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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Artaxerxes & Darcy: Jane Austen’s Operatic Performance to Strangers in P&P

Anel wrote: “I am going to embark on a rereading of P&P where I will note all the "false notes" that pique my interest.  Naturally, they would be false notes *intended* by JA. Arnie would agree that those are normally the doors to the shadow dimension he so fondly introduced us to. The below is one of them and I just can't get to grips with even Arnie's explanation in one of his most popular posts. With a stupid semantics question here: is it usual to use a "WE" in this below last sentence? Why could it not have been left out: *Neither of us performs to strangers*.. referring to neither him, nor Elizabeth..? I use the singular here because that is what is/was normally used in formal English, so the below last sentence just has a strange ring to *my ears*….”
Anel, thank you for your response to my 2013 P&P bicentennial post “We neither of us perform to strangers”. For those who haven’t read it, I claimed that Darcy misreads Eliza’s repartee (at Netherfield and then again at Rosings) as a series of sexual come-ons---such as her jabs about female “fingers” “performing” on “instruments” being very similar to Shakespearean sexual banter in The Taming of the Shrew. What Darcy is saying to Eliza, in code, is this: “Even though Lady C. and the Colonel (“strangers”) don’t register your veiled sexual come-ons (“performance”), I do.” Darcy’s misreading leads him to botch his proposal, because he assumes from her seeming come-ons that she’ll say “Yes!”; it also prompts his aggrieved counterattack when she shocks him with her emphatic “No!”. In that post I also mentioned that there’ve been many other explications of Darcy’s enigmatic “We neither of us perform to strangers” by amateur and scholarly Janeites alike, including one of my own in a 2011 post. But I still assert that sexual innuendo is the best translation of Darcy’s cryptic meaning.
Anel also questioned the peculiar syntax of “We neither of us perform to strangers”, when “Neither of us performs to strangers” would’ve been grammatically sufficient. To my ears, the addition of “We” at the start creates a poetic rhythm that is pleasing to the ear, and makes Darcy’s statement more aphoristic, memorable, and…Shakespearean! But her comment also prompted me to check in Google Books, and find that the phrase “We neither of us” was not uncommonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries, including one such usage in a published letter written by Jonathan Swift.
However, among the dozen such usages, ONE OF THEM STOOD OUT, because it seemed to resonate strongly with Darcy’s and Eliza’s verbal battle in the Rosings salon. It occurs in one of the mock letters in Joseph Addison’s The Spectator, the famous early 18th century periodical the Austen family knew well. It was a major inspiration for the mock letters that comprised the Oxford Austen brothers’s The Loiterer, to which JA (aka Sophia Sentiment) contributed a memorable entry. Moreover, The Spectator is explicitly mentioned twice in Northanger Abbey:  “And while the abilities of…the man who collects and publishes in a volume…a paper from the Spectator…are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist…Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

To paraphrase Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen, like Eliza Bennet, often “f[ou]nd “great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact [we]re not [he]r own"; and I see the above as a prime example. I.e., the narrator of NA seems to dismiss literature like The Spectator as consisting of “topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living”, but I’ve repeatedly found that JA was a scholar of all manner of literature written long before her lifetime, including The Spectator. With that introduction, I’ll now give you that short letter in the Feb. 27, 1711 issue of The Spectator, immediately followed by the relevant passage in Chapter 31 of P&P, with parallel language between the two passages in ALL CAPS. After that, I’ll explain the amazing operatic allusion that I believe lay behind Austen’s allusion to Addison:

“Mr. Spectator, You are to know that I am naturally Brave, and love Fighting as well as any Man in England. This gallant Temper of mine makes me extremely DELIGHTED with Battles on the Stage. I GIVE you this TROUBLE to complain to you, that Nicolini refused to gratify me in that Part of the Opera for which I have most TASTE. I observe it’s become a Custom, that whenever any GENTLEMEN are particularly PLEASED with a SONG, at their crying out Encore or altro volto, the PERFORMER is so obliging as to SING it over again. I was at the Opera the last time Hydaspes was PERFORMED. At that part of it where the hero engages with the lion, the graceful manner with which he put that terrible monster to death gave me so great a PLEASURE, and at the same time so just a sense of that GENTLEMAN’s intrepidity and conduct, that I could not forbear desiring a repetition of it, by crying out altro volto, in a very audible voice…Yet, notwithstanding all this, there was so little regard had to me, that the lion was carried off, and went to bed, without being killed any more that night. Now, Sir, Pray consider that l did not understand a word of what Mr. Nicolini said to this cruel creature; besides, 1 have no ear for MUSIC; so that during the long dispute between them, the whole ENTERTAINMENT I had was from my eyes. Why then have not I as much right to have graceful action repeated as another has a PLEASING sound…WE NEITHER OF US know that there is any REASONABLE thing a doing?...I am an Englishman, and expect some REASON or other to be given me, and perhaps an ordinary one may serve; but I expect your Answer. I am, SIR, Your most humble Servant, Toby Rentfree 
And now, that passage in the Rosings salon:        
“...Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said: "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."
"I shall not say you are mistaken," he replied, "because you could not really believe me to ENTERTAIN any design of alarming you; and I have had the PLEASURE of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself…”...Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire—and, give me leave to say, very impolitic too—for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear."
"I am not afraid of you," said he, smilingly.
"Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of," cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I should like to know how he behaves among strangers."
"You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though GENTLEMEN were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."
"I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party."
"True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room. Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers wait your orders."
"Perhaps," said Darcy, "I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers."
"Shall we ask your cousin the REASON of this?" said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?"
"I can answer your question," said Fitzwilliam, "without applying to him. It is because he will not GIVE himself the TROUBLE."
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the TROUBLE of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. WE NEITHER OF US PERFORM TO STRANGERS."
Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine, who called out to know what they were talking of. Elizabeth immediately began playing again. Lady Catherine approached, and, after listening for a few minutes, said to Darcy:"Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her TASTE is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a DELIGHTFUL PERFORMER, had her health allowed her to learn."

The resonance between these two quotations isn’t merely one of repetition of keywords, it’s that both are about a listener’s reaction to a sung performance, and both are about “battles”: verbal, between Darcy and fearless Eliza, and physical, between the lion and fearless Hydaspes. Here’s a 1922 synopsis of Mancini’s Hydaspes in “Opera in England prior to The Beggar’s Opera” by Frank Kidson, who, you’ll notice, recalls the Addison connection from 2 centuries earlier:   
“In 1710…the next opera to follow was Hydaspes. In this, Nicolini took the part of Hydaspes. The plot of the opera was dramatic enough. Hydaspes, the brother of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, is a rival to the King in the affections of Princess Berenice. His brother condemns Hydaspes to be devoured by a lion in the amphitheatre while Berenice is placed to see her lover’s sufferings. Hydaspes with much vocal effort begs the lion, which is supposed not to see him at first, to ‘come on’…The lion incident seemed to provoke a good deal of good-natured satire, and Addison in The Spectator pokes fun at Nicolini’s struggles with it. The opera was by Francesco Mancini and it was acted in 1710.” END QUOTE
So, if Jane Austen did mean to allude to Hydaspes when writing Darcy’s famous aphorism about not performing to strangers, what might this mean? I suggest that JA thereby meant to point to the love story told in that century-old opera, in which the powerful Artaxerxes and his brother Hydaspes are rivals for the affections of Princess Berenice, just as the powerful Darcy and his “brother” Wickham are rivals for the affections of Elizabeth Bennet. And here’s some suggestive evidence of JA’s strong interest in that operatic story, in her March 5, 1814 letter to Cassandra, written from London:  We are to see The Devil to Pay to-night. I expect to be very much amused. Excepting Miss Stephens, I daresay Artaxerxes will be very tiresome.”  And then, after seeing it, this followup comment:
"“I was very tired of Artaxerxes, highly amused with the Farce, & in an inferior way with the Pantomime that followed. Mr. J. Plumptre joined in the latter part of the Evening-walked home with us, ate some soup, & is very earnest for our going to Cov. Gar. again to night to see Miss Stephens in The Farmer's Wife....”

So, might there be some connection between the performance of Artaxerxes JA correctly predicted would be “very tiresome” for her to watch, and the character Artaxerxes in the opera Hydaspes which Addison wrote about in The Spectator? YES!! There were actually two operas performed in England, which were both on Jane Austen’s radar screen. First, in two recent posts… “Austen’s shocking risque allusion to The Marriage of Figaro in P&P   &  “Much more on the Cherubino Marriage of Figaro subtext in P&P  ….I showed that Jane Austen was deeply engaged with Mozart’s great comic opera as she wrote P&P.  And, second, the Artaxerxes JA didn’t expect to enjoy was an opera, not a play; and not just any opera, a very popular one:
“In 1791, Joseph Haydn, then working in London, went to a performance of Thomas Arne's opera Artaxerxes. He was astonished by it. He had "no idea", he is on record as saying, "that we had such an opera in the English language". That an English-born composer might have produced one of the great operas was difficult for Haydn to imagine: he was unaware of the huge popularity of Arne's masques, operas and songs, which audiences had flocked to see only a few decades previously. Premiered in 1762, Artaxerxes was regarded as one of Arne's masterpieces. By the turn of the 19th century, every British music lover was familiar with it, almost to the point of satiety: in 1814, Jane Austen admitted she was becoming "very tired" of hearing it.
And here’s the revealing connection of Figaro to Artaxerxes: Catherine Stephens, the opera diva whose performance JA foresaw would be the saving grace of Artaxerxes, was not merely making her debut at Covent Garden in that 1814 performance; two years earlier, in May 1812 at the Little Theatre, Stephens played the “trouser role” of Cherubino in the first London staging of Figaro, and her main arias were often encored. So I suggest that JA looked forward to seeing Catherine Stephens that evening in March 1814 precisely because JA had enjoyed her cross-dressed Cherubino (Chamberlayne in P&P) so much in Figaro two years earlier!
So, in conclusion, I thank Anel for getting me started on a line of inquiry that revealed this whole additional layer of operatic subtext in P&P –so that, two centuries later, we readers need no longer be “strangers” to JA’s subtle “performance” in P&P of that Figaro/Artaxerxes subtext.

Cheers, ARNIE

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