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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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!



Adriana Sales Zardini said...

Arnie I found your blog and got a surprise! Thanks for your comments!

Hugs from Janeites in Brazil!

Adriana Zardini

Adriana Sales Zardini said...

Arnie, thanks for your invitation at facebook!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you, Adriana!

I'd love to hear some of your specific thoughts about what you read at this blog that you enjoyed!