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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, March 1, 2010

BREAD GOTTEN SECRETLY IS PLEASING (edited to correct two errors in earlier posting)

© Arnold Perlstein 2010

As promised, albeit a few hours late--- here is an explanation of what I hope you’ll agree is the very cool allusion to Chapter 10 of the Biblical Book of Proverbs that I stumbled across on Friday in one of JA's novels—more specifically, Persuasion—while I was looking for something else entirely.

But before I unpack this Biblical allusion in Persuasion, to provide a little context for same, I want to first say a few words about an already previously discovered allusion to a Biblical Proverb which occurs in the novel most Janeites would have guessed most likely, all things being equal, to contain such a Biblical allusion if I hadn’t given any other clues---of course I am referring to Mansfield Park.

The Known Proverb Allusion in MP:

MP is, far and away, the work of fiction by JA which is most preoccupied with religion, including several scenes with intense discussions of religious practice and thought. It is also, of course, the one with a hero who is a clergyman, AND….with the heroine who was most preoccupied of all with matters of the soul, and with the sorts of moral questions that have historically been in the purview of religion.

And so no one can be surprised that MP has already been known for at least a few decades to contain a very obvious allusion to a Biblical proverb, although it is not an allusion that would warm the heart of a believer.

In Ch. 24 of MP, Henry has a very disturbing tete a tete with sister Mary, in which he tells her of his plans to occupy his downtime chez les Grants in between hunts with his canine hunters, besides walking and riding with Mary:

“….I shall be happy to do both, but THAT would be exercise only to my body, and I must take care of my mind. Besides, THAT would be all recreation and indulgence, without the wholesome alloy of labour, and I do not like to eat the bread of idleness. No, my plan is to make Fanny Price in love with me.”

This is, of course, a most disturbing and sacrilegious quotation of Scripture by the Satanic Henry Crawford---specifically the description of the good wife in Proverbs 31:27 “She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.”

It immediately gets worse when Henry comes out and frankly reveals that his school for matrimony will be a harsh one indeed for Fanny:

““But I cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.”

Perhaps as he said this, Henry recalled the line from The Merchant of Venice (curiously, not one of the plays he suggests for performance in the Mansfield theatricals) where Antonio opined to Bassanio about Shylock: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”.

But for sure Henry, being the well read gentleman he was, knew very well that he was channeling the character from literature whom he most closely resembles, Richardson’s Lovelace, who describes to HIS confidant, Belford, what he had in store for Clarissa:

'Nobody can say, that I eat the bread of idleness. I take true pains for all the pleasure I enjoy.”

(and by the way, I am not sure if I am the first to spot this striking and significant allusion to Clarissa in MP)

So Henry is well aware that his purpose is as vile as that of his “role model” Lovelace, i.e., the desire to defile a pure heart in order to satisfy his sick heart. The irony of his quoting the proverb about the good wife is exquisite. He wants to subjugate Fanny in accordance with his own modern perverse conception of how that subjugation might be effected upon the wife of a jaded husband, who cannot be satisfied with humdrum obeisance.

And so much for those romantics who still think Fanny made a big mistake in not marrying Henry!

And by the way, I consider it very possible that there is another covert allusion to a Biblical proverb in MP, which neither I, nor any other reader of the novel, has ever discovered. It seems so likely to me that it would be there, and so likely also that it would be very very difficult to detect.

I find such is the pleasure of literary sleuthing in JA’s novels—there always seems to be more to find.


Let me recap the additional hints I gave you on Friday, besides pointing you to Chapter 10 of Proverbs, but this time with Anne’s name shown instead of merely “the heroine”.

I told you that the allusion was in three parts, which appear in the novel in the following order, in chapters separated by at least two intervening chapters, and therefore the connections between the parts were very unlikely to be noticed due to proximity.

The first part is very slyly, but also very extensively, embedded in the narration of an interaction between Anne and the male character who is the secret “cad” (“villain” is perhaps too strong a word for him) of the proverb.

The second part is spoken by a female character, and the third part is spoken by a male character. Both of these latter parts are spoken in the presence of Anne, and both of the statements which she hears which are part of the allusion ALREADY overtly characterize the “cad” in an UNflattering light, even if you are entirely unaware of the allusion to the proverb. However, when you see and understand the allusion to the proverb, you readily perceive that the allusion underscores the negative depiction of the “cad”, raising the level of criticism of his character and behavior to (literally) Biblical proportions.

The third part of the allusion is actually extensive, and at that late stage of the novel, it truly hides in plain sight.

OK, last chance to solve it on your own, with these extra clues……but those who don’t want to try, just scroll down…..
…… (scroll down)
…… (scroll down)

Did you guess Cousin Elliot? If so, that was an eminently plausible and logical guess--- but it happens NOT to be the correct one! JA has crossed us up once again in our expectations, after first leading us down the garden path….

And now it is time to tell you which proverb in Chapter 10 was covertly alluded to by JA, followed immediately by the three parts of the allusion in the text of the novel itself

THE PROVERB ITSELF (with the relevant part in ALL CAPS):

Proverbs 10:20: The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; THE HEART OF THE WICKED IS OF LITTLE WORTH.

[At the end of Chapter 11, Anne and Benwick have a literary discussion. However, it has never occurred to any previous reader of Persuasion that the Bible might just be one of the works of literature on Anne’s mind]:

“His looks shewing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances. Captain Benwick listened attentively, and seemed grateful for the interest implied; and though with a shake of the head, and sighs which declared his little faith in the efficacy of any books on grief like his, noted down the names of those she recommended, and promised to procure and read them. When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.


[Near the beginning of Chapter 14, a conversation at the Lodge amongst Anne, Charles and Mary, shortly after the latter two returned from Lyme with news]:

“ But Mary did not give into it very graciously, whether from not considering Captain Benwick entitled by birth and situation to be in love with an Elliot, or from not wanting to believe Anne a greater attraction to Uppercross than herself, must be left to be guessed. Anne's goodwill, however, was not to be lessened by what she heard. She boldly acknowledged herself flattered, and continued her enquiries.
"Oh! he talks of you," cried Charles, "in such terms -- " Mary interrupted him. "I declare, Charles, I never heard him mention Anne twice all the time I was there. I declare, Anne, he never talks of you at all."

"No," admitted Charles, "I do not know that he ever does, in a general way; but, however, it is a very clear thing that he admires you exceedingly. His head is full of some books that he is reading upon your recommendation, and he wants to talk to you about them; he has found out something or other in one of them which he thinks -- oh! I cannot pretend to remember it, but it was something very fine -- I overheard him telling Henrietta all about it; and then "Miss Elliot" was spoken of in the highest terms! Now Mary, I declare it was so, I heard it myself, and you were in the other room. 'Elegance, sweetness, beauty.' Oh! there was no end of Miss Elliot's charms."

"And I am sure," cried Mary warmly, "it was very little to his credit if he did. Miss Harville only died last June. Such a HEART is very LITTLE WORTH having, is it, Lady Russell? I am sure you will agree with me."

"I must see Captain Benwick before I decide," said Lady Russell, smiling. “


[And finally, in the immortal climactic love scene in Chapter 23, the scene at the White Hart Inn that JA added when she rewrote the ending of the novel, we have the famous discussion of the comparative constancy of the two sexes]:

"True," said Anne, "very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man's nature, which has done the business for Captain Benwick."


“But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness.”


She could not immediately have uttered another sentence: her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.

"You are a good soul," cried Captain Harville, putting his hand on her arm, quite affectionately. "There is no quarrelling with you. And when I think of Benwick, my tongue is tied."


I have not flagged the key words relating to the Biblical Proverb which pop up in the cleverest ways in all these three parts, because it will be more fun, I think, for you to spot them yourselves. The bottom line is that BENWICK is the “wicked” man whose “heart is of little worth”, who is described in Proverb 10:20. Enjoy!

It is also relevant that Chapter 9 (which of course immediately precedes Chapter 10) of Proverbs sets up the extended allegorical conceit of wisdom and folly as two women who invite travelers into their homes, who at first may seem the same, but who then become known in their true colors to their guests, by the very different effects of their “hospitality”! Here is the end of Ch. 9, describing Folly’s hospitality:

"Let whoever is simple turn in here, or who lacks understanding; for to him I say, Stolen water is sweet, and bread gotten secretly is pleasing!" Little he knows that the shades are there, that in the depths of the nether world are her guests!”
I find that literary sleuthing in JA’s novels is truly “bread gotten secretly” and is truly “pleasing”!

And, conversely, here is the end of the description of Wisdom’s invitation:
“He who corrects an arrogant man earns insult; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs opprobrium. Reprove not an arrogant man, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. If you are wise, it is to your own advantage; and if you are arrogant, you alone shall bear it.”


The gestalt of the above allusion is a particularly beautiful and powerful example of how JA spread her allusions across her novels to be perceived in a subliminal way, which was however legitimately accessible, via a variety of clever hints, to a reader who was familiar with the Book of Proverbs, as she so obviously was, and who enjoyed a game of literary sleuthing. Plus, JA, like Agatha Christie, played fair with her readers by giving lots of clues, scattered here and there in an apparently random fashion.

And it is also characteristic of all the other elements of her shadow stories that I have discovered, such that when you assemble all the pieces of the verbal "jigsaw puzzle" and fit them together in their original order and significance before she jumbled them up, just as Frank, Jane, Harriet and Emma do at Box Hill, you find that they "spell" a meaning which is powerful and which flies straight and true to the moral and psychological center and heart of the novel.

JA's writing was truly a treasure beyond rubies.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: There is, by the way, one other allusion to an ancient proverb in Persuasion, which I just found while I was writing up this explanation…..but I am not quite sure how to interpret it. In Chapter 10, we read the following conversation between Wentworth and Louisa, about Charles Musgrove’s proposal to Anne, which was rejected:

After a moment's pause, Captain Wentworth said -- "Do you mean that she refused him?"

"Oh! yes; certainly."

"When did that happen?"

"I do not exactly know, for Henrietta and I were at school at the time; but I believe about a year before he married Mary. I wish she had accepted him. We should all have liked her a great deal better; and papa and mamma always think it was her great friend Lady Russell's doing, that she did not. They think Charles might not be learned and bookish enough to please Lady Russell, and that, therefore, she persuaded Anne to refuse him."

The sounds were retreating, and Anne distinguished no more. Her own emotions still kept her fixed. She had much to recover from before she could move. The listener's proverbial fate was not absolutely hers: she had heard no evil of herself, but she had heard a great deal of very painful import. She saw how her own character was considered by Captain Wentworth, and there had been just that degree of feeling and curiosity about her in his manner which must give her extreme agitation. “

One might at first assume that the proverb Anne thinks of is the famous Chinese or Japanese proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”—except that I cannot find anything that suggests that a person who disobeys this proverb by eavesdropping will as a result hear nothing bad about him or herself.

I cannot find any of the Biblical proverbs which fits this description, but it is possible, although a stretch, that Anne has in mind the following line from Isaiah, 33:15:

“he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil;”

In any event, it could just be there because JA had proverbs on the brain as she wrote Persuasion, and this was simply a playful bonus for the literary sleuth that she tossed in for the sheer fun of it, and perhaps, as a sly clue that those of her readers who neither see nor hear all the evil which lurks in the shadow of her novels are perhaps missing out on half the fun and meaning!

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