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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

P.S. re Who inspired Elizabeth Bennet to “bound over decorous prejudices” and straight into our hearts?


ANOTHER WOLLSTONECRAFT ALLUSION EARLY IN P&P:

In my previous post http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2018/06/who-inspired-elizabeth-bennet-to-bound.html, I gathered together several strands of convergent evidence, and crystallized it all in support of my claim that Elizabeth Bennet’s bounding, jumping walk from Longbourn to Netherfield, and the reactions of the Bingleys and Darcy thereto, were both drenched in the theme of female empowerment advocated for in Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication. What often happens in the aftermath of writing such a post, is that I later find another avenue of inquiry left unsleuthed, leading to still more corroborative evidence.

It turns out that such post is no exception to my rule. Yesterday, in my mop-up operation, I tried a few fresh Google searches pairing different snippets from Austen and Wollstonecraft, and that led me to yet another key node of interconnection! I’ll let Aussie prof William Christie explain the first part – here’s an excerpt from his book chapter entitled “Interpreting the Politics of P&P” (2016). First Christie quotes the following passage from Chapter 4 of the Vindication, which, as you will see, is about the mind-body connection in female education:

“I am fully persuaded, that we should hear of none of these infantine airs, if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise and not confined in close rooms till their muscles are relaxed and their powers of digestion destroyed. To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls, instead of being cherished, perhaps, created, were treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true, they could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason. "Educate women like men," says Rousseau, "and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us." This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Christie then comments thereon:   
“Wollstonecraft’s protest is a salutary reminder of the politics of fresh air in Romantic Britain. The extension to women of the vogue of walking and touring. Like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Elizabeth [Bennet] had a ‘love of solitary walks’- it meant a measure of bodily emancipation, the ideological significance of which is as evident as the ideological significance of Elizabeth’s energy and independence: [followed by quotes from the passages describing Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield and the Bingleys-Darcy critique thereof].
This walk to Netherfield, as Jill Heydt-Stevenson points out, is ‘an act of jouissance that heightens her vitality.’ Elizabeth is singled out by the novel and by its hero for her ‘animal spirits’ expressed her in the ‘impatient activity’ of present participles that might as appropriately be applied to her ‘liveliness’ of mind and conversation: ‘crossing’, ‘jumping,’ ‘springing’, ‘glowing’. So it is later [in P&P], when she breaks off from the unaccommodating order of Netherfield society to run ‘gaily off, rejoicing as she rambled about…” END QUOTE FROM CHRISTIE

So here we now have yet another passage from early in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication which Jane Austen has clearly woven into the heart of the fabric of that same short but iconic scene early in P&P! Christie was unaware of the other Wollstonecraft echoes which I described in my post 2 days ago, and so he only goes so far and then moves on to his next subject. But now I hope you join me in seeing still more beyond Christie’s excellent observation.

In particular, I hope you smile, as I do, when considering that Darcy’s droll observation, which so disconcerts Miss Bingley, that Elizabeth’s eyes were “brightened by the exercise” of her muddy walk, was meant by JA to remind the reader of Wollstonecraft’s above-quoted advocacy for women having healthy bodies and healthy minds as a holistic unity! But that turns out to be only the start of a walk of textual discovery that I unexpectedly took today!

THE EYES HAVE IT

Even as I wrote that last comment about Elizabeth’s exercise-brightened eyes in Chapter 8, I realized that there was yet another, closely related Wollstonecraftian gem hidden in plain sight only two chapters earlier in Chapter 6 of P&P, which, as I will now show you, is illuminated in the identical way when viewed through this same Wollstonecraftian lens.

I refer to the following famous scene at Lucas Lodge in Chapter 6:

“Mr. Darcy stood near them in silent indignation at such a mode of passing the evening, to the exclusion of all conversation, and was too much engrossed by his thoughts to perceive that Sir William Lucas was his neighbour, till Sir William thus began: “What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished society.”   “Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.”  Sir William only smiled. “Your friend performs delightfully,” he continued after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; “and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.”  “You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.”
“Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight. Do you often dance at St. James's?”   “Never, sir.”  “Do you not think it would be a proper compliment to the place?” “It is a compliment which I never pay to any place if I can avoid it.” “You have a house in town, I conclude?”  Mr. Darcy bowed. “I had once had some thought of fixing in town myself—for I am fond of superior society; but I did not feel quite certain that the air of London would agree with Lady Lucas.”
He paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion was not disposed to make any; and Elizabeth at that instant moving towards them, he was struck with the action of doing a very gallant thing, and called out to her: “My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not dancing? Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure when so much beauty is before you.” And, taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William: “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.”
Mr. Darcy, with grave propriety, requested to be allowed the honour of her hand, but in vain. Elizabeth was determined; nor did Sir William at all shake her purpose by his attempt at persuasion. “You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half-hour.”
“Mr. Darcy is all politeness,” said Elizabeth, smiling. “He is, indeed; but, considering the inducement, my dear Miss Eliza, we cannot wonder at his complaisance—for who would object to such a partner?”
Elizabeth looked archly, and turned away. Her resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency, when thus accosted by Miss Bingley: “I can guess the subject of your reverie.”  “I should imagine not.” “You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise—the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all those people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!”  “Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”  Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity: “Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet!” repeated Miss Bingley. “I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favourite?—and pray, when am I to wish you joy?”
“That is exactly the question which I expected you to ask. A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy.”

Do you now see what I see? What Austen’s sly narrator has not made explicit, but which I now am certain is the case nonetheless, is that Darcy’s famously dyspeptic sneer that “Every savage can dance” is made at the very instant that he and Sir William Lucas are actually observing Elizabeth dancing as part of “the [dancing] group” which Bingley joins!

Each of the modern P&P film adaptations therefore errs in showing Elizabeth as a bystander to, rather than a participant in, the group dance. Even though Darcy appears to Elizabeth (and therefore the narrator) to be standing “in silent indignation” when Sir William strikes up a chat with him about the dancing they observe, Darcy reveals to Caroline Bingley at the end of the quoted passage that he was actually meditating on Elizabeth’s “pair of fine eyes”.

It is only after that dance concludes, that Elizabeth, of necessity, then walks by them, in order to return to her prior bystanding place beside Charlotte; which in turn prompts Sir William to seize the moment and work so hard to match her with Darcy in the next dance! I.e., this provides a plausible reason why Elizabeth would walk by them at precisely the moment when Sir William would see an opening to match them for the next dance!

And so….when Darcy then speaks to Caroline of his pleasure in “a pair of fine eyes”, and identifies them as Elizabeth’s, we are meant to realize that he was observing her “fine eyes” while she was dancing!! Surely you now see where I’m going with this -- this earlier scene is meant to be understood, upon rereading of P&P, as the first of two “bookend” scenes involving Darcy admiring Elizabeth’s eyes brightened by exercise, the other of course being after her walk to Netherfield.

In both instances, Wollstonecraft’s claim --- that a woman will earn the worthy romantic interest of a worthy man by being physically and mentally strong and healthy --- is enacted before the reader’s eyes, and in the most memorably romantic way possible!

In both scenes, we now see, Darcy’s very positive reactions to Elizabeth occur right after her eyes have been brightened, and made finer, by vigorous exercise (because, of course, dancing reel after reel involves as much jumping and bounding as a walk through field after field!). And then JA can’t resist putting a very sly pun in Darcy’s mouth – he personifies “a lady’s imagination” as if it were itself a vigorously dancing woman, whose movement “is very rapid” as it “jumps” from point to point to point “in a moment”, exactly as in a country dance.

And now that I think about it, there are not one but two more scenes in which Darcy the voyeur gets to admire Elizabeth in motion:

Next in the Netherfield salon in Chapter 11, when Darcy makes his risqué joke about admiring Elizabeth’s and Caroline’s figures as they take a turn around the room. And then once more, but in a more metaphorical sense, in Chapter 31 in the Rosings salon, with her moving fingers standing in for Eliza herself:

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.”

And here is the final and best point of all – best, because it goes to the heart of the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth: once we realize that Darcy was observing Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” at the Meryton assembly while she was in the act of dancing, it also tells us, without the narrator having to say it, that they have been locking eyes with each other! Simple physics tells us that Darcy could only have been struck by Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” if she herself, while dancing, had noticed Darcy staring at her, and stared back -- not consciously, but we know she must have done so, and been struck by his “fine eyes”, too. How do we know this?

Because with Austen the links never end, once we get deep into the weeds of this novel which is a kind of engine which whirs along from start to finish, with the most perfectly engineered interlocking moving parts. And we get confirmation of Elizabeth having noticed Darcy’s eyes in Chapter 6, when we read, three dozen chapters later, in Chapter 43, what happens when Elizabeth finally gets to see the larger portrait of Darcy hanging in the picture gallery at Pemberley:

“Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression.”

I am not the first Austen scholar to notice Austen’s brilliant stroke in sneakily reversing reader expectation in writing “and fixed his eyes upon herself” instead of “and fixed her eyes upon him”, but I am the first to explain it in fullest context. This description of Elizabeth’s imagining Darcy staring down at her tells us that in that instant, her imagination (ironically as per Darcy’s comment to Caroline about female “jumping” imagination!) causes Darcy’s eyes to instantly come alive inside the picture frame (almost as in a Gothic novel), and to actively stare into her eyes. Or, framed in a less ominous way, Elizabeth experiences a moment of déjà vu, her mind jumping back in time to the Lucas Lodge dance floor, when Darcy and she first locked eyes while she jumped and bounded; and then it jumps again to the Netherfield salon, when it happens again, and then again and again as noted, above.

CONCLUSION:

A lot of stuff to digest, but I hope worth the investment of time by you. Before I close, I think some summing up will be helpful. With my now having connected all these textual pearls with a Wollstonecraftian thread, I assert that it defies common sense to claim that somehow Austen, without knowledge of the Vindication, would have randomly chosen to weave these various uncannily close parallels with the Vindication of verbiage and situation into all these closely interlinked passages in Pride and Prejudice! No, this pattern can no longer plausibly be deemed, as it still is even by competent, close reading Austen scholars, to merely be a reflection of a sextuple coincidence of Austen and Wollstonecraft repeatedly tapping into the same protofeminist zeitgeist independently.

It’s as clear as circumstantial evidence can be, I claim, that P&P is at it heart Austen’s deliberate dramatization of Wollstonecraft’s most significant ideas about female education and empowerment, in particular how true, egalitarian love between man and woman can only occur when they both come to each other from positions of equal strength. Or as Elizabeth puts it in a way that surely would have deeply gratified Wollstonecraft:  “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.”

Reflecting a little further, I infer from the evidence I’ve presented in these two posts that Austen drew most heavily from Wollstonecraft in setting the stage of P&P – not only for the dancing scene at Lucas Lodge in Chapter 6, and the walking to Netherfield scene at the start of Chapter 8, but also, as I argued in my 2016 blog post which I linked to in my post two days ago, in the Netherfield salon discussion later in Chapter 8, as to what constitutes accomplishment in a woman. Austen takes each of Wollstonecraft’s key arguments about women’s education and repeatedly puts them all center stage in the beginning of P&P, with most focus on Elizabeth, but with each of the other female characters having an antecedent somewhere in the Vindication as well.

In my 2017 AGM speech, I argued that Wollstonecraft’s dreadful death in post-childbirth was perhaps the key impetus that galvanized the 22 year old Jane Austen to compose First Impressions in a hurry and have her father submit it for publication within a year thereafter. Now, based on this latest evidence I’ve gathered, I know it for certain. And as I write that, I can almost imagine Jane Austen casting her “fine eyes” on me, with a wink and a nod, saying, with mock seriousness worthy of a Mr. Darcy:
“Any savage (i.e., any man) can… enhance (himself and the world) by supporting feminist aspirations for true equality of the sexes!”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, June 25, 2018

Who inspired Elizabeth Bennet to “bound over decorous prejudices” and straight into our hearts?


There are few passages in Jane Austen’s novels more beloved and iconic than when Elizabeth Bennet (of course in Pride & Prejudice) impulsively decides to walk the three miles from Longbourn to Netherfield, in order to visit her beloved sick sister Jane:

“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”

With marvelous economy, Austen gives us, in a single sentence, all we need in order to fully conjure the rapidly moving scene in our mind’s eye. Far better than a page of detailed description could do, these few, carefully chosen words display to us her heroine’s light, bright, and sparkling spirit, in vibrant colors.

Then, that same evening, Darcy and the Bingleys express a range of judgments on Elizabeth’s character, as they each discern from her ramble:

“…When dinner was over, [Elizabeth] returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added:  “She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”
“She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”
“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office.”
“Your picture may be very exact, Louisa,” said Bingley; “but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice.”
You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley; “and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition.”
“Certainly not.”
“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.”
“It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,” said Bingley.
“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”
“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.” A short pause followed this speech”

Andrew Davies, applying a judicious amount of creative license (such as having Elizabeth accidentally encounter Darcy as she approaches Netherfield, an addition which nicely foreshadows their later rambling encounters), perfectly captures the spirit of both of the above passages in this brief clip from his 1995 BBC/A&E version, as inimitably performed by Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, et al: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DndU3cGvAWI

Which brings me to the main point of this post: to answer the question posed in my Subject Line. Was there actually a direct inspiration for Austen to write Elizabeth’s memorable walk to Netherfield, and the discussion about it that followed? I’m the first to claim that there was such a specific source, and so, without further ado, here it is, with ALL CAPS presentation of the most relevant and resonant words:

“Surely it would have been wiser to have advised women to improve themselves till they rose above the fumes of vanity; and then to let the public opinion come round—for where are rules of accommodation to stop? THE NARROW PATH of truth and virtue inclines neither to the right nor left, it is a straight-forward business, and they who are earnestly PURSUING THEIR ROAD, may BOUND OVER MANY DECOROUS PREJUDICES, without leaving modesty behind. Make the heart CLEAN, and give the head employment, and I will venture to predict that THERE WILL BE NOTHING OFFENSIVE IN THE BEHAVIOUR.
The AIR OF FASHION, which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antiques; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character. This varnish of fashion, which seldom sticks very close to sense, may dazzle the weak; but leave nature to itself, and it will seldom disgust the wise….”

Some among you perhaps recognized the source of the above words: Chapter 4 of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written by Mary Wollstonecraft when Jane Austen was an impressionable 16; inspiring words which rang out in the ears of women not merely in Great Britain, but all across Europe.

As you can see, Wollstonecraft, in the above passage, used the metaphor of a road to be followed in life by women seeking to overcome centuries of deeply rooted sexism and patriarchy, in finding their way on that life path with the sure guides of truth and virtue. If a woman has truly improved her heart and her mind, she argues, then true modesty and avoidance of offensive behavior will follow naturally, inspiring a self confidence that will not allow itself to be undermined by false, sterile notions of decorum and propriety.

And isn’t that precisely the metaphor of the road or path of a virtuous, brave female life which was seized upon by Jane Austen, and deployed to such brilliant effect in the above quoted passage from P&P? To me it’s now obvious that Austen chose to channel and bring to vivid life Wollstonecraft’s inspiring call to legs, as in, time to get up and get moving, ladies, to get where you need to go in life!

I particularly love Austen’s witty ironic understatement in her transformation of each abstraction in Wollstonecraft’s kernel of women who “bound over decorous prejudices” into “country-town”, concrete imagery, including these clear echoes:
Elizabeth “jumping over stiles and springing over puddles” – bounding, jumping, and springing are synonyms which all connote vibrant energy;
Austen’s own novel title, Pride and Prejudice –and isn’t the entire arc of the novel one of how a woman “bounds over prejudice” generated by class snobbery?; and
Caroline Bingley’s sneer at “an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.” – indeed, Wollstonecraft espoused indifference to empty decorum!

I’ll go even further, and suggest that Austen puts in Caroline Bingley’s mouth the anti-feminist (and therefore self-hating) sneer at “conceited independence”, because the “independence” of women was perhaps the central theme of the Vindication, beginning even in the Dedication thereof:

“…I plead for my sex, not for myself. Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.
It is, then, an affection for the whole human race that makes my pen dart rapidly along to support what I believe to be the cause of virtue: and the same motive leads me earnestly to wish to see woman placed in a station in which she would advance, instead of retarding, the progress of those glorious principles that give a substance to morality….”

And did you also notice, as I just did as I was writing this post, that Wollstonecraft makes her ‘pen dart rapidly along”? Once again you have that the idea of a female subject (symbolized by her pen) moving rapidly on a path “to support the cause of virtue”. And I simultaneously laugh as I also see that line in Wollstonecraft’s Dedication as a source for the comic debate in the Netherfield salon about the pros and cons of Bingley writing rapidly, as well as Darcy’s desire to “mend his own pen”!

And so Austen showed us, even as she entertained us, that Elizabeth’s 3-mile ramble to Netherfield is virtuous and thrilling, because she has the clean heart and strong mind and character that Wollstonecraft wished all women to acquire. That enabled her to ignore the dirtiness of her path to Netherfield, and to make a beeline straight to the destination her “clean heart” has identified for her –Jane in her sickbed at Netherfield –which, taken as a metaphor, means, that women should always move quickly to take care of other women in need of help, and don’t worry about getting your hands (or your petticoats) dirty in the process!

It’s been over a decade since I first began to pay attention to Austen’s interest in Wollstonecraft’s writings and also her life, most of all her tragic, agony-filled death in childbirth in 1798. Even today, that is still a minority position in Austen scholarly circles, and sadly so. 1798 was, not coincidentally, the very year when the 22 year old Jane Austen wrote First Impressions – which of course was the now lost first version that eventually morphed over 14 years into Pride & Prejudice. My strong interest in this subject of the Wollstonecraft in Austen has increased steadily with each passing year, culminating in the talk I gave at the JASNA AGM last October, which centered on what I now see as the decisive, central influence which Wollstonecraft exerted on Austen’s imagination and intellect for over a quarter century, from Austen’s early juvenilia through her final fiction, letters, and even deathbed poetry.

As to the allusive presence of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication specifically in P&P, in just rereading my July 15, 2016 post https://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2016/07/darcys-stunning-cunning-vindication-of.html   entitled “Darcy’s stunning (& cunning) vindication of his own right … to re-educate Elizabeth!”, I was reminded that I actually quoted that same “bounding over decorous prejudices” passage back then. However, I quoted it as part of a longer excerpt from the Vindication, without at that time having realized that the “road” metaphor was brought to life in Elizabeth’s ramble.
I quoted it then to connect to yet another, closely related, famous passage in P&P – the Netherfield salon debate about female accomplishment in Chapter 8.

And so, today, putting all these textual puzzle pieces together, it becomes that much clearer that the Vindication was a primary source for the part of P&P which thrills feminist readers the most – Elizabeth Bennet as the ultimate Wollstonecraftian heroine, and P&P as the most Wollstonecraftian of all of Austen’s novels – which is saying a great deal indeed! This is also a quintessential example of feminist artistic and intellectual synergy. Wollstonecraft’s nonfiction Vindication, as I began by saying, inspired European women; but in her two abortive attempts at feminist fiction, she never came close to producing a novel which could add a whole other dimension to her advocacy for improvement of women’s lives.

The synergy is that Wollstonecraft, who had the genius to diagnose what ailed her sexist society, lived and wrote long enough to pass the baton to Austen, who did have the genius and imagination to create living breathing characters who would live forever in the hearts and minds of generations of readers, especially female readers. Thereby, during the ensuing 227 years, audiences of tens and tens of millions have read this message of female self-empowerment. And this is why, in a myriad of offspring in print and on film, the “children” born of this “marriage” of Wollstonecraft and Austen have only just begun to jump over the bounds of sexist prejudice, as feminism takes another promising bound forward in #MeToo and related collective efforts to achieve the gender equity Wollstonecraft and Austen dreamt of.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Smollett was an ‘especial favourite’ author of Gilbert, who knew a Byng well, too! D’ye see?

I posted a link to my initial post about Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in one of the Facebook groups dedicated to G&S, and I received some wonderful replies, to which I now respond here:

IAN BOND:  “to quote the Mikado, "All this is very interesting". However, I would like to make some comments and I apologise profusely for their extreme length.”

Ian, quite the contrary, I thank you for your taking the time and effort to respond in such detail and so politely as you’ve expressed your skepticism about my interpretation. I will extend you the same courtesies, I was hoping to receive a good “stress test” for my reading, and you’ve provided it – now let’s see if I can save the “patient”!  😉

IAN: “Firstly let us be quite clear that the practice of using stylized pseudo-Chinese/Japanese names had been common practice on the stage for some time, notably in pantomime and burlesque, and even more prominently on the French operatic stage. [you then gave numerous examples]”

Ian, I made it very clear that it was not merely a general parallel usage of such stylized pseudo-Japanese names by both Smollett and Gilbert that I found so convincing. It was the very close correspondence of four of those names, which I’ll repeat again here, and analyze each letter sequences, to be even clearer:

Gilbert turned “Nin-Kom-Poo-Po” into “Nanki-Poo”;  (each name contains N-n-K-P-o-o in order)
Gilbert turned “Cuboy” into “Pooh-Bah”;   (each name has 2 syllables, with “oo” then “b” that “oy/ah”)
Gilbert turned “Fika-kaka” into “Ko-Ko”; (Ka-Ka becomes Ko-Ko”)
Gilbert turned “Pish” into “Pish-Tush”.   (Obviously “Pish” is identical in both)

It’s all about this very close degree of echoing. Unless you can show me any of the multitude of other works you cited which have a comparable cluster of 4 such closely echoing names – names, I might add, which, ALL apply to parodies of Japanese governmental officials -- then I continue to assert that this is in and of itself a prima facie case. It is Gilbert’s giant hint to any of his readers who actually knew Smollett’s writing well (as he did – see below) that they should (as I did) look to see if there might be thematic meaning behind his 4-name cluster.

And as the rest of my lengthy first post showed (which neither Ian nor anyone else has yet addressed, other than Ian’s dismissal of the least significant of them, “Atom”), there are numerous significant thematic parallels which perfectly complement the specific name mirroring. Again, unless you can also show me any of those other works with stylized Japanese names which have even half as many of the thematic parallels I listed and explained, then, again, I believe your critique falls short.

And, by the way, thank you, Ian and others, for detailing that long operatic tradition of using fake Asian names, which I had not been aware of –it tells me that Gilbert chose a nice cover story for his deeper riddle about Smollett/Byng, one that would satisfy those who would take it at face value and not feel the need to dig deeper.

IAN: “In the case of The Mikado we have to consider the following – Gilbert was annoyed and upset in 1884 by Sullivan’s refusal to set his latest libretto – the so-called ‘lozenge’ plot – on which Gilbert had expended a lot of time and energy – and it looked very much as if the partnership could have ended at that point in time. Sometime in the Spring of 1884, Gilbert together with Kitty visited the Japanese Exhibition in Knightsbridge where they would doubtless have seen Kabuki Theatre (which often includes beheadings or the threat thereof), Samurai martial arts, Japanese arts and crafts (“On many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan”) – possibly the art of Geisha make-up? (“Braid the raven hair”?). Legend has it that a Japanese Samurai sword that Gilbert had bought and hung on his study wall, fell to the floor, giving him the inspiration to write Mikado. How true or not that may be we will probably never know. The fact is that Gilbert saw a fantastic way of satirising current British political corruption, the “jobs-worth” mentality, moral corruption et al., by disguising it in a fictional Japanese setting.”

I of course also knew about that Samurai sword bubba meises that Gilbert pulled out of his posterior and fed to his hungry public that yearned for an origin story of his most famous libretto–he was neither the first, nor the last, celebrity to gently mock that sort of intense interest in how an artist was inspired to create a given work of art –just think of John Lennon or Jane Austen. And anyway, I never suggested that the sole reason Gilbert chose to set his plot in Japan was to allude to Smollett’s Atom, and to the tragedy of Admiral Byng behind it – it was coordinated, surely, with several other deeper meanings…

And, don’t you see, your last sentence is actually a further, huge confirmation of my thesis as to why Gilbert did it. I say that Gilbert knew of the satire by Smollett of British moral and political corruption between 1755 and 1760, which led to Byng’s being scapegoated and executed (and, by the way, Admiral Byng’s death was such a seismic event in the British Navy, that interest in it has remained high among historians from 1757 right up till 2018). In a nutshell, I say Gilbert decided to pay Smollett the sincerest flattery, by repeating Smollett’s satire in Gilbert’s own Victorian era, and you can assist me by giving me details on the Victorian era political satire you see in The Mikado of Gilbert’s “peers” (pun intended) which you yourself say was Gilbert’s primary purpose.

I.e., as far as any of you know, were there real life British Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush, and Pooh-Bah, whose true identity Gilbert’s cognoscenti audience would have recognized? In particular, was there anyone who was scapegoated by powers-that-were in order to deflect political heat from them? If so, that would support my argument even more – it would mean that Gilbert emulated Smollett in that respect as well, since commentators have recognized the real people (Byng, Pitt, Fox, etc) hidden in plain sight in Atom.


IAN: “My problem with your theories around Smollett and Admiral Byng: Firstly you say that “For starters, it’s well known to Gilbert scholars that Smollett was one of Gilbert’s favorite authors. Now, look at how closely Gilbert mirrored Smollett’s names – this is way way beyond being “reminiscent”:” – If you are going to say this, you need to name those scholars. As you point out earlier “As far as I can tell, after diligent online research, no other scholar has ever suggested that W.S. Gilbert, in his 1884 libretto for The Mikado, intentionally alluded to Tobias Smollett’s 1769 novella” – in fact you seem to be contradicting yourself….books about Gilbert and Sullivan, both in partnership and apart have been regularly published at least since 1894, when Percy Fitzgerald published “The Savoy Opera”. None of the 100+ books in my collection make any reference whatsoever to Smollett or, indeed, to Admiral Byng, as far as I can see, and certainly recent books by highly regarded scholars such as Andrew Crowther and the late Jane W Steadman, who concentrate on Gilbert, make absolutely no mention of either”

As Bryan correctly pointed out, Steadman was my primary source, although I confess that in my rush to put out my initial post, I failed to recognize that Steadman was not (as Bryan noted) explicitly stating that the real life Gilbert had Smollett on his home bookshelf. Here’s the detail:

W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre by Jane W. Stedman (1996)
Chapter 4: “Love, Marriage, Farce, and Burlesque”
P41: “Lucy Turner was not, after all, Gilbert’s first choice; he married her after his courtship of Annie Thomas proved unsuccessful…”
P43: “It must have been an especially happy time for Gilbert, since was shortly to fall in love, if he had not already done so, with Annie Hall Thomas, a novelist two years younger than himself…Annie published her first book when she was 24… Eventually she wrote more than a hundred [novels], to say nothing of short stories, articles, and verses…
P44: “A much fuller picture of Gilbert is his first professional decade, however, appears in the hero of Annie’s 1866 novel Played Out [in the character of Roydon or Roy]…When Annie describes Roy as a writer, his identity is even more obvious, for he has ‘the art of wording nonsense epigrammatically’ and his phraseology is happy, tricky, and ear-catching. Although it is unlikely that Miss Thomas visited Mr. Gilbert’s bachelor chambers, her description of them is characteristic enough: bookcases full of standard modern novelists and his favourite Fielding, Smollett, Wycherly, Jonson, Bacon, Addison, and Ingoldsby, among others….
Roydon’s resemblance to Gilbert is most developed in Volume 1 of Played Out … it is clear that Annie Thomas modelled him on a man she knew well, and whom she found physically attractive and intellectually congenial. They must have appealed to each other’s sense of fun. Of course, William read Played Out and drew a teasing sketch, after Millais’ Trust Me, in which he holds out his hand for ‘The Novel’ which Annie is hiding behind her back…”

And now, here is the actual passage from Annie Thomas’s roman a clef about Gilbert, which, to me, is very persuasive, if indirect, evidence of Gilbert’s literary loves:

“…a glance round [Roydon’s] sitting-room will throw a further light on the tastes and pursuits, if not on the character, of my hero. The recesses on either side of the fire-place were occupied with broad shelves, and these were filled with books -- original editions, most of them of the standard modern novelists. An independent oak book-stand, placed within reach of the one arm-chair in the room, might be supposed to contain the more especial favourites of that room’s occupant; and there Fielding and Smollett, Wycherly and Ben Jonson, Spenser and Sidney, Bon Gaultier, Bacon, Addison, Ingoldsby, and a host of other wits, poets, essayists, dramatists, humourists, and scholars stood in amicable array….”

Note that Smollett was the second named “especial favourite” which Roydon/Gilbert kept close at hand!

So far, so good, but now I’ve got another big gun to wheel out. When I wrote my post, I did not only rely only on Thomas’s fictionalized “report” about her erstwhile beloved, Gilbert’s literary tastes. I also had found the following intriguing snippet:

Eileen E. Cottis, “Gilbert and the British Tar” in Gilbert and Sullivan, ed. Helyar, pp. 34-35. (1971)
“…the ‘D’ye see’ of Richard’s first song was a favourite phrase of the nautical characters in Smollett’s novels. Richard uses many stock metaphors- he calls Rose a ‘tight little craft’….”

Of course, you diehard G&S mavens know that “Richard” is Richard Dauntless, that endearing British tar of Ruddigore. Last night, while working on this reply to Ian, I pulled up the Project Gutenberg versions of Smollett’s three famous nautical adventures (Roderick Random, Peregine Pickle, and Sir Launcelot Graves), and verified that Cottis was 1000% correct, because they contain, respectively, nine, thirtyone, and fortyfive such salty usages of “D’ye see”! In other words, Cottis wasn’t just picking up on some peripheral, trivial aspect of Smollett’s nautical fiction – she had correctly identified what amounted to Smollett’s signature or iconic method of quickly identifying one of his characters as an authentic British tar!

Now, here, if anyone here needs it, is the ballad sung by the boastful “war hero” Richard Dauntless to his female admirers, a ballad which contains seven usages of “D’ye see” – and, as with Smollett, these are foregrounded, they are at the center of the rhyming scheme of the entire ballad, they are Richard Dauntless’s verbal tic that instantly identifies him:

RICHARD.
I shipped, d’ye see, in a Revenue sloop,
And, off Cape Finistere,
A merchantman we see,
A Frenchman, going free,
So we made for the bold Mounseer,
D’ye see?
We made for the bold Mounseer.
But she proved to be a Frigate – and she up with her ports,
And fires with a thirty-two!
It come uncommon near,
But we answered with a cheer,
Which paralysed the Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
Which paralysed the Parley-voo!
CHORUS. Which paralysed the Parley-voo, etc.
Then our Captain he up and he says, says he,
“That chap we need not fear, –
We can take her, if we like,
She is sartin for to strike,
For she’s only a darned Mounseer,
D’ye see?
She’s only a darned Mounseer!”
“But to fight a French fal-lal –
it’s like hittin’ of a gal –
It’s a lubberly thing for to do;
For we, with all our faults,
Why, we’re sturdy British salts,
While she’s only a Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
While she’s only a poor Parley-voo!”
CHORUS. While she’s only a Parley-voo, etc.
So we up with our helm, and we scuds before the breeze,
As we gives a compassionating cheer;
Froggee answers with a shout
As he sees us go about,
Which was grateful of the poor Mounseer,
D’ye see?
Which was grateful of the poor Mounseer!
And I’ll wager in their joy they kissed each other’s cheek
(Which is what them furriners do),
And they blessed their lucky stars
We were hardy British tars
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo!
CHORUS. Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo, etc.

Now, at long last, on to Ian’s final point:

IAN: “Fourthly and lastly, mention of “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” is not evidence of a connection – Gilbert was very fond of using high-flown, pseudo scientific terms for comic effect – take for example “The simple tetrachord of Mercury that knew no diatonic intervals, oOr the elaborate dis diapason (four tetrachords, and one redundant note), eEmbracing in its perfect consonance all simple, double and inverted chords!” from The Palace of Truth, or “Patent Oxy-Hydrogen Love-at-first-sight Philtre” from  The Sorcerer– his writings are full of such things…”

Ian, as I noted at the start, above, the “Atom” allusion was a small wink, and standing alone it would not have been significant! But combined with the numerous other central, thematic parallels which I detailed, and which you’ve completely ignored, it’s Gilbert’s cherry on top of the allusive layer cake of his veiled homage to Smollett’s famous art of political parody and satire.

And, most important of all, I think, I bring in Byng because it is an obvious allusion in Smollett’s Atom, and, again as I said, an “execution” was at the heart of Byng’s own tragic end, one of the few vignettes in Atom, and all of The Mikado! (by the way, in regard to executions, I also mention in passing that I am certain that Gilbert had another, and very famous, literary almost-execution in mind as he wrote The Mikado – of course, I refer to Measure for Measure, by some fellow named Shakespeare (have you heard of him?), in which Claudio is sentenced to die for knocking up Giulietta –do you think that Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are Gilbert’s sly wink at them?

And, in closing, another final avenue of inquiry occurred to me as I was finishing this post. I had a hunch that perhaps Gilbert and/or Sullivan had a personal connection to some member of the Byng family (i.e., one of the Victorian Era, collateral descendants of the childless, executed Admiral), who might, like Thane Byng, the Byng family member who brought Admiral Byng’s tragic story to my attention a month ago, still seeking official vindication.

Well, my hunch turned out to be reality --- read this from The Musical Times (1901) in the aftermath of Sullivan’s death a few months earlier: http://gsarchive.net/sullivan/html/church_musician.html

“In the many biographical notices of Arthur Sullivan that have recently appeared, comparatively little attention has been paid to the church-musician side of his genius. The mere fact that the gifted composer returned to his first love — church music — in the last completed composition he has left behind him is a sufficient justification for the following remarks….
…The first vicar of St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, where Sullivan held his second and last organ appointment, was the Rev. and Honble. Francis C. Byng, now Earl of Strafford, who from 1865 to 1889 also held the office of Chaplain to the Speaker and subsequently became Chaplain to the Queen. The Earl of Strafford, in response to our request, has very kindly furnished his recollections of his former organist and attached friend, Arthur Sullivan, in the following words:—
“Arthur Sullivan was all affection, sympathy, and kindness. I enclose you one of his comparatively recent letters to me. It may amuse you — his opinion of my intoning incapacity. I was present, by his invitation, at a dinner party he gave at his house — when Tennyson and Millais were present. Tennyson read 'The Window, or Songs of the Wrens,' Millais gave his notions of the illustrations which would be suitable, Sullivan suggesting the music. A unique an pleasurable privilege. I suggested to A. S. that I represented 'Ignorance' of all three — Poetry, Music, and Art!
Here is the 'intoning' letter to which the Earl of Strafford refers. It will be observed that it was written by Sullivan twenty-seven years after he had held his organistship at St. Peter's:—
Ashbridgewood, Wokingham, Berks, 27 Sept., 1899.
My dear Strafford,
Rumour is not quite right in stating that I am writing a chapter myself for Lawrence's book. [Sir Arthur Sullivan By Arthur Lawrence, 1899] But I have let the author have a 'talk' with me a short time ago, and its matter will be embodied in a supplementary chapter. Your name, of course, had already been introduced in an early part of the book, but not as a great musician. There is, however, still time I think to rectify that. I might graphically describe how, in endeavouring to intone, you led the choir, congregation, and organist an exciting chase over a gamut of about two octaves, we vainly doing our utmost to follow you. You were heroic — we never could run you to earth; that is, pin you down to the same note for two consecutive prayers or collects. I hope you are all well and flourishing. I long to see you all again. I shall be here three weeks longer. It is a small place I took for a couple of months to work in -- hard and quietly.
Even yours sincerely, Arthur Sullivan”
The Tennyson-Millais dinner referred to by the Earl furnished an amusing anecdote which is thus recorded by Mr. Arthur Lawrence in his 'Life' of the composer, and told by Sir Arthur Sullivan in his own words:
'The first time Tennyson came to dine at my house, the door was opened by the parlourmaid who had been with us many years, and was like one of the family. She was fairly staggered by the appearance of the visitor, who, as will be remembered, always wore a deep, broad-brimmed black felt hat, and a black cape or short cloak which made him look exactly like a conspirator in an Italian or Spanish play. Our little part consisted of Tennyson, Millais, Francis Byng (now Earl of Strafford), myself, my mother, and another lady. We met to discuss the proposed work in collaboration…’ 

So, given that Francis Byng was such a close friend and musical colleague of Sullivan over a very long time, is it really a stretch to think that Gilbert knew, and cared about, Admiral Byng’s execution?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, June 17, 2018

W.S. Gilbert's Mikado: Admiral Byng was on George II’s “little list”, and his punishment didn’t fit the “crime”!


Several days ago, I wrote my second Admiral Byng post… http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2018/06/binh-goh-uncle-toby-siege-of-namur-atom.html  …about the outcry in the aftermath of the execution of the scapegoated Admiral Byng for alleged “cowardice” in failing to “do his utmost” to relieve the Siege of Minorca during the Seven Days’ War. That outcry included, as I’ve now shown, overt or thinly veiled critical reactions by a list of no less than five literary luminaries: Voltaire in Candide; Samuel Johnson in various writings; Laurence Sterne (in Tristram Shandy); Tobias Smollett in Adventures of an Atom); and Jane Austen in Persuasion.

In the next two days, I’ll finally deliver on my promise to write another post in which I’ll greatly expand on the scope of the allusion to the Byng execution that I see Jane Austen having woven into the subtext of her final novel, Persuasion, including showing how Austen’s allusion to Byng includes both Tristram Shandy and one of Shakespeare’s plays as well.

In the interim, I follow up today to expand on a brief teaser in my previous post about “the (to my mind, obvious) allusion by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) to Smollett’s Atom, when Gilbert wrote the libretto for The Mikado more than a century after Smollett wrote his novella. The parallels are overwhelming, most of all with the faux Japanese names that poke sharp fun at the real life English rulers they represent…”

Here goes. As far as I can tell, after diligent online research, no other scholar has ever suggested that W.S. Gilbert, in his 1884 libretto for The Mikado, intentionally alluded to Tobias Smollett’s 1769 novella, Adventures of an Atom; let alone that such allusion to Atom by Gilbert had as perhaps its primary purpose and subtexts, that very same “unjust execution of Admiral Byng” which, as I laid out in detail in my previous post, is a clear subtext of Smollett’s novella.

I first suspected Gilbert’s allusion to Smollett’s Atom as I was composing my punny Subject Line for my previous post:    “Binh-goh! Uncle Toby, Siege of Namur & the Atom as Touchstones of Sterne/ Smollett’s Admiral Byng!”  It was at the instant of writing “Binh-goh!” that my mind traveled back a half century, to when my 7th grade class staged The Mikado for the rest of our school. The Mikado was, I now know, the most successful of all the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; but at age 13 I had never heard of it. As a member of the stage crew, I watched many rehearsals, as well as the final performance-- and what stood out most in my memory were all the “Japonified” names of the characters, such as Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko, etc., even as I have not seen another performance of The Mikado since then.

Fresh from writing my last post about Smollett’s Atom which also had that same sort of absurd Japanese character naming, I wondered if Gilbert might’ve had Smollett on the brain? So I Googled and searched the usual databases, and I found first that Jeremy Lewis, in his 2003 bio of Smollett, noted as part of his summary of Atom that “the story is set in 'Niphon', an imaginary Japan at war with China, and the characters are provided with pseudo-Japanese names, reminiscent of those used later in The Mikado.”

I also found a much more interesting snippet by a Berkeley prof named Grace Lavery from only a few years ago, which not only recognized that naming similarity, but also analyzed it incisively; although Lavery didn’t go so far as to argue that the character-name parallels were intentional or meaningful:

“Smollett’s The History and Adventures of an Atom offers both an early example of comic writing about Japan and an example of what The Mikado might look like if it were unambiguously a satire of English political culture. A picaresque it-narrative told by a roguish atom to an amanuensis named Nathaniel Peacock, the novel describes a trip around Japan, comprising a number of eccentric ‘political anecdotes’. Like those in The Mikado, the Japanese politicians described are variously ruthless, stupid, and pedantic and given to pointless arguments—though, written at the highwater mark of English picaresque, the jokes are much bawdier than Gilbert’s, and the narrative involves a punishingly detailed series of ass-kissing scenes, both literal and figurative. Characters’ names, too, share with “Nanki-Poo” and “Pooh-Bah” a queasily euphemistic anality: “Nin-kom-poo-po,” “Fika-kaka,” “Sti-phi-rum-poo.” Yet the most striking difference from The Mikado is that Adventures of an Atom rests on a tight allegorical correspondence between its characters and the British political figures it has set out to describe in the service of a critique of the Seven Years’ War of 1754–1763…” END QUOTE FROM LAVERY

I’ll argue, below, that the similarities first spotted by Lewis and then discussed by Lavery were not only intentional, they were also meaningful, on Gilbert’s part. I’ve concluded that Gilbert intended thereby to point in-on-the-joke readers not only to Smollett’s novella Atom, but more importantly, to the execution of Admiral Byng, the very one which Smollett himself pointed to more than a century earlier.

For starters, it’s well known to Gilbert scholars that Smollett was one of Gilbert’s favorite authors. Now, look at how closely Gilbert mirrored Smollett’s names – this is way way beyond being “reminiscent”:

Gilbert turned “Nin-Kom-Poo-Po” into “Nanki-Poo”; and
Gilbert turned “Cuboy” into “Pooh-Bah”; and
Gilbert turned “Fika-kaka” into “Ko-Ko”; and finally,
Gilbert turned “Pish” into “Pish-Tush”.

Even if I were to stop right here, do you agree that I’ve already made a prima facie case that Gilbert deliberately echoed Smollett’s Atom?

[Before I go further, having making my point about Gilbert’s transformed character names, I want to bring to your attention the strong critique of racial stereotyping in The Mikado, as well-explained in these excerpts from “The Mikado: History and Satire as Scapegoat for Yellowface” by Khaleesi:  http://casting.web.unc.edu/2017/10/the-mikado-yellowface/  
 The Mikado’s…chief aesthetic characterization comes from its fictionalized Japanese setting and the racialized caricatures that its cast embody, most often in yellowface…[one of] the play’s problematic aspects through its history…In 19th century England, there was not an abundance of Asian actors available (nor were casting directors much concerned with such casting practices) so the entire production instead relied heavily on stereotypical visual trappings of Orientalism (…fans, kimono) as well as on yellowface. This went uncontested in Europe and the U.S…
The Mikado is, even in modern productions, also steeped in racial language, from Japon-esque gibberish (…Pooh-Bah and Yum-Yum) to mockingly high-pitched accents…the previously-mentioned excuse of the racial caricature as a veil for the satirical. If The Mikado is distinctly about the English, then the ‘Japanese’ setting remains fantastical and is thus detached from any meaning….Some of the first publicized protests of The Mikado began in 1990… Performances around the country have drawn criticism and protests in recent years, including in NYC (2004), L.A. (2007 & 2009), Boston (2007), Austin (2011), Denver (2013), & Seattle (2014)….The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 2014 production of The Mikado features a near all-white cast …occupying the production’s 40 roles in yellowface. Considering Seattle’s racial demographics (Asians …constituting 13.8% of the city’s population…), the lack of Asian representation coupled with the use of yellowface is especially flagrant, and certainly did not go unnoticed.
…one central thread retains continuity in arguments from both the pro-Mikado and anti-Mikado camps respectively—the idea that The Mikado is about Britain and not about Japan. In other words, that the actual intellectual weight of the work is separate from its Orientalist overtones. This piece of rhetoric leads one to wonder, if detached from its racist settings and characters, is it still able to carry the same intellectual message? Would the piece be liberated by the removal of its problematic surface?...Without the racial fantasy, there is no metaphor, no guise for the “British-ness” to hide behind. There is no play. …The Mikadoas a production to which race is intrinsic, must explicitly face questions of racial representation, racial performance, and privilege, and has failed to thus far.” 
END QUOTE FROM KHALEESI BLOG POST]

Not for a moment, then, forgetting that The Mikado was an imperfect product of its racist era, I’ll now return to presenting the evidence I’ve gathered that makes me so certain that Gilbert, in a more worthy mode, meant to repeatedly but subliminally parody, and thereby critique, the execution of Admiral Byng, for which he had the model of Smollett’s parody thereof in Atom. To borrow one of The Mikado‘s most memorable lines, “I’ve got a little list”—actually not so little-- of reasons why I am so certain:

FIRST: The previously mentioned character-name echoing between Atom and The Mikado;

SECOND: Prior to writing The Mikado, Gilbert wrote not one but two successful, and today still famous, operettas which have English sailors as its lead characters: HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance; Gilbert’s father was initially a naval surgeon; and in HMS Pinafore, all the action takes place on a ship is at anchor off Portsmouth -- and it was a famous historical fact that Admiral Byng was executed on a ship at anchor off Portsmouth! Just coincidence? I don’t think so!

THIRD (closely related to SECOND): Despite the fact that the action of The Mikado takes place on land, and its cast has no sailors, the famous opening musical number of The Mikado is, inexplicably, “a song of the sea”:

NANKI-POO:
A wandering minstrel I –
A thing of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And dreamy lullaby!
Our warriors, in serried ranks assembled,
Never quail – or they conceal it if they do –
And I shouldn’t be surprised if nations trembled
Before the mighty troops of Titipu!
CHORUS: We shouldnt be surprised, etc.
NANKI-POO:
And if you call for a song of the sea,
We’ll heave the capstan round,
With a yeo heave ho, for the wind is free,
Her anchor’s a-trip and her helm’s a-lee,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!
CHORUS. Yeo-ho – heave-ho – Hurrah for the homeward bound!
NANK.
To lay aloft in a howling breeze
May tickle a landsman’s taste,
But the happiest hour a sailor sees
Is when he’s down
At an inland town,
With his Nancy on his knees, yeo-ho!
And his arm around her waist!
CHORUS.
Then man the capstan – off we go,
As the fiddler swings us round,
With a yeo heave ho,
And a rumbelow,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!

Note also that Nanki-Poo asserts that Japan’s warriors “never quail”, which just happens to coincide with “cowardice” having been the most scurrilous and damaging charge against Admiral Byng!

And speaking of courage, look at these lyrics sung by Pish-Tush, also in Act One:

PISH-TUSH: “criminals who are cut in two can hardly feel the fatal steel, and so are slain without much pain. If this is true, it’s jolly for you; your courage screw to bid us adieu, and go and show both friend and foe how much you dare.”

These lines stop being funny, when we recall that Admiral Byng, the scapegoated “criminal”, faced his execution with extraordinary courage.

And speaking of Admiral Byng’s courage….

FIFTH: The Mikado being a comedy and not a tragedy, of course Nanki-Poo is not executed, mainly and ironically because Ko-Ko is too afraid to behead him! And this is, I suggest, Gilbert pointing to the fact widely publicized after his execution, that Admiral Byng was at his most courageous in his last moments of life, as he faced execution -- even so far as his being willing to wear a handkerchief over his face – not for his own benefit, but to make it easier for the queasy shooters to shoot him at point blank range!

And I believe I am spot-on in asserting that WS Gilbert had that historical factoid very specifically in mind when, at the end of Act Two, Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti are scrambling to explain to the Mikado why they executed the Mikado’s son, Nanki-Poo (when actually they had only lied about executing him, but couldn’t say that –yes, it’s typical madcap G&S plotting), we read this curious bit of dialog:

POOH-BAH. No, of course we couldn’t tell who the gentleman really was.
PITTISING. It wasn’t written on his forehead, you know.
KO-KO. It might have been on his pocket-handkerchief, but Japanese don’t use pocket-handkerchiefs! Ha! ha! ha!
MIKADO. Ha! ha! ha!

That laughter, I suggest, is really W.S. Gilbert’s laughter – but he’s not happy as he laughs, because he reminds us that it is indeed the English gentleman Admiral Byng who used a pocket handkerchief to hide his face – Gilbert finds the absurdity in this tragedy, which is to suggest that those shooting him would therefore have not known his identity!

SIXTH: There are two sly references by Pooh-Bah in The Mikado to Smollett’s hero, Atom:

POOH-BAH: …I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial ATOMIC globule.

&

POOH-BAH: (aside to KO-KO). Well, I shan’t mean it. (With a great effort.) How de do, little girls, how de do? (Aside.) Oh, my protoplasmal ancestor!
KO. That’s very good. (Girls indulge in suppressed laughter.)

SEVENTH: One of Ko-Ko’s multiple positions in the governance of Titipu is that of “Lord High Admiral”, even though, again, there is nothing in the operetta to suggest that Ko-Ko, in the village of Titipu, is in command of any ships at all! However, I suspect that W.S. Gilbert was once again winking at Admiral Byng, who had not one but two “Lord High Admirals” at both ends, so to speak, of his life:

First, his own father, who had once been Lord High Admiral as well as a great naval hero, and who of course was one of the two persons who brought him into the world;

Second, the Lord High Admiral, George Anson, who bore an implacable hostility toward Byng, and  was right there at King George II’s side, doing everything possible to scapegoat Byng, and get him executed as soon as possible, ushering him out of the world.

To put it another way, Byng was clearly on the Lord High Admiral’s and the “Mikado’s” (i.e., the King’s) little list (or should I say, the King’s little Navy List (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navy_List ) of potential victims whom Gilbert had in mind when he wrote these memorable, acidly satirical lyrics:

KO-KO:
As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!
[…]
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist
I don’t think she’d be missed – I’m sure she’d not be missed!
CHORUS. He’s got her on they list – he’s got her on the list;
And I don’t think she’ll be missed – I’m sure she’ll not be missed!

And, by the way, I wonder if “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” might be Gilbert slyly referring to “the lady novelist” who, as I’ve been saying in this thread of posts, alluded to Admiral Byng in Persuasion – i.e., Jane Austen!! More on that in my next post!

EIGHTH: Perhaps most compelling of the reasons why I am certain Gilbert alluded to Atom/Byng, is that the driving force of the plot of The Mikado is the capricious, arbitrary edict by the Mikado (and by the way, a “Meckaddo” is also mentioned in Atom!) demanding an execution:

KO-KO: …A letter from the Mikado! What in the world can he have to say to me? (Reads letter.) Ah, here it is at last! I thought it would come sooner or later! The Mikado is struck by the fact that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year, and decrees that unless somebody is beheaded within one month the post of Lord High Executioner shall be abolished, and the city reduced to the rank of a village!

So Ko-Ko must execute someone –anyone, it doesn’t matter who!- or else he will be out of one of his jobs! The problem is, though, that Ko-Ko is afraid to do the deed! That’s when Nanki-Poo happens to wander by, contemplating suicide over what seems to be unrequitable love for Yum-Yum:

KO-KO. Is it absolutely certain that you are resolved to die?   NANK. Absolutely!
KO-KO. Will nothing shake your resolution?    NANK. Nothing.
KO-KO. Threats, entreaties, prayers – all useless?   NANK. All! My mind is made up.
KO-KO. Then, if you really mean what you say, and if you are absolutely resolved to die, and if nothing whatever will shake your determination – don’t spoil yourself by committing suicide, but be beheaded handsomely at the hands of the Public Executioner!

A bit more brainstorming, and Nanki-Poo then gives Ko-Ko a “perfect” solution – he will volunteer to be the arbitrary victim of a beheading, provided he first gets to be married to Yum-Yum for one month.

Think about the obvious satirical parallel here to the arbitrary (and cynical) motives behind the King’s demand for execution of Admiral Byng. As I’ve outlined in my prior two posts about him, the general consensus of historians is that Byng was a scapegoat for English naval failure -- a slab of raw red meat flung to a bloodthirsty rabble. That rabble was making the King and his governmental toadies feel pretty insecure; and so the mob’s anger was deliberately diverted onto Admiral Byng, and then stoked up by the King’s propaganda machine.

In other words, I believe Gilbert was parodying the tragic absurdity of Admiral Byng being selected to make an “encouraging” example to other British admirals, by presenting the comic absurdities of how Nanki-Poo comes to agree to be executed by the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko. Nanki-Poo may have been willing to die, but Nanki-Poo is not real – Gilbert also surely knew that the real Admiral Byng pulled out all the stops asking for clemency in his trial; but all, cruelly, to no avail – no fictional deus ex mikado, if you will, popped up to save him, like the solution that the desperate Ko-Ko comes up with when his own life is politely threatened by the Mikado:

KO-KO: … (To Mikado.) It’s like this: When your Majesty says, ‘Let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, ‘Kill a gentleman,’ and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?
MIKADO: I see. Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!

This is bitter satire indeed, since the clear situation with Byng was that he was a scapegoat – i.e., guilt was irrelevant. Gilbert’s words drip acid as he says, in effect, that King George II and his Lord High Admiral (and, in effect, executioner!) Anson could have just said Byng was dead. And since the King is like a god, wouldn’t that have been enough?

Now, I claim no expertise whatsoever in British history in the 1880’s, but if anyone reading this post does possess it, was there anything that happened between, say, 1860 and 1885 that Gilbert might also have had in mind—some similar act of cruel, arbitrary power by the British government – which he might also have been skewering, via his above eight “winks” at Admiral Byng? I’d love to hear about it if there was!

Anyway, in the end, Gilbert gets in one final satirical dig at George II, when the “humane” Mikado pats himself on the back with this ode to self-blindness:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime –
The punishment fit the, crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

As Gilbert wished the world to know, if ever a punishment did NOT fit the crime, that was the case with Admiral Byng! And that is the perfect moment to end my little list, and this post along with it!

Cheers, ARNIE
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