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

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Janeites group is looking for a few good Janeites to join our conversations!

To those of you who might be interested in participating in an email group devoted to discussion of all things Austen in that format, you might be interested in learning, if you don’t already know, that the Janeites group, which originated way back around 1999 (when it split off from Austen-L) has migrated from yahoogroups, which is on its last legs, to the wonderful new platform provided by io. Alas, the listowner Anne Woodley has still not been able to get yahoogroups to allow the vast archive of posts going back to 1999 to be shifted over to the io group page, but the discussion still lives on (under the friendly stewardship of Nancy Mayer, who’s been in that role from the beginning) like Scheherazade’s head, for another day, and posts are sent to the new email address for the group,

While the activity in the group is nothing like it once was, there remains a band of true friends who still participate regularly. I am proud to count myself one, and I know we all would love some fresh members to show up, so that we can have even more of the best company than we already have. The conversation is smart, we keep each other informed about the latest Austen-related scholarship, conferences, etc etc, but also have fun raising all sorts of Austen-related topics that provide grist for our mill.

So if you’re interested, go to this page  and join the group (as I recall, it was very easy to do, and I believe you had to join io first, and then this specific group). If you try, and you have any problem, for whatever it is worth, I’d be happy to try to help – just reach out to me.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Friday, May 3, 2019

Anne Elliot, Mrs. Clay, and the varying effects of ‘weather’ on sailors in Persuasion

After an unintended delay, for which I apologize, I’m finally ready to give my answer to the quiz about Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion, which I presented nearly a week ago. In that quiz, I invited you all to spot the sly ironic joke Austen made at the expense of her unwitting heroine, Anne Elliot.

Specifically, I claimed that there is a speech by the devious Mrs. Clay early in the novel, which Anne unwittingly echoes much later, in the climactic scene at the White Hart Inn; and moreover, I suggested that such unlikely, unwitting echoing of Mrs. Clay by Anne casts an ironic shadow on that romantic climax of the novel.

Without further ado, then, I’ll begin by giving you the text of the speech by Mrs. Clay which was later echoed by Anne. It occurs in Chapter 3, in the scene when Mrs. Clay’s father, the lawyer Mr. Shepherd (with suspiciously accurate prescience, as it turns out) suggests to his client Sir Walter that a navy man would be most likely to become the much needed new tenant for Kellynch. Mrs. Clay and Anne both chime in supportively, but then Sir Walter goes off on a narcissistic rant about how a career at sea prematurely ages a navy man’s appearance, a rant which ends with this “evidence”:

“…I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."

It is at that moment that Mrs. Clay intervenes and waxes eloquent in a speech of surprising scope and rhetorical ingenuity:

"Nay, Sir Walter," cried Mrs Clay, "this is being severe indeed. Have a little mercy on the poor men. We are not all born to be handsome. The sea is no beautifier, certainly; sailors do grow old betimes; I have observed it; they soon lose the look of youth. But then, is not it the same with many other professions, perhaps most other? Soldiers, in active service, are not at all better off: and even in the quieter professions, there is a toil and a labour of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom leaves a man's looks to the natural effect of time. The lawyer plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours, and travelling in all weather; and even the clergyman--" she stopt a moment to consider what might do for the clergyman;--"and even the clergyman, you know is obliged to go into infected rooms, and expose his health and looks to all the injury of a poisonous atmosphere. In fact, as I have long been convinced, though every profession is necessary and honourable in its turn, it is only the lot of those who are not obliged to follow any, who can live in a regular way, in the country, choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and living on their own property, without the torment of trying for more; it is only their lot, I say, to hold the blessings of health and a good appearance to the utmost: I know no other set of men but what lose something of their personableness when they cease to be quite young."

Mrs. Clay argues that it’s not just a navy man whose face would bear witness to his years of work, and thereby elicit the scorn of Sir Walter; any prospective male tenant who has worked for a living, whether outdoors at sea or indoors on land, whether with his hands or his mind, will, she suggests, also end up looking prematurely old. The moving air, whether sea winds or sickroom miasmas, will carve evidence of ageing into the working man’s face.

So, why does Mrs. Clay make this argument at this moment? It seems clear that she is backing up her father’s strange prescience about a naval man being a promising candidate to rent Kellynch from Sir Walter. It’s almost as if she, too, knew that a man like Admiral Croft was about to appear, Johnny-on-the-Spot, to save the Elliots from complete financial ruin. Whether she and her father actually knew Admiral Croft prior to that scene --- well, that’s a subject for another post. Back to Mrs. Clay’s speech.

Note how adeptly and seamlessly Mrs. Clay segues into open flattery of Sir Walter, in order to distract him from returning to his resistance to a sailor tenant. Instead, she waves a magic rhetorical wand, and reframes, for an audience of one, his useless parasitic existence into a portrait of a noble career, because Sir Walter, like Dorian Gray (and now I suspect that Oscar Wilde had Sir Walter Elliot in mind 7 decades later), will never age.  

And that is the end of the first part of this post. Before I go on, can you who know Persuasion identify the speech by Anne Elliot later in the novel, in which our heroine unwittingly echoes the words of Mrs. Clay -- the very same Mrs. Clay whom Anne fears will succeed, via adept flattery, in ensnaring Anne’s father into marriage? Have I prompted you to now recall the speech by Anne, in a group setting, which she uses similar verbiage to Mrs. Clay’s, in speaking about the effects of a career at sea on a naval man? I bet some of you now do! But for the rest of you, here is the second part of my reveal.

It is one of several short speeches by Anne in Chapter 23, in the uber-romantic White Hart Inn scene, during Anne’s extended debate with the navy man Captain Harville about the relative constancy, in love, of men and women. Let me set the stage at precisely the right point in that scene.

Harville has just shown Anne the miniature portrait of his naval comrade, Benwick, which was painted for Harville’s sister Fanny before she died; but which, to Harville’s chagrin, was being casually recycled by Benwick, to be given instead to Benwick’s new fiancée, Louisa Musgrove. Anne then broadens Harville’s sad reflection on Benwick into a debate about the relative constancy of men and women, in which Anne introduces the subject of the effects of the exertions of a naval career on a sailor, and then Harville responds:

[Anne] "It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved [to be inconstant]."
Captain Harville smiled, as much as to say, "Do you claim that for your sex?" and she answered the question, smiling also, "Yes. We certainly do not forget you as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions."
[Harville] "Granting your assertion that the world does all this so soon for men (which, however, I do not think I shall grant), it does not apply to Benwick. He has not been forced upon any exertion. The peace turned him on shore at the very moment, and he has been living with us, in our little family circle, ever since."

We’re sailing on the same water, so to speak, as in Mrs. Clay’s artful rhetorical production in Chapter 3; but instead of the trivial topic of the durability of a sailor’s facial beauty, now we are on the significant subject of the durability of a sailor’s devotion to his beloved. Coincidence? Well, now check out the next part of their amicable verbal duel, and, again, think about Mrs. Clay’s speech as you read it:

"True," said Anne, "very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man's nature, which has done the business for Captain Benwick."
"No, no, it is not man's nature. I will not allow it to be more man's nature than woman's to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved. I believe the reverse. I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather."

Note the exquisite subtlety of the echoing of Mrs. Clay’s speech in the above exchange, along the lines I just articulated. In Chapter 3, Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay were focused on the trivial topic of the “change” in “outward circumstances” caused by men’s work, especially naval men; and in particular Sir Walter was obsessed with the “rough usage” of sailors’s skin by “the heaviest weather”! Here, Anne is focused on “outward circumstances” and “change” of a very different nature – this is a very clever sort of double entendre, designed, I believe, to remind the reader, however subliminally, of Mrs. Clay’s speech.

Perhaps some of you may still respond, this cluster of subtle echoes, while noteworthy and ironic, might be unconscious on Jane Austen’s part, and not particularly significant Well, I hope I can lay that  possibility to rest --- giving it a proper burial at sea, if you will --- when I now present you with the actual speech by Anne which seals the deal, in my opinion:

"Your feelings may be the strongest," replied Anne, "but the same spirit of analogy will authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. Nay, it would be too hard upon you, if it were otherwise. You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be hard, indeed" (with a faltering voice), "if woman's feelings were to be added to all this."

Do you now hear the echo of specific verbiage, which first alerted me to the parallels between Chapter 3 and Chapter 23 of Persuasion, before I had done any of the thematic analysis I’ve set forth above?:

Mrs. Clay in Chapter 3: “…even in the quieter professions, there is a TOIL and a LABOUR of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom leaves a man's looks to the natural effect of time…”

Anne in Chapter 23: “…You are always LABOURING and TOILING, exposed to every risk and hardship…”

Standing alone, this echoing of the words “toil” and “labour” might seem too ordinary to be significant. However, as I hope I’ve illustrated, above, this parallel verbiage by Mrs. Clay and then Anne is only the tip of an iceberg -- the context of that verbiage which I’ve detailed is also extraordinarily parallel --- yet, it is changed just enough to render the parallels subliminal – you can only see these passages, separated by most of the rest of the novel, when you lay them side by side and compare them, as I have done the past several days.

And there I will stop, for now – but I make a further promise, that, within another week’s time, I shall reveal to you something I came across in my research on the above-described echo, which I believe to be a crucial clue as to a deeper meaning of this echo. Specifically, I say there is a prior allusive source – a book which was famous and controversial during Jane Austen’s entire writing career, and which played a key role in shaping her fiction and her deepest meanings – which undergirds both Mrs. Clay’s and Anne Elliot’s ‘toil’ and ‘labour’ speeches.

So don’t forget to apply Gowland’s Lotion every day till I return, so that Sir Walter’s sensitive eye will not be offended by any sadly weathered faces. 😉

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter