgasm? For my answer, I will first quote from “Sexual Symbolism, Religious Language and the Ambiguity of the Spirit: Associative Themes in Anglican Poetry and Philosophy” by Ralph Norman, in Theology Sexuality (May 2007), Vol. 13 #3 233-256:
In the 17th century, the word `spirit' stood euphemistically for semen and erections. Shakespeare knew this, as did the more explicitly theological poets, Donne and Herbert. These euphemistic meanings were exploited by the latter when writing religious poetry. Moving beyond the sexual language typical of much Christian mysticism, Donne also drew on renaissance ideas of metempsychosis which allowed him to view sperm as something physically connected with the spirit of a man, and potentially associated with the Holy Spirit itself. The reproductive potential of sperm was further associated with the creative power of the poet, and poetry became for Donne and Shakespeare a substitute for sexual reproduction. The ambiguous, playful and erotic spirit of poetry is considered as in terms of the equally ambiguous, playful and erotic spirit of theological language.” END QUOTE

I’ve been aware of “spirit” as an early modern euphemism for “semen”, because of my first recognizing its repeated brilliant deployment throughout the entirety of Hamlet, including most of all in the following two speeches by Hamlet himself:

First, describing the ghost as if it were a phallus ready to go to orgasm:

Second, describing Fortinbras as if he were a phallus about to expel an army of sperm!:

But there’s also Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, which seems in its opening couplet to describe the fatal sin of the Biblical Onan, who literally wasted his seed on the ground rather than impregnate Tamar:

Is LUST IN ACTION; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
So, viewed through that lens, John’s references to his mother’s “very natural kind of spirit” and to “the spirit” of the disinherited Edward (a form of emasculation), and then the Dashwood women’s “very spirited critique” of the conversation, is a perfect complement, in sexual innuendo, to Marianne’s  “burst out” and “vehemence”, taking us right back to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definition of “orgasm”!

And as a final irony, some of you will be familiar with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s famous claim that Marianne’s masturbatory orgasm is described in Chapter 29, especially in the following passage:

 “The sort of desperate calmness with which this was said, lasted no longer than while she spoke, and was immediately followed by a return of the same excessive affliction. It was some minutes before she could go on with her letter, and the frequent bursts of grief which still obliged her, at intervals, to withhold her pen, were proofs enough of her feeling how more than probable it was that she was writing for the last time to Willoughby.”

The irony is that I believe that Sedgwick was very much on the right track in ascribing a sexual significance to the above passage, but that she lighted upon the wrong sexual event—the above is not Marianne having an orgasm, it’s Marianne IN LABOR, not long before she gives birth to her illegitimate child.

And I will stand by all of the above claims most vehemently!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What if it were proven tomorrow that Jane Austen’s novels have LGB subtext?

With all the posts I’ve written the past several years in which I’ve presented evidence for my claim that there is a great deal of lesbian and/or gay subtext in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, it never occurred to me until an hour ago to pose the following hypothetical question to those who read what I write about JA:

If it were proven tomorrow, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Jane Austen’s letters and/or novels contain some form or another of LGBT subtext that was clearly intentional on Jane Austen’s part, how do you think that would affect how you think and/or feel about Jane Austen’s novels?

Please note, I said this was a hypothetical question, because I already know from my monitoring of the daily pulse of Janeites, both online and in person, that, as of this moment, a supermajority of Janeites do not believe there is any such thing in her writings. I am not under any delusion that I have made much of  a dent in that widespread (but not universally held) opinion.

But let’s imagine that a duly authenticated manuscript in Jane Austen’s own handwriting—whether a letter or a portion of a draft of one of the novels---were to be discovered, and then duly authenticated by standard handwriting analysis, which made it clear even to skeptics that, e.g., Jane Austen intentionally wrote Charlotte Lucas or Mary Crawford as leading a secret, but active, lesbian lifestyle, unbeknownst to Eliza Bennet and Fanny Price, respectively.

As to those many of you who today do not believe this to be the case, can you, in the spirit of devil’s advocacy, go with this hypothetical suggestion, and imagine reading an article describing such a discovery, including quotes from mainstream Austen scholars affirming that they have been so convinced for the first time?

I.e., I’m asking you to ask yourselves how you think this startling new information would affect your love of Jane Austen’s writing? Would it, e.g., sour the whole thing for you, making you feel betrayed by Jane Austen for misleading you? Or, after you got over the shock, would it expand your admiration for her? or would you have some other reaction?

I hope I’ve made it really clear that I am NOT asking you to agree with me, today, in the real world as it is. I’m only asking you to play a game of what if, and imagine how you think it would affect you as a Janeite, IF it became a “truth universally acknowledged” about Jane Austen.

I lead off by stating that I myself went through this very same journey. Although I first became acquainted with Jane Austen in 1995, and first started reading her novels in 1996, I had absolutely no clue until 2006 that there might be any substantial LGBT subtext in JA’s writings. It was in the summer of 2006 that,as I was first digging deep into MP, I first took a second long look at Rozema’s 1999 adaptation, and wondered whether Rozema’s depiction of the erotic charge between Mary and Fanny was entirely a figment of Rozema’s imagination, or if she had picked up on what was everywhere implied but never stated openly, in the text of MP.

And so, as I have seen more and more of this LGB subtext in JA’s writings over the past 9 years—and I should add, I am a straight man who supports LGBTQ rights wholeheartedly, but I had, and still have, no theoretical axe to grind in finding this in JA---for me, this evolution in my perception of that subtext in her writing has only added immeasurably to my admiration for her writing and for her personally as a courageous author and human being, and also to my sense that this, too, was something in which she emulated her literary master, Shakespeare. And I am convinced that had I been gay or bisexual, I’d have seen this subtext sooner – it was only my own straightness that for over a decade blinded me to the evidence.

But everyone is different, and so I am genuinely curious to hear any reactions I may receive, and I promise not to try to argue anyone out of their opinion, no matter how contrary it may be to my own.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, December 21, 2015

Love and Friendship fka Lady Susan, "that compound of Cruelty and Lust"

In Janeites & Austen-L, Ellen Moody wrote the following today:  "Whit Stillman is said to be filming an adaptation of Lady Susan"

Ellen, he's not filming it, it's done--or it better be done VERY soon, given that the film will be premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in just under 5 weeks from today!

I know this because I will be there in Park City (my first time attending Sundance, I am very excited!) on the wonderful occasion of the premiere of another film of great personal interest to me, the documentary Unlocking the Cage:
The man in the photos is my good friend Steve Wise who is the focus of the film--he's the attorney whom you may have read about or seen on TV, who brought several lawsuits in NY State during 2015 asking the court to declare chimpanzees as legal "persons"--seeking to emulate Granville Sharp's success in the 1772 Mansfield Case which was the first to declare an African slave a legal person under British law.  In 2005, Steve wrote a history of the Mansfield Case entitled Though the Heaven's May Fall which I read in 2006 when I was first delving into the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, and when I looked in the bookflap, I saw that Steve lived a 15 minute drive from me in South Florida--and so our friendship began.

Anyway, back to Jane Austen at Sundance. As I've blogged previously...... does not bode well that Stillman has entitled his adaptation of Lady Susan as Love and Friendship---- he thereby manages to mix up two separate short works of fiction written by Jane Austen prior to her writing the six novels-----and, as a final oddity, Stillman eliminates JA's characteristic misspelling of Love and Fr-EI-ndship!
But....since Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale are both accomplished actresses, I still hold out hope that the film will do a good job of translating Lady Susan's brilliant and unapologetic sociopathy to the screen.
If only Stillman will keep firmly in mind what Jane Austen wrote in 1813 after seeing a performance of some stage adaptation of the Don Juan story:

"“I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty and Lust”.
Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter