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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Bread of Idleness....and Indifference

The following is my response to comments by Derrick Leigh (in quotes) in the Janeites group:

"This is well detected."

Thank you very much, Derrick! ;)

"Austen's use of the "bread of idleness" phrase is probably not just an allusion to Clarissa. I feel sure she was aware of its origins in the King James translation of Proverbs, and her own use of it is just as ironic as Richardson's."

Derrick, I see now that I inadvertently was ambiguous---let me now clarify. I was well aware that JA intended BOTH the Biblical AND the Richardsonian allusion! And that JA was as entirely ironic as Richardson was! The only point I was speculating about was whether there might be a SECOND Biblical Proverb allusion in MP in ADDITION to the Crawford heresy. --so, you see, you and I entirely agree on this point. ;)

As for the allusion to Richardson, there are a number of scholarly commentators who have commented before on the many striking parallels between the character and actions of Henry Crawford and Lovelace, and it has been obvious to many that this is one of JA's most complex, multifaceted, and thematically significant literary allusions. It is in that context that this double allusion by JA, that includes both Lovelace AND the Proverb, is (forgive my punning tic) the icing on that particular literary layer cake!

And for those who might argue, as I have seen, that JA was "unconscious" of alluding in this sophisticated covert way to the likes of Richardson and the Bible, but somehow inhaled the "trope", like a spore, as it wafted past, and then inavertently wrote the allusion while in some zombie-like trance---well, this Proverb allusion is Exhibit 1,000 in the daily growing mass of evidence that pretty much all such allusions were entirely conscious and elaborately orchestrated by JA. Yes, out of such a large number, surely a small minority of them could have been inadvertent....but not such a large army of allusions. As I have opined earlier, JA's imagination surely generated all these allusions, but her very solid faculty of reason and reflection then shaped the products of her imagination in a highly conscious way, as she dovetailed all her allusions together in a complex, gorgeous web.


"It is infused with a sense of Fanny as the female embodiment of Holy Wisdom. Ishru bederekh binah, Go in the way of understanding, Derrick "

And you too, my friend, and keep in mind, in regard to what you just said, and also in regard to Henry Crawford's planned assault on Fanny's virtue, that Proverbs 31:10 reads as follows in the King James Bible:

"Who can find a virtuous woman? for her [Fanny] PRICE is far above rubies." ;)

But putting aside the allusion to Lovelace for the moment, which does tentatively appear to be my own original discovery, I was just checking around to see which scholars have even noticed the Proverbs allusion in Henry Crawford's "bread of idleness'--very very few as it turns out.

As far as I can tell, it was first noticed by Wendy Craik in 1965, but with almost no discussion of same. Since then, almost NONE of the editions of MP with footnotes have a footnote for that allusion. Astounding.

What is genuinely funny is that in Jane Austen and Food, Maggie Lane refers to "bread" TWENTY THREE times, but here is all she has to say about Henry's "bread of idleness" at P. 149:

"In Mansfield Park, the characters even occasionally employ food metaphors themselves.....When [Henry] concocts his plan to make 'a small hole in Fanny Price's heart', he again uses metaphors of consumption. 'I do not like to eat the bread of idleness,' he tells Mary."

And Irene Collins, in Jane Austen and the Clergy, a 230-page book, never mentions Henry's line, and in fact never so much as suggests that JA might in any way have ever alluded to ANYTHING in the Bible in her writings!

Howard Babb quotes Henry, but does not realize it is a Biblical allusion, and merely refers to it as Henry putting his wit on parade.

In the same volume of essays in which Joseph Wiesenfarth describes Henry's reference to "bread in idleness" as a gallant wooer, Alistair Duckworth goes into detail about how the vulgar characters of JA's novels use proverbs as a crutch to conceal their ignorance. But nobody connects the dots.

David Holbrook quotes Henry, but purely in terms of Henry's moving fast to woo Fanny.

And similarly Reeta Sahney quotes Henry, but with no awareness of an allusion.

And Deborah Klenck notes the allusion in passing, as a satirical embellishment, in the most recent Persuasions Online, before moving on immediately to other matters.

There is one other published commentator I can find online, who may just have gotten close. Penny Gay, in her Jane Austen and the Theatre, footnotes Henry's "bread in idleness" ---but I can't access the footnote--does anyone have a copy of Gay's book? If so, it would be fn 4 to her quotation of Henry's line on p. 99. Why I suspect that Gay's footnote is a good one is that, on p. 101, she goes into a wonderful discussion of the parallels between Henry Crawford and Lovelace-what I wonder is whether it is possible that she could have seen those parallels and yet not have seen the allusion to Lovelace? When I see the footnote, I will know the answer to that mystery!

Aside from Gay, is it any wonder that so many of JA's secrets have remained secret for 200 years, when something as obviously significant as Henry Crawford talking about "the bread of idleness" has drawn so little attention, and, when it does, it is not given any indepth consideration?

Ironically, the best analysis of the allusion I have found prior to my own current one is not even in a book or an article--it's what the late June Shaw wrote in this Janeites group 10 years ago: "When he shifts his interest to Fanny he tells Mary he must not "eat the bread of idleness (MP 229). "He phrase is taken from Proverbs (31:27) where it is said of a virtuous woman, the good wife, "She looketh well to the ways of her household and eateth not the bread of idleness." The comic misapplication of scripture is clever, as he intend it, though our amusement is no doubt qualified by the kind of idle indulgence he is planning; it is more than a folly, as Mary calls it here, the same word she uses for his later sin." Mary and Henry cannot share our amusement because that virtuous woman of his proverb is going to become his desired good wife. As Tave says when Henry finds that the hole is in his heart, there is a twist upon twist here, because being caught in this way is the best thing that has ever happened to Henry. Caught himself, he will not catch her because she knows him too well."

Nancy, you and Anne can be genuinely proud that you have provided a venue where some of the most original and creative thinking about Jane Austen has occurred during the relatively short space of a decade.


And, as further evidence of JA's interest in that particular Biblical occurred to me as I was responding to you, above, Derrick, that JA must have also played ironically with that same Proverbial "bread of idleness", but from an entirely different angle, in yet another of her novels---EMMA!

In Emma, the bread is in a different oven, so to speak, because the allusion involves not a privileged man, but an unprivileged WOMAN--Jane Fairfax--and the irony turns on the muted, but unceasing and distinct, drumbeat of Miss Bates making sure that Highbury is aware (even if Emma is NOT listening) that Jane, as a woman without a fortune, did NOT have the luxury of idleness if she wished to avoid.........literal starvation!

"...Miss Campbell....was eligibly and happily settled, while Jane Fairfax had yet her BREAD to earn...........The aunt was as tiresome as ever...they had to listen to the description of exactly how little BREAD and butter she ate for breakfast, and how small a slice of mutton for dinner.........And it cannot be for the value of our custom now, for what is our consumption of BREAD, you know?"

Those with ears and minds wide open will hear what Miss Bates is really saying. But how many readers of the novel are swept up in the seductive wave of Emma's grotesque indifference to what is "tiresome" and fail to hear? The problem is not the trivial equivalent of the narcissistic injury Emma sustains while waiting for the Coles to invite her to the party she does not want to attend----Jane is not sitting around Miss Bates's walkup, waiting for a visit from a friend to gossip with---it's a matter of literal bread to eat---from a feminist point of view, Emma (and readers who identify closely with Emma) spends the entire novel merrily fiddling while Jane burns!

It is instructive sometimes to read along in a group read at a fansite like Republic of Pemberley, to see the reactions of first time readers of Emma--and not just the young naive readers, but also older ones who should know better--and to see how readily the readers embrace the narcissistic prejudices of Emma. And that is JA's main point--injustice persists in society in a pyramidal fashion, with a handful of genuine conscious tyrants running the show, and a mass of naive, inattentive beneficiaries of privilege who never notice the injustice to others, and therefore never remedy the injustice, because, for all they can see, everything is just fine as it is.

But JA, via Miss Bates, is echoing Hillel: "If not now, when?" Perhaps if Emma is not careful, she will wake up one day and find herself buried under a pile of young children, and with a husband who has taken all her money to pay for the improvement of his estate.

And, speaking of a pile of young children, the poignancy of Miss Bates's cryptic koans about Janes' bread is DOUBLED when you realize that in the shadow story, Miss Bates is also trying to tell us that there are TWO human beings (one born, one as yet unborn) who will starve if Jane does not eat enough bread during her (last) two trimesters in Highbury----or will she be confined to a diet of leftover wedding cake?

Anyway, thanks again, Derrick, for your interesting response!


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