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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What Jane Austen meant by "I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves"

Today in Austen L and Janeites, Ellen Moody summarized her thoughts about Jane Austen the author, which prompted me to reply:

Ellen wrote: "[In contrast to Woolf] I'm not sure Austen has thought her ideas through. 3 kinds of topics: a kind literal versimilitude clung to and worked out in all particulars (time, place, date,costume, customs, whatever); an intense interest in her central heroines (deep engagement), and off-the-cuff not explained references to morality: Henry feels about such and such a character the way he ought. Well what does that? None of her phrases are particular enough to be able to see what her position is, and she is so often joking. She has some literary criticism of a more thematic sort in the fragments or unfinished novels as well as the two posthumous books."

Ellen, I could not disagree more fundamentally with what you've written, above. For starters, you claim that "None of her phrases are particular enough to be able to see what her position is, and she is so often joking". In this you entirely miss the essence of Jane Austen as an author. She was NOT joking when she wrote this to CEA: “There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'”

You are yourself a very very sharp elf, but you seem to have a deep constitutional aversion to exercising the ingenuity you so obviously have a great deal of, when it comes to determining what Jane Austen means! You insist that she be more particular, without realizing that her failure to do so is deliberate and didactic. She may sound like she’s joking, but she really does insist on her best readers being proactive, and in particular being willing to exercise imagination in order to ascertain her meaning. And why is this didactic? Because, as I’ve often noted, in real life we do not have omniscient narrators perched on our shoulders explaining to us what everything means in our daily lives. Living an examined life is a struggle at which we can never achieve perfection, or anything close to it, because life is (as we hear in Shakespeare in Love) a mystery in so many ways, perhaps most of all in regard to our own selves.

And, I also disagree with you fundamentally, in that my research has proven beyond doubt that JA read and thought deeply and extensively about all the greatest issues that confronted humankind in her lifetime, from war to slavery to women's rights to social justice to agriculture to medicine, etc etc; as well as the more intangible realms we today call epistemology and psychology -- she just refused to be explicit about any of it, both so as to be able to get her novels published, and then widely read, without being censored by powers-that-were that would abhor her radical feminism and gender fluidity; but also ‘cause, as I said above, she expected her readers to work hard to discern her meaning.  In that hard work, we develop our mental muscles, and we also rein in the natural pride and prejudice that all human beings start from before we painfully gain wisdom. Her novels are actually veiled encyclopedias about the wide world she studied so diligently from her corner of the English countryside.

As just one of a thousand examples, please really read closely the post I just wrote yesterday about Mary Crawford's parody of Hawkins Browne's parody of Pope - you will see that it opens the door wide into the excellent comment you made yesterday about your recent re-read of MP: 
The real attack on heartless conspicuous consumption.” Indeed, that is the core insight that drove Rozema’s excellent film adaptation, and it is borne out by Mary Crawford’s sophisticated and wise allusion, which points directly toward Browne’s parody of Pope’s critique of avarice at the highest levels of English society.

And, apropos your observation about JA’s intense focus on her heroines, that is not because she somehow lost track of, or was not interested in, the other characters, quite the contrary! Jane Fairfax is the true heroine of the novel named Emma, but Jane Austen, that wickedly sly elf, told the story from the point of view of the wrong character, Emma Woodhouse, who understands so pitifully little of the life she observes around her, and yet she drags so many readers of the novel down into the pit of confusion with her. The same is true of Charlotte and Mary in P&P, vis a vis the clueless Elizabeth, and also Marianne and Lucy, vis a vis the clueless Elinor, etc etc.

So, as I will be asserting at the JASNA AGM in October (I hope you will come and hear me speak!), I believe Jane Austen was passionate to the literal day she died in her conviction that she had a God-given duty to use the once-in-a-century great genius she was born with, in order to better the lives of people, but particularly women, around the world. And in my opinion, she did a pretty darned good job, as she is still changing lives for the better every single day, two centuries after her death!

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