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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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.”


Unknown said...

As a new Facebook member, I just stumbled across a link to your blog on the "Jane Austen Fan Club" discussion board. I feel as though I've found buried treasure--new vistas of meaning in Jane Austen! Heavenly! I was an English major at Agnes Scott College (in Decatur, GA, where I still live) in the late '70s, and I was fully captivated then by Austen's genius. And it so happens that Emma is my favorite novel, not just my favorite Austen novel. I'm drawn to Austen's books not by the romance (I'm not at all romantic) but by her wit and humor, especially as coupled with her deep understanding of human nature.

I'm very interested in your theories and am eager to see them unfold here on your blog. I've printed out the Booth article to read later. Is the "Sense & Secrecy" paper you presented at the Chawton conference available online?

I have a busy life and a stressful job (as an editor, BTW) that frequently calls for me to bring home work after hours, so I can't promise to comment often. I will visit when I can, though, and read with interest.(So that you can understand how intrigued I am by your theories, you must know that I've never commented on anything I've read online--and I'm a pretty frequent Web surfer.)

Kudos to you for undertaking such a study, and thanks for sharing your theories with us.

I haven't seen an answer yet to the puzzle question about who gave Jane the piano (and the other "gift"). Was it Mr. Dixon? Ah, the layers of irony!

Arnie Perlstein said...

I suggest you give me a ring at 954 647 6154 and we can chat about all of this sometime when you have some free time. And thank you very much for the warm compliments!