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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

“We are not to be addressing our conduct to fools…..or to dull elves lacking ingenuity either!”

Sunday night, my Facebook/Twitter friend, Andrew Shields --- a very sharp elf who has engaged with me about Jane Austen’s shadows, and who is also a talented author of artful and witty songs and poetry in his own write [  ] --- wrote the following enigmatic post to me:   
“we are not to be addressing our conduct to fools” --- Jane Austen”, Emma.

I was unable to recall when that epigram is uttered in Emma, but I knew the pompous speaker had to be Emma herself. When I searched, I found that it was indeed Emma, pontificating to Harriet about the obvious benefits of a match with Mr. Elton for her low status protegee. Elton has just delivered a charade (which Emma believes is for Harriet, but is actually “addressed” to Emma), and Emma is inspired to spin an elaborate web of fantasy about the match:

“When Miss Smiths and Mr. Eltons get acquainted—they do indeed—and really it is strange; it is out of the common course that what is so evidently, so palpably desirable---what courts the prearrangement of other people, should so immediately shape itself into the proper form. You and Mr. Elton are by situation called together; you belong to one another by every circumstance of your respective homes. Your marrying will be equal to the match at Randalls. There does seem to be a something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction, and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow.
The course of true love never did run smooth— A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage…This is an alliance which, whoever—whatever your friends may be, must be agreeable to them, provided at least they have common sense; and WE ARE NOT TO BE ADDRESSING OUR CONDUCT TO FOOLS. If they are anxious to see you happily married, here is a man whose amiable character gives every assurance of it;—if they wish to have you settled in the same country and circle which they have chosen to place you in, here it will be accomplished; and if their only object is that you should, in the common phrase, be well married, here is the comfortable fortune, the respectable establishment, the rise in the world which must satisfy them.”

So, in the epigram Andrew quoted to me, Emma’s basically saying that only a fool lacking common sense could fail to see all those plusses, so don’t even bother thinking about them. And Harriet obliges:
“Yes, very true. How nicely you talk; I love to hear you. You understand every thing. You and Mr. Elton are one as clever as the other. This charade!—If I had studied a twelvemonth, I could never have made any thing like it.”

My antennae went up when I noted that Emma speaks the quoted words in Chapter 9, which I’ve often referred to as the “Rosetta Stone” of Emma, because it contains three word puzzles: two charades, plus a stanza from Garrick’s Riddle. Thanks primarily to Colleen Sheehan, we know that each of those three puzzles has not only the expected overt answer, but also a concealed answer as well –especially “the “Prince of Whales” solution to Mr. Elton’s just-delivered charade, which Emma is so confident has only one correct answer, “courtship”. These puzzles collectively symbolize Austen’s six novels, which, as I’ve long claimed, all have both an overt story and a shadow story.

So I responded to Andrew that in the shadow story, Harriet is a pretending Shamela who, in the guise of a naïve fool, is convincingly enacting a very clever, real-life “charade” which fools Emma completely. Andrew replied: “My favorite thing about the "courtship" charade is the Lamb anagram-acrostic [also discovered by Colleen Sheehan in 2006]. -- When I saw you'd made a comment, I expected you to connect the quotation to the Austen line about "dull elves"!  I could only reply: “Andrew, you were WAY ahead of me on this one, I'm the dull elf this time! ... Actually the famous “dull elves” quote (the inspiration for my blog title, Sharp Elves Society) did flash briefly through my brain when I read your post, but I didn't pause and think about it…”

After a good night’s sleep, I realized Andrew was onto something significant, so I took a closer look at the parallels between (i) Emma’s condescending advice to Harriet not to address her conduct to fools, and (ii) JA’s famous “dull elves” epigram in her January 1813 letter to her sister, written a few years earlier than Emma. In the latter, JA (as I’ve often asserted) was hinting, with characteristic irony, that there was much more going on in her fiction than meets the eye of the passive reader:  “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.'”

In a nutshell, just as Emma explicitly asserted to Harriet that only a fool lacking common sense would fail to grasp what a great match Elton was for Harriet, so too was JA teasingly hinting to her sister that only a dull reader lacking ingenuity would see the ambiguity of pronoun attributions in Pride & Prejudice as authorial errors, whereas the sharper elves would realize these were deliberate ambiguities on JA’s part, the decoding of which would illuminate the “secret answer” of the novel, i.e., its shadow story.

But was this parallelism an intentional revisiting by JA of her 1813 epistolary bon mot, and did JA mean for that epigram to be recognized as significant by her sharp readers? As the rest of this post will show, I believe that is all the case, and that JA gave several additional clues in the text of Emma to make that clear. Even though the parallel was solely for the private edification of a handful of trusted, savvy family and friend elves, who’d have been in on this very private 1813 joke, the joke has long since gone public, as a result of the publication of JA’s letters, so we’re all in on it now.

First, earlier in that same Chapter 9, we read Emma’s thoughts about Harriet, which echo the “dull” in “dull elves”: 
“She cast her eye over it, pondered, caught the meaning, read it through again to be quite certain, and quite mistress of the lines, and then passing it to Harriet, sat happily smiling, and saying to herself, while Harriet was puzzling over the paper in all the confusion of hope and DULLNESS…

And then we also see that Emma’s stern warning to Harriet not to “address” her conduct to her foolish friends has been subtly prepared in a passage in Chapter 9 when that same word, ironically, twice describes Elton’s (misunderstood) romantic “addresses”: 
“He called for a few moments, just to leave a piece of paper on the table containing, as he said, a charade, which a friend of his had ADDRESSED to a young lady, the object of his admiration, but which, from his manner, Emma was immediately convinced must be his own.
'Pray, Miss Smith, give me leave to pay my ADDRESSES to you. Approve my charade and my intentions in the same glance.'

So, since we know that Elton has actually addressed the charade to Emma, in her referring to “addresses” to “fools”, she thereby unwittingly suggests that she herself is the fool in this situation!

Then, at the end of Chapter 10, with the disaster of the carriage ride with the drunken Elton still five chapters in the future, Emma echoes the “ingenuity” of the sharp elf readers JA wrote for, as Emma pats herself on the back for her matchmaking skills:

“Still, however, though every thing had not been accomplished by her INGENIOUS device, she could not but flatter herself that it had been the occasion of much present enjoyment to both, and must be leading them forward to the great event.”

But then in Chapter 15, during that fateful carriage ride, first Emma, and then Elton, both inadvertently echo Emma’s earlier usage of “address” yet again, and what an exquisite irony that this time around Elton happens to rebut each and every one of the benefits of a match to Harriet:

“After such behaviour, as I have witnessed during the last month, to Miss Smith—such attentions as I have been in the daily habit of observing—to be ADDRESSING me in this manner—this is an unsteadiness of character, indeed, which I had not supposed possible! Believe me, sir, I am far, very far, from gratified in being the object of such professions."
"Good Heaven!" cried Mr. Elton, "what can be the meaning of this?—Miss Smith!—I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence—never paid her any attentions, but as your friend: never cared whether she were dead or alive, but as your friend. If she has fancied otherwise, her own wishes have misled her, and I am very sorry--extremely sorry--But, Miss Smith, indeed!—Oh! Miss Woodhouse! who can think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near! No, upon my honour, there is no unsteadiness of character. I have thought only of you. I protest against having paid the smallest attention to any one else. Every thing that I have said or done, for many weeks past, has been with the sole view of marking my adoration of yourself. You cannot really, seriously, doubt it. No!—(in an accent meant to be insinuating)—I am sure you have seen and understood me."
…”Am I to believe that you have never sought to recommend yourself particularly to Miss Smith?—that you have never thought seriously of her?"
"Never, madam," cried he, affronted in his turn: "never, I assure you. I think seriously of Miss Smith!—Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well: and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to—Every body has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be ADDRESSING myself to Miss Smith!—No, madam, my visits to Hartfield have been for yourself only; and the encouragement I received—"

But there’s still more. Much later on, in Chapter 43, as the Box Hill episode begins, an episode which will include yet another word puzzle (Mr. Weston’s Hutchinsonian play on “EM-MA”), we find not one, not two, but three usages of that word “dull” from JA’s letter to her sister:

“At first it was downright DULNESS to Emma. She had never seen Frank Churchill so silent and stupid. He said nothing worth hearing—looked without seeing—admired without intelligence—listened without knowing what she said. While he was so DULL, it was no wonder that Harriet should be DULL likewise; and they were both insufferable…”

And finally in Chapter 54, JA one more time echoes the “ingenuity” from that 1813 letter, in describing the unexpected and unexplained event which triggers Mr. Woodhouse’s sudden reversal, in acquiescing in Mr. Knightley’s marrying Emma and moving in at Hartfield:

“In this state of suspense they were befriended, not by any sudden illumination of Mr. Woodhouse’s mind, or any wonderful change of his nervous system, but by the operation of the same system in another way. Mrs. Weston’s poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkeys—evidently by the INGENUITY of man. Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered.—Pilfering was housebreaking to Mr. Woodhouse’s fears.—He was very uneasy; and but for the sense of his son-in-law’s protection, would have been under wretched alarm every night of his life.

I am not alone in suggesting that an alternate explanation for the pilfering is staring us in the face. As with Mrs. Churchill’s sudden death “after a brief struggle” which solves all of Frank Churchill’s seemingly intransigent problems (and which Leland Monk, in 1990, was the first to argue was Frank murdering his aunt), we may plausibly guess that the “man” whose “ingenuity” the narrator teasingly refers to is Mr. Knightley himself, who has taken to heart the proverb about those whom God helps, and has “addressed” the rumor of local housebreaking to foolish Mr. Woodhouse, so as to obtain his cooperation.

But there’s still one more piece of this particular literary jigsaw puzzle to fit in its place. Emma’s epigram is spoken right after she quotes Shakespeare, and I find in that quotation the final confirmation that JA meant to wink back at the lack of ingenuity in dull elves reading her novels.  Once more, let us thank the clueless Emma for unwittingly providing the clue to solving yet another puzzle in her eponymous novel.

In 1993, Stuart Tave 1993 gave an orthodox scholarly take on how A Midsummer Night’s Dream is invoked in Emma’s epigram:   “There may be some without common sense who will not find agreeable Harriet’s match with Mr. Elton, she says, but “we are not to be addressing our conduct to fools”. She is, like Puck, above that mortal condition...She has some real talent in [the] Puckish line of acting and of mimicry and of seeing into others and directing them…”

As I read the words “fools” and “Puck” in quick succession, I immediately thought of Puck’s line, one of the most famous in all of Shakespeare, which Puck speaks in Act 3, Scene 2, after he and Oberon discover that Puck has administered the love charm to Lysander instead of Demetrius, such that Lysander now lusts after Helena instead of his true love Hermia:

Of course, apropos JA’s 1813 “dull elves” letter, we all know that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Shakespeare play which has a fairy world populated by many elves. And earlier, in Act 2, Scene 2, after Puck misapplies the love potion to Lysander, we realize why JA chose “address” as a keyword for Elton’s courtship of Emma. Just like Elton, Lysander is caught in a web of romantic confusion between young ladies, in which he vows to “address” his love to the wrong one (Helen[a]):

So, in closing, I thank Andrew Shields very much for sprinkling some insight on my sleeping brain, and enabling me to suss out Jane Austen’s revisiting, in Emma, of her “dull elves” paraphrase from Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion. It makes even clearer and more obvious to me that Jane Austen, in the full flush of the publication of Pride & Prejudice. was justifiably proud of her own skill in writing novels worthy to be read by ingenious elves; but also that she was so self-confident and secure in her own genius, that she could enjoy a bit of witty parody of herself via Emma’s clueless pontification!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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