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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Charlotte Bronte slipping a Ha-Ha past Henry Lewes

(c) Arnie Perlstein 2010

The question has been raised in Janeites and Austen-L as to whether JA's ribald sense of humor would have been accessible to the ordinary reader of her day.

On the subject of the sense of humor of JA, and of her readers, I give you, as Exhibit "A", the following paragraph from George Henry Lewes's famous 1859 essay about Jane Austen:

"We have known very remarkable people who cared little for [JA's] pictures of every-day life; and indeed it may be anticipated that those who have little sense of humor, or whose passionate and insurgent activities demand in art a reflection of their own emotions and struggles, will find little pleasure in such homely comedies. Currer Bell may be taken as a type of these. SHE WAS UTTERLY WITHOUT A SENSE OF HUMOR, and was by nature fervid and impetuous. In a letter published in her memoirs she writes,—"Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. . . . I had not read /Pride and Prejudice/ till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her elegant ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses." The critical reader will not fail to remark the almost contemptuous indifference to the art of truthful portrait-painting which this passage indicates; and he will understand, perhaps, how the writer of such a passage was herself incapable of drawing more than characteristics, even in her most successful efforts."

For those few of you who don't know, Currer Bell was the pen name of Charlotte Bronte, and George Henry Lewes was the significant other of George Eliot. So Lewes probably rates as the most interestingly situated Englishman of the 19th century in terms of his (very different) connections to three of the greatest female authors of the 19th century.

Generally speaking, I believe Lewes was spot-on in his diagnosis of a case of lack of full appreciation for JA's writing as being due, at least in part, to an utter lack of sense of humor. However, it's my personal opinion that Charlotte Bronte's sense of humor was too subtle and wicked for the earnest, straightforward Lewes to detect it, just as JA's ribald humor is too subtle and wicked for many of her readers to see it, or even believe it could be there. .

And as Exhibit "B" in regard to Bronte's sense of humor, I give you the very same passage that Lewes pointed to as evidence of Bronte's humorlessness:

"....a carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers..."

I would suggest to you that Charlotte Bronte chose those words VERY carefully, and that the gardens she refer to are the devil-infested, ha-ha'ed, fenced and gated garden of Eden at Sotherton, and the beehive kitchen garden of General Tilney, and the delicate flowers Bronte refers to include the flowers that the delicate Fanny suffers heat-stroke in the gathering thereof, and also the erotically supercharged hyacinth and rose of Henry Tilney's purple prosings.

So the last ha-ha seems to me to belong to Currer Bell aka Charlotte Bronte, and what a fitting tribute that oh-so-casual "garden" and "flowers" formulation was, a shadow tip of the hat by a great mistress of overt Romanticism to THE great mistress of shadow story Romanticism.

But, unlike JA's put-on of the toady James Stanier Clarke, my enjoyment in this joke does not include laughter at Lewes's expense, because it was he who, after all, stood tall and proud in defense of Jane Austen as the Queen of Literature, in 1859, when virtually the rest of literary England still believed JA to be the Princess of Ivory Inches. And anyway, I don't think Bronte was laughing at Lewes either, so much as that Bronte was not going to tell Lewes about the shadows Bronte had seen in Austen's writing, if he could not see them himself. He hadn't earned the truth from her.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: As a reminder to the serious literary scholar that you have to go to original sources whenever possible, one thing I find astounding is that while I have read various articles and book chapters where Bronte's famous reference to JA's "carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden" has been quoted or paraphrased, I can't recall ANY of those articles or chapters also alerting me to Lewes's claim that Bronte was "utterly without a sense of humor". There is a kind of over-scrupulousness in a lot of academic writing, where a kind of Bowdlerization seems the norm, as if it were unseemly for literary scholars to talk about Lewes taking a pointed potshot like that at Bronte. Such overscrupulousness impedes the path to insight and truth.

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