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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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.


Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read this article. Thanx for it. I like such topics and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous (and I urge you to cease being anonymous, if you decide to post here again), you made me realize I forgot to post a link for that issue of the Loiterer, an error I am now going to remedy: