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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

1 comment:

Elizabeth Brady said...

This is a superb example of the depths of quibbling and obfuscation into which much contemporary literary criticism has sunk.

The so-called controversies are manufactured rubbish fuelled by the egos of second-rate academics. It's shaming that they are paid to produce it and to present it to students.

They should ask themselves how Jane Austen would react to their self-serving opinions.