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

Monday, May 2, 2016

Shakespeare’s & Austen’s witty women leading apes (they don’t care sixpence for) to hell for sixpence!

I’ve been following the recent discussion in Janeites about the theme of leading apes into hell as the proverbial punishment for women who don’t marry and bear children.

First, let me add in passing that in my previous research, I came across the related scholarly suggestion of a variant on that theme—I.e., that it was also a punishment for single women who kill their illegitimate offspring—the common denominator  being that the woman must be punished for refusing to play her appointed societal role as “breeding animal”.

Second (and surprisingly), no one has noted the most famous literary examples other than Dante’s (and by the way, I never could find exactly where in Dante’s poetry that “leading apes to hell” metaphor is expressed--does anybody know?) of this meme of “leading apes into hell”----Shakespeare!!! ---Jane, is that what you were thinking of?

Specifically, Shakespeare used this theme not once but twice, in passages which he clearly treated as related, because the speakers are so very similar—the “curst”, sharp-tongued single woman Kate in 2.1 of The Taming of the Shrew, as she unleashes her fury at sister Bianca whom Kate sees as being their father’s favorite….

KATHARINA  If that be jest, then all the rest was so.
Strikes her
Why, how now, dame! whence grows this insolence?
Bianca, stand aside. Poor girl! she weeps.
Go ply thy needle; meddle not with her.
For shame, thou helding of a devilish spirit,
Why dost thou wrong her that did ne'er wrong thee?
When did she cross thee with a bitter word?
KATHARINA  Her silence flouts me, and I'll be revenged.
Flies after BIANCA
BAPTISTA   What, in my sight? Bianca, get thee in.
What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband;
And for your love to her LEAD APES IN HELL.
Talk not to me: I will go sit and weep
Till I can find occasion of revenge.
BAPTISTA   Was ever gentleman thus grieved as I?

…and the “curst” sharp tongued single woman Beatrice (not coincidentally, the name of Dante’s beloved) in Much Ado About Nothing, as he resists her uncle’s jibes about her pushing suitors away with her sharp wit:

I now want to turn this discussion around to Jane Austen, by picking up on the first part of Beatrice’s sentence: “I will even take sixpence in earnest of the bear-ward”.

Beatrice’s witty conceit is that she’ll accept the sum of sixpence as an earnest money deposit or down payment from the bearward (one meaning being the bear keeper who worked in the horrible  bear-baiting trade—and who apparently sometimes kept nonhuman primates as a sideline) in order to make delivery of the apes into hell. And then, presumably after getting paid C.O.D. by the devil, she’ll turn around and head straight up to heaven to make merry with the bachelors (which suggests that the apes led to hell were the married men!).

What I was immediately reminded of was the following passage in JA’ Letter #2 dated Jan. 14-15, 1796, in which the 20 year old JA,  sounding remarkably like Beatrice and also Elizabeth Bennet, playfully discusses her own marital prospects:   
“Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley & all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in the future, & not only him, but all my other Admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, FOR WHOM I DONOT CARE SIXPENCE. Assure [Miss C. Powlett] also as a last & indubitable proof of Warren’s indifference to me, that he actually drew that Gentleman’s picture for me, & delivered it to me without a Sigh.”

It is 100% clear to me that JA had Shakespeare’s Beatrice specifically in mind as she concocted that conceit, because it’s not merely the echoing of Beatrice’s reference to “sixpence”, which, alone, could very well be coincidence. It’s that this echo occurs in the same, very specific context of a woman treating men as commodities to be bought, sold, and delivered in business transactions—that’s no coincidence!

And of course the subversive point of this conceit in Letter #2 is that this is exactly the way women were actually treated in both Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s eras:  i.e., the marriage market was a vast slave market in which women were bought and sold as if they were farm or performing animals, with no say whatsoever over who their “owner” would be. That passage thus has an absurdist twelfth night sensibility —turning the real world topsy turvy, to make the point of the truly absurd injustice of that real world.

And that led me to search for any other usages of “sixpence” in JA’s fiction—and wouldn’t ya know, 5 of the 6 pertain to a woman leading a single life in a man’s world!:

First, in The Watsons fragment, we listen in as the single Emma Watson, single and no longer in youthful  bloom, receiving Mr. Collins-esque sexist condolences from her brother, for her having been left in spinsterhood by her financially inept aunt, forcing Emma to return to her penurious family of origin. Note her brother’s two references to Emma being left “without a sixpence”, the second of which reduces her to tears!:

“Emma was the first of the females in the parlour on entering it again; she found her brother there alone. ‘So Emma’, said he, ‘you are quite the Stranger at home. It must seem odd enough to you to be here. A pretty peice of work your Aunt Turner has made of it! By Heaven! a woman should never be trusted with money. I always thought said she ought to have settled something on you, as soon as her Husband died. when she took you away.’
‘But that would have been trusting me with money’, replied Emma smiling, ‘& I am a woman too.’
‘It might have been placed secured to you after future use, in Trust, without your having any power over it now. What a blow it must have been upon you! To find yourself, instead of being probable Heiress of 8 or 9000£, sent back a weight upon your family, WITHOUT A SIXPENCE. I hope the old woman will smart for it.’
‘I beg you, Do not to speak disrespectfully of my Aunt, Brother. Her ‒ She was very good to me; & If she has made an imprudent choice, she will suffer more from it herself, than I can possibly do.’
‘I do not mean to distress you, but you know every body must think her an old fool. I am just come from my Father’s room, he seems very indifferent. It will be a sad breakup when he dies. Pity, you can none of you get married! You must come to Croydon as well as the rest, & see what you can do there. I beleive if Margt. Margaret had had a thousand or fifteen hundred pounds, there was a young man who wd. would have thought of her.’
Emma was glad when they were joined by the others; it was better to look at her Sister in law’s finery, than listen to her brother . Robert, who had equally mortified, irritated & greived her. Mrs. Robert exactly as smart as she had been at her own party, came in with apologies for her dress.
‘I would not make you wait, said she, so I put on the first thing I met with. I am afraid I am a sad figure. My dear Mr. W. (to her husband) you have not put any fresh powder in your hair.’
‘No, I do not intend it.  I think there is powder enough in my hair for my wife & Sisters.’
‘Indeed you ought to make some alteration in your dress before dinner when you are out visitting, if though you do not at home.’
‘Nonsense. ‘
‘It is very odd you should not like to do what other gentlemen too do.’
‘Mr.. Marshall & I thought Turner had been reckoned an extra ordinary sensible, clever man. How the Devil came he to leave make such a will?’
‘My Uncle’s sense is not at all impeached in my opinion, by his attachment to my Aunt. She had been an excellent wife to him. The most Liberal & enlightened minds are always the most confiding. The event has been unfortunate, for me, but my Uncle’s memory is if possible endeared to me by such a proof of tender respect for my Aunt.’
‘That’s odd sort of Talking! ‒ He might have provided decently for his widow, without leaving it all every thing that he had to dispose of, or any part of it at her mercy.’
‘My Aunt may have erred’ said Emma warmly, ‘she has erred but my Uncle’s conduct was faultless. I was her own Neice, & he left to her self the power & the pleasure of providing for me.’
‘But unluckily she has left the pleasure of providing for you, to your Father, & without the power. That’s the long & the short of the business. After keeping you at a distance from your family for 14 years such a length of time as must do away all natural affection among us & breeding you up (I suppose) in a superior stile, you are returned upon their hands WITHOUT A SIXPENCE.’
‘You know’, replied Emma struggling with her tears, ‘my Uncle’s melancholy state of health. He was a greater Invalid than my father. He cd. could not leave home.’
‘I do not mean to make you cry.’ said Robt….

And then in Chapter 2 of S&S, with its famous allusion to King Lear (which I’ve also shown was also an allusion to a similar passage in As You Like It), we have a very similar heartlessly hypocritical discussion between Fanny and John Dashwood about the financial needs of his (single) stepmother and stepsisters:

"It is certainly an unpleasant thing," replied Mr. Dashwood, "to have those kind of yearly drains on one's income. One's fortune, as your mother justly says, is NOT one's own. To be tied down to the regular payment of such a sum, on every rent day, is by no means desirable: it takes away one's independence."
"Undoubtedly; and after all you have no thanks for it. They think themselves secure, you do no more than what is expected, and it raises no gratitude at all. If I were you, whatever I did should be done at my own discretion entirely. I would not bind myself to allow them any thing yearly. It may be very inconvenient some years to spare a hundred, or even fifty pounds from our own expenses."
"I believe you are right, my love; it will be better that there should be no annuity in the case; whatever I may give them occasionally will be of far greater assistance than a yearly allowance, because they would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and WOULD NOT BE SIXPENCE THE RICHER FOR IT at the end of the year. It will certainly be much the best way. A present of fifty pounds, now and then, will prevent their ever being distressed for money, and will, I think, be amply discharging my promise to my father."
"To be sure it will. Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all.

And finally, in Emma (which in a number of ways harks back to The Watsons), there are two references, one about Mrs. Goddard, the other about Miss Bates, representing two versions of the older spinster:

Mrs. Goddard's school was in high repute—and very deservedly; for Highbury was reckoned a particularly healthy spot: she had an ample house and garden, gave the children plenty of wholesome food, let them run about a great deal in the summer, and in winter dressed their chilblains with her own hands. It was no wonder that a train of twenty young couple now walked after her to church. She was a plain, motherly kind of woman, who had worked hard in her youth, and now thought herself entitled to the occasional holiday of a tea-visit; and having formerly owed much to Mr. Woodhouse's kindness, felt his particular claim on her to leave her neat parlour, hung round with fancy-work, whenever she could, and WIN OR LOSE A FEW SIXPENCES by his fireside.

"Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; she is only too good natured and too silly to suit me; but, in general, she is very much to the taste of every body, though single and though poor. Poverty certainly has not contracted her mind: I really believe, if she had only a shilling in the world, SHE WOULD BE VERY LIKELY TO GIVE AWAY SIXPENCE OF IT; and nobody is afraid of her: that is a great charm."

It’s clear from all of the above examples that JA never forgot Beatrice’s witty lines as she wrote her novels. The only one of the six usages that is not about single women is in P&P, and it is used in reference to the next person up from the bottom of the food chain—the poor son of a steward without an inheritance, who becomes a fortune hunter:

"If [Mr. Bennet] were ever able to learn what Wickham's debts have been," said Elizabeth, "and how much is settled on his side on our sister, we shall exactly know what Mr. Gardiner has done for them, because Wickham HAS NOT SIXPENCE OF HIS OWN. The kindness of my uncle and aunt can never be requited….”

So, in closing, the above suggests that the 20 year old JA’s veiled channeling of Shakespeare’s Beatrice in Letter #2 showed both that she knew Shakespeare really well from a young age, and also that her feminist outrage at the second class status of women in her world, especially the parts about not having control over money and being treated as a commodity, was always present and outfront in her writing!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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