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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

My latest defense of my theory of Jane Austen’s shadow stories

In the Janeites listserv, Nancy Mayer (whom I think of as my personal “Friendly Skeptic” because she is never convinced by my arguments, and yet she is unfailingly polite in her skepticism) restated yet again her old objections to my theory of Jane Austen’s shadow stories, giving me the opportunity to restate my answers according to my most current understanding, which has evolved over the past decade:

Nancy: "I do get tired of all the changing partners and imaginary lovers and sexual predators that people are driven to create. Please, as I have suggested before, do write those novels-- just don't defame Jane
with having created them."

Nancy, we've been down this road before --- every time you make a comment like that, I explain to you that I see one underlying and highly laudatory goal for Jane Austen having written novels which include
shadow stories in which many of the main characters other than the heroine are "flipped" from "good guys" to "bad guys", or from fools to geniuses:

First and foremost, I see JA's shadow stories as sophisticated cautionary tales, which exactly counterbalance the sophisticated romance of the overt stories. In a nutshell, and using P&P as one example among six:

If Darcy really is a good guy who reforms and repents his former arrogant selfish ways, then you have the story that has warmed many millions of hearts over 2 centuries. But if Darcy really is a bad guy who only pretends to reform and repent, because he's just one of those narcissistic men who cannot take no for
an answer, then you have the sophisticated cautionary tale of the shadow story. Neither is intended by JA to be understood as having an exclusive claim to be "reality"--both are possibliities, both of them fit the narrative on the page.

I believe her goal was to educate women (not in a conduct book lecture fashion, but by using the powerful experience of reading fiction as a tool to enable her female readers to read their own lives better, and be
prepared for the next man who walks in her door to be EITHER a good guy OR a bad guy.

And for the cautionary tale to have power and be effective, it had to present all the horrible things that really did happen in her world, most of which involved men oppressing women, and much of it having to do with women's bodies (serial pregnancy, sexual predation, freedom and ease of travel, etc). That was reality --men routinely did abuse the power that religion, custom, and law gave them.

So why is it defaming Jane Austen to say that she was a whistleblower, shining a light on the domestic Gothic of everyday English family life?

Nancy then responded to my above answer with this followup: "How can it be a cautionary tale if no one ever knew it? Jane Austen was too smart and too talented to be so obscure. She could have written that story more boldly."

Good question, and also one I've answered before, but I will be happy to answer it again, with three reasons which interacted with each other in complicated ways:

ONE: You overestimate her freedom to write the shadow story more boldly. She had reason to feel extremely vulnerable on a personal level, if she openly wrote what she actually thought. Remember, she had no savings, and was utterly dependent on family for room and shelter, not to say travel and leisure activities. She was not a martyr, and wasn't willing to go down in flames in order to make a point.

TWO: As an author, her primary goal with her shadow stories, I believe, was to reach women, and she feared (rightly I believe) that she would never even get published if she were too clear that she was advocating for radical readjustment of gender relations in British society.

THREE: And here's the complicated ironic aesthetic/didactic reason--it was necessary to structure the novels so that the socially acceptable overt story would be accessible by reading with the grain, where the
subversive shadow story would be accessible only by reading against the grain. The most effective way to give a reader an "Aha!" moment about being overly passive in accepting society's narratives about one's own life, would be to first seduce female readers into the very satisfying sophisticated, nuanced romance of the stories, and then, when they reread in order to enjoy the pleasure of the romance again,  their
subconscious minds would have had the chance to begin to notice subliminal hints pointing to the shadow story.

What was impossible for her to do, however, was to accurately judge, ahead of time, how close to come to crossing the line of deniability ("Do not be suspecting me of a pun") in each successive novel, without crossing it. Each publication was therefore a kind of experiment, that's why she collected reader responses as she did for MP and Emma. She was trying to gauge what was or was not being detected by her readers.

Now that I have had so much time to decode all of her fiction, beginning with the earliest Juvenilia and running right up to the deathbed poem, I can see a clear progression over time:

The Juvenilia is wildly transgressive, but was never intended to be published; same with Lady Susan.

As she went from one published novel to the next, she kept finding that nobody was "getting" the shadow stories, and so each time she upped the ante. That's why Emma, which was the fourth novel to be published in her lifetime, has its famous "Gotcha!" with the revelation of the secret 9/10 through the novel, that compels a rereading to understand what has really happened. The meta-message of that "Gotcha!", to a reader who was paying attention, is that JA was capable of pulling the wool over
readers's eyes, so maybe readers ought to be more suspicious about ALL her fiction, to see if there were other such secrets.  Plus I see her getting closer and closer to making the same-sex love themes of her
shadow stories more and more visible.

So, for all these interacting reasons, Austen proceeded cautiously. I truly believe that had she even lived to the age of 50, and had written 3-4 more novels, and had become as famous as, say, Maria Edgeworth or
Fanny Burney, and felt independent and secure enough, she would have gone public in some way with what she had been up to.

But we all know what happened instead--she died rather abruptly at 41 1/2, and then her family went into overdrive to create the Myth of Jane Austen. Whatever chance there was that readers would begin to see the shadow stories was squashed--because the key to seeing the shadow stories is the willingness to believe they MIGHT be there.  If you've been told that she did not transgress as a writer (just read Henry's Bio Notice, and JEAL's Memoir protesting way too much about what she DIDN'T do in her writing!), you will have to be a very very stubborn reader to think otherwise.

As Jane Austen the amateur epistemologist recognized, people pretty much see only what they expect to see --- the naive observer just assumes the objectivity of the world he or she sees, whereas the wiser observer recognizes his or her own hard wired subjectivity, and struggles to come up with ways of partially freeing themselves from the tyranny of one's own pride and prejudice.

This is why all six novels are so strictly written from a single point of view, that of the heroine, with less than 1% of every novel giving VERY brief windows into the minds of certain other characters --in
effect, we as readers are imprisoned in the minds of JA's young heroines, who all believe they know what is going on around them, but, in the shadow story, are utterly clueless.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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