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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The important reason why Jane Austen chose to allude to Boccaccio’s Decameron in Northanger Abbey

In my previous post … http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-two-tenfold-subtexts-of-john.html …I laid out the details of the allusions I see in Northanger Abbey to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and also to a prior work which Merchant itself alluded to, Boccaccio’s The Decameron. My familiarity with The Decameron is, frankly, very small, so today, I awoke wondering whether, by any wild chance, there might be something else in those hundred tales I had mostly never read, besides the first story on Day 6 (with the horse-obsessed man boring a woman with his inept story-telling), which might have been of interest to Shakespeare and/or to Jane Austen.

I quickly found two of Boccaccio’s stories (the second and third stories among the 100) which each related to a Jewish man, each of whom bears the mark of Shylock, so to speak: the first, Abraham, is, like Shylock, pushed into converting to Christianity by a “righteous” Christian; the second, Melchidizek, is, like Shylock, a bigtime money lender. I will leave for another day, after further study, the unpacking of the thematic significance of Shakespeare’s picking up on those two Jews in the Decameron while he was conceiving the character of his far more famous Jew, Shylock.

Today I will reveal to you the remarkable discovery I made, once I asked myself a wild question about Jane Austen: if Northanger Abbey at its core really is about the metaphorical “plague” of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth in Jane Austen’s England, then could it be that JA’s veiled allusion to the Decameron, written as it was about Florence in the grip of an actual Plague, might be a clue to search in those 100 tales by Boccaccio to find one or more of them which in some way involved that same “plague” of death-in-childbirth? I knew from my prior research that death-in-childbirth was not limited to England during Jane Austen’s lifetime, it had been going on for centuries, and not just in England, but in many continental European countries as well.

I quickly tested that wild thought with Google, and Google just as quickly led me to an exceptionally well researched 2012 dissertation, which, as I skimmed it with growing excitement, showed me that my wild thought had luckily hit a scholarly bulls-eye! I.e., in a dozen different ways, I learned that Jane Austen could not have chosen a more apt literary source to allude to regarding death in childbirth than the Decameron, even though it was published over 4 ½ centuries prior to Northanger Abbey, and takes place in Italy!  

I immediately saw Catherine Morland’s ruminations on the geography of horror through the lens of Jane Austen having made herself the mistress of Boccaccio’s medieval, Italian masterpiece:

“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.”

With that introduction, the best way I can show why I am now so certain of JA’s focus on the death-in-childbirth subtext of the Decameron is simply to quote from relevant passages in the 2012 dissertation, edited down by me to get to the essentials, which may as well have been written about NA as about the Decameron. After quotation of all the relevant excerpts, I will return at the end of this post with a final comment. So, here goes:

Historicizing Maternity in Boccaccio’s Ninfale fiesolano and Decameron by Kristen R. Swann (2012)
“…Why doesn’t Boccaccio play up ‘good mothers’? Why are mothers afforded little narrative presence in the Decameron?...As historians have shown, Tuscan women were conditioned for motherhood from a young age: their dowries included items for future children, their house contained items reminding them of the importance of becoming a mother (and bearing a male child), and, in society, they regularly encountered a wealth of recipes and practices aimed at increasing their fertility. I argue that the omnipresence and gender specificity of Tuscan society’s promotion of procreation is a necessary context when considering the way motherhood is treated in the Decameron. The Decameron is, as we know, openly dedicated to women subject to the wills of others - fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands - and restricted to the narrow confines of their rooms. Regardless of the book’s actual audience [It is a matter of scholarly debate whether 14th-century women were actually readers of the Decameron…], which certainly included many men, the author frames the work, and its stories, as solace for 14th-century women.
…I ask how Boccaccio’s literary portrayal of motherhood - whether depictions of unwanted motherhood, such as V.7 or IX.3, or affective portraits of mother-child interactions, such as Monna Giovanna’s solicitude for her ailing son in V.9 - comment on, or provide solace with respect to, the ideology and reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscany…I aim to restore to the Decameron’s depictions of motherhood the multiple resonances which these passages would have carried for his contemporaries…I explore how, when depicting motherhood in the Decameron, Boccaccio alternately ignores, plays with, and, at times, subverts beliefs about motherhood and its attendant rituals and customs. …I take Boccaccio’s claim to be writing for women at face value and assume that the tales he includes in the work are selected with this audience in mind.
The Demographic Realities of Motherhood in 14th-Century Tuscany
…high maternal and infant mortality rates profoundly influenced the way Florentines thought about reproduction and structured the family. In this section, I explore the demographic factors influencing a woman’s experience of maternity and consider how, and why, Boccaccio’s treatment elides or obscures these harsh realities. Perhaps the most pressing and unavoidable ‘reality’ of motherhood in the premodern period was the ever-present specter of death…childbearing in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was “risky business”, many women died during birth or following it, while only half the children they bore reached maturity…roughly 20% of the deaths of married women in 15th-century Florence were associated with childbearing...Data indicates a maternal mortality rate of 14.4 deaths for every 1,000 births, a rate on par with maternal mortality today in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, and approximately 300 times higher than in most modern European countries today…Half of all deaths of married women who predeceased their husbands in the ricordanze are related to childbirth; only one in six (17%) of these deaths of married women is attributable to various fevers, illnesses, or epidemics. As Park notes, this data indicates 3 times as many married women died in childbirth “as died of disease, even in the relatively unhealthy period following the Black Death of 1348.” Being from a prosperous family did little to protect a 14th-century woman from death in childbirth; if anything, it exposed her to it more. Because patrician families in Renaissance Tuscany, “placed especial emphasis on lineage,” Jacqueline Marie Musacchio writes, women “underwent pregnancy after pregnancy, in an attempt to bear an heir.” The more pregnancies one underwent, of course, the higher the probability of something eventually going wrong. Beatrice d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia, Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne de’ Medici, and the Grand Duchess Giovanna de’ Medici all died as a result of childbirth; the Medici secretary’s notation of Maddalena’s death is evidence of the common nature of this outcome…
…28 of 202 women’s wills [from that era] which were studied were explicitly written during pregnancy, and another 31 were written by wives who may’ve been pregnant. Excluding out unmarried testatresses from his sample, Chojnacki calculates that as many as 49.2% of married women writing wills were pregnant at the time. Alessandra Strozzi bought insurance to cover her pregnant daughter in 1449 to protect the 500 florins already advanced to her son-in-law.
…The biggest way people dealt with the perils of reproduction was, somewhat paradoxically, by having more children: in this respect, the desire to produce heirs outweighed the fear of death in childbirth. “High fertility,” Margaret King notes, “was in the interest of the propertied family, whose ability to prevail ‘against the powerful forces of death’ required at least one surviving male heir.” As frequently noted, upper class Tuscan families achieved startlingly high levels of fertility…Maximum biological fertility for the human female is generally considered 12 births, but many Renaissance women were able to surpass this number: Florentine Antonia Masi, the wife of an artisan, gave birth to 36 children, while Venetian noblewoman Magdalucia Marcello bore 26, nearly one per year for her years of fertility. The patrician family’s focus on fertility and heirs meant, in practical terms, that women spent a large portion of their lives pregnant. Historians have found that the wealthiest women in Renaissance Florence were also the most fecund: wealthy women were both younger when they first became mothers and were able to maintain their fertility over a longer time span than poorer women, having, on average, 9.4 children.
The well-established practice of wet-nursing - the sending of an infant to be nursed by another woman for a period of up to two years - allowed upper class women to circumvent nursing’s contraceptive effects, thereby freeing them up to conceive children in quick succession. Yet as Angus McLaren rightly notes, this system benefited the husband much more than the wife “since, at no risk to his health, it brought the promise of additional heirs.” Historians point to the heavy physical toll that repeated pregnancies had on women: even if they did survive, their health was often compromised, as the many descriptions of women ‘worn out by childbearing’ attest. Katharine Park sums up the reality of motherhood in patrilineal Tuscany in rather stark terms: “Wed in their teens to much older men, these women were supposed to perpetuate the families of their husbands by producing as many male children as their bodies could bear.”
The picture of motherhood that emerges from these sources is not pretty. The stark demographic realities of childbearing and childrearing and the patrician family’s focus on heirs combined to make a woman “perpetually pregnant” and in constant peril during her years of fertility. Florentine women could expect to bear “a series of children in quick succession, only to die in childbirth in their twenties or early thirties.” If this is the reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscan society, it is not, however, the picture we receive when reading the Decameron. To start with one significant departure, no woman dies in childbirth in Boccaccio’s text, nor does any woman suffer a pregnancy related illness. This observation stands both for narrated events, and past events related in the work; mothers who are already dead in a tale (such as II.8 or IV.1) are not identified as having died in childbirth. While the Decameron does not ignore childhood morbidity and mortality - in VII.3, Agnesa’s son is said to be stricken with vermi, or ‘worms’, a common childhood disease, and in V.9 Monna Giovanna’s young son dies after a brief illness - it does ignore these other troubling aspects of motherhood. If the brigata is under strict orders not to talk about the plague, it seems they also cannot speak of maternal mortality. This may seem like a banal observation, but given that, as Teodolinda Barolini has astutely pointed out, women and their issues “are never peripheral” to Boccaccio, it strikes me as significant that this women’s issue is so patently ignored.
The exclusion of maternal mortality from the Decameron appears intentional. When Boccaccio transformed a Filocolo story into Decameron X.4, he deliberately changed the cause of Catalina’s death from childbirth-related to a generic illness, a move that bucks the general trend of increased socio-historical specificity in the novella. In Question 13 of the Fourth Book of the Filocolo, widely seen as the precursor to Decameron X.4, Catalina’s counterpart dies in childbirth...The change in cause of death, from childbirth in the Filocolo to an unrelated sickness in the Decameron, has no narrative logic: it does not affect the rest of the story…In light of the novella’s increased geographical and historical specificity, the change in cause of death is striking. Had Boccaccio wanted to be historically accurate, he could have easily continued to attribute Catalina’s death to childbirth; as we have seen, twenty percent of married women died in or shortly after childbirth. Instead, he chose to change it from a historically specific and plausible cause to a non-specific ‘cruel illness’. I would note that this change is made by an author who is more than capable of narrating the “specifics” of female life, when he wants to. In the Corbaccio, in a passage widely patterned off of Juvenal’s Satire VI, Boccaccio laments women’s anti-natal practices..Boccaccio’s mention of the perennially defoliated savina plant in the Corbaccio, regardless of the motivation behind the passage, well demonstrates the author’s attention to the details of women’s lived experience.
To return to X.4, what we notice is that Boccaccio has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning an all-too-common element of female life. Giovanni Getto claims that Catalina’s passage from death to life and then birth in X.4 reveals the breadth of the Decameron’s narrative reach. It is in the context of this thematic breadth - the Decameron’s ability to narrate all aspects of human life - that the absence of death in childbirth is so significant: it appears that Boccaccio elected to not include this aspect of human - and specifically female - existence.
Why might the author be reluctant to narrate this aspect of female life? Other medieval authors had shown that childbed death scenes held dramatic possibilities…Yet…Boccaccio does not seem interested in the pathetic or regenerative narrative possibilities of childbirth death scenes. The Decameron is written, by Boccaccio’s own admission, to provide lovestruck women with succour and diversion [Proemio, 13]); the tales are meant to provide women with both pleasure and useful advice. In this context, the avoidance of the mention of maternal mortality in the Decameron, as well as the birth of the work’s many male infants, may be read as a sort of wish-fulfillment, in the sense that Boccaccio would be offering his purported female audience a vision of the best possible reproductive outcome: no one dies and a male heir is (almost) always produced.
There may be, however, another, less sanguine, reason for the author’s reluctance to discuss maternal death. Historians of Renaissance Tuscany detect an idealization of death in childbirth among patrician society; according to these scholars, death in the service of the patrilineage - bearing heirs - was the “hallmark” of the ‘good wife’ in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany…When noting the deaths of their wives in ricordanze, Tuscan men consistently listed the number of children they had borne them. As Louis Haas notes, this accounting “was not just a statement of fact but an evaluation of worth”: women were prized for their ability to create male children, and thus heirs, for the line…
…I contend that the Decameron’s lack of interest in female fertility is less the result of the frame characters’ narrative agendas - Migiel argues that narrators present views on sex, marriage, women, and children based on their classification as men or women - than it is a rebuttal of a functional view of maternity that places women (and their bodies) at the service of the male line.
Historian Margaret Miles has suggested that the idealization of the virginal woman in 14th-century Tuscan painting may have “symbolized to medieval women freedom from the burden of frequent childbearing and nursing in an age in which these natural processes were highly dangerous.”
…Recently, scholars have explored the variety of ways in which women in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany were encouraged to assume a maternal role. These scholars, working primarily in the field of art history, have drawn attention to the overt and subliminal messages contained within domestic rituals and objects with which women interacted on a daily basis….Other scholars…have also examined the interplay between art and ideologies of motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany. A commonality to these scholars’ approaches is a careful attention to the way visual art - whether private or public - interacted with societal discourses promoting the family and motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany, shaping or mediating a woman’s experience…
…The first wave of plague in 1348, with which Boccaccio would have been familiar when writing the Decameron, is believed to have killed two-thirds of Florence’s population, or 78,000 people (shrinking the city’s population from 120,000 pre-plague to 42,000 immediately after...In the Introduction to the Decameron, Boccaccio puts the number of dead at 100,000. While the plague is an important context for Renaissance natalism, birth-related objects and rituals were present in Tuscan society prior to the mid-14th century, due to an emphasis on marriage and family among patricians, as well as the risks associated with childbirth; their popularity rose, however, in the years following the plague…
…The encouragement started before marriage: birth-related items were a common constituent of a woman’s material dowry; in addition to new dresses and jewels, a bride received special birth cloths and swaddling bands, charms for future infants, and sometimes life-size dolls in her wedding chest. A girdle, an item possessing definite connotations of fertility, was also included in these chests; their interiors were frequently painted with erotic or suggestive imagery (nude or barely dressed young men and women) to encourage sexuality and procreation. Nuptial ritual also emphasized procreation: at the presentation of the betrothal chests during the wedding ceremony, a child was placed in the bride’s arms as a promise of fertility; this practice was so popular in Florence that sumptuary laws were drawn up in 1356, 1388, and 1415 to regulate it.
…Musacchio considers these birth-related items and rituals “blatant encouragement” for a bride’s future role as mother. Yet messages to procreate were not limited to a woman’s dowry or marriage ritual; objects promoting motherhood and reproduction were also present in a woman’s home before and for a long time after a birth…According to Musaccchio, these objects focused a woman’s attention on reproduction but also sought to control and direct the procreative process, by providing paradigms for proper female behavior and channeling a woman’s imagination toward desired reproductive outcomes. Familiar childbirth or confinement scenes provided comfort or “positive reinforcement” for women currently, or hoping to become, pregnant, while the presence of male infants stimulated a woman’s imagination “toward the procreation of similarly healthy, hearty sons.” (A childbirth tray from the 16th century is bluntly to the point: the underside simply displays the word maschio.) Inside her home, then, a woman was surrounded by objects encouraging motherhood and procreation; outside her home, she encountered a multitude of recipes and practices purporting to increase her fertility.
In the following section, I explore two depictions of unwanted motherhood in the Decameron - one sympathetic, one farcical - and consider how Boccaccio’s treatment undercuts contemporary ideologies of motherhood and the family….
…In the Decameron, unwanted pregnancies occur, predictably, in tales concerning extra- or pre-marital sexuality, such as III.1, III.8, and V.7, or in novelle involving the reversal of sex roles, such as IX.3 where Calandrino becomes ‘pregnant’. In these tales, women (and men) want sex but not the consequences, a dynamic most evident in III.1 where the nuns’ hesitation to have sex with Masetto disappears once they are assured there are a thousand ways to deal with an undesired pregnancy. The marital or social situation of these tales’ protagonists is a fundamental context for the undesirability of these pregnancies: we have nuns (III.1), an adulterous affair (III.8), a premarital relationship (V.7), and, in IX.3, a pregnant man.  What I find interesting about these tales, however, is that despite their varying treatments of the unwanted pregnancy theme, they offer alternatives to the dominant discourse about women and motherhood. At the most simplistic level, depictions of unwanted pregnancies counter Renaissance natalism by showing women who, for various reasons, do not want to conceive. For the sexually curious nuns in III.1, pregnancy is an evil - a mal. For Ferondo’s adulterous wife in III.8, it is a misfortune - a sventura. To the unwed Violante, it is unwelcome - discaro.

The undesirability of these pregnancies is inextricably linked to the extra-marital quality of these affairs: pregnancy threatens to reveal the protagonists’ sexual transgressions (tellingly, Boccaccio never depicts a married couple who do not want to conceive). Nonetheless, the explicit characterization of pregnancy as a misfortune or evil could have provided a counter narrative to the insistent promotion and praise of female fertility that a Tuscan woman encountered on a daily basis. These tales raise the possibility, if safely ensconced in an extra-marital context, that some women might not want to become mothers.
[In two Decameron tales, V.7 and IX.3, motherhood is so unwanted that protagonists seek out abortive remedies to avoid it: in V.7, Violante employs various measures to disgravidare, or miscarry, none of which produce the desired effect… “  END QUOTE FROM SWANN DISSERTATION 

I reached out this afternoon to the author of that brilliant analysis, Kristen R. Swann, a prof at UNH, so as to better understand her take on Boccaccio's intentions in the Decameron. Does his avoidance of the facts on the ground in Florence of rampant death in childbirth when he wrote the Decameron suggests that he was a propagandist for tricking women into submission to the prevailing norm of endless pregnancy, or a subversive wishing to undermine those norms in the eyes of the knowing reader?

It’s no coincidence that the same sort of question applies to so much of Jane Austen’s subtextual meanings – which is what she really believed, the surface meaning or its opposite? On the issue of death in childbirth, I believe Jane Austen’s actual position is indisputable, in part because of all the sarcastic comments in her letters about English wives being knocked up yet again. But the fascinating question raised by this post is, how did she read Boccaccio?

I’ll return with a followup when I have got more to tell.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

The two “tenfold” subtexts of John Thorpe’s “rich as a Jew” slur in Austen’s Northanger Abbey

The other day in Janeites, Nancy Mayer raised a new topic:
“I do not know that Jane Austen ever recorded her opinion of Jews. On a blog about Jews in George III's England, someone commented that she was sorry to see a bit of antisemitism from Austen.-- the line to which she objected was in NA-- John Thorpe says someone is as "rich as a Jew." I don't think it shows us anything about Austen but is supposed to show us what sort of person young Thorpe was.”

Diane Reynolds replied:
Nancy, I agree with you. I don't think John Thorpe's opinions in any way reflect those of the author! If it comes from his mouth, it means Austen is condemning the opinion.”

I have recently written in Janeites about the thread of allusion from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, drawing parallels between Bassanio, Montoni, and General Tilney & John Thorpe, respectively. Today I want to go into much greater detail about the complex allusion to Merchant that I see in NA, beginning with my response to Nancy’s comment in which I agree with Diane’s reply to her:

Indeed, when John Thorpe, one of her most odious characters – a predator and a gold-digger-- casually tosses out a vile stereotyping epithet, it most certainly does not mean that Jane Austen was an anti-Semite—as Diane points out, the context suggests the diametric opposite- i.e., that JA (rightly) was appalled by such casually expressed bigotry toward a persecuted minority in her society.

For Jane Austen to endorse Thorpe’s anti-Semitism would also run contrary to everything we know about her as a sharp critic of oppression of other vulnerable groups who, like Jews, lacked power in her England. I’ve long claimed that Northanger Abbey in particular is, at its core, an attack on one of the many ways women were oppressed in her society – the universal subjugation of English gentlewomen as breeding animals compelled to run a two-decade gauntlet of serial pregnancy and all too frequent death in childbirth.

But….JA was also intimate by instinct with Shakespeare (a sly joke, because her intimacy patently derived from a great deal of scholarly study), and so I suggest that there’s a deeper, Shakespearean reason why John Thorpe casually calls Mr. Allen “rich as a Jew”—and, behind the Shakespeare, yet another reason, having to do with Isabella Thorpe’s reference to “The Italian”, as you will see if you read along to the very end of this post.

In the first chapter of NA, Austen explicitly alerts the reader that Catherine Morland (like her creator) has profited from reading Shakespeare. As evidence thereof, JA quotes from three of his plays: Othello, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night:

“And from Shakespeare [Catherine] gained a great store of information—AMONGST THE REST, that—
   “Trifles light as air,
   “Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
   “As proofs of Holy Writ.”
 That
   “The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
   “In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
   “As when a giant dies.”
 And that a young woman in love always looks—
   “like Patience on a monument
   “Smiling at Grief.”

But…the key words in that paragraph, for my purposes today, are “amongst the rest”, meaning the rest of Shakespeare’s plays besides those three explicitly quoted plays! Which other plays? At my JASNA AGM talk in 2010, I made the case for a global, complex veiled allusion to Hamlet, hidden in plain sight in Northanger Abbey But today I am going to make a detailed case for the additional, complex presence of The Merchant of Venice in NA as well!

Let me start by pointing out the striking echoing of specific themes and accompanying keywords in The Merchant of Venice by passages in NA:

A DAUGHTER LOCKED UP BY A FATHER’S CONTROL:

[…..]
What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:
LOCK UP MY DOORS;

PORTIA
[….]
Away, then! I AM LOCK’D IN one of them…[the casket to be chosen by her future husband]

“…[Mr. Morland] was not in the least addicted to LOCKING UP HIS DAUGHTERS…”

“Eleanor’s countenance was dejected, yet sedate; and its composure spoke her inured to all the gloomy objects to which they were advancing. Again she passed through the folding doors, again her hand was upon the important LOCK, and Catherine, hardly able to breathe, was turning to close the former with fearful caution, when the figure, the dreaded figure of the general himself at the further end of the gallery, stood before her! 


TEN THOUSAND TIMES

PORTIA
[…]

[Catherine] “…You do not know how vexed I am; I shall have no pleasure at Clifton, nor in anything else. I had rather, TEN THOUSAND TIMES rather, get out now, and walk back to them…Did not they tell me that Mr. Tilney and his sister were gone out in a phaeton together? And then what could I do? But I had TEN THOUSAND TIMES rather have been with you; now had not I, Mrs. Allen?”


EATING WITH A “JEW”

SHYLOCK (to Bassanio)
[…]
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, But I WILL NOT EAT WITH YOU, drink with you, nor pray with you.

“…A very fine fellow; AS RICH AS A JEW. I should like TO DINE WITH HIM; I dare say he gives famous dinners."  


A FATHER’S DIAMOND DISCOVERED

SHYLOCK
[…]

“Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer—but for some time without discovering anything of importance—perhaps nothing but a considerable HOARD OF DIAMONDS…. “


DROPS OF BLOOD & ANTONIO/ST. ANTONY

BASSANIO
[…]

“"What! Not when Dorothy has given you to understand that there is a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St. ANTHONY, scarcely two miles off? Could you shrink from so simple an adventure? No, no, you will proceed into this small vaulted room, and through this into several others, without perceiving anything very remarkable in either. In one perhaps there may be a dagger, in another A FEW DROPS OF BLOOD, and in a third the remains of some instrument of torture…


THREE THOUSAND DUCATS/POUNDS

Three thousand ducats is the amount of money lent by Shylock to Antonio, and to burn that amount into the audience’s brain, Shakespeare has Shylock repeat the words “three thousand ducats” eight times, and Bassanio four times, in the play. It is the amount upon which the entire action of the play turns. So I find JA’s characteristic sly irony in referring to that same numerical amount of British currency, in her summing up of the action at the end of NA:

“…It taught [Henry Tilney] that he had been scarcely more misled by Thorpe's first boast of the family wealth than by his subsequent malicious overthrow of it; that in no sense of the word were they necessitous or poor, and that Catherine would have THREE THOUSAND POUNDS.”

So, based on the above alone, I believe I’ve made a strong case that Jane Austen meant to invoke the memory of Merchant in her readers’ minds as we read NA. But one other echo of Merchant in NA opened a door for me to an additional, earlier allusive source for NA.

THE NUMBER TEN

The number “ten” is used, in a variety of contexts, a total of 33 times in NA, which is a frequency more than double the frequency of the number “ten” being used in any other Austen novel. This suggests a thematic meaning of some kind unique to NA.

So isn’t it curious, in light of all the other echoes I’ve listed, that, similarly, the number “ten” appears with unusual frequency for a Shakespeare play in Merchant as well:

2.5
Enter GRATIANO and SALARINO, masqued
GRATIANO
This is the pent-house under which Lorenzo
Desired us to make stand.
SALARINO His hour is almost past.
GRATIANO
And it is marvel he out-dwells his hour,
For lovers ever run before the clock.    [Austen alludes to this line with Catherine watching the clock]
SALARINO
O, TEN TIMES faster Venus' pigeons fly
To seal love's bonds new-made, than they are wont
To keep obliged faith unforfeited!

2.7
MOROCCO
[…]
Is't like that lead contains her? 'Twere damnation
To think so base a thought: it were too gross
To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave.
Or shall I think in silver she's immured,
Being TEN TIMES undervalued to tried gold?
O sinful thought! Never so rich a gem
Was set in worse than gold.

3.2
PORTIA
You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am: though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish,
To wish myself much better; yet, for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself;
A thousand times more fair, TEN thousand times more rich;

4.1
SHYLOCK
[…]
What if my house be troubled with a rat
And I be pleased to give TEN thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answer'd yet?
….
BASSANIO
Yes, here I tender it for him in the court;
Yea, twice the sum: if that will not suffice,
I will be bound to pay it TEN times o'er,
On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart:
If this will not suffice, it must appear
That malice bears down truth.
….
SHYLOCK
I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.
DUKE Get thee gone, but do it.
GRATIANO
In christening shalt thou have two god-fathers:
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had TEN more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font.
Exit SHYLOCK

So, was Jane Austen simply pointing to Merchant with this procession of 33 usages of “ten” in NA? I felt there must be more to it than that, and I noted that an unusually high percentage of the “tens” in NA were either spoken by or about John Thorpe. Hmmm… that led me to return to the portion of my 2012 post… http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2012/07/part-two-of-answers-to-my-austen.html
…. in which, inter alia, I identified John Thorpe as Jane Austen’s sly reworking of one of the 3 suitors whom Portia (a la Eliza Bennet and Mary Crawford) skewers with her rapier wit, as she satirically encapsulates hid foibles to Nerissa in Act 1, Scene 2:

NERISSA   But what warmth is there in your affection towards any of these princely suitors that are already come?
PORTIA I pray thee, over-name them; and as thou namest them, I will describe them; and, according to my description, level at my affection.
NERISSA First, there is the Neapolitan prince.
PORTIA Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse; and he makes it a great appropriation to his own good parts, that he can shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his mother played false with a smith.

I think it clear that the Neapolitan Prince is rebooted by Jane Austen as John Thorpe, whose equine obsession is foregrounded by Austen similarly to the way Portia skewers the Prince. But was that the full explanation for the “ten” leitmotif in NA? I felt there must be still more, and after a bit of creative word-searching, I stumbled upon an answer which caused me to hit my forehead with a “Doh!” – of course!

Jane Austen was a master wordplayer, and so I realized that she had not merely been pointing to Shakespeare’s Neapolitan Prince in Merchant, she was also showing her recognition, via her extensive study of Shakespeare and his sources, that Shakespeare had foregrounded the number “ten” in Merchant in order to point to a very famous work of literature from centuries before his own lifetime, in which the number “ten” was the very basis for its title – of course I am referring to Boccaccio’s Decameron which Wikipedia tells us was “a collection of a hundred tales by Boccaccio (published 1353), presented as stories told by a group of Florentines to while away ten days (the meaning of “Decameron”) during a plague. 

Now, I suggest that part of the way Austen showed her recognition of the Boccaccio behind the Shakespeare, was via a sly double meaning in Isabella’s above-quoted line:

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of TEN or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“The Italian” seems at first to refer only to the title of Radcliffe’s second most famous gothic thriller. But it also, especially when you see it in the same sentence as the number “ten”, can plausibly be seen to refer covertly to Boccaccio --- who was of course, “the Italian” author who wrote the Decameron!

Okay, I am sure some of you are thinking that my imagination has been overstimulated, like Catherine Morland’s, and that I’ve just gone too far in ascribing to Jane Austen such a level of knowledge of Boccaccio’s ten days of tales, some of them famously bawdy. The evidence I’ve presented is just too thin, right?

Well, here’s the coup de grace. Just read the first story told on the sixth day of the Decameron, and you tell me whether the “gentleman” in Boccaccio’s tale doesn’t just leap out of his saddle and into your imagination as the literary “predecessor” of both Shakespeare’s Neapolitan Prince and Austen’s John Thorpe!:

“A gentleman engageth to Madam Oretta to carry her a-horseback with a story, but, telling it disorderly, is prayed by her to set her down again”
"Young ladies, like as stars, in the clear nights, are the ornaments of the heavens and the flowers and the leaf-clad shrubs, in the Spring, of the green fields and the hillsides, even so are praiseworthy manners and goodly discourse adorned by sprightly sallies, the which, for that they are brief, beseem women yet better than men, inasmuch as much speaking is more forbidden to the former than to the latter. Yet, true it is, whatever the cause, whether it be the meanness of our understanding or some particular grudge borne by heaven to our times, that there be nowadays few or no women left who know how to say a witty word in due season or who, an it be said to them, know how to apprehend it as it behoveth; the which is a general reproach to our whole sex. However, for that enough hath been said aforetime on the subject by Pampinea, I purpose to say no more thereof; but, to give you to understand how much goodliness there is in witty sayings, when spoken in due season, it pleaseth me to recount to you the courteous fashion in which a lady imposed silence upon a gentleman.
As many of you ladies may either know by sight or have heard tell, there was not long since in our city a noble and well-bred and well-spoken gentlewoman, whose worth merited not that her name be left unsaid. She was called, then, Madam Oretta and was the wife of Messer Geri Spina. She chanced to be, as we are, in the country, going from place to place, by way of diversion, with a company of ladies and gentlemen, whom she had that day entertained to dinner at her house, and the way being belike somewhat long from the place whence they set out to that whither they were all purposed to go afoot, one of the gentlemen said to her, 'Madam Oretta, an you will, I will carry you a-horseback great part of the way we have to go with one of the finest stories in the world.' 'Nay, sir,' answered the lady, 'I pray you instantly thereof; indeed, it will be most agreeable to me.' Master cavalier, who maybe fared no better, sword at side than tale on tongue, hearing this, began a story of his, which of itself was in truth very goodly; but he, now thrice or four or even half a dozen times repeating one same word, anon turning back and whiles saying, 'I said not aright,' and often erring in the names and putting one for another, marred it cruelly, more by token that he delivered himself exceedingly ill, having regard to the quality of the persons and the nature of the incidents of his tale. By reason whereof, Madam Oretta, hearkening to him, was many a time taken with a sweat and failing of the heart, as she were sick and near her end, and at last, being unable to brook the thing any more and seeing the gentleman engaged in an imbroglio from which he was not like to extricate himself, she said to him pleasantly, 'Sir, this horse of yours hath too hard a trot; wherefore I pray you be pleased to set me down.' The gentleman, who, as it chanced, understood a hint better than he told a story, took the jest in good part and turning it off with a laugh, fell to discoursing of other matters and left unfinished the story that he had begun and conducted so ill."

Just think of Jane Austen laughing her head off as she brilliantly parodied Boccaccio’s small tale with the episode in which Catherine is virtually abducted by Thorpe in his carriage and is held as a captive audience to his boastful drivel, until we read:

““Good heavens!” cried Catherine, quite frightened. “Then pray let us turn back; they will certainly meet with an accident if we go on. Do let us turn back, Mr. Thorpe; stop and speak to my brother, and tell him how very unsafe it is.”

So I hope you’ll now agree that Jane Austen had indeed read “the Italian” master Boccaccio, and also the man from Stratford, very closely indeed, and then reflected her understanding of Shakespeare’s borrowing from Boccaccio, in her “tenfold” subtext in NA. And, last but not least, the Boccaccio allusion in NA is not entirely a laughing matter --- just as Boccaccio’s tales were told during a “plague”, so too did Jane Austen write her novel during a “plague”—the epidemic of death in childbirth among English gentlewomen, as symbolized by the ghost of Mrs. Tilney.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My ‘conspiracy theorizing’ about Smiley’s mentioning me in her review of Yaffe’s Among the Janeites

 Jane Smiley begins her review of various Austen-related books in today’s NY Times as follows:

“Every few years, I reread a Jane Austen novel, and I’m not alone, according to Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe’s playful exploration of Austen obsession. In fact, if I were a true Janeite, I’d be hand stitching my empire-waisted gown and perfecting my country dancing, and I’d enjoy it, as Yaffe does when she decides to go all out for a Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) convention. What I might not enjoy are the members’ competing opinions about who Jane was and what she would be thinking about every little issue, personal and political.”

Smiley would probably think that I (a proud JASNA member since 2005) am providing a prime example of my conspiracy-obsessive focus on “every little issue, personal and political” vis a vis Austen, when I point out that “Every few years, I reread a Jane Austen novel” resonates curiously with Mark Twain’s famous bon mot about Austen’s most famous novel (written more than a century ago to his avidly proto-Janeite friend William Dean Howells):  “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig Jane Austen up from her grave and hit her over the head with her own shinbone!”

Smiley (and Deborah Yaffe) would both also probably agree that another great example of my folie a Austen is my longstanding claim that Twain was actually pulling his good friend Howell’s shinbone, and slily revealing his own closeted love of Austen, with that telltaledly satirical “Every time” --- as if an Austen-hater would keep rereading P&P ---but there’s much more than that to the evidence for Twain’s covert love of Austen, as I last explained in my blog in much greater detail in two consecutive posts in April 2013:  

However, perhaps Smiley (and Yaffe) would be surprised to learn that I do not assume (from that curious Twainian resonance of the opening sentence of Smiley’s review) that Smiley knew about Twain’s famous line, and meant to covertly echo it. I would not make that claim without a great deal more of probative evidence pointing in the same direction, before I would make that leap –because, you see, I am an obsessive scholar, but I am not really a conspiracy theorist. If you’ll read this post through, I’ll give you some good reasons to believe I know whereof I speak.

The next part of Smiley’s review made my ears burn:  “And the Janeites are not all women: Yaffe interviews quite a few men. Perhaps the most peculiar is Arnie Perlstein, a conspiracy theorist convinced that Austen buried in her apparently conventional novels a ‘radical critique of 19th-century patriarchy’ that he has ‘spent more than 15,000 completely uncompensated hours devising.’…”

Smiley referred to me a “conspiracy theorist” because Yaffe, albeit in much kinder terms, did paint a portrait of me that suggests exactly that. So, you might wonder: why did I agree to be profiled by a Janeite who I already knew saw in such a negative light my theory that Austen was a secret radical feminist?

Deborah Yaffe has by now been my friend for seven years, ever since we were first introduced in 2011 by our common Janeite friend, Jenny Allan, who acted as a scholarly matchmaking “Emma” for us. So I knew upfront from Jenny that Deborah was a kind, witty person, and lifelong hardcore Austen wonk, who’d never personally attack me, and would do a thorough job. So I agreed to be interviewed by Deborah for her chapter about me (fittingly entitled “The Jane Austen Code”, the moniker I coined for myself and my scholarly book project in 2005), forewarned by Jenny that Deborah was precisely the sort of “orthodox” Janeite who would be least likely to be convinced by my radically “reconstructionist” arguments about what I call Jane Austen’s shadow stories, a term and theory which I summarize here: http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2015/04/mr-mrs-cole-as-joint-proprietors-of.html

And all turned out more or less as expected. I still recall fondly the hours Deborah spent with me and my Dad (who passed away 2 years later) in his condo in Aventura, Florida, as she unhurriedly questioned me about every aspect of my theory and research project (and, by the way, my current estimate of total hours spent on Austen studies has reached 25,000). And even though she did ridicule my ideas and my admitted obsessiveness a little strongly at times, she also painted a fond portrait of my relationship with my father which meant a lot to me. We remain friends who chat very amiably at the annual JASNA Annual General Meetings which we both regularly attend in different cities around the US every year (and by the way, I am on the program again, for the third time, as a breakout speaker at the AGM coming up in Huntington Beach, CA in October, 2017): http://www.jasna.org/agms/huntington/index.html

So I wasn’t concerned that Deborah was and still is implacably hostile to any notions of there being something radical and subversive going on in Jane Austen’s novels. I knew that one day, I’d have my day in the court of scholarly and popular Janeite opinion, and in the interim, appearing so prominently in her excellent book would help spread the word about me to Janeites around the world. And Smiley’s mention of me in her review, even if negative, is nonetheless a vindication of that decision. I could have no reason to expect any reviewer to do other than accept Deborah’s one-sided portrait of me, but I am sure it has induced some readers thereof to seek out my blog and decide for themselves; and Smiley’s review will, I hope, bring some more.

So, when I finally do shed my Casaubon mask…  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Edward-Casaubon …and write my scholarly Austen magnum opus (I promise only that it will appear sometime before the TRIcentennial of Jane Austen’s death), I’ll include an affectionate acknowledgment to Deborah. And I won’t even mind if Deborah writes a review of it then, in which she very likely will declare (just as the grande dame of Austen studies, Deirdre Le Faye did to my face after hearing me speak at Chawton House in the summer of 2009) “I didn’t believe a word of it!”.  😉

The final irony, for me, of Smiley’s review of Deborah’s book coming out 4 years after its publication, is that it comes right on the heels of several reviews of the late 2016 book by Helena Kelly, Jane Austen the Secret Radical.  Why ironic? Well, recall the line Smiley quoted from Among the Janeites summarizing my theory:  
“Austen buried in her apparently conventional novels a ‘radical critique of 19th-century patriarchy’ “. 

If you’ll indulge me by following one more URL link, it leads to the blog post I wrote 8 months ago, in which I outlined, with my usual obsessively collected textual details, the many reasons why I claim that Kelly “borrowed” from me, without so much as a by-your-leave, both her title and pretty much all the bullet points of her much praised controversial chapter about central but covert death-in- childbirth theme of Northanger Abbey: http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2016/11/all-shadow-stories-of-jane-austen.html

And I conclude by repeating my quotation in that blog post from Deborah Yaffe’s book (which, I cannot emphasize too strongly was published in 2013, more than three years before Kelly’s book first appeared in print). The quoted passage from Yaffe’s book described the presentation I gave at the 2010 JASNA AGM in Portland, Oregon (where my wife and I now happily live), which makes it clear that Helena Kelly, at least, apparently found my interpretation (of NA, and my working book title) so convincing that she repeated them both, lock stock and barrel:

“The talk was vintage Arnie, a semi-convincing, semi-outlandish tapestry woven from the puns he detected in Austen’s use of words like ‘constitutional’ and ‘confinement’, the allusions he perceived to works by other writers, the evidence of feminist anger he found in her letters, and the biographical information he had unearthed about long forgotten contemporaries who, he was convinced, had provided models for her characters. Curiously, Arnie’s central thesis--that Austen meant her readers to understand that the mother of Northanger Abbey’s hero, Henry Tilney, had died in childbirth, not from the “bilious fever” Henry describes, and that this detail revealed Austen’s outrage at the dangerous serial pregnancies that married women of her time often endured—seemed to have little bearing on his controversial theory of shadow stories….In the months after the Portland meeting, it looked as if some of Arnie’s fantasies might be coming true. JASNA chapters in Florida, California, and Oregon invited him to speak. A joint presentation with a local college professor drew two hundred Janeites to a kickoff event for a new south Florida chapter of JASNA, which Arnie planned to organize. The Miami Herald previewed the meeting, and mentioned Arnie’s book, which now had the working title The Shadow Stories of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical Feminist….” END QUOTE FROM YAFFE’S BOOK

Try as I might, I can’t find any Twainian irony in Deborah’s book that conceals her secret agreement with my theories. But at least, it shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am the first to conceive and express them!

[I added the following a few hours after posting the above:

In the Janeites & Austen-L groups, my good friend Diane Reynolds wrote the following response to me:

"I want to weigh as someone who, in a past life, worked in public relations and communications for a computer software company. The kind of press Arnie got was very close to the gold standard: of course, the rule in p.r. is "there is no such thing as bad press, only no press," but even so, Smiley was generous. No, she was not ravingly ecstatic about Arnie as brilliant, but she was following Yaffe's lead, and "peculiar" is a great term given the context: it raises curiosity without being particularly derisive. It's a talking point. She could have so easily used "cranky," "crackpot," "crazy"--and she chose peculiar. It opens a conversation And it shows Arnie's story caught her eye. If when I had worked in software, we had gotten a prominent mention in a national newspaper that called our software peculiar, we would have been breaking out the champagne, because it would have been the start of campaign about how the "peculiarities" of our software were what put it ahead of the competition. Would brilliant have been better? Yes, from where we were starting out, any prominent press was great . As we used to say, you can't buy that kind of exposure. Of course, it is just a mention--but it's a start!"

To which I immediately replied:

Diane, I am very thankful to you for your very positive take on the situation raised by Smiley's calling me "peculiar", as to which I can only quote the rabbis: "From your lips to God's ears!"

It occurred to me just before adding this postscript to the above post to check to see if there might be some interesting usage(s) of the word 'peculiar'  in the Austen canon which I might humorously insert here, but instead, what I found was very interesting ---- it turns out that every single one of the few dozen usages of "peculiar" and 'peculiarly' that Austen used in her novels were actually used in the archaic sense of what we today would call "special" or "particular". None that I looked at in any way smacked of our modern meaning, "strange" with a negative connotation. 


So, I must add to my thanks to you, Diane, my gratitude for alerting me to the nuances of language in that word, which I had missed. It could well be that Smiley, who of course has had a decades-long career of fiction-writing success (most famously, I believe, her King Lear midrash, A Thousand Acres), would really have intended to create a bit of ambiguity, and to choose a word that has both negative and positive connotations, as you perceived. That does indeed spark curiosity, and luckily that fits very well with the thrust of my post.]


Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Life is a mystery….in Emma, Jane Austen’s mysterious, spectacular tromp l’oeil

In Janeites & Austen-L, Diane Reynolds quoted from a recent online article:
“I know we will never agree on this, but I found this definition of mystery interesting in light of our ongoing debates about Emma:  
"I once heard someone say that at the heart of every good story is a mystery, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that statement means. At face value, it’s ridiculous. There are romances, horror stories, westerns, fantasies, crime dramas, and a dozen other genres in addition to mysteries, but for the moment, let’s put those definitions aside and think about the problem a bit more abstractly. What’s a mystery? It’s a puzzle. And what’s a story? It’s a series of events that unravel in an interesting way. So, where do they intersect? Well, you need a puzzle to keep a story unraveling in an interesting way. If you know what’s going to happen, when, and why, then it’s probably not being told well, which is to say it lacks that puzzle—that mystery—that forms the heart of every good story."


Diane then commented:
“Of course, we do, on one level we do what is going to happen in Emma, almost from the first pages: she and Mr. Knightley are going to get married, but it's all the other things that Emma--and we as readers-- miss, the mystery of Frank and Jane that's not revealed to the end of the book, that keeps us coming back for more. And as I write Frank and Jane, I can't help but think this story might point to the deep hidden friendship (and I mean nothing more than that) between the real Jane and the real Frank.

First, bravo, Diane, on your brilliant catch about the parallel between the fictional and the real Frank and Jane – I do believe that is significant on more than one level, particularly because it really fits with my notion that Frank C. and Jane F. really are biologically related, as half-siblings, with different mothers but sharing the prolific Mr. Woodhouse as amnesiac papa!

Second, of course you know I have for a decade and a half been firmly in the camp of those who see Emma as sitting at the apex of literary mystery, holding a perch right alongside Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 25 years ago, PD James famously identified Emma as a detective story without a murder – and, as I’ve noted, it’s not clear whether she added that parenthetical because she had recently read Leland Monk’s 1990 scholarly article “Murder She Wrote”, in which Monk suggested that Frank Churchill had indeed murdered his imperious aunt (an insight which, when I first heard that in early 2005, catalyzed my understanding of the entire shadow story of Emma!)

But you get to the heart of the deeper meaning of the mysteries of Emma,when you rightly take a conceptual leap out of the straitjacket of thinking literary mystery must be confined to detective fiction. I’ve been saying for a very long time that Jane Austen’s deepest, most passionate agenda as a fiction writer, was epistemological, not literary. I.e., I believe she saw herself as a practitioner of a kind of literary Zen, seeking in a myriad of subtle ways to surprise and jolt readers into recognizing their (our) inherent human proclivity to treat our own subjective perceptions and assumptions as if they were objective facts. She understood, as have great thinkers from the Buddha to modern constructivist philosophers and psychologists, that we do not merely registering “reality”, like an inanimate camera lens. Isherwood’s famous title notwithstanding, we humans are not cameras, our eyes do not register the world, they are subjugated to the subjective constructions of the world that our minds create. Knightley’s recall of Cowper’s poetic line in that regard is not a one-off reference to his attempt to pierce the mystery of Frank and Jane playing cryptic word games at Donwell Abbey – it goes to the very heart and essence of the entire novel – as Adena Rosmarin so aptly put it in 1986, Jane Austen turns us all into Emmas, daring us to find a way to escape from Emma’s field of vision, and see what lies just outside it.

Because, in the end, Jane Austen the social psychologist knew that social life is a mystery – people mostly assume that our snap judgments about others are accurate, only altering our judgments when they smack us in the face, like Emma’s shocked epiphany in the Christmas Eve carriage ride with Mr. Elton. But it’s not just snobbish young Emma who falls victim to mistakes of this kind, it’s all of us, all of the time, whenever we let down our vigilant self-monitoring. It’s just that we mostly never find out about most of them, because the world does not bother to correct them, so we never know all the times we are wrong. It’s human nature at its most elemental, and Aunt Jane Austen, like Aunt Jane Marple, knew human nature so well.

And as in Shakespeare’s most enigmatic masterwork, the mystery is spread around liberally, including in the eponymous protagonist of each. Not only is Emma a mystery, but Emma (Woodhouse) is herself a multilayered mystery, above all a mystery to herself: both in the conventional reading (she doesn’t realize that she loves Knightley for 47 chapters), but also in my shadow story interpretation (she doesn’t realize that she has been systematically manipulated by Knightley from the very beginning of the novel, into eventually believing that she always loved Knightley, when it was never the case until that moment).

And finally, not only is Emma a mystery, what I find most mysterious, and most miraculous about it, is that its mysteriousness is simultaneously so readily dissectable in so many interesting ways, and yet that scrutability never seems to exhaust all the mysteries. All that is required is to flip on the different lenses on Miss Bates’s magic spectacles, take a fresh look at one of the characters, and a whole different view presents itself to our mind’s eye. Because, as I and Diane have long maintained, Miss Bates is also a deeply mysterious character, who is, most significantly, Jane Austen speaking directly to the reader, like a kind of constant chorus, whispering in the reader’s ear, if we will only listen to her “yada yada yada” that is anything but that.

My wife and I have just ended a lovely vacation in the Northeast U.S., our first trip back there together since we moved out west to Portland nearly 3 years ago. Our trip included seeing two dance recitals at Jacob’s Pillow, a visit back to my alma mater, Williams College, during which we saw a new play at the famous summer theater there; and also, at the suggestion of a couple of our great new Portland friends, a trip to Mass MOCA in North Adams, just a short country road ride from Williamstown: http://massmoca.org/event/james-turrell/

As you can read in MOCA’s blurbs, it is a wonderful example of a community turning abandoned industrial buildings into exciting new centers of art and culture—but the most striking exhibit, for me, was the installation by James Turrell, a true visionary, in which he somehow taps into the mechanisms of the audience’s brains, in order to change our visual perceptions, particularly of light and color. It reminded me immediately of what Austen has managed to do with words on a page, most of all in Emma – with Turrell, looking back out of the carefully constructed room at the anteroom where we had been sitting just before, we watched the color of that anteroom seem to change a half dozen times in less than 10 minutes, from orange to green to yellow, etc – and yet, factually, we knew that the color of that room did not change at all, as was reconfirmed to us within seconds of our going back into the anteroom, as the rug changed colors as we looked. What actually changed, inside our brains, were the patterns in which impulses traveled through synapses governing the perception of color. And yet, the changes seemed so real. For 10 minutes, Turrell turned us into Emmas.

Emma is exactly that sort of magic “room”, in which, by acts of imagination, we, Austen’s readers, can alter our point of view, and read the same words on the page differently, changing the “colours” of the characters –e.g., one minute seeing Harriet as a naïve simpleton, the next as a calculating manipulator.

In short, the mystery of Jane Austen’s genius can never be fully plumbed, because the mystery of the human mind can never be fully plumbed – so, like Jeffrey Rush’s Henslow, let’s just celebrate the mystery and thank our lucky stars that Jane left these six priceless “installations” for us to inhabit, whenever we wish, for the rest of our lives!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter