(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen

Upon the reread of James Edward Austen Leigh's (JEAL's) 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen going on in Austen L and Janeites, even as we have only gotten through Chapter 3, the almost absurdly funny self-contradictions that repeatedly emerge as we look at one passage after another, almost makes me wonder whether, crazy as it sounds, JEAL was having a bit of fun with the reader, taking on the persona of the "self-satisfied, smug, pompous, controversy-phobic, prudish, Victorian fool", but actually undermining the message he appears to be harping on at every possible turn. He is just so over the top in his smarmy obfuscations and tortured rationalizations that it just cannot be real.

His choice of "The Mystery" as the bit of the Juvenilia to provide as an example of JA's "youthful effusions" is a perfect example. Yes, his choice could have been completely pragmatic and non-ideological, i.e., based solely on the extreme shortness of the piece, which allowed it to be reproduced in toto. And yet, as has been noted in our discussion, "The Mystery", while on a superficial level it can (and often has been) been taken as a silly girlish joke with no substance beneath it, is to a more perceptive reader anything but that. To me, it is almost a Rosetta Stone or template (or, to use a term more meaningful vis a vis JA's literary mysteriousness, a CHARADE) standing in for ALL of the Juvenilia. In a matter of a few pages, JA unmistakably conveys the message that there is some dark family mystery so awful that it can only be whispered about, it cannot even be named, whether in this short mini-play, or in any of the much longer juvenilia filled with absurdist sociopathy on every page.

And this business with the Eliza Brydges letter, however different it appears on the surface from "The Mystery", has the same effect. Not only do we have the absurd self-parody of criticizing the absurd Egerton Brydges and then immediately imitating him. But when you read the content of the letter, with its nauseating repetition of the necessity of a young lady keeping her expenses down so as not to cause alarm or distress to the powers that be, and then you step back and realize that the actual fate of poor Mary Brydges, when she became Mary Leigh, was to become a baby-making "Automat" for 14 years straight, until her premature death at about age 30 or thereabouts, you realize that perhaps her mother, off gallivanting in Turkey with her husband, might well have given her daughter some better advice--like, try to avoid getting married as long as possible!

Could JEAL (and any of his friends and advisors upon whom he relied for editorial assistance) possibly have been so clueless, so dumb as not to realize that he was repeatedly cracking open with one hand the very doors he was so pointedly slamming with his other hand?

He, like his father, had literary aspirations, we know that from JA's surviving correspondence with him. Was JEAL, unlike his father, perhaps more receptive to his aunt's love of shadow and mysterious Gothicism masked as everyday quaint realism? He was, after all, the younger half brother of the very literary Anna Austen Lefroy, to whom he remained close throughout their lives, the one member of the Austen family who clearly was JA's closest literary confidant--we know that she was an active participant in his research for the Memoir, and she did not die till two years after its publication.

While I have not made up my mind as of yet (and I hope this group reading will sharpen my thinking on this very point), my tentative opinion at the moment is that JEAL meant the Memoir to be readable both as a straight Victorian suppression of the shadow side of JA's life and writings, and also as a covert subversive celebration of the shadow side of her life and writings. If this was what he did, then there could be no greater tribute to her.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Catherine Morland's Home Run

" A book intended for children, A Pretty Little Pocket Book, mentions a game for children in which they struck a ball and ran around bases."

Nancy, that is the very same 1751 book by Newbery, with respect to which I posted the URL for the page image that pertains to Base-ball!

I was just looking at it again, and I see that they did not use bases then, but instead used posts, which were about waist high. And what is cool is that both "base" AND "post" have more or less the same meaning in nautical terms, in the sense of a sailor being "based" or "posted" at a particular port during a long, multi-phase sea voyage.
And it makes sense that a boy's game would have a nautical terminology, because I imagine that if you asked the average English country boy what he wanted to be when he grew up, many of them would surely say "sailor", and so playing base-ball for them would have resonated with the idea of taking part in imaginary sea voyages, and so of course nautical terminology would enhance that fantasy aspect.

But I do now believe that JA's mentioning Catherine playing baseball was not solely to show that she had been a tomboy. I also think that baseball does work as a metaphor for Catherine's experience over the course of the entire novel. Although she never goes to sea, Catherine does feel that in leaving her home for the first time, she has not only embarked on a grand "voyage" into life, she has also stepped up to the plate and made her first appearance in the grand game of courtship.

And she somehow, improbably, manages to hit a "home run"----where she begins at home in Fullerton, then goes to first base (Bath), thence to second base (Northanger Abbey), then third base (Fullerton), and finally and climactically home, which of course is Woodston, which will thenceforth indeed be her new home, where she will presumably be "safe", despite General Tilney's having literally "thrown her out" !


JA and Running Home Safely

I am so glad the question was asked about the seniority of JA’s reference to Catherine playing baseball in Northanger Abbey, because this is a perfect illustration of how the answers to a thousand questions about JA are out there like one of the low-hanging apricots at the Mansfield parsonage, just waiting to be picked----and it isn't "insipid" fruit, either!:
Take a peek at this:,c,739,34,0
I don’t know how long the folks at SABR have known about the 1751 Newbery book description of baseball being played in England (perhaps they got the info from a guy named Barry Baldwin, who addressed the Calgary JASNA branch in 2006 and mentioned the Newbery book) , but what is clear is that the baseball mavens at SABR have not talking to Janeites at large, or vice versa, and, as a result, this very interesting connection has not previously been made between our two otherwise entirely unconnected worlds, even though Janeites are every bit as interested, I think.
My point is that all it takes is the mental awareness that a Google search often can help find connections that render the OED and similar pre-Google resources nearly completely useless. It is not at all surprising to me that the OED still has that incorrect information, because the OED is a dinosaur.

I can't count how many discoveries I have made about various aspects of JA scholarship, just by being curious and proactive, and searching online, and by NOT assuming that "someone has already checked". The truth is that most of the interesting questions about JA have NEVER been checked online--it's an intellectual Wild West, completely virgin territory for "fruitful" investigation! Remember, Google Books did not even exist until 3 years ago, and they keep adding newly scanned texts at a breathtaking rate, so that searches you may have done a year ago are now out of date!

Anyway, I did another 30 seconds of searching and was thrilled to find a digitized copy of Newbery's little book, and another minute of patient virtual thumbing through the pages led me to this image of the actual page, with a drawing depicting the playing of baseball:,0051u.tif,0051a.tif,0051.tif&displayProfile=0
For those who for some reason can't open that URL, here is the text on that page under the drawing of kids playing 18th century English base-ball:

The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then Home with Joy.


Thus Seamen, for Lucre
Fly over the Main,
But, with Pleasure transported
Return back again.

I imagine that JA, with her two sailor brothers, would, if she had read that little poem as a girl, have found the message very touching, and it leads me to wonder whether a small piece of the inspiration for the great climactic scene of Persuasion, when Anne and Harville discuss the constancy of sailors like Benwick, who go off in search of “lucre” (and of course also Wentworth), and the women, like Fanny Harville (and of course also Anne), who wait at home for them.
When you think about it, perhaps the Newbery poem is a clue to a nautical metaphorical origin of the peculiar terminology of baseball. After all, sailors did go out across the world, stopping here and there at “bases”, making daring “runs” in their journeys in defense of England and in search of wealth, but always the ultimate goal was to return “home” “SAFELY”!

And, by the way, even Wikipedia is way ahead of the OED, as it cites the SABR website for the Newbery reference, and it also adds an additional bit of info that takes us very close to the environs of Emma in Surrey (and not that far from Hampshire):
“English lawyer William Bray recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey; Bray's diary was verified as authentic in September 2008.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Luke Lickspittle, Sophia Sentiment and Fame

"I loved the article about the sport of tuft-hunting, and the cautionary letter from the obsequious Luke Lickspittle. Tufts were the golden tassles worn on the caps of titled undergraduates, and those who toadied to them were known as tuft-hunters. Was this how Collins obtained his living?"

Reading the first part of the Tuft Hunting article and then reading Luke Lickspittle's reply reminds me of that great scene in the original movie version of Fame, when the young dancer Leroy and his girlfriend show up for auditions at the High School of Music and Art. At first, it seems like she is the one who really belongs there, and he is just a young thug being dragged along. But as soon as the music starts, and they start dancing for the panel, it becomes immediately and painfully obvious to everyone, including his girlfriend, that Leroy wanted to be there all along, and that he is a major talent, whereas his girlfriend, unfortunately for her and her big dreams, is not--not even close. But he doesn't care, he is there, because he wants the FAME he has been dreaming of.

I will tell why I was reminded of Fame in the next paragraph, but first my thoughts about the essay on tuft hunting, written by the twentysomething James Austen. I see it as the work of someone with big artistic dreams, but lacking the talent to match them, and knowing it, and so, instead of a literary career, he will be a clergyman. I see the first essay as his attempts to distance himself, by a major bit of what the shrinks would call "projection", from his chosen career path. He is clearly disturbed by the unpleasant prospect he faces of having to kiss some major butt over a very long period of time, in order to advance in the clergy and attain a comfortable living or two, and maybe, if he's really lucky, live to inherit some real wealth from a dead aunt or uncle. Having a soul, and a good deal of intelligence and education, what better way for James to tell himself and his family (because who else was ever going to read The Loiterer anyway?) "Hey, it's not ME, it's those other guys doing this stuff!", than to turn his own dilemma on its head, and assume the persona of a toadyish clergyman and laugh at it. Ha ha, it's not me, it's somebody else. But the satire of that first part is as dry and limp as a dead fish. Because in his heart he knows it's fake, it's not really a satire at all, but a confession.

And why I was reminded of Fame is that it is obvious to me that Luke Lickspittle, like Sophia Sentiment (note the alliteration in both), was NOT written by James Austen, but was instead the production of the exploding prodigious genius of the 14 year old Jane Austen, bursting out of her cocoon already fully formed and ready for her life's work of writing subtly searing satire of the absurd world she was born into!

What I find most incredible is that James actually allowed her uncannily prescient portrait of the rest of HIS life to make it into print at all, let alone that he would be the one who would be the instrumentality of its publication! Somehow she must have convinced him that she was extending his joke, doing her own "insubstantial" best to emulate his literary mastery.

And of course, JA repeated that same gambit 25 years later, when she gulled another pompous, toadyish clergyman named James into a correspondence in which she made a fool out of HIM in a dozen ways in the space of a few letters, and further used him as a tool in order to have her greatest achievement, Emma, dedicated to the man Clarke sucked up to, the man who was the epitome of, and the main allusive source for, the Men Behaving Badly who are the subtextual "heroes" of Emma.

So I see the Luke Lickspittle letter as being the world's first glimpse of the character who was James Austen and who became Mr. Collins. And don't you bet that James realized it whenever it was that he got to first read P&P! And did I read somewhere recently (in this group?) that James in particular was shocked when he found out it was really JA who wrote P&P?

If you are skeptical about JA being the author of Luke Lickspittle, just read the two pieces one after the other, and see if you can't see the difference in the power of the writing. And then think about what David Nokes so insightfully wrote (combining imagination and reason) in his bio of JA (just one of a hundred reasons why his is still, in my view, the best of the Austen bios out there, because he "gets" enough of who JA really was, and is not afraid to say it straight out):

“Jane Austen was both shocked and disappointed when she read the first issues of The Loiterer. Until that moment she had naively cherished a thrill of pleasure at her brothers’ literary aspirations. As a child, she had always loved their quick wittedness at family charades, Henry’s impromptu jokes and James’s theatrical improvisations. But when she read The Loiterer, with its labored facetiousness, its well worn formulas and self important Oxford jokes, she experienced a bewildering disillusionment. Denied any training in the classical languages and literature on account of her sex, she had hitherto instinctively deferred to her brothers’ supposed superiority in literary matters. It came as a shock to discover, at the age of thirteen, that her own gift for literary invention might actually exceed theirs. The tone of her “Sophia Sentiment’ piece is a kind of comic exultation."

There are moments in Luke Lickspittle's letter where the mask of polite satire is dropped, and the painful ugliness of what is being portrayed turns the reader's chuckle to a sad headshake. It's as if JA read James's first part, with its attempt to fuzzify the nature of the obsequious behavior he had to engage in, and said, "No! Stop beating around the bush with all these lame fox hunting metaphors. Be honest. Be real, for once. Tell it like it REALLY is. I'm describing, in detail, exactly the way you are going to sell your soul for the rest of your life, big brother. Let's make sure you understand that if it's a fox hunt, then YOU'RE the fox, not the hunter!" In a way, she has heard James's "confession", and is being a good priest, by challenging him to dredge up some moral integrity, to face the reality of his life, possibly to turn from the Dark Side of the Force before it is too late. She is being cruel to be kind.

But he didn't. And maybe that's why James Austen was into hunting so much, a way, if only for a half a day once in a while, to feel like a predator and not the prey. Not a pretty, or particularly funny, picture.

And this is just as, when Lizzy jokes with Caroline Bingley about Darcy, Lizzy at first wants to laugh at Darcy, but then, when she brilliantly succeeds in provoking him into owning his narcissism explicitly, she then most tellingly adds:

"But you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."

Indeed, Jane Austen, aka Luke Lickspittle, already finds it difficult to laugh, when she considers the cost to her elder brother's soul of his decision to become a Mr. Collins. She does not approve, but she already can predict that he will not listen, he will not be brave enough to avoid the moral corrosion of living that way. And maybe that is why he will, 16 years later, when his father dies, cheat his sisters out of a fair deal on the Steventon property he, in effect, steals from them for a song. So, in the end, JA could perhaps foresee that the adverse consequences of James's chosen path in life will redound on her, her sister and her mother, as well as on him.

Having nothing surviving of JA's writing from prior to age thirteen, we cannot know if Nokes was correct about JA having EVER been naive. Either way, it's clear that by the time she assumed the personae of Sophia Sentiment and Luke Lickspittle, at the tender age of 14, she was already flying light years ahead of her brothers.


P.S. If you still have ANY doubt that Luke Lickspittle was really Jane Austen, then consider the following two passages side by side:

"My father was the son of the half brother of the third cousin of an Irish Peer, and as his family had not condescended to bring him up to any profession, was for some years of his life nearer starving, without being actually starved, than I hope you, though an author, can easily conceive. "

"My Father was a native of Ireland and an inhabitant of Wales; my Mother was the natural Daughter of a Scotch Peer by an Italian Opera-girl--I was born in Spain, and received my Education at a Convent in France."
The latter, of course, is from Love and Freindship, written a year after Luke Lickspittle.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

I received some interesting private responses to my message last week raising the question of whether there are still scholars out there who claim JA was hostile or indifferent to, or even ambivalent about, Wollstonecraft's vindication of the rights of woman. One misconception of my own which I have now recognized, after doing some further reading and reflection, is that I was confusing the conservative/liberal dichotomy with the feminist/anti-feminist dichotomy, when they are not necessarily the same. And I think that same confusion has plagued some of the published scholarly discussion of these questions as well.

By this I mean that I realize now that JA could be both a feminist, in the sense of being a staunch, even radical vindicator of the rights of women, and yet also, in some ways, also be a conservative, in the sense of being very wary of social reforms and "improvements" ( a term that Alistair Duckworth put on the map of JA criticism many years ago, in brilliantly illustrating that JA intended this word as a metaphor for more than the literal sense of improvements of great estates).

In a nutshell, just because JA hated the way women were treated in her world, it doesn't mean that she was thereby automatically an advocate for the kind of societal "reform" represented by Henry and Mary Crawford. Mary thought of herself as an emancipated woman, and JA's skepticism about the value of that "emancipation" is evident in MP, even as I think she also, in her authorial honesty, also reveals a bit of ambivalence about Mary, which is why, I think, a fair percentage of readers of MP (not including myself) wish that Mary had been the heroine and not Fanny. E.g., it is not merely Mary who teasingly makes sexual puns, but Jane Austen herself.

I think JA was intensely pragmatic, and was very much afraid of throwing out the baby (the entire social structure) with the bath water (the pervasive injustices perpetrated against powerless women). I also think she mistrusted the "revolutionaries", having seen what murderous madness became routine in France after the Revolution (and had she witnessed the Russian Revolution, she'd have surely been saying, "Yes, here we go with more male revolutionaries, who are, incredibly, making things even worse than the horrifically awful they were before").

And she saw firsthand the havoc that "improvers" had wreaked on the social fabric of the English countryside, in pursuit of a sublime landscape.....and a lot of money! And a reader of her novels makes a VERY big mistake in failing to realize that the glare from the dazzling of Lizzy's eyes by Pemberley, and of Emma's by Donwell Abbey, has distracted our heroines from noticing the one-legged beggar her carriage passed on the road on the way there. This is no accident, or unconscious authorial slip, JA very intentionally wanted her readers to realize this.

In short, I see no inconsistency in JA being a strong critic of the status quo, and at the same time being very very suspicious of, and cynical about, and therefore conservative about, abuses perpetrated in the name of "improvement" of that status quo, along the lines of "We Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who:

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

I think her long range goal was, by the subtle effects of her fiction on her readers, to change the hearts and minds of enough women, so as to finally empower them to cut the patriarchal "boss" down to size, a process which is still in progress in our society and the outcome of which is not clear.


James Austen's History and Jane Austen's Herstory

"There's an article by him about the benefits of studying history which seems to be without satire, and his love of "the muse of history" as he puts it obviously stayed with him and is expressed later in life in hispoem posted here."

Indeed, James Austen writes without any satire, I think it's clear that he had a tin ear for it, and that JA knew it, and that's why there was more than a laughable trace of Mr. Collins's cluelessness and pomposity in him.

I assert that James’s comments are most noteworthy to Janeites as a prime subject for JA's satire, in that, e.g., the closest thing to his mentioning anything feminine in his comments on history, was his referring to science as a “she”! His attitude was the quintessence of the sort of male-written, male-centric and "bow wow strain of" history that JA lampooned in The History of England and critiqued more directly in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

James was an intelligent guy, and, I am sure, cannot have failed to realize that this 1789 essay of his was repeatedly in her satirical crosshairs. But, on a deeper level, I wonder if he ever realized that his kid sister, in writing her novels, was writing REAL history, the kind of implicit social history that would actually speak important and meaningful truth about everyday human life in the time in which they lived, truth that people living two centuries later would actually find value and insight in, when the pompous, verbose male histories of his time are today mostly gathering dust and are only read by professional historians.

Here is a link for the full text of James's Loiterer issue, written when JA was 14. To me, it's like cotton candy--tastes good, undeniably well intentioned, but when you take a bite, you realize it's 99% (hot) air: I can just imagine JA reading it, and then, exerting maximum effort to keep her countenance, asking him "May I ask whether these important reflections proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New JA video

Someone posted the following in an online Jane Austen discussion, in response to a question I asked about an event I had heard about in which contemporary authors were going to express opinions about Jane Austen.

"I don't know if this is relevant or not but there's a video accompanying the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan in which authors share their experiences with Austen. It's accessible on the Morgan web-site."

I then replied:

Thanks! For others, here is the URL, I just watched it, and it is MANDATORY watching for any Janeite, really wonderfully done!

I don't know if it was the same thing I read about, but it was great, so I am very glad I asked!

There are a few dozen profound comments in the 15 minutes of the film, but the three most significant comments for me were:

Cornel West: "She was preoccupied with freedom"

Colm Toibin: "She had a way of writing that would both conceal and reveal"

Colm Toibin: "If I had a dinner party for her, I would put Freud on one side and Jung on the other...and I would ...feed them quite a lot of alcohol. It would be very very interesting to know what Austen would make of Freud as she discovered slowly what Freud was actually proposing."

I would love to hear other Janeites's reactions to this video. It gave me goosebumps just watching and listening to it. Send the link to all your intelligent friends and family who have been resisting reading Jane Austen. IMMEDIATELY. Feel free to forward this email to whomever you wish.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pools of Commerce and Thorough Parties

I became curious today to understand the rules of Commerce, the card game that is mentioned in two of JA's novels, and 4 times in her letters:

NA: Catherine was disturbed and out of spirits; but Isabella seemed to find a pool of commerce, in the fate of which she shared, by private partnership with Morland, a very good equivalent for the quiet and country air of an inn at Clifton.

P&P: "Yes; these four evenings have enabled them to ascertain that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce; but with respect to any other leading characteristic, I do not imagine that much has been unfolded."

11/20-21/00: “The three Digweeds all came on Tuesday, & we played a pool at Commerce.”

09/14/04: My mother had her pool of commerce each night & divided the first with Le Chevalier, who was lucky enough to divide the other with somebody else. *...*

10/01-02/08: Our party at Mrs. Duer's produced the novelties of two old Mrs. Pollens and Mrs. Heywood, with whom my mother made a quadrille table; and of Mrs. Maitland and Caroline, and Mr. Booth without his sisters, at commerce. ….A second pool of commerce, and all the longer by the addition of the two girls, who during the first had one corner of the table and spillikens to themselves, was the ruin of us; it completed the prosperity of Mr. Debary, however, for he won them both.

10/07-09/08: We found ourselves tricked into a thorough party at Mrs. Maitland's, a quadrille and a commerce table, and music in the other room. There were two pools at commerce, but I would not play more than one, for the stake was three shillings, and I cannot afford to lose that twice in an evening.

For those of you who are also curious, here is the explanation of the rules of the game that I found online:

*COMMERCE: *"....Any number can play with an ordinary pack . There are several variations of the game, but the following is a common one. Each player receives three cards, and three more are turned up as a "pool ." The first player may exchange one or two of his cards for one or two of the exposed cards, putting his own, face upwards, in their place. His object is to "make his hand" (see below), but if he changes all three cards at once he cannot change again. The next player can do likewise, and so on. Usually there are as many rounds as there are players, and a fresh card is added to the pool at the beginning of each. If a player passes once he cannot exchange afterwards. When the rounds are finished the hands are shown, the holder of the best either receiving a stake from all the others, or, supposing each has started with three "lives," taking one life from the lowest. The hands, in order of merit, are: (i.) Tricon - three similar cards, three aces ranking above three kings, and so on. (ii.) /Sequence - three/ cards of the same suit in consecutive order; the highest sequence is the best. (iii.) Flush - three cards of the same suit, the highest "point" wins, /i.e./ the highest number of pips, ace counting eleven and court-cards ten. (iv.) /Pair - two/ similar cards, the highest pair winning. (v.) /Point - the/ largest number of pips winning, as in "flush," but there is no restriction as to suit. Sometimes "pair" and "point" are not recognized. A popular variation of Commerce is /Pounce Commerce./ In this, if a player has already three similar cards, /e.g./ three nines, and the fourth nine comes into the pool, he says "Pounce!" and takes it, thus obtaining a hand of four, which is higher than any hand of three: whenever a pounce occurs, a new card is turned up from the pack."

So it is a kind of 3-card draw poker, and it looks like it would be fun, as it would combine luck and skill. It sounds like all that a player risked was the initial "stake" or ante, and that there was not, as there is in poker, betting on every round. Just doing some quick math, it sounds like a pool of commerce could consist of as many as 8 or 9 players, which would mean, as many as 8 or 9 rounds, which would take a while to play out, with every increasing suspense as a player had to watch nervously as all the other players exchanged a card, in between turns. Sounds like fun, but I'd want to play it with betting at the end of every round!

I also have two questions about the above references to the game by JA:

First, what exactly is meant by Isabella being described as being in “private partnership with Morland”? It’s an odd phrasing—does it mean that she, Catherine and James entered into some alliance during a pool of commerce, to share profits and losses? Or does it mean that the act of participating in the pool of commerce with Catherine and James was in itself a way of having as much fun together as they would have had they made it to Clifton?

Second, when JA writes “We found ourselves tricked into a thorough party at Mrs. Maitland's”, what exactly is a “thorough party”? By the context, it sounds like it describes a scam like in the Redford/Newman movie The Sting, i.e., a fixed game, like going to a crooked gambling casino. But when I looked in Google Books, I could not find ANY other usage of that expression—the closest I came was the term “thorough party man”, which was an expression often used to describe a politician who put party above scruples in his political dealings. So both usages involve a lack of scruples in dealing with others. Which suggests that the word "thorough" may have had ironic significance for JA in her other usages of same in the novels.

JA uses the word “thorough” numerous times in all the novels, all of them superficially having the normal meaning, i.e., of emphasis, although the usages by the likes of Mrs. Elton carry a strong taint of insincerity.

The one that sticks out as unusual in the whole bunch is the famous narration about Mary Bennet:

“They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough bass and human nature; and had some new extracts to admire, and some new observations of thread-bare morality to listen to.”

The normal interpretation is that Mary was studying music, and reading moralizing books. But purely as a matter of syntax, the adjective “thorough” in that sentence could modify not only of the word “bass” but also the term “human nature”. And that could be an ironic suggestion that Mary (as a representation in that moment of one side of JA's personality, i.e., her bookish side) was usually deep in the study of “thorough” (i.e., unscrupulous) human nature”. It would then follow that Mary (aka JA) “had some new extracts to admire, and some new observations of thread-bare morality to listen to”, i.e., a very tongue-in-cheek ironic description of JA's novels themselves! The word "thread-bare" is exactly the sort of pseudo-self deprecating, minimizing language that JA used in describing her own writing to James Stanier Clarke.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Privacy Issues re JA's Letters

It is a (claimed) truth (nearly) universally acknowledged that CEA,
before she died, destroyed a number of JA's letters out of concern for
the privacy of the deceased JA and/or of CEA or other members of the
Austen family.

There is a certain irony in regard to the above, in that it is another
(claimed) truth (nearly) universally acknowledged, that the letters JA
wrote to CEA were typically not read by CEA alone, but were passed
around to other family members who were with CEA at the time of her
receipt of a given letter from JA. I.e., there was not a whole lot of
privacy between JA and CEA with regard to those of the letters which
were actually passed around, at least within the family circle.

There seems something a bit perverse in the notion of preserving privacy
for a dead person, when that same person (JA), when alive, had to take
into account a rather serious lack of privacy in the reading of her
letters by family members other than CEA, when JA was composing those

The first claimed truth has, I think, been discussed often over the
years, and does not warrant fresh consideration, but I think the second
one has not received the critical attention it deserves.

One example of a critical comment I found, which I believe is typical,
is Chapman's, in his 1932 Second Edition of the Letters, when he
blithely opines:

“….They were from time to time separated by long visits, and then
corresponded regularly. But the purpose of their letters was to exchange
information not only between themselves, but between two branches of a
large family. There are indications that these letters and others like
them were ready by, and to, a number of people. …“

I say "blithely" because he fails even to consider the possibility that
JA might, during at least some of these long separations, have wished to
communicate private thoughts for CEA's eyes only--e.g., to complain
about a family member. Easy for Chapman to pontificate on "the purpose"
of their letters, as he did not have to regularly endure situations in
which he had absolutely no freedom to travel even short distances
without the indulgence of a male family member, was often isolated from
the sister she was so close to for extended time periods, and yet also
could not really write with total candor to a trusted sister who
otherwise would have discreetly kept secret what was written to her.
And, to boot, to have to worry about every word costing money. I would
imagine that this situation was sometimes a considerable hardship and
source of resentment for JA, and with good reason.

Which makes me wonder things like whether JA might have sometimes
slipped an extra small sheet into some of her letters to CEA, which
extra sheet would have been for CEA alone to read, with all the candid
comments, and might have included at the end something like what Lucy so
ungrammatically wrote to Edward: "Please to destroy my scrawls...." And
then CEA would read that slip, absorb its meaning and then set it
aflame, before bringing the rest of the letter to everyone else's
attention? Like Mission Impossible. ;)

Has this subject of the privacy, or lack thereof, vis a vis JA's letters
to CEA, been addressed well in one or more of the biographies or in
scholarly articles? I did a quick search and came up empty, except for
that Chapman quote, but I am sure I have missed several other comments
on the subject of the privacy, or lack thereof, of the correspondence
between JA and CEA.

It seems like a topic that would be of interest to a lot of Janeites.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

JA's Synthesis


Thanks for posting that excerpt from James Collins's "A Truth Universally Acknowledged". I was strongly struck by the following passage:

"In their essence, Austen's books are moral works. "Northanger Abbey" is really about Catherine Morland's moral education: She learns that the world does not operate on the principles of a gothic novel. As the title indicates, "Sense and Sensibility" is a moral tale: It is the story of Elinor's self-command and Marianne's self-indulgence. The central event of both "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" is each heroine's discovery of her own moral weakness. "Mansfield Park" treats any number of moral issues, from the propriety of engaging in amateur theatricals to the consequences of leaving one's husband for another man. The premise of "Persuasion" is that Anne Elliot once sacrificed her happiness by doing her duty and obeying the admonishment of her moral guide, Lady Russell. Moral concerns are not only reflected in the large themes of the books, however: They are pervasive. Even the smallest act or the briefest dialogue or the mere description of a character's manner of dress is freighted with moral content. "

Mr. Collins (I couldn't resist calling him that!) is 100% correct that JA's primary goals were didactic, and he does an admirable job of summarizing the moral content of JA’s overt stories. However, he is unaware of the existence of the shadow stories, and therefore he fails to realize that there is a whole additional layer of didacticism in JA's novels, a whole additional layer of moral content, contained in the shadow stories, and the bonus from that is that there is a third level generated by the interaction of the first two, which interacts with the moral content of the overt stories in a dazzlingly Hegelian synergy.

And speaking of Hegel, I never read Hegel, but my scant knowledge of his ideas has always been that he espoused a view of dialectics, and now I think I REALLY need to read some of his stuff, after reading the following at Wikipedia:

"Hegel developed a comprehensive philosophical framework, or "system", to account in an integrated and developmental way for the relation of mind and nature, the subject and object of knowledge, and psychology, the state, history, art, religion and philosophy. In particular, he developed a concept of mind or spirit that manifested itself in a set of contradictions and oppositions that it ultimately integrated and united, without eliminating either pole or reducing one to the other. Examples of such contradictions include those between nature and freedom, and between immanence and transcendence.”

That is fabulous, in terms of how it almost seems to have been written to describe my understanding of what JA was about in writing her novels—I do see the overt story as the thesis, the shadow story as the antithesis, and JA’s “true meaning” (difficult as I know it to be, to try to synthesize and reconcile two such radically different interpretations of the stories of the novels) to be the synthesis of the two. But the following is even more fabulous and on point, in describing the reactions to JA’s novels by Janeites over the past two centuries, as much today as way back when:

“Some historians have spoken of Hegel's influence as represented by two opposing camps. The Right Hegelians, the allegedly direct disciples of Hegel….advocated the orthodoxy and the political conservatism of the post-Napoleon Restoration period. The Left Hegelians, also known as the Young Hegelians, interpreted Hegel in a revolutionary sense, leading to an advocacy of atheism in religion and liberal democracy in politics.”

Sounds awfully familiar to me, just substitute those who read JA as a conservative defender of the social status quo, and those who read JA as a subversive, radical critic of the status quo.

And in that regard, consider the following Wikipedia comments on Hegel:

“In previous modern accounts of Hegelianism (to undergraduate classes, for example), especially those formed prior to the Hegel renaissance, Hegel's dialectic was most often characterized as a three-step process, "thesis, antithesis, synthesis"; namely, that a "thesis" (e.g. the French Revolution) would cause the creation of its "antithesis" (e.g. the Reign of Terror that followed), and would eventually result in a "synthesis" (e.g. the Constitutional state of free citizens). However, Hegel used this classification only once, and he attributed the terminology to Immanuel Kant. The terminology was largely developed earlier by Johann Fichte. It was spread by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus in a popular account of Hegelian philosophy, and since then the misfit terms have stuck…….. What is wrong with the "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" approach is that it gives the sense that things or ideas are contradicted or opposed by things that come from outside them. To the contrary, the fundamental notion of Hegel's dialectic is that things or ideas have internal contradictions. From Hegel's point of view, analysis or comprehension of a thing or idea reveals that underneath its apparently simple identity or unity is an underlying inner contradiction. This contradiction leads to the dissolution of the thing or idea in the simple form in which it presented itself and to a higher-level, more complex thing or idea that more adequately incorporates the contradiction. The triadic form that appears in many places in Hegel (e.g. being-nothingness-becoming, immediate-mediate-concrete, abstract-negative-concrete) is about this movement from inner contradiction to higher-level integration or unification.”

I do believe that JA rejected both shallow conservatism and shallow radicalism, and instead aspired to, and often achieved, a profound understanding of the morality and dynamics of her world, which is , for all our technological advances in the past two centuries, still very much like her world, in terms of how we humans live in families.

I was curious to see if any scholars have written about parallels between Austen and Hegel (he was five years older than JA and he lived 14 years beyond her death), and Google tells me that a large number of scholars have done so, in various ways. From my initial scan of results, I found the following very interesting discussion in a 1996 book, in a chapter by Frances Olsen, entitled “Hegel, Sexual Ethics, and the Oppression of Women…” in _Feminist Interpretations of GWF Hegel_ edited by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills.

At Page 109-112, we read, in relevant part:

“GWF Hegel and David Krell’s essay on Hegel (see Ch. 4) raise the question of how men and women can relate to one another as equals—or at all. How is it possible to have intimate relations between men and women in a society in which men as a group dominate women as a group? Women are systematically subordinated to men….Men’s voices are heard…men of goodwill are faced with a quandary….When Hegel suggests that the stakes regarding sensuous abandon are higher for women than men and that men have another field for ethical efficacy, is he not basically correct in describing his society?...Perhaps we should read Hegel as approaching the world as it actually was—recognizing the radical subordination of women—and making the best he could of it all within that context…..Jane Austen approaches the world as it is—recognizing the present inequality—and in P&P offers us Elizabeth. ..Elizabeth is neither Hegel’s plant nor Nietzsche’s castrating, moralizing woman. JA can be viewed as carrying out the same project as Hegel: creating a world alive with sensibility and yet safe from the death, suicide, and madness of excess romanticism..While Elizabeth is a remarkable and appealing young woman, she is not the rare exception of a woman who is subject to less domination. Elizabeth exists as a woman in a world in which women are oppressed. Austen’s irony saves her from apologetics and allows her to criticize the inequality she recognizes. Elizabeth’s behavior deals with the world that existed at that time as well as one could. “

Friday, November 13, 2009


Can you guess why the following two passages in a 1911 describing the ancient estate of the Archbishop of York caught my eye this morning? How many connections to JA can you spot? Do you see which of her novels in particular seems to be everywhere implied?

"It was, however, the next archbishop, Robert Hay Drummond, " a man of parts and of the world, and a dignified and accomplished prelate," who made the greatest changes and enlargements at Bishopthorpe since the original manor-house had been first added to by Rotheram. Drummond practically transformed the entire residence, and the alterations made by him were great improvements as far as convenience was concerned, but the taste of the period proved a hopeless drawback to any true artistic design or continuity in the construction of the new buildings. Indeed, the preservation of the old character of the house does not seem to have occurred to the architect, Thomas Atkinson of York, who preferred to adhere to the fashionable Strawberry-Hill style of the age, and reproduced a semblance of Gothic architecture entirely wanting in its spirit. The entrance gateway which he built in 1765, partly from stone taken from the ruins of Cawood, is a striking example of this. Drummond pulled down the old stables and built the present ones, including a coach-house, brewhouse, bakehouse, and living-rooms, on the other side of the gateway. He demolished the old Early English west front of the house, and threw the whole forward, adding the present drawing-room and business-room, and greatly enlarging the entrance-hall. The servants' hall and other offices were built underneath, as well as new rooms above, and a flight of stone steps leading up to the main entrance under a somewhat florid porchway was also constructed. The archbishop, who loved the old house, spared no pains in remodelling it. Nor did he neglect the chapel and the garden. The latter he laid out anew, and the chapel windows he filled with stained glass, probably putting down the black and white marble pavement at the same time. Drummond's generosity was one of his most attractive characteristics, and he was renowned for his open-handed hospitality. The death of his wife in 1773 was a grievous blow, from which he never recovered. He died three years later at Bishopthorpe, and was buried under the altar of the parish church, according to his desire, with as little display as possible.

His successor, William Markham, occupied the see of York for nearly thirty-one years, from 1777 until 1807. He did not confine his attention to his diocese, and took no small share in public affairs. In the same year that he was consecrated to York he was appointed Lord High Almoner and a member of the Privy Council. Contemporary writers allude to his hot temper, his pompous bearing, and especially to his commanding presence. He was a friend of Lord Mansfield, and narrowly escaped from the Gordon rioters when they attacked the latter's house in London. He was also very intimate with Edmund Burke, until the trial of Warren Hastings severed their friendship, and he is said to have corrected and revised Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful. Markham's attention to Bishopthorpe was chiefly directed to the kitchen garden of seven acres. According to a writer of 1788, he "built a large icehouse, an exceedingly good, convenient pinery, and a flued wall 181 feet in length."*//*

I don't normally ascribe much significance to this sort of thing in terms of penetrating JA's secrets, but there is such a high density of connection here, especially with William Markham, that I believe it cannot be coincidence. But at the moment, I also can't see what the meaning of it is......


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is there any scholar out there still claiming JA was hostile or indifferent to, or ambivalent about, Wollstonecraft's ideas?

I've been reviewing the literature of late to see if there is any scholar out there still claiming JA was hostile or indifferent to, or even ambivalent about, Wollstonecraft's vindication of the rights of woman, and I can't find any sign of such a scholar writing anything during the past 20 years.

Even though the question of the extent of JA's agreement with Wollstonecraft is still much in debate, it is my impression that the "last hurrah" of the notion of JA as a staunchly conservative defender of the status quo in regard to gender issues was Marilyn Butler's famous and influential book "Jane Austen and the War of Ideas", which was last reprinted, I believe in the late Eighties. Since then, from what i can see, there have been a number of books, including most visibly Claudia Johnson's, which have argued the "feminist" position, but nobody taking the other side. Have I missed something?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Believe not that the dribbling dart of love, Can pierce a complete bosom

One of the most famous images from the Paltrow Emma is the shot (not from the novel) in which Emma is poised to shoot an arrow at her archery target (and see also my P.S., below, re the archery scene in P&P0), and I am not the first person to point out that this was a clever wink at the following famous line in the text of Emma:

"It DARTED through her, with the speed of an ARROW, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!"

However, I don't believe that anyone has previously noticed this is NOT the only passage in Austen's novels that deploys the metaphor of Cupid's archery for a sudden realization of someone being in love. There are (at least) four others.

First, we have a second such passage earlier in Emma:

"Well," said Mrs Weston, smiling, "you give him credit for more simple, disinterested benevolence in this instance than I do; for while Miss Bates was speaking, a suspicion DARTED into my head, and I have never been able to get it out again.

It is noteworthy here that Mrs. Weston is NOT correct in her suspicion that Mr. Knightley is in love with Jane Fairfax.

JA uses the dart metaphor twice in Northanger Abbey. Here is the first one:
Catherine’s understanding began to awake: an idea of the truth suddenly DARTED into her mind; and, with the natural blush of so new an emotion, she cried out, “Good heaven! My dear Isabella, what do you mean? Can you — can you really be in love with James?”

Just as with Mrs. Weston's suspicion, it is another "misaimed" dart, because Isabella does not really love James.

And then this in Ch. 26:

“My dear Catherine, you must not — you must not indeed — “ were Eleanor’s first connected words. “I am quite well. This kindness distracts me — I cannot bear it — I come to you on such an errand!”
“Errand! To me!”
“How shall I tell you! Oh! How shall I tell you!”
A new idea now DARTED into Catherine’s mind, and turning as pale as her friend, she exclaimed, “’Tis a messenger from Woodston!”
“You are mistaken, indeed,” returned Eleanor, looking at her most compassionately; “it is no one from Woodston. It is my father himself.”

Once more, a misaimed dart! At that very moment that Catherine imagines that Eleanor is bringing the news that Henry is proposing marriage to Catherine, it turns out that Eleanor is bringing the news that General Tilney is throwing Catherine out of Northanger Abbey! The very opposite of a "proposal"!

And then there is this one in Mansfield Park, during the ride to Sotherton from Mansfield Park:

"When they came within the influence of Sotherton associations, it was better for Miss Bertram, who might be said to have TWO STRINGS TO HER BOW. She had Rushworth feelings, and Crawford feelings, and in the vicinity of Sotherton the former had considerable effect."

I.e., Maria Bertram has two sticks in the courtship fire---the anything-but-romantic connection to Rushworth, and the romantic-but-also-dangerous-as-hell connection to Crawford---neither one of them anywhere close to being about true love.

So I find it extraordinarily curious that out of the five usages of the "dart" or "bow" metaphor in JA's novels, all save one of them are ironic reflections not of true love, but of the appearance, debasement or pretense of love.
Does this suggest that perhaps the aim was not perfect on that FIRST dart as well? Does Cupid need a handy repairman for his broken spectacles?


P.S: Unless I've missed something subtle in P&P, by the way, I do NOT see that metaphor having been used in the text of that novel, so it makes me wonder if Aldous Huxley had these allusions to Cupid's archery in three of JA's other novels in mind when he conjured up that memorable archery scene in P&P0 (which I just watched on YouTube)? That scene is all about Lizzy's uncannily good aim, which is rather at odds with her own less than stellar aim in the realm of courtship.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Carolyn Heilbrun and Harold Brodkey re JA

"Austen may or may not have been conservative. Certainly she wrote novels conservatives could read without distress, which have waited for modern critics to reveal their profound radical awareness of the female bondage inherent in that conservative world."

The above is from Carolyn Heilbrun's review of The Life of Jane Austen by John Halperin in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 183-185. In that one nutshell, Heilbrun resolves the paradox--indeed JA wrote novels that conservatives could see themselves in, but also wrote novels that radical feminists could also see themselves in. And Heilbrun also unmasks Halperin's cluelessness about JA and her attitude toward marriage.

Also, I just read, and will be returning to, a marvelously poetic, drily playful, challenging (in some places, I must admit, a little over my head), provocative article by the poet/novelist Harold Brodkey, entitled:

“Henry James and Jane Austen” The Threepenny Review, No. 33 (Spring, 1988), pp. 3-7
It is more about Austen than James, and there are way too many interesting lines in Brodkey's article to quote any in particular. Suffice to say that it is the most sophisticated sort of praise for JA's literary artistry, attributing to her both great knowledge of the literature written prior to her, and also deservedly great influence over the literature written after her, including, but not limited to, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce. A great deal of food for thought, written in the most extraordinarily crafted prose literary criticism ever was written in. A word genius's profound appreciation for, and analysis of, an earlier genius of words.

Monday, October 26, 2009

“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul.”

Might there be some interesting resonance between the following two pithy accounts, in the first person, of the apparently powerful emotional experience of a male reader (with a famously satirical eye), upon reading a famous novel by a famous female author?

“The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days--my hair standing on end the whole time."

"Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone"

In particular, as a connoisseur of the various parts of the human head, such as skulls and hair, the mysteries I want answers to are these: at the precise moment when Henry Tilney's hair was standing on end, was his tongue in his cheek? And if so, is this a clue as to the location of the tongue of the scrivener of that latter account as well?

P.S.: The title of this post just happens to be the epigraph to Chapter 2 of The Mysteries of Udolpho; and the famous speech from which that epigraph was derived also just happens to include the following predicted, additional effect of that soon-to-be unfolded tale:

"....And each particular hair to stand on end...."

And everybody knows that it is not very difficult to "dig up" descriptions relating to graves, corpses, skulls, and bones in the writings of the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and also in the famous play from which that famous epigraph is derived.

It sure makes each particular hair of MY head stand on end, and harrows my soul (but only in the best way), when I contemplate the sku---I mean---the skill of all the famous authors mentioned above, in getting across their meaning, without reducing themselves to the indignity of hitting any of their readers over the head, with shin-bones or otherwise.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent

Someone just asked in Austen-L whether Jane Austen's own characterization of herself, writing to the the silly James Stanier Clarke as "most unlearned", was tongue in cheek. Here is my response.

After Jane Austen wrote those letters to Clarke, I understand that the apothecary Haden had to perform emergency surgery on her to release her tongue, which had become stuck to her cheek, due to the massive amount of putting-on contained in those letters, especially Letter 138(D).

I.e., there was not a single word in those letters to Clarke that she really meant--JA's best birthday present upon turning 40 was to find, in James Stanier Clarke, the quintessence of a real life Mr. Collins---a fool in a position of small, but (in terms of JA's literary career) significant, power, whom she could lead down a particularly entertaining garden path, in exactly the same way Mr. Bennet got his jollies when he asked Mr. Collins:

"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?"

See how closely the ironic tone of Mr. Bennet's words resembles that of the following two sentences from JA's Letter 138(D) to James Stanier Clarke:

"Under every interesting circumstance which your own talents and literary labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, the service of a court can hardly be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of time and feeling required by it.”

And I can hardly say which is more ironic--Mr. Bennet insincerely flattering Mr. Collins about the latter's expertise in flattery, or JA insincerely commiserating with Clarke's toadyish, relentless (and at times humiliation-garnering) currying of the Prince Regent's favor. I think, all in all, that the real life put-on is more ironic, because her gulling of Clarke was not the sport of a fleeting moment--it actually landed her a "big fish", i.e., the Prince Regent's royal command that she dedicate Emma to him---Emma being the novel which covertly skewers the Prince Regent in every possible way. And the permanent record of the success of her put-on is the Dedication to the Prince Regent.

By the way, it occurs to me now that, when you take into account how Emma satirizes the Prince Regent in Emma, that in a very real sense converts the Dedication into the first words of the novel itself, i.e., it causes us to view the novel in a larger frame, a la Henry Fielding, with his various prefatory materials in Shamela, among JA's literary models, or Barth, Nabokov, or Fowles, among many modern novelists.

And I think that enlargement of the novelistic frame is a clue to ONE of the meanings of the following comments by Emma to Harriet about the charade in Chapter 9:

"Leave out the two last lines, and there is no reason why you should not write it into your book."

"Oh! but those two lines are" --

"The best of all. Granted; -- for private enjoyment; and for private enjoyment keep them. They are not at all the less written you know, because you divide them. The couplet does not cease to be, nor does its meaning change. But take it away, and all _appropriation_ ceases, and a very pretty gallant charade remains, fit for any collection. Depend upon it, he would not like to have his charade slighted, much better than his passion. A poet in love must be encouraged in both capacities, or neither. "

I really do believe that JA was in part thinking about the novel Emma as the "charade" and the Dedication of the novel as being metaphorically represented by "the couplet". Recall, e.g., the young Prince Regent's notorious and public courtship of "Perdita" (Mary Darby Robinson), in which he was so Mr. Eltonish in his galanterie, a heartsick poet in love.

And the following lines from Lydia's letter to Mrs. Forster seem to me to be a particularly apt description of what JA must have been feeling as she wrote to Mr. Clarke:

"What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing."

The final intriguing question that I fear we can never know the answer to, is whether Clarke had actually read P&P before meeting JA. My guess is he did not, or if he did, he only skimmed it. If he had read it carefully, I find it difficult to imagine that even a pompous fool such as himself could have failed to discern his own resemblance to Mr. Collins, and further that Mr. Bennet was sporting at Mr. Collins's expense, and further still that in general P&P was a skewering of the kind of aristocratic snobbery that was his own raison d'etre.

If Clarke had read P&P and really understood it, is it possible that he could have then failed to discern that he himself was being hoist on the same petard of clueless narcissism as Mr. Collins, and by the very same person, Jane Austen, who created the character of Mr. Collins? The mind reels!

And....if for whatever reason you remain unconvinced by all of the above, and if the irony which permeates every sentence of her letters to Clarke is not sufficient, then the crowning hint that JA was putting Clarke on, is the DATE of Letter 138(D)!

Get out your Le Faye and you'll see how big a fool Clarke REALLY was!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Words of wisdom

" As soon as a writer throws in short cuts, speedy action, we know he is trying to please us. Therefore, is afraid of us. Jane pleases us in her way; other writers please us in our way." ---- John Fowles

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I have just enjoyed reading the following article, which somehow had eluded my previous research, even though I have taken a special interest in literary criticism which recognizes Jane Austen's philosophical sophistication.

“Sense and Semantics in Jane Austen” by Donald D. Stone Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jun., 1970), pp. 31-50

Stone not only (correctly, in my view) compares Austen to Wittgenstein (high praise indeed) in terms of her emphasis on the power of words to shape thought, he then shows an acute insight into the double-parody of Northanger Abbey, which has eluded most other critics:

“In the real world, [Catherine Morland] learns of both the inadequacies of a romantic point of view and the disadvantages of a realistic point of view. In the real world, she discovers, heroism is nonexistent but evil exists, although in a less readily recognizable form, with the same ferocity as in Gothic fiction. ‘…in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.’.… if one is to get by in life, one must be wary of both illusion and the presumed absences of illusion. When Tilney mocks the simplicity of Catherine’s background—‘What a picture of intellectual poverty!’ (79)—Jane Austen by no means intends for us to agree. When the author unites anti-heroine Catherine and anti-hero Tilney, she in effect combines a noble simplicity with an ironical intelligence—and implies that the latter may need the former more than the reverse."

All you ever hear about in Northanger Abbey is that Catherine has great common sense, yes, but she needs Henry Tilney to bring her runaway imagination down to earth so she can see what is "really" there. Just as all you ever hear about re Knightley's recall of Cowper's famous poetic line "Myself creating what I saw" is that it alerts us to the dangers of overimagination.

Stone did briefly discuss Emma, but he failed to mention that highly relevant passage in Emma, and the parallel between it and Catherine's situation in Northanger Abbey. Regarding that passage in Emma, a point parallel to Stone's WAS caught, by the way, in 2004, by William Deresiewicz in his wonderful book Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, where Deresiewicz very astutely pointed out that JA very cleverly has not only overtly alluded to Cowper, she has also COVERTLY alluded to Wordsworth's subtle poetic formulation to the effect that one needs both reason AND imagination in order to understand what is most worth understanding.

Emma's mistake is not that she imagines too much, it's that she applies her imagination spectacularly in order to spot all sorts of stuff that others overlook, but then she goes astray in the interpretation of what she has spotted.

But Jane Austen lays a trap for the unwary reader, by making it look in each of these cases that the problem is too much imagination, which is very ironic, since the reader, in order to avoid that trap, has to use.....imagination!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It must be borne

[The following is the text of the messages I have just sent to the Austen-L and Janeites groups-I believe I explain the context sufficiently to make what I wrote explicable]

As you will see, below, I feel I have no choice but to set the record straight on some matters of importance to me. But first, my apologies to those of you in Janeites who have in the past objected to discussions of shadow stories---I did not start this thread here, I did not have any desire for this thread to be started here, but now that it has been started, these are important points for me to be clear about here, publicly.

Perhaps this particular round will be a source of amusement for David, Victoria, Jeannie and others who believe that Jane Austen never wrote any shadow stories. ;)

"It must be borne" was the title of the talk I gave at Chawton House in July (i.e., 8 weeks ago), in which I revealed publicly, for the first time, my own original interpretation of the circumstances of the shadow story of _Emma_, in which Jane Fairfax's giving birth to a girl baby is followed by Jane Fairfax covertly giving that baby to Mrs. Weston to pretend it is really Mrs. Weston's baby (just think about the rumors last year about Sarah and Bristol Palin).

It was in the Spring of 2007 that I made my breakthrough and figured out that, in the shadow story (always, I must repeat that caveat), Jane gave her baby to Mrs. Weston. That was shortly before I gave my first public talk about Jane Austen, at Oxford (for which honor I will always be grateful to Fiona Stafford, Georgina Green and Olivia Murphy!), about the puzzles of _Emma_ in June, 2007. I came to that discovery after being uncertain for over two years from the time I first realized Jane F. was pregnant, as to whether the various physical symptoms Jane F. was undergoing in the latter part of the novel were reflective of an actual birth or of a miscarriage or even an abortion. After all, the big question was, if she was pregnant, what happened to the baby? Then I realized the solution to JA's diabolically clever puzzle. It was, as you might imagine, a wonderful moment for me.

Even though I did not reveal my discovery publicly until July, 2009, I began, in June, 2007, revealing it in confidence to selected friends. It was four months after I began doing that, that in October, 2007, I privately revealed the above to a new acquaintance, Anielka Briggs, whom you cannot fail to have noticed has recently joined this Janeites group. It is her recent posts in Janeites and Austen-L which have prompted me to set the record straight.

Although she has been a serious Austen scholar for many years, with particular focus on genealogical matters, Anielka, by her own honest and explicit acknowledgment to me at the time she first contacted me in October 2007, previously had NO idea whatsoever as to any shadow or concealed plotting in _Emma_. She acknowledged quite freely that _Emma_ had always been opaque to her. Therefore, with regard to the above, it is quite odd when Anielka now writes "No need to wait for me to print a book to tell you my theory - might as well tell you now and get your feedback. Besides, it would be terrible to publish a book and then discover you had the theory wrong, wouldn't it?".

This statement by her, made immediately after she has cited a sampler of some of the textual clues regarding Jane F's concealed pregnancy, gives the false and misleading impression that somehow the notion of Jane F. being pregnant was Anielka's idea--but it was not. This idea of Jane having a baby and giving it to Mrs. Weston was one I explicitly revealed to Anielka in October 2007, and as to which she had no prior inkling whatsoever.

Be that as it may, despite the oblique advice which Anielka, by the above comment, unmistakably is giving to ME (and which I take as being as "kindly meant" as the advice the shadow Mrs. Elton gives to the shadow Jane F. about "the abolition", which, as I stated at Chawton House, is code for "abortion"!), I will nonetheless somehow blunder ahead on my own and "deliver" my book about the shadow story of _Emma_ .

But that leads to one OTHER very important point in regard to this matter. When I privately revealed my interpretation of Jane F's pregnancy and baby swap to Anielka in October, 2007, she then made what I consider a very, very important discovery for the world of Janeites, i.e., that there was a word game in _Emma_ which seemed to suggest a real life referent for Jane F's pregnancy and baby swap.

Anielka revealed the essence of her discovery publicly on March 2, 2009, in Austen-L, and so I quote her now:

"Jane Austen uses these codes all the time. For example, in "Emma" the Weston's baby is Miss Anna Weston which is Miss A. Weston = Miss Awe-ston which (as with Elinohr) is the correct pronunciation of the educated classes for Miss Austen ("oss-tin" being also the more modern pronunciation). Jane Austen uses the same code for Miss Emma Watson with the addition of an anagram. Miss E. Watson = Miss aWEston = Miss Austen once again."

I.e., anyone reading those comments can readily infer that "Anna Weston" becomes "Ann Awe-ston" becomes "Anna Austen". That was the brilliant discovery that Anielka made in October 2007 AFTER I privately revealed to her that Jane Fairfax had given her baby to Mrs. Weston. And, by the way, when I mentioned this discovery of the punny meaning of "Anna Weston" at the end of my recent Chawton House presentation, I cited its brilliance and gave Anielka full credit for that discovery.

Please note that if you don't know anything about the shadow story of _Emma_, in particular that Jane F. gives her baby to Mrs. Weston, then this "Anna Weston/Ann Awe-ston/Anna Austen" word game, while elegant and beautiful in its "hiding in plain sight" aspect, is not significant in terms of what it seems to suggest about the Austen family.

After all, as to the overt story of _Emma_, where Anna Weston really is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Weston, the word game is only a private hommage. I.e., it would suggest that Mr. and Mrs. Weston stand for James Austen and his first wife, and that the girl baby, Anna Weston, stands for Anna Austen. If there is no baby swap, i.e., then the word game is just an Austen family in-joke.

But if you know that in the shadow story of _Emma_, Jane F gives her baby to Mrs. Weston, then the innocent word game takes on additional potential meaning.

Apropos that, Anielka wrote the following the other day in Austen-L:

"Also if you look at Ellen's magnificent calendar for Emma
you will notice something interesting about 1796 which she has kindly spelled out for us!"

Here are the relevant portions of Ellen's calendar entries:

"1793 Birth of Jane Fairfax; she is 21 when story opens...."

"1796: Jane Fairfax's mother dies when Jane is three"

"1796, June 23: Harriet is 17 when novel opens so Harriet Smith born in the same year that Mrs Jane Fairfax died. Edith Lank has suggested Miss Henrietta Bates could have left Highbury during this time to help her poor sister, thus giving an alibi for a pregnancy (!). See Edith Lank's intriguing essay in /Persuasions/ 7, pp. 14-15. "

In regard to the above, note that Anna Austen and Fanny Knight were both born in 1793, and that James Austen's first wife died in 1795.

But note also that Ellen's entry for 1793 should have read "Births of Jane Fairfax [and Emma Woodhouse, they are both] 21 when story opens..."

That is the truth as to the above matters.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Darcy and Wickham

The following is a response to posts by fellow Janeites Sylwia and Simon which I just posted to the Janeites yahoogroup (which I heartily recommend as the best online forum for discussion of all things Jane Austen, but where I must be careful not to wear out my welcome with undue discussion of shadow stories!) to a couple of excellent comments regarding the shadow story of P&P. I welcome any additional comments here.

"Thank you for your explanation, Arnie. I'm not sure I can read the book the way you do. I don't see two stories there, only many accounts. Although it's true that many readers read the book superficially, I think that there are many others who see it in a deeper way. Nonetheless, what I see is still in line with the main story rather than not."

Fair enough, Sylwia. Then I say, do it your way and enjoy it. Your augmented version of the overt story is an interesting and complex one, even if it is one that I don't believe was intended by JA.

"Could you tell me where you disagree? If there are any holes in it I'd be happy to stand corrected."

No, I really can't, because that would reveal all the other shadow story elements I have discerned over the past 4 years. It's not a question of holes or errors, you have done a very thorough job within the scope of what you've discerned. Rather, what I can say, borrowing from AJ Harvey's 1968 metaphor of the shadow story as an invisible planet exerting a kind of "gravity", is that when you are aware of the other shadow story elements besides the secret relationship between Darcy and Wickham, that relationship is "reshaped" in very complicated ways by the gravity exerted by the other pieces of the shadow story.You've seen one planet, but there are actually nine planets in the solar system. ;)
"The problem with Darcy is that the range of interpretations of him as a character is very wide. Some people think that he's shy, some that he has Asperger's, some that he's a libertine, some that he's Superman (as a friend of mine often jokes), and some that he's Jesus Christ (as I like to joke about the Darcy who sacrifices himself for just about anybody who's around and in need)."

And I am suggesting that about half of that huge interpretive variance is accounted for by the inadvertent conflation of the overt and the shadow story. Even after one does the separation of the overt from the shadow story, there is still plenty of interpretive variance in each version of the story, but it is over a smaller range of possibilities.

"From what I've seen all over the internet, in fanfiction and in movies i.e. Lost in Austen or Bridget Jones, Darcy often personifies anything from Prince Charming for adults to Heathcliff. There is now a P&P retelling published where Darcy has sex with various women all the way to Pemberley, and I've seen people argue that it's in line with Austen's Darcy too."

There's a reason for all those reader reactions to P&P. At least some of those responses to P&P are genuinely midrashic, in that they do constitute a kind of implicit response to actual shadow story elements intentionally created by JA, and are not merely, as a shadow-story denier such as Victoria would suggest they are, entirely and solely the products of those later writers's imaginations. All of the Bronte sisters did definitely read JA's novels, and you can see this much more clearly in their novels when you let in the shadow story of JA's novels.

"It's just very easy to read the book in a way that ignores the text and impresses one's fantasy."

Yes, but the subtle trick is to tether one's fantasy to the text of P&P, in order to see the shadows that JA intentionally created, and to discard the ones that do come solely from one's own fantasy. The rigorous act of tethering, and insisting on textual "bread crumbs" as validations of fantasy, and on knitting together different strands of shadow story elements into a coherent alternative story, is the corrective for unbridled fantasy.

"In short I don't think there's one Darcy out there, and even people who read only the story that "everybody knows" are in disagreement about him."

Yes, but as I suggested above, much less disagreement if you separate the overt from the shadow story.

"What I've been trying to do is to find out what the text says about him (and about others too), in as fair a way as possible, even if I didn't like what I found."

Me, too! It's just that I am taking into account a lot more shadow material than you are. I could tell that you were otherwise reading against the grain of the normative reading of Darcy, in a way similar to my own approach. You were REinterpreting the text of the novel in light of Darcy and Wickham's secret relationship, and you did a pretty good job of it. But you were not working from all available information.

"So I wasn't assuming that the good characters say truth and only truth and that the bad ones lie, but rather compared the evidence. Perhaps I cannot read two stories there because I cannot pretend that some things never happened when they're clearly supported by the text, which means that if it's a shadow story then I don't see there any overt one with a better Darcy in it."

Where you and I part ways is that while I agree with you that what you see about Darcy and Wickham is "clearly supported by the text" (you must know that not only you and I, but also several others have also seen it), but that I believe, but you do not, that there are indeed a number of OTHER such strands of shadow story which are ALSO "clearly supported by the text", involving all the other major characters except Lizzy (in whose head we have been all along, and so she is the only major character who is the same in the shadow story as in the overt story).

It is fundamental to JA's artistry that we be in the head of the heroine and the heroine alone (except in rare instances) during the entire novel. It gives JA enormous freedom with all the other characters.

I invented the term "Trojan Horse Moment" to describe the technique that JA used---the shadow story is like a Trojan Horse, that JA has planted inside the heads of all her readers. There are a lot of little "soldiers" inside the "Horse", and one of the soldiers in P&P is the Darcy-Wickham secret relationship. That soldier became visible to you one day. What you don't realize is that there are a lot of other little soldiers in there whom you haven't seen yet!

Now, imagine the joy and challenge of making those other soldiers visible over a period of years--that describes what I've been doing since late 2004! It's as much art as it is science, and it is the meanest high of all! Like doing a hard NY Times crossword puzzle that takes many years to solve. And what's even better, each of the novels is its own puzzle, but these puzzles are also related to each other, so that solutions in one help you see solutions in the others!

And now to reply to Simon as well.....

"Lurker replying here... I'm intrigued, Arnie, by your latest posts on the shadow story. I've been reading messages for years, and so am very, very familiar with your theories (at least in outline; in specifics they somewhat elude me)."

Because I've never been that specific, and intentionally so!

"I was just wondering - does anything where we're not-quite-told something, where something happens off the page, immediately transfer to the shadow story? Is it ever possible that a subtly hidden character trait, or action, is intended for the primary story - or can that only be read as what happens 'in front of the reader', as it were?"

To shadow or to overt, that IS indeed THE question for an interpreter of JA's novels! I cannot give you a mathematically precise answer--perhaps there is a skeleton key that has even after all these years eluded me, which enables a reader to reliably assign some of those shadows to the overt story rather than to the shadow story. But for whatever my intuition is worth after all these years of reading JA's subtle hints and clues, my sense is that there is a certain cleanness and elegance in the separation of overt from shadow story, which fits with my conception of JA as a classicist, a kind of Mozart of Words. Once you let in all the shadows, the blending seems hopelessly complicated, contradictory, messy, fuzzy, and Romantic (in the musical sense of that term). There is a crystalline quality that emerges when you do the separation, which is so beautiful, that it must have been what she intended.

And one more point, that relates back to Sylwia's perception of the Darcy-Wickham secret relationship. If you see that secret relationship, and let in its full implications, it changes EVERYTHING in the novel, because it changes Darcy so fundamentally, and he is so central to the action of the novel. So it is a kind of fulcrum, a crossroads. Take one road, and you have the overt story, take the other, and you have the shadow story.

Thanks to you both for your excellent questions, and the opportunity to explain myself more fully.

Cheers, ARNIE

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rears and Vices Redux

We've been discussing Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" pun in the Janeites and Austen-L groups, and I thought I'd bring my latest comment in that thread to this blog as well.

As with so many other aspects of Jane Austen's writing, I have found that,when confronted with a problem of interpretation, it is often wrong to frame questions of interpretation in terms of either one interpretation or another--the better approach is to look for doubleness, and to be prepared for both meanings to be valid. So, I will demonstrate below, that it is a false choice between the homosexual and the heterosexual interpretations of Mary's pun--it is actually BOTH that apply!

First, I continue to assert, and therefore agree with some folks in those other groups, that the pun is in one sense about male sex on Navy vessels. This is made absolutely clear by the FULL context of Mary's joke, a context which is universally ignored by those claiming Mary could not possibly have meant this meaning. I do not claim that this ignoring is intentional, but what happens during every discussion of "rears and vices" that I have ever seen is that Mary's quote is such a magnet for our attention that it draws our eyes away from, and leads us to ignore, the full context. But the fact is that Mary's statement is not some isolated joke by the novel's narrator, it is a statement made by one character in a fully dramatized scene replete with dialog. Here is that full context:

“Miss Price has a brother at sea,” said Edmund, “whose excellence as a correspondent makes her think you too severe upon us.”

“At sea, has she? In the king’s service, of course?”

Fanny would rather have had Edmund tell the story, but his determined silence obliged her to relate her brother’s situation: her voice was animated in speaking of his profession, and the foreign stations he had been on; but she could not mention the number of years that he had been absent without tears in her eyes. Miss Crawford civilly wished him an early promotion.

“Do you know anything of my cousin’s captain?” said Edmund; “Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?”

“Among admirals, large enough; but,” with an air of grandeur, “we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post–captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. NOW DO NOT BE SUSPECTING ME OF A PUN, I ENTREAT.”

Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, “It is a noble profession.”

“Yes, the profession is well enough under two circumstances: if it make the fortune, and there be discretion in spending it; but, in short, it is not a favourite profession of mine. It has never worn an amiable form to me.”

Edmund reverted to the harp, and was again very happy in the prospect of hearing her play. END OF EXCERPT

So Mary makes her pun in direct response to Edmund's question about Mary's large acquaintance in the navy, and Edmund's question in turn is directly prompted by a specific discussion about William Price's experiences at sea, in particular the sad fact that he had spent a number of lonely years at sea in foreign stations.

Now, in that context, reread Mary's answer REALLY carefully, and in particular focus on the phrase "I saw enough".

Everybody always reads that as if it refers only to the behavior of the circle of admirals. I.e., to paraphrase, Mary has seen quite enough of the naughty things these darned admirals do, thank you very much.

But there is a second, at least equally plausible meaning of that phrase "I saw enough" that is always ignored, but which actually fits better with the full context of the above excerpt. It can also mean that Mary is explaining that even though she knows very little about what happens on board at sea among post-captains and other inferior ranks, she doesn't need to know details about the rears and vices at sea, because she has already SEEN ENOUGH of rears and vices even among the small circle of land based admirals, to allow her to extrapolate and also know about what happens at sea!

The negative implication of her statement, bringing the world of the ordinary sailor at sea into the picture, is quite logical, this is not a stretch of interpretation. She is saying she does not need to have information about the rears and vices that were occurring at sea, in William's world, the world of ordinary sailors who are in effect exiled far from home in male-only environments in foreign seas. Why does she not need to have that information first hand? Because she could make an informed inference about what goes on at sea based on what she DID see among the admirals, all of whom, we may infer, were once ordinary sailors at sea in their own youth.

And perhaps some of you are now realizing that what this also means is that Mary may very well be hinting that William has participated in that activity at sea. Mary has just listened to Fanny's heartfelt account of William's loneliness, how much he misses his sister and the rest of his family, how much they miss him, etc etc. And Mary, who has seen far too much of the real world, cannot resist the urge to put a tiny pin into Fanny's naive balloon. No wonder Edmund looks grave.

And to those who will respond that we have no reason to link the ordinary sailors to the circle of admirals, the above interpretation is bolstered by Mary's drawing an explicit parallel between the admirals and the inferior ranks: "they are ALL passed over, and ALL very ill used." It's a variant on "Cosi Fan Tutte", they're ALL the same. And, as in Mozart's and Da Ponte's opera, the irony is that even though the "they" is supposed to be the women, it actually turns out to really be the men who are all jealous, narcissistic, primitive, and easily manipulated! Mary Crawford is saying the same thing--the ordinary sailor at sea, the ageing admiral on land, they all do it.

And that also completes my thought and return to my initial comment. I think it is clear that Mary is talking BOTH about homosexual activity at sea, AND also about the heterosexual lechery and depravity of her uncle's circle of admirals, which almost surely involves females being treated as sexual objects in some way. And those females also seem to include Mary herself, hence her desire to get very very far away from her dear old uncle at the first opportunity. No wonder Mary is Mary.

There is no reason to limit Mary's innuendoes to just one sphere. She is in a way a kind of cynical philosopher of the sexual behavior of the male human primate, having involuntarily garnered her knowledge at a young age from experiences which have profoundly jaded and corrupted her spirit, and she is, in one immortal paragraph, summing up and crystallizing her dearly-bought wisdom--they--men---are indeed all the same.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Shadow Story of _Hamlet_

Some of you are aware that my research on the shadow story of Jane Austen's novels has led me to discover the same sort of double story structure in Shakespeare's _Hamlet_, a play which I think was crucial as an inspiration for Jane Austen in creating her own novelistic shadow stories.

The following is a message I just sent in a Shakespeare-related forum. If you substitute the word "Emma" for "Hamlet" wherever it appears, and substitute for the mystery of the Ghost in _Hamlet_ the mystery of Jane Fairfax's condition in _Emma_, you will find that the same argument applies. And I am also convinced that Jane Austen and Shakespeare were not the only great authors to use shadow story structures in their fiction. They just happen to be the "streetlights" under which I have been searching the past 7 years. ;)

Anyway, here, then, is my post in that other forum:

That statement is in accord with my own view of _Hamlet_, but, to use a poker analogy, I call you and raise you one crucial argument further. ;)

I believe that 90% of the furor that goes on so endlessly and so fruitlessly about _Hamlet_ , and has indeed been going on for centuries, arises out of what I assert is the fatally incorrect belief that there is one definitive interpretation of the play.

The ghost is real, says A. The ghost is a devil in disguise, says B. The ghost is a hallucination, says C. The ghost is really a representation of _______ (you fill in the blank with your favorite historical personage) from Shakespeare's contemporary world, or from the history of the world prior to his time. Or, as Stephen Dedalus famously opined, Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father. Etc etc. Indeed, some of these possible interpretations are explicitly suggested in the text itself!

It seems as though interpreters all feel that they somehow bolster their own interpretations by showing that the other interpretations are wrong. But......what if Shakespeare took particular pains to make SEVERAL interpretations plausible? What if he deliberately constructed the play so that it would be plausibly interpretable by a variety of viewers/readers in a variety of ways? What if that deliberate raising of mystery, and then delivering of multiple plausible meanings, was Shakespeare's way of showing (as opposed to telling) that the world is a mysterious place which can be plausibly interpreted in a variety of ways, and that these many alternative explanations and interpretations ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE! They are fictional parallel universes.

That is what I am reasonably confident Shakespeare attempted to do, and brilliantly succeeded in doing, in _Hamlet_, and that is precisely why it is _Hamlet_ that continues to be the touchstone of Western literature, more present in the minds of lovers of literature around the world than any other single work! This is not a freak of literary critical history, it is a response to a play that demanded such a response!

And so, what that means for that 90% of the arguing about _Hamlet_ is that if Shakespeare intended his text to support a number of alternative interpretations, stop fighting over which one is the "true interpretation". That's a complete waste of time, and distracts from what really matters. Instead, let's spend our collective energy in answering "the question" we really should be looking at, i.e., in the case of each such interpretation, put aside for the moment the other plausible interpretations, and look at the one focused on on its own merits. See how consistent it is in its approach to all elements in the text, see how many of the many cruxes of _Hamlet_ it sheds fresh light on, see whether it provides a coherent interpretation that covers the entire play, and not just particular characters or plot elements. Can anyone suggest any other criteria for a good interpretation of _Hamlet_ besides these?

This does not mean, of course, that each proposed interpretation should be accepted uncritically, in a kind of relativistic "all interpretations are valid" manner--that would be absurd. In a nutshell, a claim that the Ghost is an alien from outer space should be defeated not by claiming that the Ghost is really a Ghost, but by showing that even if you assume the Ghost to be an alien, there are no hints or clues in the actual text which correspond to this interpretation. That is a crucial difference in critical analysis.

In such a way, one by one, it would eventually be possible to generate a series of such evaluations, and then to comparatively evaluate different interpretations of _Hamlet_ in terms of these criteria. I believe that a few of them would emerge, over time, as the consensus "best interpretations", but without any single interpretation ever holding the field exclusively.

Illustratively, to return to the mystery of the ghost as what I believe is one of the fulcrums of interpretation of the play---the one thing I am certain of is that Shakespeare wrote _Hamlet_ so that it would be plausibly interpretable as EITHER (i) the Ghost being a real Ghost (which is essentially the Dover Wilson version), OR (ii) as a Devil in disguise (I am not aware of whether any interpreter has actually made that case, does anybody know about one?), OR (iii) as Hamlet's hallucination (the argument most famously made by Professor Greg, although he did not make the argument plausibly enough to garner many supporters). Wilson missed that crucial point entirely! He didn't need to prove Greg wrong in order to prove his interpretation right.

My own book about _Hamlet_ will be about my own radical interpretation of the Ghost as Hamlet's hallucination, which then leads to a half dozen other complementary interpretations of certain characters and events in the play, and I will make the case for each of them based on evidence in the text of the play. But I will take pains to emphasize that such interpretation does NOT invalidate the other classes of interpretations. They are parallel fictional universes. My version of the shadow story of _Hamlet_ will stand or fall based on the quality of the evidence I will adduce, which, in my eyes, makes it clear that Shakespeare intended it to be one of the valid interpretations of his play. There should be a certain beauty in a really good interpretation, especially in regard to casting fresh light on apparent cruxes and anomalies which are not powerfully explained by other interpretations. My interpretation meets that test, and it will be my job to prove it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Wayne Booth and me re the doubleness of Emma

During the Q&A after my Chawton House talk about Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy, one of the delegates who listened to my talk (and I am upset with myself for not having spoken afterwards to that intelligent young woman, to find out her name—and if anyone reading this was also present and knows who she was, please let me know!) and who asked me a very perceptive question. She asked, how does the shadow story of Emma inform our appreciation and understanding of the overt story of Emma?

The answer I came up with at the time was that the overt story, with its bright comic tone and romantic denouement, and the shadow story, with its dark, cynical tone and decidedly anti-romantic ending, were two parallel fictional universes separated by a wide chasm of interpretation, and really did not have anything in common other than sharing the same characters and superficial reported action. However, I also said that in some way, JA had a didactic purpose in this double story construction, in that each was intended by JA as a corrective to the extremes of the other. I.e., JA wanted her readers to strike a balance between these polarities in their perceptions of the real world around them, finding a way to love without romantic delusion, finding a way to be wary and sensible, without descending into misanthropy and hatred.

I was, however, only partly happy with my answer, and made a mental note to try to improve that answer at some point. Perhaps, subconsciously, that is what led me back today to JASNA’s website, where, slowly but surely, they’ve been putting more and more of the old issues online, which is a very welcome development.

So I was browsing there ostensibly to see what new stuff was available since my last visit a few months ago, and found that the 1981 and 1982 issues were now available online. But, after looking at those newly accessible issues, I went on to browse again in the 1983 issue, which I had read a few months ago, and happened to reread Wayne Booth’s essay there, instantly recalling that I had initially read it with great approval, without consciously remembering the details of why I had liked it so much.

This time, however, having in the intervening months pulled together a lot of my thinking about the shadow story of Emma in writing up my presentation, I realized that Booth’s wisdom had penetrated my subconscious during that first reading, and that Booth had himself given a pretty good answer to that question that was posed to me at my Chawton presentation, similar to mine and yet much more elegantly thought through and composed!

The subconscious is an amazing tool, and I’ve learned not to question it, but to follow my seemingly random inclinations in doing my research, as time and again, I am led to precisely the thing I am looking for.

Anway, first I give you the link to Booth’s article, and encourage you to read it all the way through for its full meaning and also its flavor—he was a great stylist in literary criticism, and it’s a pleasure to read even aside from its content.

Persuasions #5, 1983, ppg. 29-40, “Emma, Emma, and the Question of Feminism”.

What is fascinating is that I actually did quote from another much earlier essay by Booth during my session, when I was reciting the brief history of the meme of Jane Fairfax as the shadow heroine of Emma. Here’s what Booth wrote in that regard in his chapter “Control of Distance in JA’s Emma” in his most famous book, the 1961 _The Rhetoric of Fiction_:

“We have only to think of what Emma’s story would be if seen through Jane Fairfax’s…eyes to recognize how little our sympathy springs from any natural view, and to see how inescapable is the decision to use Emma’s mind as a reflector of events—however beclouded her vision must be. “

Booth in 1961 did not see Emma as he did in 1983, but had Booth somehow been able to connect the dots over 22 years between that earlier flash of insight and his late conversion to the notion of JA as a sly feminist, he might have been led to consider the implications of what it might mean if JA had really intended Jane Fairfax not only to see Emma’s story, but to actually have her own compelling story concealed in the shadows of the novel, i.e., to be the shadow heroine of the novel.

Without further ado, then, the following are what I consider the most insightful, telling excerpts from Booth’s 1983 Persuasions article (and as you read, see if you can spot what Booth wrote which I now realize must have been the inspiration for the following line in my most recent revision of my talk: “the famously successful concealment in Emma’s overt story ironically contains within itself the seeds of its own deconstruction”):

BEGINNING OF BOOTH EXCERPTS: “.....In spite of everything I have said, we all know that any theory that leaves us resisting or repudiating any experience as wonderful as Emma offers must have something wrong with it. Perhaps you have already been far ahead of me in seeing what that something is. While it is true that the conventional form of Emma would be in itself harmful to both men and women, if it were accepted as Sir Edward accepts Lovelace’s charm, the saving truth is that Emma contains within itself the antidotes to its own potential poisons. While it does not in any sense repudiate the fun of pursuing the conventional form, it at the same time keeps the careful reader alert to the need for a double vision – a combination of joyful credulity about the events of the love plot, taken straight, and extreme sophistication about how men and women can hope to live together, in what we call life……That sophistication consists in part in the imaginative resistance that the work provides to its own conventional or formal preoccupations. By the author’s tone on every page, she asks us to imagine a world that does not permit us to believe what the conventional marriage plot tries, as it were, to teach us. ….Some readers have considered such passages [the deflation of Emma’s romantic climax] to be dodges, signs of Jane Austen’s own sexual inhibitions or lack of novelistic skill – poor woman, she just did not know how to write a love scene! I suggest instead that they are signs of a novelist who knows her double task: how to make a conventional form work, while making it work for matters unconventional. ….When I first reported views of this kind, more than two decades ago, I rejected them. Though I still see them as at best half of what should be said, I think my response was too simple. My point here is that unless we can somehow incorporate something like an ironic vision of the ending, even while pretending not to, even while enjoying the fairy tale to the full, we are indeed confirming its capacity to implant a harmful vision of the sexes. In other words the ending is indeed a happy ending, not the least ironic, given the world of the conventional plot, a world that we are to enter with absolute whole-heartedness. And yet, simultaneously, we are taught by this work the standards by which the ending must be experienced as we experience fairy-tales or fantasies; the implied author has been teaching us all along what it means to keep our wits about us, and how we must maintain a steady vision about the follies and meannesses in our world…..Still it would be folly itself to pretend that the dangers I earlier described will simply go away for anyone who reads with sufficient skill. We may tell ourselves that Jane Austen knows, and assumes that we will know, that Knightley is a fantasy figure, the wise magician who promises us from the beginning that all will be well in this created world, even though it can never be entirely or permanently so in our own. But the power of Jane Austen’s realized conventional form, the delicious happiness she makes us feel in the “perfect union” of two almost perfect creatures, the weaker one of whom almost deserves the stronger – that power must surely be matched by a kind of reading that is as powerful and courageous and sensitive as Jane Austen’s reading of her predecessors. She knew better than to pretend that fictions are not dangerously loaded weapons for all who grasp them seriously. And she thus would welcome, I like to think, the probing questions that feminist critics have been teaching us to ask. Her kind of critical spirit, applied in 1983 to her kind of works, will not leave those works unmodified. But to me it is wonderful to discover that most of the modifications, most of what we learn by asking the questions raised by feminist criticism, leave Jane Austen looking perhaps even greater than she did before.”