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

Friday, May 13, 2016

Why Sir Walter Scott’s brilliant, subversive 1816 reading of P&P has not prevailed among Janeites

In my previous post, I quoted the following passage from Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 review of Jane Austen’s writing, which included this about P&P:

".....The story of the piece [P&P] consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily..... "

I became curious to see if any later Austen scholars had ever engaged with Scott’s subversive reading, which (again) suggests that Elizabeth’s sudden emergence of loving feelings toward Darcy arose because she had been overawed and seduced by the wealth and grandeur of Pemberley.

And I found a remarkable reaction to Scott, in “Jane Austen ob. July 18, 1817” an article by renowned early 20th century Austen scholar, Reginald Farrer, in The Quarterly Review.I had not previously read Farrer’s July, 1917 commemoration of Austen on the centennial of her death, but now I see that it contains a quintessential example of how the Myth of Jane Austen has blinded even the most insightful Austen scholars to evidence of her shadow stories, even when it has been placed right in front of their noses by the one contemporary of Jane Austen who would have been the best example possible of a sophisticated contemporary reader of her novels--- Sir Walter Scott, in the above quoted passage. Scott, after all, was the author whom JA famously jokingly wished would stop writing such successful novels, because he was making it so hard for other authors like her to get their books published, sold, and read.

For starters, the following passage in Farrar’s article is of interest, because Farrer so blithely states, as facts, assertions about JA’s writing which I believe most Janeites today, including myself, would consider  either wrong or wrong-headed—see if you can spot Farrers’s errors of fact and opinion about P&P:

“But now comes the greatest miracle of English Literature. Straight on the heels of Lady Susan and Sense and Sensibility this country parson’s daughter of barely twenty-one breaks covert with a book of such effortless mastery, such easy and sustained brilliance, as would seem quite beyond reach of any but the most mature genius. Yet, though Pride and Prejudice has probably given more perfect pleasure than any other novel (Elizabeth, to Jane Austen first, and now to all time, ‘is as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print,’ literature’s most radiant heroine, besides being the most personally redolent of her creator), its very youthful note of joyousness is also the negation of that deeper quality which makes the later work so inexhaustible. Without ingratitude to the inimitable sparkle of this glorious book, even Northanger Abbey, in its different scale, must be recognised as of a more sumptuous vintage. Pride and Prejudice is, in fact, alone among the Immortal Five, a story pure and simple, though unfolded in and by character, indeed, with a dexterity which the author never aimed at repeating. For, as Jane Austen’s power and personality unfold, character becomes more and more the very fabric of her works, and the later books are entirely absorbed and dominated by their leading figures; whereas Darcy and Elizabeth are actors among others in their comedy, instead of being the very essence of it, like Anne or Emma. And to the reader, the difference is that, whereas he can never come to an end of the subtle delights that lurk in every sentence of the later books, there does come a point at which he has Pride and Prejudice completely assimilated.
Perhaps Jane Austen never quite recovered this first fine careless rapture; still, the book has other signs of youth. It has a vice-word, ‘tolerably,’ and its dialogue retains traces of Fanny Burney. Compare the heavy latinised paragraphs of the crucial quarrel between Darcy and Elizabeth (the sentence which proved so indelible a whip-lash to Darcy’s pride is hardly capable of delivery in dialogue at all, still less by a young girl in a tottering passion) with the crisp and crashing exchanges in the parallel scene between Elton and Emma. The later book provides another comparison. Throughout, when once its secret is grasped, the reader is left in no doubt that subconsciously Emma was in love with Knightley all the time.”  END QUOTE FROM FARRER

I leave it you to count all the questionable assertions that Farrer makes in the above passage, in particular his claim that the dialog of the first proposal scene between Darcy and Elizabeth is “hardly capable of delivery in dialogue at all” –anyone who has seen Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth deliver those very same lines would beg to disagree, right?

But now we come to the point, as Mr. Bennet would say. Here is where Farrer blithely slams Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 comments about P&P, which I quoted above:

“In Pride and Prejudice the author has rather fumbled with an analogous psychological situation, and is so far from making clear the real feeling which underlies Elizabeth’s deliberately fostered dislike of Darcy, that she has uncharacteristically left herself open to such a monstrous misreading as Sir Walter Scott’s, who believed that Elizabeth was subdued to Darcy by the sight of Pemberley. In point of fact, we are expressly told that her inevitable feeling, ‘this might have been mine,’ is instantly extinguished by the belief that she could not bear it to be hers, at the price of having Darcy too; while her subsequent remark to Jane is emphatically a joke, and is immediately so treated by Jane herself (‘another entreaty that she would be serious,’ etc.), wiser than some later readers of the scene. Sir Walter’s example should be a warning of how easy it is to trip even amid the looser mesh of Jane Austen’s early work. Rapid reading of her is faulty reading….”

Now do you see a quintessential example of why Jane Austen’s shadow stories have not been spotted and properly understood for 200 years. The legitimate question of whether Sir Walter Scott has makes an incisive subversive interpretation of the climax of P&P is begged in the most cavalier, superficial manner by Farrer, and yet Farrer has the intellectual chutzpah to accuse Scott of reading P&P too fast to have understood it properly! Physician, heal thyself, I say!

Note in particular how Farrer accuses JA of making a rather large mistake, i.e., in leaving Elizabeth’s feelings about Darcy ambiguous. Farrer thereby implicitly and inadvertently concedes that there is an ambiguity in the novel on this crucial point—but again, with colossal chutzpah, he accuses JA herself of having “rather fumbled” the execution of this central aspect of her novel. And on top of that, he inadvertently also reveals that he has so misunderstood the manner in which P&P was composed by JA—did you note that he believed that JA wrote P&P at 21? That shows that Farrer did not bother to read JA’s 1812 letter in which she reported to Cassandra about her progress, at age 37, in lopping and cropping P&P for publication. Again, Mr. Farrer, physician heal thyself!

And finally note how Farrer accuses Scott of the “monstrous misreading” of that “mistake”, when Scott takes JA’s ambiguity as intentional on JA’s part. And then Farrer gives as “proof” that Scott has misread JA  two pieces of evidence which are anything but probative, because they can very plausibly be read as (1) Elizabeth’s self-deluding rationalizations about her immunity from the seduction of wealth and power; and (2) yet another ignoring of unpleasantness by Jane Bennet, the quintessential Pollyanna, who ought to be the last character in the world to cite as an authority on whether Elizabeth was joking!

But, who was ever going to challenge Farrer, in 1917…..or in 2016, for that matter, with these sorts of objections, other than a stubborn obsessive contrarian like myself? Nobody! Only I have had both the necessary firmness of belief that Scott was correct, plus, in the past 15 years (out of the 203 years since P&P was published), the power of the Internet and computers at my disposal, with all that those resources provide. And I’ve also been fortunate to have had the enormous amount of time to completely research the entire range of Austen scholarship—in particular, the ability to gather hundreds of nuggets like Scott’s, and to put them all in their proper place in a well organized argument, alongside my own discoveries.

And that’s yet another reason why Jane Austen’s shadow stories have not been discovered until now.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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