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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why did Jane Austen keep it all secret?

The question I am asked as often as any other, when discussing my discoveries, is, "Why would JA keep all of this a secret?". It is a good question, and I think I finally have come up with a good answer.

Since the beginning of this year, my first answer has been the example of the savage (albeit totally justified) satire of the Prince Regent contained in the second charade of _Emma_, which Colleen Sheehan discovered, and gave a good preliminary interpretation of, in her two Persuasions articles earlier this year. If any of you have missed it, here is the link, which I first gave in January:

That HAD to be kept secret, or else JA might very well have faced consequences similar to those suffered by Leigh Hunt and his brother in 1812. Especially if at some point anyone realized further that the satire of the Prince Regent in the novel was not confined to some name-calling (the "Prince of Whales"). After all, Lamb, anonymously, and Cruikshank, openly, had covered that ground pretty well and very publicly by the time _Emma_ was published.

But what if some clever elf in the PR's circle of friends and toadies had become aware of that joke, and had wondered whether that was all; and had actually sat down and read the novel all the way through. Perhaps he would then have realized that in _Emma_ this joke was only the tip of a very large iceberg (the tail/tale of a very large whale?) in which that "gentleman's" entire life (body) was exposed to extended ridicule in its full ugliness.

Ending with JA's having used Clarke as her unwitting dupe to induce the Prince Regent to ask that _Emma_ be dedicated to him--truly the icing on the cake (the krill in the baleen?).

Dangerous indeed, and JA would have had to worry not only for herself, but her entire family, who could have borne the brunt of any retribution against her. The stakes were high indeed, so it was crucial that she have total deniability, to be able to say "Of course not! Would I, a lady, write such ridiculous things?" Just in case.

It's interesting to note in that regard that the one overt reference to the Prince Regent as a not very charming fellow is in one of the 4 surviving letters that JA wrote to Martha Lloyd, and not in one of the nearly 100 surviving letters which she wrote to her sister. Perhaps part of the thinking here on CEA's and JA's part was to make sure there was nothing in JA's surviving letters, circa 1815, which could have adverse consequences were they to fall into the hands of friends of the Prince. And, luckily for us, the destruction wrought on Martha's letters by Frank's daughter Cassandra missed that crucial letter which has, today, immortalized JA's actual very low opinion of the Prince Regent in unmistakable fashion.

But, aside from the danger of some sort of direct retribution, there is another side to this, a more subtle one, having to do with JA's career, and her artistic legacy. Today, by chance, I stumbled across a discussion of the following famous line from NA in Mary Waldron's 1999 _JA and the Fiction of her Time_:

“A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.”—

Waldron pointed out that this refers to Gregory, _A Father’s Legacy_, p. 13: “But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.”

However, a quick archives search here in Janeites took me back to a 2001 post by Ursula Rempel, which took Waldron several interesting steps further:

"I am struck by passages in _Northanger Abbey_ which strongly resemble the works of Ann Murry, John Gregory, and Priscilla Wakefield. (We had a discussion on Austen-L list in the Spring of 1997, and Eugene McDonnell [quoted that passage from NA] I wrote back with the following snippets from Gregory, Murry, and Wakefield: [Quoting the Gregory, from 1774]

Murry: "Knowledge ought not wholly to be concealed; yet like beauty, it appears most amiable seen through the veil of diffidence and modesty." _Mentoria: or the Young Ladies' Instructor_, 1778

If you carry on through the passage in NA, Wakefield shows up: "Ignorance, vanity, and imbecility, are the characteristic imperfections in the female sex, and may be considered as at once constituting their reproach, and their misfortune." (In the _Lady's Monthly Museum_, 55, 1798.)

Austen writes (in NA, 125): " . . . in justice to men, . . . imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any thing more in women than ignorance." The conduct books operate in various ways throughout the novels--not always as blatantly as my quotes above show. One example is the catechism Elizabeth is subjected to by Lady Catherine on the matter
of her "accomplishments." Education, decorum, and accomplishments are what the courtesy manuals are all about--and all resonate in the novels." [END OF REMPEL ]

As wonderful as Rempel's catches re Murry and Wakefield are, and are extremely resonant with the satire of the novels, particularly NA, I don't think they really apply to JA herself as a mature woman and novelist, during the past 8 years of her life. I seriously doubt that she concealed her genius from the men she met in her life, if those men showed themselves to have the sense to grasp what she was about.

In that final epoch of her life, the Gregory allusion is the most apt for understanding why, beyond the fear of actual some sort of prosecution against herself or her family, JA would go to what must have been a gigantic sustained artistic effort to create these astounding subtextual worlds (an achievement similar to what James Joyce accomplished in _Ulysses_), and then to conceal them so well that they are only today becoming visible in their fully glory, nearly 2 centuries later.

I think Gregory is spot on--JA was no shrinking violet, no young submissive wuss, she had tremendous courage--but she was also extremely pragmatic, and understood full well what had happened to the careers and the legacies of Wollstonecraft, of Mary Darby Robinson, and of a number of powerful women who had dared to openly challenge the patriarchy, the aristocratic and/or monied powerful men who ran England. Gregory might have been making a joke, but the big smear that was put on those important female figures showed it was no joke at all.

So JA found a way to have her krill and eat it too. She filled her novels with their sins, their hypocrisies, their full awfulness, but she submerged it a little, just enough to make it visible only to those with eyes to see, in apparent confidence that no one with contempt for women would even imagine that a woman could, or would even try, to pull off such a stunt. And apparently she was right.

I think that the world has only now caught up to her, and she's far beyond their revenge at this point. ;)


Anonymous said...

I don't know if you still use or read this blog, but was thinking about Sense and Sensibility and what you said about Willoughby stalking Marianne. It occurred to me that a possible subtext could be that Marianne knows about Ferrars being engaged, before Elinor discovers. Hmm. I must confess that I play with these ideas rather than believe them earnestly, but there is perhaps some textual support - based, again I confess, largely on the fact that she initiates the bit at the end of chapter 19, where she labels Edward "reserved" - which he confuses for engaged (I think it's fair to take that reading as unproblematic?). The issue is, did Marianne intend him to see a pun here? Does she know?

Arnie Perlstein said...

Very nicely done, Anonymous!

I've recently been revisiting S&S a lot as a result of airing in the UK of the Davies S&S, and I first noticed that very same pun about Edward being "reserved" only a couple of days ago, so I think your comment goes in the "great minds think alike" file, because I don't think we're BOTH hallucinating! It is a classic and absolutely characteristic pun, the kind she used hundreds of times in her writing.

Email me at, if you'd like to discuss this further, and thanks for your comment!

As for this blog---one day, I expect to use it actively, for now I keep it out there for just the purpose of hearing from sharp elves like yourself! ;)