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

Friday, January 29, 2016

Andrew Davies, sexer-upper? No, spot-on subtextual scholar! (& Tolstoy the closet Janeite!)

I first heard about Andrew Davies’s new miniseries of War and Peace a month ago from online preview articles, and I’ve watched the first two episodes (the last two will air soon) on American cable. As per my Subject Line, I’ve long believed Tolstoy was a great closet Janeite, ever since I read a little-known but extraordinary article by (the late author) Harold Brodkey, entitled “Henry James and Jane Austen”, which appeared in The Threepenny Review, No. 33 (Spr., 1988), pp. 3-7. In it, the eccentric Brodkey modestly claimed he was not a scholar, but his article is filled with brilliant insights, especially as to JA’s writing, but also as to James’s and Joyce’s. But it was Brodkey’s passing comment about Tolstoy and Austen that first alerted me to Tolstoy’s covert but intense interest in JA’s novels:

“…Austen accepts the unknowability and accidental and contingent nature of things in a rather pragmatic way, rather like Tolstoy-who got it from her, perhaps. The degree of the reality of the time sequences, the way the events seem to happen in real time, is interestingly similar in Austen and Tolstoy. Austen is extremely difficult to write about. She is the first and most direct of the unfated or free will writers of the industrial era; and who wants to argue about free will or the industrial era? She is among the elect, among the writers of surprise and of real-time amatory events. Her lovers make their own fates. They are active and dramatic entities. Tolstoy steals a scene from her, from Persuasion, to represent realistic and actual love in Anna Karenina: the proposal scene between Kitty and Levin is taken in great detail from that of Anne Elliot and Wentworth….” END QUOTE FROM BRODKEY

When I went back and reread that passage from Anna Karenina (in Book IV, Chapter 13) for the first time in decades, I saw that Brodkey was spot-on in perceiving the great textual detail of Levin and Kitty as Wentworth and Anne at the White Horse Inn. It was as if Tolstoy wanted to both pay homage to, but also amplify and Russify, JA’s most romantic scene.

Based on that dense allusive “smoke”, in 2010 I went on to read articles about, and also identify on my own, a number of other covert but, to me clear, allusions to several of JA’s novels, which are significant in both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I will in my book be devoting a significant section to this topic, alongside my findings about C. Bronte, Pushkin, Twain, Conan Doyle, Joyce, S. Aleichem, Nabokov, and others in the distinguished roster of closet Janeites, whose fiction supposedly was not influenced by hers, but actually was.

My personal favorite veiled Tolstoy allusion to JA is the identity of the unnamed English novel which Anna Karenina reads on the train, which appears to contain four distinct plot elements:

“…[Anna] had too great a desire to live herself. If she read that the heroine of the novel was nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about the room of a sick man; if she read of a member of Parliament making a speech, she longed to be delivering the speech; if she read of how Lady Mary had ridden after the hounds, and had provoked her sister-in-law, and had surprised everyone by her boldness, she too wished to be doing the same. But there was no chance of doing anything; and twisting the smooth paper knife in her little hands, she forced herself to read.  The hero of the novel was already almost reaching his English happiness, a baronetcy and an estate…”

John Sutherland’s identification of the unnamed English novel, working from an initial suggestion by A.N. Wilson, is that Anna is reading “all of them, and none of them”—i.e., “a variety of Trollope’s novels, with a dash of Yonge”.  However, I gather from Sutherland’s discussion that no one of Trollope’s or Yonge’s novels contains distinct references to all four of those specific plot elements, whereas I have now identified not one, but two English novels which do!:

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
Tom Bertram is nursed by Fanny after her return to Mansfield Park;
Sir Thomas is a member of Parliament, and Fanny loves to listen to him orate;
Mary Crawford rides with boldness, which provokes Fanny, and Fanny almost becomes Mary’s sister in law;  &
Edmund is one step removed from the baronetcy and mastery of Mansfield Park as the novel ends.


Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 best-seller Lady Audley’s Secret :
Lady Audley nurses her sick husband, a baronet with a large estate;
Robert, the hero, imagines being “pushed into Parliament”;
Alicia, Lady Audley’s stepdaughter, engages in bold horseback riding; &
Robert, the hero, will one day soon succeed his uncle the old, sick baronet.

PLUS…It’s well established in Tolstoy studies that Leo. T alluded intentionally to Braddon’s potboilers, to the chagrin of Tolstoy purists. But now I can explain Tolstoy’s curious interest in an apparently non-literary novelist. I.e., a great deal of Braddon’s appeal to Tolstoy must have been that Tolstoy recognized how influential Austen’s novels were on Braddon’s fiction, and how surprisingly well Braddon saw beneath the surface of JA’s novels. And Tolstoy therefore celebrated his recognition of that hidden literary lineage in the above-quoted novel-reading scene on the train in Anna Karenina! 

And, to back that up, I will shortly followup on those two (surprisingly connected) sources for Anna Karenina‘s novel-reading, by writing about:
(1) the elaborate veiled allusions to Sense & Sensibility and Mansfield Park in Lady Audley’s Secret, and  
(2) Arthur Conan Doyle’s veiled allusions to both Lady Audley’s Secret as well as (per my posts last month) to Sense & Sensibility, with a soupcon of Tolstoyan allusion for good measure!

But for the remainder of this post, I’ll zero in on one specific Tolstoy allusion to JA’s writing relevant to Davies’s adaptation. As my Subject Line indicates, Andrew Davies is “at it again”—or so sing the chorus of TV critics who’ve accused him of sexing up Tolstoy’s saga, by inserting PG-13 incest scenes they say are not actually there in the oft-translated text of Tolstoy’s epic ----just as Davies was accused, two decades ago, of sexing up his mega-successful 1995 miniseries adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, by gratuitously (so say the naysayers) inserting that world-famous scene of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in a clinging wet blouse after cooling off in a Pemberley pond, a scene which definitely was most definitely not included in the novel:

I’ve previously suggested many times that all the critics of Davies’s dripping Mr. Darcy are themselves all wet—because it’s clear to me that Davies picked up on the very real, dense concentration of sexual subtext and imagery in the words describing Elizabeth Bennet’s awed (indeed, nearly orgasmic) reaction to the triple KO combo of seeing Pemberley and its grounds, then Darcy’s portrait, then Darcy himself in the flesh (wet or not). So, even though there is no literal description in P&P of Darcy taking a dip on a hot day, then emerging like an erotic Neptune, that scene is the perfect translation of the proverbial thousand words of “sextuality” into a powerful, erotic, cinematic picture.

And…don’t forget that Davies also caught the same unjustified flak in 2007, when his Sense & Sensibility began with Willoughby in bed with the seduced young Eliza Williams-even though that seduction is strongly implied by the narrative. And yet again in 2008 with his depiction of Catherine’s sexual dreams in Northanger Abbey, as though he too knew what I discovered several years ago—i.e., that Jane Austen gives us a very broad hint in the following narration…..
“They danced again; and, when the assembly closed, parted, on the lady's side at least, with a strong inclination for continuing the acquaintance. Whether she thought of him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman's love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.”
…that Catherine is going to have a sexual dream about her future husband on what just happens to be, in the chronology of NA, the Eve of St. Agnes---which is when a single girl is obliged by tradition to “prepare herself for bed” by not eating and then stripping to her birthday suit!
And now I’m ready to get to what I found a few weeks ago, which, to me, is convincing evidence that Tolstoy did indeed mean for his sharp elf readers to infer the occurrence of actual incest between Anatole and Helene in War and Peace. I believe Tolstoy thereby meant to allude to the incestuous brother-sister pair who had inspired him to create his diabolical pair: Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park!

And it’s not just those two parallel devilish sibling pairs. What I haven’t yet seen in Davies’s first two episodes, is any sign that Davies has picked up on the much subtler incestuous charge that Tolstoy also intentionally created between Nicholas and Natasha Rostov----who are, I suggest, an amalgam of Fanny and Edmund, but also Fanny and William, in Mansfield Park!

Two Tolstoy scholars (George Clay in 1998 & Juliet Mitchell in 2013) have written about Tolstoy intending to suggest incestuous feelings in both brother-sister pairs, the diabolical Kuragins and the squeaky-clean Rostovs. What I am still waiting and hoping to read, is an English translation of the original manuscript draft of W&P which survived Tolstoy, and which supposedly contains explicit incestuous scenes between Helene and Anatole, strong stuff that Tolstoy apparently lopt and cropt out of his text, leaving only hints. So Davies is standing on solid ground in his explicit depiction of Helene and Anatole as lovers.

They are each halves of a Satanic whole, whose mission seems to be, in part, to corrupt the virtuous young heroine Natasha. And so it’s no coincidence that Anatole decides to try to seduce Natasha, and nearly succeeds, just like Henry Crawford almost gets to the finish line with Fanny. And Anatole’s and Helene’s father is the embodiment of the spoken-of but never seen vicious uncle Admiral Crawford. And
Mary Crawford with her harp is like Helene, and both are based on Helen of Troy as well as Circe and the  Sirens. And then we have Nicholas Rostov whose huge gambling debts hobble the family fortune, just as do Tom Bertram’s!

MP and W&P in some other ways seem totally different as novels. Tolstoy embraces the “Big Bow Wow strain” with his vast sections about Napoleon and the war that tore Europe apart. But it’s clear from cutting edge Austen studies of the past 30 years that JA was also very much interested in that Big Picture,  in particular as to the Napoleonic Wars that engulfed England (and two of JA’s brothers) during half of JA’s lifetime. But she chose to wink and hint at it. So, again, we find Tolstoy standing at JA’s literary canvas, and filling in JA’s blanks from the faintly visible shadows she delicately sketched, and this time from Napoleon’s rear, eastern flank.

As for siblings Natasha and Nicholas, consider the scene in Book 7, Ch. 7, of W&P, after the refined Natasha has amazed the room with her spirited and earthy Old Russian country dancing. Near the end of Episode 2 of Davies’s miniseries, he places cousin Sonia (another Fanny Price figure) in the carriage ride home on a snowy moonlit night. But Tolstoy actually wrote a scene with Natasha and brother Nicholas sharing a confusingly and disturbingly romantic tete a tete:

“After nine o'clock two traps and three mounted men, who had been sent to look for them, arrived to fetch Natasha and Petya. The count and countess did not know where they were and were very anxious, said one of the men.  Petya was carried out like a log and laid in the larger of the two traps. Natasha and Nicholas got into the other. "Uncle" wrapped Natasha up warmly and took leave of her with quite a new tenderness. He accompanied them on foot as far as the bridge that could not be crossed, so that they had to go round by the ford, and he sent huntsmen to ride in front with lanterns.
….What was passing in that receptive childlike soul that so eagerly caught and assimilated all the diverse impressions of life? How did they all find place in her? But she was very happy. As they were nearing home she suddenly struck up the air of As 'twas growing dark last night—the tune of which she had all the way been trying to get and had at last caught.
"Got it?" said Nicholas.
"What were you thinking about just now, Nicholas?" inquired Natasha.
They were fond of asking one another that question.
"I?" said Nicholas, trying to remember. "Well, you see, first I thought that Rugay, the red hound, was like Uncle, and that if he were a man he would always keep Uncle near him, if not for his riding, then for his manner. What a good fellow Uncle is! Don't you think so?... Well, and you?"
"I? Wait a bit, wait.... Yes, first I thought that we are driving along and imagining that we are going home, but that heaven knows where we are really going in the darkness, and that we shall arrive and suddenly find that we are not in Otradnoe, but in Fairyland. And then I thought... No, nothing else."
"I know, I expect you thought of him," said Nicholas, smiling as Natasha knew by the sound of his voice.
"No," said Natasha, though she had in reality been thinking about Prince Andrew at the same time as of the rest, and of how he would have liked "Uncle." "And then I was saying to myself all the way, 'How well Anisya carried herself, how well!'" And Nicholas heard her spontaneous, happy, ringing laughter. "And do you know," she suddenly said, "I know that I shall never again be as happy and tranquil as I am now."
"Rubbish, nonsense, humbug!" exclaimed Nicholas, and he thought: "How charming this Natasha of mine is! I have no other friend like her and never shall have. Why should she marry? We might always drive about together!"
"What a darling this Nicholas of mine is!" thought Natasha.
"Ah, there are still lights in the drawing-room!" she said, pointing to the windows of the house that gleamed invitingly in the moist velvety darkness of the night.

“invitingly in the moist velvety darkness of the night”??   George Clay was spot-on in 1998: this is very suggestive. But I go a big step further, and see this scene as Tolstoy wishing us to recognize that there’s much less of a gap between the worldly Kuragin siblings and the innocent Rostov siblings than the latter would like to believe. But it would not surprise the worldly socialite, who makes the following sage comments while watching mousy Sonia blush in jealousy of cousin Nicholas early in the novel:

"How plainly all these young people wear their hearts on their sleeves!" said Anna Mikhaylovna, pointing to Nicholas as he went out. "Cousinage—dangereux voisinage;" she added. [Cousinhood is a dangerous neighborhood.]
"Yes," said the countess when the brightness these young people had brought into the room had vanished; and as if answering a question no one had put but which was always in her mind, "and how much suffering, how much anxiety one has had to go through that we might rejoice in them now! And yet really the anxiety is greater now than the joy. One is always, always anxious! Especially just at this age, so dangerous both for girls and boys."
"It all depends on the bringing up," remarked the visitor.
"Yes, you're quite right," continued the countess. "Till now I have always, thank God, been my children's friend and had their full confidence," said she, repeating the mistake of so many parents who imagine that their children have no secrets from them. "I know I shall always be my daughters' first confidante, and that if Nicholas, with his impulsive nature, does get into mischief (a boy can't help it), he will all the same never be like those Petersburg young men."

Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas, anyone? Still think I am imagining it all?  ;)

And I’ll conclude by promising that, in yet another post, I’ll explain how this dark, ironic connection of Tolstoy’s innocent and worldly siblings appears to me to have actually spotted by Vladimir Nabokov long before 1998—in fact, nearly nine decades ago, but he wrote about his discovery not in a scholarly treatise, but, indirectly, in his early, proto-Lolita novella, fittingly entitled…. Laughter in THE DARK.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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