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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, May 24, 2010

A dear old Asp....go to the bottom together

“ …….any old pelisse, which you had seen lent about among half your acquaintance ever since you could remember, and which at last, on some very wet day, is lent to yourself. Ah! she was a dear old Asp to me. She did all that I wanted. I knew she would. I knew that we should either go to the bottom together….”

Way back in April, 2001, about 16 months before I first detected shadow story elements in JA's novels, I wrote the following comments (in Message 9141) in Janeites about the above passage from Persuasion:

"His account of his deep affection for his first command, the Asp, is, now that I think about it, an obvious parallel image of his feelings for Anne. Anne is indeed "old but unequalled" in his memory and heart! And one can imagine that in those first few years after leaving Anne under such painful circumstances, he'd have thrown all his heart and soul into the Asp, a substitute for the loss of Anne's love."

It took me till the Fall of 2008, however, to take the next step, and realize that this passage contained wordplay which, when Wentworth's comments are read in a different mode, i.e., as sarcastic, bitter, and very vulgar, rather than romantic, wistful, and nostalgic, has a very different meaning. I described that darker and decidely unpleasant meaning in my presentation at Chawton House in July 2009, and I will not specifically describe it here, beyond giving sufficient hints in the subject header for this message, which I think makes that alternate meaning crystal clear for those inclined to look for it.

So, in that context, Anielka's detection of the resonance of this passage in Persuasions to Lamentations is spot-on and very interesting, because it uncovers a whole additional third layer of congruent meaning. Indeed Anne is the "weeping widow" of Persuasion.

The Biblical resonance extends beyond the romantic relationship between Anne and Wentworth, it goes to the profound and traumatic sense of exile that Anne experienced when she had to leave Kellynch, her ancestral home. It is made clear in a hundred ways in the novel that Anne persists in lamenting the loss of the family's "Jerusalem", i.e., the exile of the Elliot family from Kellynch. Just as she has been lamenting the loss of her own personal "Jerusalem" (i.e., Wentworth himself) for so long (the Jews, in exile in Babylonia, lamented the loss of Jerusalem for nearly three centuries before they were allowed (by the Persians) to return to, and rebuild, Jerusalem.

And of course that metaphor turns Sir Walter's obsessive rereading of the Elliot ancestral lineage into a droll send-up of all the ancestral lineages in the Bible itself! He represents the kind of empty, mindless false piety which treats the inheritance of the homeland as a selfish prerogative, rather than as a sacred trust. Jeremiah (whom Richard Elliot Friedman persuasively argued was likely the author of Lamentations) bewailed the sins of the Jewish people which brought down God's wrath, via the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem around it.

Here is how Wikipedia describes the five poems (four of which, as Anielka surely also already knew, were acrostics on the Hebrew alphabet) which comprise the Biblical book of Jeremiah: "The book consists of five separate poems. In chapter 1 the prophet dwells on the manifold miseries oppressed by which the city sits as a solitary widow weeping sorely. In chapter 2 these miseries are described in connection with national sins and acts of God. Chapter 3 speaks of hope for the people of God. The chastisement would only be for their good; a better day would dawn for them. Chapter 4 laments the ruin and desolation that had come upon the city and temple, but traces it only to the people's sins. Chapter 5 is a prayer that Zion's reproach may be taken away in the repentance and recovery of the people."

And these two parallel themes of loss of homeland and loss of true love, both find an unexpected further validation in the cancelled chapters of Persuasion, in which (for those of you who have not read them) we read the following words spoken by Wentworth to Anne, on behalf of the Admiral and Mrs. Croft:

"It was very confidently said that Mr Elliot -- that everything was settled in the family for a union between Mr Elliot and yourself. It was added that you were to live at Kellynch -- that Kellynch was to be given up. This the Admiral knew could not be correct. But it occurred to him that it might be the /wish/ of the parties. And my commission from him, Madam, is to say, that if the family wish is such, his lease of Kellynch shall be cancelled, and he and my sister will provide themselves with another home, without imagining themselves to be doing anything which under similar circumstances would not be done for /them/."

In effect, the Admiral (who, as Jim Heldman first pointed out 22 years ago in an article in Persuasions, is playing matchmaker for Anne and Wentworth even more heavy handedly than Emma ever did with Harriet and Mr. Elton) is telling Anne, in so many words, that SHE can have "Jerusalem", i.e., Kellynch, back, if she wants it. But of course the Admiral (and of course Mrs. Croft, who is probably the driving force behind her husband's matchmaking efforts) really does know that Anne is not at all interested in Mr. Elliot. The Admiral and his wife are acutely aware that in giving Wentworth this errand, they are setting the stage for Anne and Wentworth to instead recognize that they still love each other, and will both choose to return to their own private "Jerusalem", i.e., their own rekindled love for each other, which is not about a physical place at all, but a spiritual and romantic one.

And...I also point out that Mrs. Bennet is described as pouring forth lamentations on more than one occasion, which of course fits perfectly with her own cause celebre, which is the permanent exile from Longbourne which the Bennet women will suffer when Mr. Bennet dies.

And of course, the deepest layer of this onion is Jane Austen herself, who must have experienced the family's move from Steventon to Bath as an exile of Biblical proportions, but who, in reverse, must have experienced the move to Chawton Cottage as a return to "Jerusalem", one which gave her the strength of purpose and renewed vitality to complete 6 novels, and then either publish, or get ready to publish, those 6 novels, in a mere 7 years. Just as the Hebrew Bible was redacted and codified into its existing final form by Ezra and Nehemiah shortly after the return to Jerusalem in the third century BCE.

So, well done, Anielka, this adds to my previous conviction that JA knew her Bible really really well, but chose to make all her allusions to her subtle and covert, to be visible only to those who read its words very carefully.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I realized there was a bit more to the metaphor of the Biblical Jerusalem echoing through Persuasion.

To wit---it's not just Kellynch which represents Jerusalem, it's also Bath--in a way, they both represents the sinful PRE-destruction Jerusalem. The spiritually empty social rituals of Sir Walter and the Dalrymples, the false tongues of Cousin Elliot and Mrs. Clay, these are all part of the moral decay which JA saw all around her, and which she saw as a cancer eroding the spirit and soul of the English nation. Just as Mansfield Park is a stinging condemnation of the hypocrisy of all the powerful men who ran England, both those from the big city and those from the countryside, Persuasion can also be seen in a similar light. Who is worse, Sir Walter (the sinful past) or Cousin Elliot (the sinful future)? --Jane Austen is a kind of latter-day female Jeremiah, covertly bewailing these events, fearful of "progress" which did not address the needs of the poor, sick, and weak, but which (as in the Who song, We Don't Get Fooled Again) will merely be a repetition of domination by powerful, rich men over everybody else, albeit with a different "face"---Sir Walter spends all his time looking in mirrors, and yet he never sees his own true ugliness--a harbinger of Dorian Gray.

And, in reverse, we see Anne's authentically Christian sympathy with the poor and the sick, as symbolized by her defiant insistence on maintaining her friendship with Mrs. Smith, culminating in Wentworth's assisting Mrs. Smith to reclaim her inheritance from her deceased husband.

Maybe that's why, in the end of the day, Anne rejects both Kellynch AND Bath, and goes off to sea with Wentworth, like a female Jonah (and here we have the whale or leviathan appearing again in JA's imaginative cosmos), who, like Jeremiah, preaches, unheeded, to the sinful folk of another large city, Nineveh.

JA did not need to quote the Bible, her novels themselves are a kind of female-centered Bible, one which provides desperately needed moral guidance and sustenance to its readers, especially its 19th century English female readers.

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