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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Austen’s Letter 107, Ben Franklin’s twelvemonth, & the People’s (and Milton’s) eyes

My post yesterday, “Newton Priors, Dawlish & J.Austen’s poignant bequest to literary niece Anna ….  …was sparked primarily by the references to Dawlish (in Devon) in JA’s 1814 letters to literary niece Anna. In this post today, I’ll be writing about some other Austenian wordplay in Letter 107, starting with “Newton Priors is really a Nonpareil.-Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it.”

In early 2013, I wrote the following comments Newton Priors as a “Nonpareil”:   “There are several sly learned jokes hidden in this passage, which JA was suggesting Anna embedded in this place name. First ‘nonpareil’ was a popular variety of apple. And JA as well as Anna, would've been aware of the legend of Isaac Newton's famous apple which supposedly enabled him to discover his theory of universal gravitation. In that regard, ‘priors’ sounds like ‘perry’, and Anielka has written in the past about JA engaging in wordplay associated with that popular form of alcoholic beverage made from pears. So we have apples and pears both alluded to covertly in this single place name. And finally, the word nonpareil is anagrammatically related to the name newton priors! I.e., 5 of the first 6 letters of nonpareil appear in the same order in Anna's place name. And Newton's theory was of course itself a ‘nonpareil’ in the history of science. What this all tells us is that JA was a compulsive word player. She read Anna's place name, and immediately picked up on this bit of sophisticated wordplay. It would've please Jane greatly to see her niece playing the same kind of literary word games she herself had always played.” 

Yesterday, as I wrote my previous post, I got to wondering about JA’s witty compliment in Letter 104 about living “for a twelvemonth” on Anna’s clever place name---as if an idea could be as nutritious and wholesome as food. Sounds like an ideal item for a menu at a Mr. Woodhouse-owned restaurant, right? Then I asked myself whether Jane Austen’s “for a twelvemonth” might also, like the name Newton Priors, have some intellectual history behind it?

Google quickly led me to Issue #4 (1729) of The Busy-Body, in which another genius like Newton and Milton, the enterprising 23-year old Benjamin Franklin, published an invitation to aspiring writers, encouraging them to send essays for him to include in his new periodical. The parallels of tone and circumstance, and turn of phrase between Franklin’s call for papers and Austen’s Letter 107 advice to niece Anna, are striking:

“In my first Paper I invited the Learned and the Ingenious to join with me in this Undertaking; and I now repeat that Invitation. I would have such Gentlemen take this Opportunity, (by trying their Talent in Writing) of diverting themselves and their Friends, and improving the Taste of the Town. And because I would encourage all Wit of our own Growth and Produce, I hereby promise, that whoever shall send me a little Essay on some moral or other Subject, that is fit for publick View in this Manner (and not basely borrow’d from any other Author) I shall receive it with Candour, and take Care to place it to the best Advantage. It will be hard if we cannot muster up in the whole Country, a sufficient Stock of Sence to supply the Busy-Body AT LEAST FOR A TWELVEMONTH…”   END QUOTE FROM FRANKLIN

The above parallels only reinforce my longstanding belief that Austen read and admired Franklin’s wit and style, as I’ve previously suggested that Franklin’s famous “Silence Dogood” faux letters to the editor (which play a key role in the film National Treasure) were inspirations for the 13 year old JA’s “Sophia Sentiment” (and other) secret contributions to her brothers’s periodical The Loiterer.

But that’s not all, there’s even more wit and ingenuity in Letter 107 pertaining to yet another great genius of the past:  Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it.”

That is of course a wink at the blindness of Milton as he dictated Paradise Lost to his scribe—and perhaps JA also had Milton’s Samson Agonistes in mind as well. Milton was 34 years older than Newton, and the two of them were among the greatest intellectual titans of Great Britain during the 17th century. So reading the name Newton may well have led JA to playfully free associate to Milton, and then she couldn't resist a final, unabashedly nerdy injoke; i.e., that Milton famously didn't need his eyes to create his greatest masterwork.

And I see another possible meaning. I believe JA knew many of Milton’s writings well, and that she therefore may’ve in mind, as the source of her bon mot about Milton giving up his eyes, a similar turn of phrase that the young, still fully sighted John Milton deployed in his impassioned condemnation of the  useless universities of England. For a description of what Milton wrote, I quote from “Milton Speaks to Academe” by Irene Samuel, Milton Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 1970), pp. 2-4:

“Milton finds it unseemly that they who have brought a 'numb and chill stupidity of soul, an inactive BLINDNESS OF MIND upon the people by their leaden doctrine—or no doctrine at all' should object against the clamor for reform that it comes from the ignorant. It is as though 'they who have PUT OUT THE PEOPLE’S EYES [should] reproach them of their BLINDNESS.'
He found it also unseemly to argue that rebellion is the wrong time to undertake reform: ‘ ‘Tis not rebellion that ought to be the hindrance of reformation, but the want of this which is the cause of that.' For 'whence' he asks 'should we begin to extinguish a rebellion that hath his cause' from the need of reform except with needed reform? He argues it 'unreasonable . . . to defer . . . the most needful constitution of one right discipline while we stand balancing the discommodities of two corrupt ones.' But second, and more important, who is to decide what reforms are needed? It cannot be the ignorant, however little their ignorance is to be held against them. It cannot be the falsely learned, content with their false inadequate learning. It can as little be those of mere geniality who readily say yes to everything. The depth of the wound, in Milton's view, demanded a near-superhuman wisdom to find the right cure: ‘it is not for every learned or every wise man, though many of them consult in common, to invent or frame a discipline; but if it be at all the work of man, it must be of such a one as is a true knower of himself, ... in whom contemplation and practice, wit, prudence, fortitude, and eloquence must be rarely met, to comprehend the hidden causes of things .... So far is it from the ken of these wretched projectors of ours that bescrawl their pamphlets every day with new forms of government .... If it is not for every learned or even every wise man, certainly it is not for the unlearned and unwise to frame the needed discipline.” What Milton attacked was the ignorance of the supposedly learned. He did not exalt in its place the ignorance of the admittedly unlearned….”  END QUOTE FROM SAMUEL

I find Austen’s satirical irony in speculating about Milton giving up his useless eyes in payment for a brilliant name in his writing, to be curiously resonant with Milton’s own satirical irony in his early variant on the famous Yiddish definition of chutzpah – i.e., his claim that it would be arrant presumption for the English university establishment to deny the people a voice about reform of their educational system, after those people had previously been denied the education needed to understand what reform was needed.

I also see Mary Wollstonecraft in this mix. She alluded significantly to Milton’s Paradise Lost in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and I assert that it is well-established that JA was particularly focused on Wollstonecraft’s ideas about female education as JA wrote her novels. So, given that JA was one of history’s great autodidacts, I believe she’d have agreed with Milton’s condemnation of the academic gatekeepers who did such a poor job at educating others. I know she would’ve loved to see the kind of egalitarian and non-sexist reform of the educational system in England that Wollstonecraft advocated for.

In short, then, I believe JA, as she encouraged her aspiring writing niece Anna, was inspired by Anna’s use of the name of the great polymath Isaac Newton, to wink back to two other great polymaths, Benjamin Franklin and John Milton. This sort of injoke between proud aunt and beloved niece only adds to my sense that Jane considered Anna a “Nonpareil”: a very intelligent and learned young person, someone with whom JA could share this sort of sophisticated humor. All the more reason why I’m convinced, as I argued in my previous post, that JA was trying very hard to raise her niece’s literary game by some intensive coaching and encouragement, so that Anna might one day write fiction which the reading world could live a twelvemonth on. That this did not in fact occur would have brought tears to the eyes of Jane Austen.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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