....the subject matter of which was my interpretation, which I've been refining over the past 11 years, of what I call the "shadow story" of Jane Austen's Emma.
My hosts were two witty, well-informed, and open-minded young Janeite friends who host the First Impressions Podcast, created by them for discussion of all things Jane Austen's genius, that they started a few months ago:
Kristin Whitman, whom I first met via Austen L about 8 years ago, and
Kristin's great friend, Maggie Riley, who is now my newest Janeite friend.
I was very flattered when Kristin first approached me two months ago with the idea of this discussion, in honor of the year long bicentennial celebration of the publication of Emma in 1816. I immediately agreed to do it, because I already knew that they were both smart, fearless, and funny--a wonderful combination--- and what better way to make my debut on YouTube and in podcast land than that!
So we basically came in with very little preplanned structure, and just let it fly--I hope you'll agree that the conversation was lively, irreverent, and interesting (even if at times we all were talking a little bit too loud, and laughing a little too hard, as Billy Joel would have put it).
If you're not familiar with my ideas, and don't want to watch the video completely cold, you are welcome to first read the following brief summary of my shadow story theory:
My fundamental premise is that each Austen novel, but above all Emma, is told from (pretty much) the exclusive point of view of the heroine for a crucial reason—which is that, by means of her infinitely clever narrative technique, I have found that Jane Austen became increasingly expert in telling two completely different stories using the identical words for each—just like the proverbial figure ground image.
Is it two faces looking at each other, or a candle-stick holder? It’s both, depending on the observer’s point of view. Both are plausible, and therefore neither is exclusively correct. The image itself never alters, only our perception of it. And it’s still pretty mysterious how our brains can switch back and forth between the two images, both with and without our conscious control.
The same applies, I claim, with Jane Austen’s novels. On the one hand, if we read the narrative as mostly objective, and therefore both accurate and complete as presenting “all we need to know” in order to comprehend the story told, then we get the novels as they have been pretty universally read for 2 centuries—what I call the “overt stories”. And it is the understatement of the millennium to state that each of JA’s six completed overt stories are miraculous works of sublime genius.
But… if we read the narrative as mostly subjective (and therefore extremely incomplete in terms of presenting the story from the heroine’s often fallible point of view), then we get the novels as they have never been coherently read for 2 centuries prior to my discoveries of the past decade. Many other readers before me have seen pieces of the proverbial elephant in Austen’s novels, but I am the first to assert that each novel contains a second entire “elephant” we need to work very hard. over a long period of time, in order to glimpse it in its full splendor—and you know I call that the “shadow story”.
And one last crucial aspect to this—the reading of JA’s narrative as fundamentally objective is the opposite of real-life experience of the real world, whereas the reading of her narrative as subjective is an exact replication of real life experience of the real world. I.e., in real life, none of us has an omniscient narrator perched on our shoulder reliably telling us what is “really” happening in our lives—we each must struggle to overcome our own often flawed individual judgments, to make the best sense we can of what happens, particularly in terms of understanding both our own personalities and actions, and also those of other people. Our real lives are a perpetual struggle to discern what is happening in the shadows around (and inside) us, and to not be prone to either faulty “first impressions” or to hard-wired prejudices.
It was over 10 years ago that I had my final major epiphany about those six coherent shadow stories. And it was Emma which gave me this flash of insight, because when I began to look at the novel through the lens of Frank as possible murderer of his aunt in order to end his “servitude” to her, I was shocked to find that the entire novel (and not just Frank’s character and actions) lit up for me like a Christmas tree of offstage shadowy threads, with a thousand textual hints about /all/ of the characters, all suggesting something beyond the apparent surface meaning. All the holes (like the curious lack of mention of anyone in the downstairs at the Bates residence) are, to me, wormholes, which lead somewhere. And most of all, we have the oracle of /Emma/, Miss Bates, whose torrent of words sounds to Emma (and most readers) like trivial drivel to be ignored, or at most, enjoyed as comedy, but who actually is constantly speaking in code about what is happening in the shadows, especially the most serious matters unknown to Emma.
And, to answer the common question I am asked, why am i the first person in 200 years to see this, here's a recent answer I gave in Janeites: In my interpretation of her shadow stories it is clear that she aspired to a radical subversion of male, aristocratic, and financial privilege. And, as anyone can see in the “Prince of Whales” secret answer to the “courtship” charade in Emma, JA had the Prince Regent, the self-styled “first gentleman of Europe”, right in the center of her polemical crosshairs. She made him the unwitting butt of her fierce satire and critique of the status quo in all three of those categories of privilege. Her satire encompasses within it all the (justified) attacks on the PR by Hunt, Lamb, Cruikshank, and others. And then, as icing on the allusive cake, she had the kahones to dedicate /Emma/ to him! You don’t get more subversive, and therefore more dangerous, than that! How could she possibly have let that subliminal subtext be too visible and too obvious? Too risky.
So her strategy was to weave this sort of extreme satire and subversion into the subtext of her superficially “status quo-friendly” love stories. And you are correct, as literary history actually unfolded, there was, in fact, no recognition of JA’s shadow stories, as coherent entities, for nearly two centuries, until I made the first such claim in early 2005, after 2 ½ years of my own grasping toward that epiphany. But….I strenuously assert that such long history of nonrecognition was /not/ an inevitable, foregone conclusion that Jane Austen could have foreseen when she wrote her novels. Instead, I suggest that three factors converged to keep Austen’s shadow stories, as coherent entities, invisible to readers for 190 years:
CAUTION: Her extreme caution, meaning (as I’ve previously explained) that JA felt she had to hide her shadow stories well enough to make them deniable if detected—“do not be suspecting me of a CODE”;
GENIUS: Her extreme genius, meaning (as I’ve also previously explained) she was so brilliant, and must have been so totally consumed over a very long period of time with the process of creating double stories, that she (ironically) lost perspective and was not a good judge of just how much disguise was the optimal amount. I.e., she thought they’d be more readily decodable than they are. On this point, I can speak from direct personal experience, because my own ability to decode her shadow stories has gradually but steadily improved over the past 12 years—and at first, I really was surprised when people didn’t see what I see. But after ten years of public debate about this topic with hundreds and hundreds of other readers, I now understand just how difficult (or undesirable) taking such a large leap is for many other Janeites. But, as I’ve suggested, we can see a progression in JA’s novels, as I believe she sought to hit that sweet spot right in the middle between too obvious and too obscure. That’s why she wrote Emma, with its mysteriousness right there on the surface for all to see, so different from her three previous published novels. And had she lived another ten years, she not only would have gained national prominence and a bully pulpit to be open about her views, she’d have written more novels in which, I am confident, the shadow stories would have been brought closer and closer to the surface. Sooner or later, lightning would have struck. and
HISTORY: But the Austen family decisively shaped the narrative (to borrow the buzzword we hear every day in election campaign punditry) about the kind of author JA was, from the moment JA died. I.e., if you’re a Janeite reading Austen, and you’re told, with 100% assurance, by pretty much all the mainstream Austen experts, that she was an author who would /never/ hint at dark shadows, then, unless you are a stubborn self-confident contrarian like myself, you will not acknowledge those shadows, even when they pop up right in front of your eyes. I’ve seen it myself hundreds of times, in books, articles, blog and discussion posts—where readers do spot “bread crumbs”—those anomalies in the text which don’t fit with the mainstream interpretation of a given character—but in the end those readers have almost all turned away from the door they opened themselves, and rationalized away the anomalies. Such is the power of the Myth of Jane Austen.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter