(& 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.