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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Gatekeeper in the Jane Austen Duplex

"I'm sorry Arnie, but I cannot follow your reasoning; it's too tenuous and unsupported."

And first I also thank you, David, for your usual courteous (and utterly predictable) disagreement, and second, I add that I am certain that JA would have both expected, and been fascinated by, the utterly different cognitive/perceptual universes in which her current readers live. Truly two different worlds. For you, there is only one door to a one-story "house", for me, a half dozen doors to a two-story "house".

Yes, it is undeniable that you represent the current majority of Janeites, and I represent a significant minority, of those respective groups. However, it is also clear to anyone who has, as I have, read most of the scholarly literature about JA, that the demographics have been slowly but steadily shifting in my group's favor for over half a century. And if we take as our benchmark Janeites who have actually read all of the novels themselves, the demographics are more favorable still to my "family". It is only under the spell of the actual written words of Jane Austen, as opposed to film adaptations, however well done, that some readers find ourselves drawn to the squeaky doors which lead to the second story.

And I hasten to add, the differences between our two opposed camps are NOT a matter of either intelligence, literacy, or passionate engagement with JA's novels. It is clear that both perceptual camps are populated by folks who have an abundance of all these worthy characteristics.

What divides us, I believe, is that some of us are wearing the spectacles that, as in the film National Treasure, make the other story consciously visible, and others, like you, refuse to don the spectacles, claiming that the spectacles are not lenses, but mirrors.

It's no coincidence in this regard that we hear a great deal about Mrs. Bates's spectacles, but also Sir Walter's mirrors--JA was perfectly cognizant that she was confronting all of her readers with this dilemma of choosing between helpful lenses or self-deluding mirrors.

I pointed out the following recent and dramatic illustration of this trend several months ago--when Rozema's Mansfield Park came out a decade ago, it was greeted with widespread dismay and condemnation, among amateur and academic Janeites alike, for its depiction of the slavery subtext of the novel. At the July 2009 conference at Chawton, however, fully ten percent of the 70 presenters had as their topic some aspect of that same slavery subtext. And the 1999 Janeite world's leading denier of the existence of such slavery subtext, John Wiltshire, was there, a decade later, in the audience at several of those sessions at Chawton House, not merely not denying its existence, but actively embracing it in questions and comments posed to the presenters.

Those of you who participated in, or at least observed, the massive 2006 thrash in this our own Janeites group, on the subject of the MP slavery subtext, where widespread denial was the norm, will find this news interesting, I think.

I am a firm believer in Thomas Kuhn's model of paradigm shifts, so I believe this trend will only continue, and I will continue to do my best to help it along. As will, each in our own way, well-known pioneers of Austen scholarship such as Jill Heydt-Stevenson, Brian Southam, Jocelyn Harris, David Nokes, Claudia Johnson, Kathryn Sutherland, and Fiona Stafford, as well as less well known, but equally creative, Janeite scholarly pioneers such as Jim Heldman, John Dussinger, Barbara Thaden, WJ Harvey, and many others---amongst which group I, as well as several other members of our own Janeites group, aspire to belong, each in our own distinctive way.

I believe more firmly than ever before that JA created her parallel fictional universes for reasons which she found (and I find still to be) compelling, and I am doing my best to honor and celebrate her efforts, and to bring those reasons to the attention of the Janeite world.

Until then, I imagine the great Janeite Rudyard Kipling's dichotomy will continue to hold for a good while longer---the only place where the (Mark) Twain between our respective "families" shall meet is is in this group, which is, in a way, very much like the narrow, twisting staircase between the two stories--where we will find Miss Bates as the gatekeeper, garrulously and hospitably keeping us all company! ;)


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