(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jane Austen did not suffer fools gladly

A few weeks ago, there was a thread of discussion about JA's attitude toward the Anglican church. This post sheds fresh light on that subject, in a very surprising way. The "punch line" is near the end, so I hope you will stick with me as I build toward it in a logical progression.

It is a cliché of Austen biography that Jane Austen did not suffer fools gladly—that comment appears in well over a dozen different biographies. Even I wrote the following in Janeites way back on 7/20/06:

“I think JA would have figured out, over time, how to situate herself to best advantage, and to not oblige herself to suffer fools like Clarke, but rather to put herself in close connection with other creators.”

When I wrote that, I was referring of course, to the series of letters exchanged by JA and the Prince Regent’s librarian and chaplain, James Stanier Clarke, beginning in late 1815 and fittingly ending on April 1 (April Fool’s Day), 1816.

It was in late 1815 when JA wrote the following passage in Letter 132(D) to Clarke, responding to Clarke’s absurd request that JA write a picaresque novel to celebrate the Royal Family, with—what else?-- a clergyman as the heroic protagonist.

I just realized something amazing about this passage, which raises its satirical stakes dramatically, and I will now explain my discovery, by “translating”JA’s words, phrase by phrase, to bring out every ounce of barely concealed satire hidden two inches under the mock-modest surface:

“I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th. But I assure you I am not….. “

Translation: Although she pretends to say that she is not a good enough writer to accomplish such a feat of literary legerdemain, she actually is saying that she is not honoured by his request! I.e., it is no honour to a writer of serious artistic fiction to be seen by a fool like Clarke as a vehicle to further HIS toadying with the PR! And the further irony is that JA then proceeds to use these very letters she writes to Clarke, as themselves literary depictions of his true character--she “draws” Clarke as SHE sees him, not as he wishes to be drawn! And as we see, she does not draw him too “tall”, that is for sure!

“…The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary…”

In other words, she could generate high comedy by mercilessly mocking a morally suspect clergyman like Clarke, but could never, in good conscience, show him to be good, enthusiastic or literary, because in her opinion, Clarke is none of those things!

“…Such a man's conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing…”

First, we are reminded of Lizzy’s head-shaking assessments of Wickham after her eyes are opened to his true character: “How is SUCH A MAN to be worked on?....Yet he is SUCH A MAN!" And then we consider what we now know, which is that such statement by JA is, factually, completely a lie, because she was very interested in, and knowledgeable about, many aspects of science and philosophy, most especially epistemology!

“…or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother-tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving….”

And that is a strong clue that this very letter is itself occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman like herself, who has actually read encyclopedically, was totally able to provide!

“…A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman…”

There is a pun in the phrase “do any justice to”, which superficially appears to mean “be sufficiently complete to capture all the wonderfulness of such a clergyman”, but which covertly refers to punishment for wrongdoing, in the sense of bringing a criminal to justice. Which is a pun JA exploited in Emma where I claim that the shadow Isabella is an angry wife, who, when speaking about Emma’s portrait of her cheating husband John--"Yes, it was a little like -- but to be sure it did not do him justice."—as in, it did not give him his just deserts. And Clarke’s just deserts, as a hypocritical man of God, indeed can only be properly—and safely— skewered with covert “classical” allusions, which term could easily be stretched to include a Biblical allusion, which is what comes next….

“…and I think I/ may boast myself/ to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”

First, “with all possible vanity” means, in effect, with ALL puns intended, so JA undercuts her mock modesty with an overt acknowledgment that she is actually being vain in making a secret boast in her letter!

Second, and more important, though, this is itself an allusive attack on all that Clarke is and represents, the Biblical coup de grace which JA delivers, the Biblical joke which Clarke never “gets”. Even though I always recognized that JA thought precisely the opposite about her own erudition and knowledge, I, myself NOT being especially learned in the Christian Scriptures, never got that joke either until Google helped me get it!.

I only found it out today entirely by accident, when I searched online for the text of that paragraph in Letter 132(D), so that I could quote it correctly and in full. As a lazy Googler, I quickly judged that the phrase “I may boast myself “ was sufficiently unique to allow the full text of that letter to come up as one of the top Google hits.

But it didn’t—it actually was the 29^th hit, and the reason was that the following passage from 2 Corinthians 11:16-20 very serendipitously hogged the first 28 hits!:

[King James Bible] I say again, LET NO MAN THINK ME A FOOL; if otherwise, yet as a fool receive me, that I MAY BOAST MYSELF a little. That which I speak, I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also. For ye SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY, seeing ye yourselves are wise

Just as Mary Bennet, JA’s alter ego, shows her extensive knowledge-at-her-fingertips of the Bible and its allusive power in English literature with her “olive-branch” comment about another foolish clergyman, Mr. Collins, Letter 132(D) is the bookend to JA’s later April 1 (April Fools) letter to Clarke, which (as I demonstrated a while back in a message to these groups) ALSO has a secret Corinthians allusion that also mocks Clarke as a fool.

Which tells us that JA really had it in for morally corrupt clergy, not because she hated religion , but precisely because she saw how few of the Anglican clergy actually lived the ideals of Jesus, but instead, as was the case with Mr. Collins, Dr. Grant, and Mr. Elton, they all “gloried after the flesh”.

And her mock self-deprecation in Letter 132(D) is also obviously a deliberate echo of her own blatantly obvious faux self-deprecation in her dedication of her own wicked History of England, which presented a Monty Pythonesque view of a succession of English monarchs and their significant others—a tradition JA had just taken to an Olympian level in her skewering of the current Prince Regent—the very man Clarke wished to suck up to--- in Emma.

And I close by pointing out that JA deployed this same allusion to this passage in Corinthians in S&S when she has the drunken, foolish and flesh-glorifying Willoughby say to Elinor:

“Tell me honestly," a deeper glow overspreading his cheeks, "do you THINK ME me most a knave or A FOOL?"

And JA also recalled that a decade earlier she had already punned on this phrase “suffering fools gladly” from Corinthians not once but TWICE in The Watsons, by having both Mr. Edwards and Emma Watson’s brother Robert caustically dismiss Emma’s aunt as a fool, for squandering her inheritance from her deceased husband and using it to run off with a young Irishman, and then also having them refer to the suffering which may, or may not, ensue from such foolish behavior:

When an old lady plays the FOOL, it is not in the course of nature that she should SUFFER from it many years."….

I hope the old woman will smart for it." "Do not speak disrespectfully of her; she was very good to me, and if she has made an imprudent choice, she will SUFFER more from it herself than I can possibly do." "I do not mean to distress you, but you know everybody must think her an old FOOL…”

The one thing that is clear from all of the above is that JA did not suffer fools gladly—but she gladly took the opportunity to exploit their foolishness to the top of her considerable bent for satire!

Cheers, Arnie

Monday, August 30, 2010

McCullough's The Independence of Mary Bennet

I have mentioned McCullough's The Independence of Mary Bennet in passing a couple of times, but now that I have assimilated the significance of my recent findings regarding Mary Bennet's role in the shadow story of P&P, I wanted to clarify what I think about McCullough's novel.

First, I don't particularly like her writing style,and I don't find her sense of character particularly interesting. And I gather from reviews I've read that her attention to historical details was not first rate.

However....despite those rather significant drawbacks, I wish to give credit where credit is due, and in this case, a great deal is due--because it is now 100% clear to me that Jane Austen herself intended for Mary Bennet's character to have a distinct shadow, which, when a light is shone on it, reveals her to be pretty much the character whom McCullough depicts--an ardent feminist and advocate for the poor and downtrodden, a true alter ego, in several ways, for Jane Austen herself. And that bis, in my eyes, a big deal. That is the shadow Mary Bennet. ways I will explain in my book, understanding the character of the shadow Mary Bennet also helped me confirm that another apparently crazy alteration made by McCullough, showing the Bingley family's wealth as being derived from a Jamaican slave plantation, is anything but crazy, but has been distinctly pointed to by JA.

And finally McCullough's depiction of Darcy as a politically ambitious jerk, and his more complicated relationship with Wickham, are also consistent with the shadow story of the novel as I have excavated it.

So, it seems to me that McCullough's primary motivation in writing her novel was to pay homage to JA's actual intentions. From my point of view, she only partially succeeded, because she gets certain parts of the shadow story wrong, but I applaud her attempt nonetheless.


The Most Accomplished Girl in the Neighbourhood

I will now give my opinion regarding the identity of the character who mentions to Miss Bingley that Mary Bennet was “the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood.” in the following passage:

“The evening altogether passed off pleasantly to the whole family. Mrs. Bennet had seen her eldest daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. Mr. Bingley had danced with her twice, and she had been distinguished by his sisters. Jane was as much gratified by this as her mother could be, though in a quieter way. Elizabeth felt Jane's pleasure. Mary had heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood..."

It is my opinion that JA deliberately wrote this passage so as to raise this question in the minds of her readers, and that she provided evidence elsewhere in the novel which support not one, but several possible speakers.

The preferred choice of those who responded to me in these groups is Sir William Lucas, and he certainly is a plausible choice. What comes to mind as evidence supporting the claim that he would be highly complimentary of Mary Bennet is what he says to Mr. Darcy when he spots Lizzy nearby during the soiree at Lucas Lodge:

“ must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you. “

Sir William certainly knows his way around a compliment, especially to a young lady, and he seems to be amiably disposed toward the Bennet family, so it would be at first glance be totally plausible for him to have spoken so highly of Mary in this way.

It is also interesting to think about Sir William having a conversation with Miss Bingley, because my first thought would be that Caroline would have no desire to speak to him, but that he might have cornered her, the way he corners Darcy in that later chapter, in trying to prove to these sophisticated visitors that Meryton is not the primitive backwater they might think it to be. So it does “fit” the situation.

However, he is not the only character whose situation fits. Someone else suggested Mr. Bingley, and he too appears to be a man who, like Sir William, shows, on numerous occasions, a great and spontaneous willingness to be very vocal in compliment other people for their talents and skills. That is Bingley's primary characteristic. And, having already begun to fall for Jane, he would have extra motivation to speak well (especially to his snobbish sister) of the Bennet family, wishing to paint them in a very favorable light, to earn her approval of his interest in Jane. So, to me, he is equally as likely to have spoken those words as Sir William.

But don't forget Mrs. Bennet. I don't need to say how much of a cheerleader she is for her daughters in courtship settings. And she might be thinking that since (as John Thorpe tells us) one wedding leads to another, Jane's budding romance with Bingley might be the catalyst for other Bennet girl romances—and we know she is a firm believer that God helps those who help themselves. And we also know that Mrs. Bennet is not someone to be intimidated—Lizzy resembles her mother in getting her back up when treated in a dismissive way. So for all these reasons, Miss Bingley would be exactly the person whom Mrs. Bennet would speak to in a defiant way, exactly the way she will later confront Darcy about the merits of the people in her neighborhood.

To those who might respond that Mrs. Bennet would not necessarily want to lead cheers for Mary, who is not one of her favorites, Lydia and Jane), and who is in fact Mrs. Bennet's diametric opposite in female personality, I point out that the narrator tells us, right after Charlotte snares Mr. Collins, that Mrs. Bennet had recalibrated her matchmaking after Lizzy rejected Collins's proposal, and was all set to push Mary in his direction, when she got the bad news that she was already too late. So that pretty much disposes of that objection—Mrs. Bennet keeps her eyes on the prize for each of her daughters.

And Mrs. Bennet is also shrewd, and could have realized that Caroline herself is a connoisseur of female accomplishment, as we will hear a few chapters later: “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word;”

If Caroline has heard anything about Mary, it would be clear that Mary indeed has a “thorough knowledge of music”. So Mrs. Bennet could be “selling” the Bennet family to Caroline, so that Caroline will not throw a monkey wrench in the gears between Bingley and Jane.

So I claim that, based on the above, any of the above three characters could be the unnamed speaker. But I also had in mind a FOURTH character, who, I would suggest, is ALSO plausible, if unexpected-- and that would be Mr. Darcy himself!

Sounds crazy? Well, consider what he says at Netherfield only a few chapters later, on the subject of the truly accomplished woman, in response to Caroline Bingley's checklist of attributes:

“All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

If you read the novel closely, and don't fly by the sporadic and very brief appearances of Mary Bennet in the spotlight, you will see that JA goes to extraordinarily great pains throughout the novel to point out how intensely Mary is committed to her own ongoing reading career. And it is precisely this attribute that Darcy places at the top of HIS list, calling it “more substantial”. I claim this is not in any way a coincidence!

So I could readily imagine Darcy, if he were made aware of Mary's passionate commitment to extensive reading, might be genuinely surprised, in a positive way, as he gazes contemptuously around the room, to learn that there was an autodidact in his midst, a young woman who wore her learning on her sleeve, a young woman who feels pride in her own accomplishment. A young woman who was strangely similar to HIMSELF!

And in regard to pride, note also the uncanny echoing between Mary and Darcy regarding the fine line between vanity and pride. If they each knew the other's opinion, I am sure they would both be thinking “Great minds think alike”!

So, in conclusion, I claim that JA deliberately created this ambiguity, and gave those of her readers who might have wondered (and I suspect that most Janeite have NEVER wondered about this) multiple plausible choices for who they think was overheard by Mary. Why? For a variety of reasons, but one of which surely is the pervasive theme of the novel,which is the likelihood that “first impressions” are likely to be either incorrect and/or incomplete. But also, I assert, to draw a strange but subliminal connection between Darcy and Mary.

Cheers, ARNIE

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A book was produced

In exactly the same spirit as the question Shoshi posed two days ago as to the identity of the unnamed girl who whispers in Lizzy's ear during the serving of tea and coffee at Longbourn in Chapter 54--whom I claim to be none other than Mary Bennet, for the reasons I spelled out in detail in my last message on that subject---- I have found the exact bookend to that scene, when ANOTHER unnamed person performs another key action during tea-time at Longbourne, way back in Chapter 14, in reaction to the presence of yet another suitor for the hand of a Bennet girl, which suitor is also the guest of honor (this sort of clustered symmetry is never accidental in JA's novels). As far as I can tell, just as with the Mysterious Whisperer, the Mysterious Book Producer has never been identified previously by any Janeite--nor, as with the former, has the question ever even been asked, prior to Shoshi's posing the question the other day, and my posing this question now.

Of course I am referring to Mr. Collins's first visit to Longbourn. You will all readily recall that after dinner, a memorable moment occurs when Mr. Bennet, practically licking his chops in eager anticipation of a priceless opportunity to laugh at something truly ridiculous, "invites" Mr. Collins "to read aloud to the ladies."

That is precisely when we then read the following:

Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce's Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with --"Do you know, mama, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town."

Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said --"I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin." END OF EXCERPT

Now, I claim that I have figured out the identity of the person who "produced", i.e, handed, the novel to Mr. Collins, and I also claim I can even tell you who the author of that novel was, and I can back up these claims with strong arguments! I have detected a variety of clues in the text of P&P which provided me with this answer, but I also drew upon allusions in the text of P&P to prior novels which I was previously aware of.

If you think about it, I bet some of you will come up with the answer I am fishing for--I will give till Friday at 1 pm EST for people to post any answers, including justifications for your answers, and then I promise I will post my answer, along with my argument in support thereof. Scout's honor. ;)


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Re-reading P&P: Mary Bennet the Good Satan of Longbourne

“Can it be Mary Bennet?”

Shoshi, if you read the message I wrote yesterday under the subject line “The Mysterious Whisperer”, you will see my first shot at the argument that the most likely interpretation is that the Mysterious Whisperer is indeed Mary Bennet, impersonating the voice of her mother, seeking, not once but twice, to prevent Lizzy and Darcy from connecting.

In that earlier message, I ascribed to Mary the Harriet Smith-like hubris of aspiring to attract the attention of Darcy for herself. I subsequently wrote a message under the subject line “The Mysterious Whisperer REDUX: Mrs. Long and her Nieces”, in which I explored the alternative possibility of the whisperer being one of those nieces, but then I still preferred Mary Bennet.

Later last night, I looked still further at this very interesting question, and now I am still convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the whisperer IS Mary Bennet.

The reason I am so utterly convinced is that I now see a much more powerful, plausible, and interesting motivation for Mary to intervene twice (actually, thrice, if you include my guess that Mary makes the fourth for the whist table with her mother, Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Long) so as to prevent Lizzy and Darcy from connecting that entire evening—it is not that Mary wishes to snare Darcy for herself, but it is that Mary wishes to PROTECT her sister Lizzy from harm! It ties all the pieces of this little puzzle together in a very satisfying whole—please read on and see the convergent strands of evidence which support this interpretation.

First, recall the advice that Mary whispers (again, a hint that it is a coded message) to Lizzy several chapters earlier:

"Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."

Everybody always reads this as Mary being an insensitive prig, who is seizing upon the near-disaster for the Bennet family as an excuse to show off with some more intellectualized unfeeling moralistic spouting. If memory serves me right, in all the movie adaptations, we hear Mary declaim these comments loudly to everyone in the room, instead of depicting it correctly as a whisper for Lizzy’s ears only.

I am now suggesting that this is a profound error of translation of the novel text to the screen, because these words truly are directed by Mary solely at Lizzy! It is a revealing error of translation, though, because it shows that because Lizzy does not realize that this is a message for her ears only, so, too, the adaptors, and also pretty much all readers of the novel, have not realized it either!

But what if Mary really DOES get the full picture?! What if Mary means exactly what she says in that last sentence, and sees not only the great danger to which Lydia has recklessly exposed herself AND all her sisters, but also the great danger to which LIZZY may be exposing HERSELF if she is not guarded enough in HER behavior towards a man who is entirely undeserving of the love of a good woman.
After all, Lizzy has conveniently forgotten that SHE was the FIRST Bennet sister to fall under the spell of Wickham. And who knows how far her budding romance with Wickham might have advanced had Darcy not thrown in a monkey wrench in a variety of ways by scaring Wickham off from the ball at Lucas Lodge, which perhaps led Wickham to abandon his subtle wooing of Elizabeth and instead to accelerate his (ultimately failed) attempt to marry the heiress Miss King. Lizzy might well have been badly burned by Wickham.

And so I see that whispered comment at Longbourn as part and parcel of the same message. The key is to step outside the box, and think about the scene from MARY’s perspective, instead of Lizzy’s. Lizzy’s perspective (like Emma’s) can be so overpowering, because the reader is always so charmed by, and also so identified with, Lizzy. It prevents us from seeing a more objective view of what transpires around Lizzy, unless we consciously pull outselves out of Lizzy’s head and attempt to reconstruct what things look like to other characters. And that is especially true of Mary, because her point of view, of all the other characters in the book, is so consistently ignored, demeaned and ridiculed. Hers is the last point of view we are prompted to consider.

So, as Mary sees it, in the moment, here Darcy of all people has shown up unexpectedly, and lo and behold, Mary can observe with her own eyes and see that Lizzy is interested in Darcy. Lizzy is unaware of being observed, she is so focused like a laser beam on Darcy’s every move, that she does not realize that this can be observed. But surely Lizzy keeps glancing over at Darcy, and is trying, probably not very successfully, not to look agitated.

And as far as Mary has reason to be aware, Darcy is very rich and PROUD (Kitty reminds everyone of that, as she spies Darcy from the window), and is not a very nice guy…but he’s also very good looking. As the robot says in that old TV show---DANGER, DANGER, WARNING WARNING! Mary has read in her conduct books about the dangers to young women who are charmed by wealth and good looks. But much more important, Mary also KNOWS that Lizzy has been vulnerable before! And Mary also can recall Jane’s sad experiences, both as a young teen in London (surely Mrs. Bennet has repeated that tale over and over again, misguidedly trying to boost Jane’s stock in the marriage market). And Mary has also more recently had occasion to observe with her own eyes that Jane had been left high and dry by Bingley for many months, before Bingley mysteriously shows up again here and now. And Mary may also have observed (or overheard her sisters and her mother talking about) the friendship between Darcy and Bingley, and surely Mary is aware that Darcy is the “boss” in that friendship.

So perhaps Mary, being an analytical, observant person, who spends plenty of time alone playing music and reading, undistracted by flirtation, is coolly speculating that the only reason why Bingley has come back, is that Darcy wanted an excuse to come back and romance Lizzy-with no guarantee, once HE has “gotten what he wants”, that he, a super-rich man, will overlook Lizzy’s lack of a suitable dowry and actually propose marriage to her.

But Mary is pragmatic, and she saw how Lizzy ignored her whispered advice not so long before, and so she thinks fast and she realizes that this is the moment for a new tack, because there is no time to lose and she may only have this one chance to intervene. Mary observed how Charlotte Lucas “accidentally” swooped in and snared Collins, by audacious and quick action in the moment of truth.

Mary sees how Lizzy is so focused on Darcy, even as she pours coffee for the ladies, and therefore is oblivious to everyone else—it’s as if Lizzy is in a trance, and so Mary might have a rare opportunity to get her message across to Lizzy without Lizzy realizing it is Mary delivering it. And so Mary seizes the moment and adopts a completely different style of speaking than her normal sententious one. Unlike Fanny Price who refuses to perform, Mary improvises and adopts the role of an Isabella Thorpe, and attempts to quietly convey to Lizzy, in the guise of coquetry, a strong message of female solidarity as an alternative to being seduced by a man’s charms.
Mary whispers also because she knows very well that if anybody else (such as Kitty, who often says aloud what others are thinking but don’t want to say) hears her speaking in so out of character a manner, they would surely comment on it, and Lizzy might snap out of her trance and perceive Mary as meddling, and therefore reject the message.

In one sense, Mary succeeds, because Lizzy never notices that it is Mary who is speaking to her. THAT is why the Mysterious Whisperer is never named—because we are in Lizzy’s head, and Lizzy never notices!

But in the more important sense, Mary is UNSUCCESSFUL in her attempt, because Lizzy never stops focusing on Darcy, and in the end, she winds up with Darcy. And of course you will all say that it is a very good thing that Mary does not succeed, because it is the general consensus, obviously, that Darcy is a worthy man for Lizzy.

Before concluding, one more very important point. I just realized as I was writing this message that this scene is JA’s masterfully sly rewrite of the most famous scene in Paradise Lost, when Satan whispers in Eve’s ear while Eve is asleep, tempting Eve (successfully) to take a bite of the apple. JA has turned Milton topsy turvy. Mary here is a GOOD FEMALE Satan in Milton’s Garden, whispering a message of female solidarity in Lizzy’s (Eve’s) ear, as Lizzy is “asleep” to the danger posed by Darcy, as Mary tries to divert her vulnerable sister from falling prey to a seductive man. Ironically, Mary tries to convey “knowledge” to Lizzy, but Lizzy does NOT take a bite.

Mary Bennet as a well-intentioned Satan—how cool is that! Isn’t it so that Milton’s Satan has the power to assume a pleasing shape, and to alter his appearance and voice in order to tempt his victims? Here we have JA’s corrective of Milton’s sexism, showing how women can stand together and help each other resist dangerous temptations!

And before going further, apropos my claim that Mary mimicks her mother’s voice, I also noticed last night that Mary’s mimicry is even more obvious than I had at first realized. Look at two statements that Mrs. Bennet makes, followed by the Mysterious Whisperer’s words, and pay attention to the words in ALL CAPS:
Mrs. Bennet in Chapter 40: For my part, I AM DETERMINED never to speak of it again to anybody.

Mrs. Bennet in Chapter 53: But, however, that SHAN’T prevent my asking him to dine here, I AM DETERMINED. We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon.
The Mysterious Whisperer in Chapter 54: THE MEN SHAN’T come and part us, I AM DETERMINED. We want none of them; do we?"

Isn’t that amazing??? And there’s even more strong textual evidence to support my interpretation from outside P&P as well. When Nancy wrote yesterday “That sentence sounds exactly like Isabel Thorpe of NA when she is pretending not to pay attention to the men and pretending she doesn't want the men or a man to notice her”, I would suggest that Nancy, who has a good ear for echoes, was responding to something real, without fully realizing the significance of that echo. Indeed, Isabella Thorpe is a female Satan who really does have bad intentions, as she masquerades under a false mask of female solidarity united against male abuse.

Look at the (highly intentional) echo of the phrase “the men” (which is one used by Mary the Mysterious Whisperer) in what Isabella says to Catherine not once but THREE times:

“I think her as BEAUTIFUL as an ANGEL, and I am so vexed with THE MEN for not admiring her!...THE MEN think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference….Now, if I were to hear anybody speak slightingly of you, I should fire up in a moment: but that is not at all likely, for you are just the kind of girl to be a great favourite with THE MEN."…THE MEN take notice of that sometimes, you know."…

Isabella is Satan trying to tempt Catherine to fall prey to her even more Satanic brother John Thorpe, and so it is no accident that Isabella refers to a “beautiful” “angel”!

And I conclude by pointing out that I checked, and learned that the words of the Mysterious Whisperer (aka Mary Bennet) HAVE been noticed by a handful of Austen scholars, and have been subject to some very interesting analysis by them, but (because none of them found the parallel passages I found, and none of them had any idea of a shadow story in P&P) they were unable to interpret what they had seen the way I have done in this message.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Mysterious Whisperer REDUX: Mrs. Long and her nieces

Even though it does not change my ultimate opinion, it occurred to me a short while ago that there were two other young women who could plausibly be the Mysterious Whisperer—I am referring to Mrs. Long’s two nieces.

Mrs. Bennet says that Mrs. Long will be a guest for the soiree at Longbourne, but, upon reflection, it is possible that Mrs. Bennet, who is not known for great clarity of speech, is thinking “Mrs. Long AND her two nieces”--but she just says “Mrs. Long” because she assumes that everyone listening to her will know that she means all three of them.

So, if that is so, that would mean that the original expected party of 13 would include two Goulding children, and the two nieces of Mrs. Long.

I also got a sense of Mrs. Long as a person for the first time—I do believe she is the Miss Bates of Meryton! She is either a widow, or never-married woman, who is also the aunt of two orphans, a person in dire straits economically, hence her having to hire a “taxi” to bring her to the Assembly. And it appears she has no “Mr. Knightley” in town watching out for her, no one who offers to bring her and her nieces in a carriage.

If this analogy holds, then either or even both of her nieces might be a Jane Fairfax—Mrs. Bennet may say in Chapter 54 that the nieces are “not at all handsome”, but I don’t buy it—Mrs. Bennet found them plenty threatening way back in Chapter 2!

How can Mrs. Long be like Miss Bates? I would suggest that this is all about point of view. In Emma, the narrative focus is Emma, who is obsessed with Jane Fairfax and who frequently sees Miss Bates. Whereas the narrative focus in P&P is Lizzy, who never sees Mrs. Long alone, and who apparently never sees Mrs. Long’s nieces.

Perhaps part of the reason Lizzy pays no attention to Mrs. Long’s nieces is that what we hear in Chapter 2 from Mrs. Bennet about Mrs. Long may be a favorite riff of Mrs. Bennet’s, she finds some relief from venting her spleen on Mrs. Long. If so, the Bennet girls have never been encouraged to befriend those two nieces of Mrs. Long.

All speculation, I grant, but plausible speculation which is faintly, but distinctly hinted at in the text.

So, is it possible then that one of Mrs. Long’s nieces is the Mysterious Whisperer? These two girls may well be in desperate straits, on the verge perhaps of being sent to be a governess somewhere far away.

Now, if Mrs. Long had KNOWN in advance that Darcy would be there, I might have believed that she could have urged one of her nieces, the better “candidate”, to seize the moment and get close to Darcy. And Mrs. Long would be shrewd enough to have observed Darcy and Lizzy at the Assembly, and to realize that there were sparks flying, but then would have heard nothing but bad things about Darcy from Mrs. Bennet ever since.

And actually part of the reason Mrs. Bennet bad mouths Darcy is because Mrs. Long made sure that Mrs. Bennet was aware that Mr. Darcy was less than attentive to Mrs. Long at the Assembly.

So Mrs. Long could have advised either or both of her nieces to be proactive and make sure Darcy and Lizzy did not have any chance to get comfortable with each other. And even if Lizzy is NOT particularly close to either of those nieces, that would not stop them from emulating Lucy Steele and in effect forcing their way into Lizzy’s personal space, in order to accomplish their goal.

It all adds up to a fair amount of “smoke”—however, on balance, I still find Mary Bennet more likely to be the Mysterious Whisperer, for all the reasons I listed in my earlier message.

All the same, I wanted to give the complete picture, as far as I can perceive it…or is there more that I am not seeing?

Cheers, ARNIE

The Mysterious Whisperer

Someone named Shoshi asked the following question in Janeites this morning:

“In Vol3 Ch12, there is a paragraph which describes Elizabeth`s urgent expectation for Darcy`s approaching. "The gentlemen came; and she thought he looked as if he would have answered her hopes; but, alas! the ladies had crowded round the table, where Miss Bennet was making tea, and Elizabeth pouring out the coffee, in so close a confederacy, that there was not a single vacancy near her, which would admit a chair. And on the gentlemen`s approaching, one of the girls moved closer than ever, and said, in a whisper, `The men shan`t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?`"
Is the "one of the girls" Jane Bennet? Why did Austen write in such an ambiguous tone?”

Shoshi, everything I know about JA tells me that this is a giant clue, and I commend you for spotting it. [And now that I have completed writing this message, I know that my hunch was correct—read on!]

First, it’s not only that we hear about “one of the girls” in the one passage you quoted. If we read a little further in that scene, we come to the following passage:

“[Lizzy] could think of nothing more to say; but if [Darcy] wished to converse with her, he might have better success. He stood by her, however, for some minutes in silence; and, at last, ON THE YOUNG LADY’S WHISPERING TO ELIZABETH AGAIN, he walked away.”

One mention of an anonymous whisperer could possibly be “filler”--- but two in the same scene, both of them involving a girl who does not speak but WHISPERS??? THAT’S a hint!

But how are we to make sense of this hint? I start by recalling the following famous passage in JA’s Letter, talking about the recently published P&P:

"There are a few Typical errors--& a 'said he' or a 'said she' would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear--but 'I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'"

JA is telling CEA that JA DELIBERATELY left the identity of the speaker of certain dialogue in the novel UNCLEAR, so as to prompt the reader not to be dull and passively skim by without asking the question.

And isn’t this passage exactly the kind of passage that JA wrote about to CEA? So, I claim that JA wanted her readers to do as Shoshi did, and seek to apply “ingenuity” to figure out who it could be, and to ask WHY JA might have deliberately left THAT passage unclear.

The first clue I see is that the unnamed girl knows Lizzy well enough so as to feel privileged to sit on the couch with Lizzy and Jane, and also to whisper to Lizzy, not once but twice.

I will get to the guest list in a moment, but first I checked to see if any female had, during the course of the novel, ever previously whispered to Lizzy.

I saw that Charlotte whispered to Lizzy---but it seems unlikely that she should be in Meryton, at that moment when she is expecting, and impossible that she should be there at Longbourn and Lizzy not be talking to her at length, and being mentioned by the narrator. No, that is not possible.

I also saw that Lydia whispered to Lizzy--but Lydia has only just left Longbourn with Wickham, so it is clearly not her.

So they are very UNpromising leads. No, I think the most promising candidate is the THIRD prior whisperer to Lizzy, whose whisperings we actually hear in Chapter 47, just after the news has arrived that Lydia and Wickham are to be married:

“As for MARY, she was mistress enough of herself to WHISPER to Elizabeth, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table -- "This is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation."

Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, "Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply. Mary, however, continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them.”

By the way, I had not realized before that Mary whispers these pious comments to Lizzy—is that how it has been portrayed in the film adaptations?

What is very significant, I believe, is that Mary’s whispering is not merely pious cant-there is an unmistakable positive message of female solidarity there as well—“the balm of sisterly consolation”. It just comes out in a smarmy unpleasant way, but Mary’s intentions are good.

Don’t Mary’s earlier whispered comments sound like the conduct book translation of “The men shan`t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?`" It’s almost like the identical statement, but in two different languages!

Speaking of different languages, I checked to see if anyone else in the novel had ever used the word “shan’t. The results are shocking, and very interesting indeed—“shan’t” is a word that appears a grand total of only EIGHT times in all of JA’s novels combined. I.e., extremely rare, and therefore of extra special interest.

In the other five novels, it is spoken once by Miss Bates (in her most famous line, at Box Hill), once by Mrs. Jennings (being pushy), and twice by Lucy Steele (being Lucy). This narrow group of speakers suggests to me that this was an old fashioned word that JA considered might be used by a woman who might have street smarts, but who had not refined her speech with extensive reading.

In P&P, that pattern continues. The word “shan’t” is spoken by Mrs. Bennet twice, and the last usage is by our mysterious whisperer.

Here is what Mrs. Bennet says, speaking to Mr. Bennet in Chapter 53—i.e., the immediately preceding chapter:

“"Well, all I know is, that it will be abominably rude if you do not wait on him. But, however, that SHAN'T prevent my asking him to dine here, I am determined. We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon. That will make thirteen with ourselves, so there will be just room at the table for him."

Of course, Mrs. Bennet cannot possibly be the whisperer, she could not in any way be one of “the girls”—but perhaps this is a clue that the whisperer IS one of the Bennet girls, because, after all, children learn to speak from their parents!

Is it possible that, in the aftermath of Mr. Collins marrying Charlotte, Mary has realized that she needs a new act, a new way of presenting herself in the world of courtship, and so Mary has been spending a lot of time with the Professor of Courtship, i.e., her mother, trying to learn to speak this new language? Even down to “dumbing down” her speech, using a word she, being very literate, would never ordinarily use? Mary spoke in Chapter 47 about the necessity of being “guarded” around untrustworthy men. Has she now awakened to the necessity of being “guarded” about her level of intelligence around men in general?

But some of you think I have jumped the gun in claiming Mary is the whisperer, and that I am forgetting the other Bennet sister whom I have not accounted for at all, i.e., Kitty? Kitty would seem to be a very likely person to say the word “shan’t” without a design to disguise a high level of literacy.

Kitty might seem like a possibility, because it is she who is the one who tells the family that she has spotted Darcy from the window in Chapter 53, when she says:

"There is a gentleman with [Bingley], mamma," said Kitty; "who can it be?,,, "La!" replied Kitty, "it looks just like that man that used to be with him before -- Mr. What's-his-name. That tall, proud man."

It does not sound to me like Kitty is enamored of Darcy, and so, even though Kitty would be very receptive to courtship by a handsome man, I just don’t get the feeling that she would suddenly turn around and see Darcy as marriage material for herself. She prefers a redcoat, right?

So, all things considered, I am still focused on Mary as the whisperer. But let’s now turn to the non-Bennets at the party.

It is strikingly noteworthy that one of the two places where Mrs. Bennet uses the word “shan’t” is in the single passage where we are told, by Mrs. Bennet, not only how many people will be there, but also WHO they will be:

Mr. & Mrs. Bennet (2)

Lizzy, Mary and Kitty (3)

Bingley (1) [note that Darcy is NOT expected among the 13 counted by Mrs. Bennet!]

Mrs. Long (1)

The Gouldings (?)

The Gouldings, we learned in Chapter 50, occupy Haye Park, which Mrs. Bennet considers to be grand enough for Bingley and Jane. We also know that families in JA’s time were large, especially as we know that the Gouldings have been married a while, as they have at least some young adult, but unmarried, children. We also know that there is at least one Goulding son—William, he one whom Lydia flashes her wedding ring at in Chapter 51 as he rides by in his curricle.

So if the Gouldings bring along 4 children, that would add up to 13. Mrs. Bennet has not mentioned any other invited guests, so it must be that they bring 4 children.

By the way, was 13 considered an unlucky number in JA’s day?

Assuming the Gouldings have some daughters, we hear absolutely nothing about any of them other than what I have written above, unless I have overlooked some other passage in the text which obliquely refers to them.

So, based on the above, we actually have a very limited choice--the whisperer is either one of the Goulding girls (with a tip of the hat to Betty White) or Mary Bennet or Kitty Bennet. The first option is not very interesting, because we have been told nothing about those girls, so it really is a dead end. The last option is possible, but also not very interesting….

However, if it is Mary, as I claim it is, then her whispering becomes extraordinarily interesting.

Look at the context? We have at least two single young men present who (as far as Mary is aware) are not attached—Mr. Darcy and William Goulding. And there may be another Goulding boy or two present as well. And we know that Mary was trying, in her own quite way, to get close to Mr. Collins before Charlotte, recognizing Mary as competition, swooped in and snatched him away from right under her nose.

So we are in a courtship situation—and how then to explain why Mary might choose to organize a playful confederacy of girls where no boys are allowed?

One possible explanation might be that Mary is new at this game and suddenly gets shy, and, panicking, wants to avoid the embarrassment of personal conversation with one of the young men.

But that’s where the SECOND whisper comes into play. The whisperer chooses to join Lizzy and Darcy standing off to the side , during an awkward silence, and to whisper to Lizzy, which prompts Darcy to walk away from Lizzy.

So, is this a rescue, by a tactful sister, spotting the awkwardness, and bailing Lizzy and Darcy out of their obvious discomfort? Or is this an invasion, by a female looking to make time with Darcy herself, intervening during the awkward silence precisely so as to prevent Lizzy and Darcy from overcoming the awkwardness?

Are we seeing a version of Harriet Smith aspiring to marry Mr. Knightley? That catches Emma completely by surprise, and I am sure that Lizzy would be astonished if she believed that Mary was trying to get close to Darcy!

And there is one more twist---as the party progresses, it is Mrs. Bennet who waylays Darcy for her whist table, thereby depriving Lizzy of any opportunity to speak in any sort of personal way with Darcy for the rest of the evening.

But we don’t hear who are the other two players at the whist table. Is it Mrs. Long, or Mr. or Mrs. Goulding? Or is it possible that one of the players is Mary??????

I think so. Why? Because in Chapter 16, we hear about another whist table, where we know the identity of three of the players—Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips, and Mr. Collins (who comically explains why he is playing)—but who is the fourth??? Judging from how I believe Mary tries to get close to Mr. Collins whenever she gets a chance, I think that it’s she, at both of these widely-separated whist games, and for the same reason—i.e., to get close to a man, and to show herself to best advantage, in a game that requires intelligence, and therefore gives Mary the chance for display of her assets to best advantage.

Which suggests to me to that Mary whispers twice to keep Lizzy and Darcy at a distance—and that she is doing this with the full encouragement and support of Mrs. Bennet! It would appear to me that Mrs. Bennet is quietly trying to promote a match between Darcy and Mary, and it never occurs to her that Lizzy is interested in Darcy, so she does not hesitate to push Mary to inject herself into the mix with Darcy and, in effect, shoulder Lizzy out of the way, whom they both think has no interest whatsoever in Darcy!

Now I will be curious to hear the cries and whispers that perhaps will be prompted by what I have suggested.

Thanks again, Shoshi, very much, for raising this extraordinarily interesting question.


Monday, August 23, 2010

One more time: the dribbling dart of love

This is a last, further revisiting of my earlier claim that the "new idea" that darts into Catherine Morland's head when Eleanor Tilney begins to tell Catherine about the mysterious evening visitor to Northanger Abbey, is not that Catherine fears that something bad has happened to Henry, but that, for whatever reason---whether his father's refusal to consent or Henry's own misgivings or uncertainties about the strength of his feelings for Catherine, or a combination of the two----she fears that the message from Woodston is that Henry is never going to ask her to "dance" the dance of marriage.

Terry argued that this cannot be so, because the narration he quoted indicates that, not long before that fateful evening, Catherine is feeling very confident that Henry WILL be requesting a "dance". Here, again, is the last narration we have prior to the fateful evening, describing Catherine's confidence level:

"The kindness, the earnestness of Eleanor’s manner in pressing her to stay, and Henry’s gratified look on being told that her stay was determined, were such sweet proofs of her importance with them, as left her only just so much solicitude as the human mind can never do comfortably without. She did — almost always — believe that Henry loved her, and quite always that his father and sister loved and even wished her to belong to them; and believing so far, her doubts and anxieties were merely sportive irritations."

My last answer was that Catherine was "protesting too much" in her own mind, and that her confidence was fragile.

Now I will add the following additional reasons which have occurred to me, which support my claim. First, Catherine, for all her naivete, is not a fool, and she knows that it's one thing for Henry to look gratified that she is going to stay on at the Abbey--that's cause for optimism--but it would be quite another thing for him to actually say it! Up till that moment, in fact, he has never given her a direct, unambiguous, heartfelt compliment or avowal of affection, it has always been indirect, intellectualized--sorta like that silly beer commercial where the guy just can't say "I love you", he stammers and hems and haws, beating around the bush.

But, the more important factor, which I had not stepped back far enough to realize, was that the arc of the second half of the novel is all about Catherine having her "certainties" challenged and overturned by the real world. And that is especially the case with respect to the romantic triangle with Isabella Thorpe at the fulcrum. The first blow to the edifice of Catherine's naive belief that people always mean what they say in the realm of romance comes when she receives James's letter which tells her that Isabella has jilted him--James warns her to take care that it does not happen to her. The second blow comes when she learns that Captain Tilney has hoist Isabella on her own petard, by jilting HER.

So, those two jilts are prologue to the moment when the visitor arrives that fateful evening at the Abbey. Catherine, ever the budding student of human nature, now observes her dear friend Eleanor looking pale as a ghost--is it any surprise that Catherine would now think, "I was sure that love was real between man and woman twice, and twice I was proved wrong. I've been trying to convince myself that it won't happen to me too, that my brother is wrong, but now I can see, from the look in my friend's eyes, that she has some terrible news for me--it must be that it's MY turn to be jilted!"

And here's the final link in the chain, a passage I had not paid close attention to, which describes Henry's reaction when he reads James's letter to Catherine in wihch the strong mutual attachment between Isabella and Captain Tilney is described:

"He gladly received the letter, and, having read it through, with close attention, returned it saying, “Well, if it is to be so, I can only say that I am sorry for it. Frederick will not be the first man who has chosen a wife with less sense than his family expected. I do not envy his situation, either as a lover or a son.”

Catherine listens to what Henry says very closely. And she hears that Henry does not envy Frederick's situation either as a lover or a son......Hmm.....what does this mean? As a lover---that seems to mean that Henry would not want to be romantically involved with a silly young woman--which is exactly what Henry made Catherine feel like a few chapters earlier, when he castigated her--and he has never explicitly backed off from that position, he has merely been nice to Catherine in a general way. So, she still has doubts that he respects her mind. a son, that seems to mean that Henry would not want to be romantically involved with a woman who was considered silly by his father, because, presumably, his father might just cut him off financially.

These are his actual words spoken to her. So, now we have the full context of what underlies Catherine's "new idea". Either the reader can think that all of this background is just window dressing, and instead conjure up a fear for Henry's physical well being out of thin air, with no textual basis, or the reader can take all this highly elaborate, nuanced textual background into full account, and connect the dots and follow the chain of inference I have outlined, and take JA seriously as a master of psychological realism on two rich inches of ivory. .

I find the intense psychological realism of the latter explanation compelling, and the insubstantiality of the former unsatisfying.


Jane Fairfax's Want of Openness

Apropos the passages Christy posted yesterday in Janeites from Flynn's article about JA's letters, in which Flynn made some excellent observations about Jane Fairfax, I took note today for the first time of something significant in the following statement by Mr. Knightley to Emma about Jane:

"Her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong -- and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-controul; but it wants openness."

I detect a subtle authorial irony hiding in plain sight in this statement. When you think about it, there is more than a whiff of male chauvinist cluelessness in that statement by Knightley, in that he praises Jane with three positive sounding words, which all depend on Jane's willingness to keep silent about things SHE may want, or think, or feel, but then does a 180 and criticizes her for a lack of openness. Sounds like a Catch-22 to me!
It shows Knightley's unacknowledged narcissism. He's basically saying, without a shred of self-awareness, that he thinks it's just great when Jane keeps her mouth shut and is not too demanding about things a man does not want to be bothered with, but, on the other hand, when there IS something about her that HE wants to know, well that same silence suddenly is a bad thing, and it irritates him that she keeps silent about IT!

Sorta like saying, about a security system for a house--it's really secure, it has a secondary alarm if the primary alarm fails, and it can distinguish between three kinds of intrusion,'s inconvenient for the owner to have to enter a long security code to get into his house!

A good definition of chutzpah!

And it connects directly to the wisecrack Knightley makes to Mrs. Weston, about her marriage to Mr. Weston:

"Yes," said he, smiling. "You are better placed _here_; very fit for a wife, but not at all for a governess. But you were preparing yourself to be an excellent wife all the time you were at Hartfield. You might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from _her_, on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid; and if Weston had asked me to recommend him a wife, I should certainly have named Miss Taylor." "Thank you. There will be very little merit in making a good wife to such a man as Mr. Weston." "Why, to own the truth, I am afraid you are rather thrown away...."

I think this was a case where Mrs. Weston showed great "forbearance, patience, self-controul" in not "openly" smacking Knightley upside the head for being such an MCP, and smiling while he's doing it! He may smile, but it's not funny, because he's really not joking, as is shown by his serious comment about Jane, and other actions he takes and things he says.

And I think JA herself struggled mightily throughout her life, chafing under the constraints that awful Catch 22 placed on her as a female author.

Cheers, ARNIE

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Music to my ears REPRISED

"The Tilneys called for her at the appointed time; and no new difficulty arising, no sudden recollection, no unexpected summons, no impertinent intrusion to disconcert their measures, my heroine was most unnaturally able to fulfil her engagement, though it was made with the hero himself."

Apropos my spotting of JA punning on the words "disconcert" and "discompose" as reflective of a musical or performance metaphor, I was surprised today to see that in my earlier word searching I had missed the same pun in the above sentence, which, in its charmingly breathless hyperbole can only be the over-the-top ironic tone of the narrator of Northanger Abbey. Indeed there was no impertinent intrusion to "disconcert" their "measures", and to "fulfil her engagement" "with the hero himself"--as Catherine and Henry take the next step on their tortuous path toward ultimately making beautiful "music" together in the "dance" of marriage.

That would be enough (to paraphrase the Passover song Dayenu) to satisfy the taste of the ordinary reader (such as Mr. Morland, who was, as JA's narrator tells us, "contented with a pun"). However, as I was writing finishing writing this message, I saw the additional touch which must please even the most demanding connoisseur of paranomosia--i.e., the phrase "most unnaturally", which carries several potential punning meanings, including the musical sense of a note (as depicted by a composer in the "measures" of his written score) which, if it is not "natural", must then be either "flat" nor "sharp".

And, speaking of notes, "How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal?"



Monday, August 16, 2010

Jane Austen's Christianity

This post is apropos of the discussion today in the Janeites group of how JA, in a letter written Sept. 2, 1814 to her almost-another-sister, Martha Lloyd, expressed passionate admiration for Benjamin West's painting "Christ Rejected", in particular the way Jesus was represented in the painting. JA did not specify what exactly it was that struck her so positively in that depiction, and I suggested earlier today that it was that Jesus was neither glamorized nor deified, but rather was shown in a human (and as Nancy Mayer suggested, almost a feminized) aspect, suffering not only the physical pain of a crown of thorns, but also the emotional suffering caused by the rejection of his message. I argued that JA identified with West's Jesus, and that JA would also have strongly approved of the depiction by West of a number of grieving, sympathetic women in the foreground of that painting, who feel for Jesus's suffering.

I am writing this message now, because I was just reminded, while looking at West's Jesus wearing that crown of thorns, of my discovery last September, that "crown of thorns" was a FOURTH answer to Mr. Elton's second charade in Chapter 9 of Emma. Here is my explication of that fourth answer:

That answer stands alongside three other answers given to date:

the official answer "courtship" given to Harriet by Emma in the novel;

the secret "Prince of Whales" answer discovered by Colleen Sheehan in February 2006, published in 2007, as to which the knowing Harriet actually gives Emma hints about in Harriet's "wrong" guesses; and

the secret "Leviathan" answer discovered by Anielka Briggs in Sept. 2009, which she gave hints about for a couple of days in these online groups, before I guessed the answer:

I was prompted by answering Anielka's puzzle, to go forward and discover the "crown of thorns" answer on the same day that Anielka revealed her discovery of the "Leviathan" answer.

I point all this out now because I think this is all directly connected to JA's being so positively struck by West's depiction of Jesus in that painting, because, among other reasons, it fit so uncannily with the shadow story of Emma, as reflected in all of of those four answers to Mr. Elton's second charade, taken as a group.Here is how they fit together.

LEVIATHAN is a character famously named in the Book of Job, and the characterization of the suffering Job in the Hebrew Bible is one of the key sources for the characterization of the suffering Jesus in the Christian Bible. And Jesus wears a CROWN OF THORNS, a symbol of suffering. Taken together, those two answers tell the reader who knows those answers to the "charade" in Chapter 9, that the "answer" or meaning of Emma (the novel) itself is about suffering.

That's where the other two answers come into play. The "PRINCE OF WHALES" refers of course to the Prince Regent, and we know very well about how JA felt about his notions of "COURTSHIP" (meaning both "wooing" and also "handling affairs of the royal court") vis a vis his unfortunate wife, Princess Caroline. We know very well that she hated the way he treated his wife, in his persistence in humiliating and debasing her publicly, abetted by his many toadies in the British government. We know this for certain because JA, in ANOTHER letter to Martha Lloyd, famously wrote some very caustic comments about the most powerful "gentleman" in England, which she then echoed unmistakably in the text of Emma itself: "I cannot forgive her".

And I see the suffering of both Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates in the shadow story of Emma as being part and parcel of all of the above.

And in that regard, it surely is also no coincidence then, that, per CEA, JA began writing Emma in January, 1814, and did not complete it until sometime in 1815---so the Sept. 2, 1814 letter to Martha Lloyd would have been written smack dab in the middle of JA's writing Emma!


Cheers, ARNIE

Saturday, August 14, 2010

P.S. re Mr. Allen's Glass of Water

In quick followup to the message I just sent:

First, I had completely forgotten about Mr. Price, whose aggressive, sexualized drunkenness darkens Fanny's tenure in Portsmouth. As with so many other issues of societal and even global import, once one allusion by JA is detected, it tends to lead to others scattered through all the novels.

Second, I had also completely forgotten writing the following message only four months ago in Janeites and Austen-L about a possible allusion by JA, via the theme of drunkenness, to the Prince Regent (a frequent satirical target in the shadows of JA's novels), via the character of John Thorpe:

"Walpole would appear to have written these lines in the papers in 1782, when the Prince of Whales was in his early prime of utter dissoluteness :

Drink like a Lord, and with him, if you will. Deep be the bumper: let no liquor spill; No daylight in the glass, though through the night You soak your senses till the morning light; Then stupid rise, and with the rising sun Drive the high car, a second Phaeton. Let these exploits your fertile wit evince; Drunk as a lord and happy as a prince.

Jane Austen, it seems to me, may be referring to "your fertile wit" in that same second charade in Chapter 9 of Emma when she writes the following:

Thy ready wit the word will soon supply, May its approval beam in that soft eye!

And the back-end anagram acrostic of "see sense" in that second charade may be an echo of the Prince soaking HIS senses in alcohol!

But it will take a more fertile wit than mine to demonstrate a connection between the Prince's Phaeton and the Phaeton John Thorpe
falsely attributes to the Tilneys:

"Not they indeed," cried Thorpe; "for, as we turned into Broad Street, I saw them -- does he not drive a phaeton with bright chestnuts?" END OF APRIL 2010 MESSAGE

Obviously, what I wrote earlier this morning can be seen as an extended gloss on, and entirely congruent with, the above satirical allusion. I am hard pressed to think of any theme that JA took the trouble to pun with, where she did not also find at least one, but often more than one, real life personage, either contemporary and/or historical, who shared a certain characteristic she was lampooning or skewering with that pun. This is a prime example.


Mr. Allen's Glass of Water: Cheers!

Yesterday, Alicia Alvarez posted the following in Austen-L in response to my challenge to find the pun in the passage in NA when Henry Tilney gets Catherine Morland really revved up during their carriage ride from Bath, about going to a real Abbey:

"I thought you were going to say "raising spirits" as in giving a toast, because of the proximity to the word "cordial"."

I had been looking for someone to pick up on the ghostly punny connection between "raising spirits" and "haunted", but was very pleased to be surprised by the possibility of a SECOND pun, having to do with "spirits" as alcoholic beverages, and so I replied thusly yesterday evening:

"Alicia, that never occurred to me, but I think you are onto something, although at first blush I can't think of what it might mean in terms of the story and/or themes of NA. We might also take a second look at the following: "Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and DROPS a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call."

The word "drops" suggests a drink, especially a cordial that would be sipped rather than swigged---and what does a domestic on call bring you? A drink! But....having said all that, the challenge is to figure out what it might mean, because if it doesn't mean something, it's just a pun, and I don't think JA was content with "mere quibbles". " END OF MY PREVIOUS POST

Now I woke up today thinking that JA never wasted a pun, and so I had to figure out the significance of what Alicia's sharp eye had caught. It occurred to me, after sleeping on the question, that it would be a very good idea to check to see whether there are explicit references to drinking alcoholic beverages in NA, and here is what I found in Chapter 3, describing Catherine's experience immediately after her first evening of dancing with Henry Tilney in Bath--it turns out to be the first link in a very elaborate chain of not-so-veiled allusory sendup of the drinking of alcohol consumption in NA:

"Whether she thought of him so much, WHILE SHE DRANK HER WARM WINE AND WATER, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him when there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman's love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her."

Now that is VERY interesting in terms of what Alicia picked up on, because there is a strong suggestion here (and elsewhere in the novel) of Catherine engaging in erotic slightly S&M-tinged dreaming "informed" by her Gothic reading, which fits perfectly with the very passage we've just been looking at with the pun on "spirits", when Henry actively inflames Catherine's gothic imagination still further.

So the wine and Henry's provocations seem to work hand in hand toward the common goal of getting Catherine "in the mood". How does the joke go? "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker!"

But that is not close to the only reference to alcohol consumption in NA. In Chapter 9, there is, if I am not mistaken, by far the MOST elaborate discussion of drinking in all of JA's novels. Catherine finds herself being driven around by John Thorpe in his gig, and is pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it feels (today, we might even say that Catherine, still the physically fearless country girl who played base ball, was enjoying the "buzz" or "high" of riding around in the open air in a briskly moving gig), when the following conversation ensues, which has previously often been noticed by scholarly and amateur Janeites alike not for its references to alcohol but for Thorpe's casual anti-Semitism.

But today, I invite you to consider how this passage might shed light upon the small mystery of "raising spirits", "drops", and "cordials":

A silence of several minutes succeeded their first short dialogue; it was broken by Thorpe’s saying very abruptly, “Old Allen is as rich as a Jew — is not he?” Catherine did not understand him — and he repeated his question, adding in explanation, “Old Allen, the man you are with.”

“Oh! Mr. Allen, you mean. Yes, I believe, he is very rich.”

“And no children at all?”

“No — not any.”

“A famous thing for his next heirs. He is your godfather, is not he?”

“My godfather! No.”

“But you are always very much with them.”

“Yes, very much.”

“Aye, that is what I meant. He seems a good kind of old fellow enough, and has lived very well in his time, I dare say; he is not gouty for nothing. Does he drink his bottle a day now?”

“His bottle a day! No. Why should you think of such a thing? He is a very temperate man, and you could not fancy him in liquor last night?”

“Lord help you! You women are always thinking of men’s being in liquor. Why, you do not suppose a man is overset by a bottle? I am sure of this — that if everybody was to drink their bottle a day, there would not be half the disorders in the world there are now. It would be a famous good thing for us all.”

“I cannot believe it.”

“Oh! Lord, it would be the saving of thousands. There is not the hundredth part of the wine consumed in this kingdom that there ought to be. Our foggy climate wants help.”

“And yet I have heard that there is a great deal of wine drunk in Oxford.”

“Oxford! There is no drinking at Oxford now, I assure you. Nobody drinks there. You would hardly meet with a man who goes beyond his four pints at the utmost. Now, for instance, it was reckoned a remarkable thing, at the last party in my rooms, that upon an average we cleared about five pints a head. It was looked upon as something out of the common way. Mine is famous good stuff, to be sure. You would not often meet with anything like it in Oxford — and that may account for it. But this will just give you a notion of the general rate of drinking there.”

“Yes, it does give a notion,” said Catherine warmly, “and that is, that you all drink a great deal more wine than I thought you did. However, I am sure James does not drink so much.”

This declaration brought on a loud and overpowering reply, of which no part was very distinct, except the frequent exclamations, amounting almost to oaths, which adorned it, and Catherine was left, when it ended, with rather a strengthened belief of there being a great deal of wine drunk in Oxford, and the same happy conviction of her brother’s comparative sobriety. END OF PASSAGE IN CHAPTER 9 OF NA

So, does this shed any light on how the drinking of alcohol in some way relates to the plot and characterizations in NA? It seems like an awful lot of words to devote to the drinking habits of Mr. Allen, John Thorpe and James Morland, and it does not seem at all accidental to me that the pun that Alicia noticed occurs in the one and only JA novel that contains such an elaborate discussion of drinking.


First I wonder now for the first time about John Thorpe's insinuations that Mr. Allen--"he is not gouty for nothing"--was a daily drinker of alcohol, and that's when I found the following passage in Chapter 10:

"But nothing of that kind occurred, no visitors appeared to delay them, and they all three set off in good time for the pump-room, where the ordinary course of events and conversation took place; Mr Allen, AFTER DRINKING HIS GLASS OF WATER, joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room."

Now, we do know that John Thorpe often gets carried away with his own "Gothic" fantasies about subjects like Catherine's alleged status as an heiress, and he also is the very soul and essence of macho exaggeration. And, surely if Thorpe himself drinks wine daily in sufficient quantities, this would fit very nicely with his frequent volubility, his grandiose boasting, his (very ironic) free and very liberal use of words relating to God (check it out, practically every sentence he utters contains some religious oath or another). And it also could give us cause for alarm with Catherine riding without a seat belt at high speed in his gig! And so it would make sense that Thorpe, who drinks to excess and tells himself he can hold his liquor, would have a strong motivation to want to see EVERYONE around him as also being out of control in regard to drinking--Freud calls it "projection", and JA understood that psychological mechanism very well indeed.

But can we be quite sure that Thorpe is wrong about Mr. Allen's drinking? When I read that passage in Chapter 10 about Mr. Allen drinking HIS glass of water, it has a distinctly proprietary sound, and shows an attachment and fondness for this daily habit. I wonder.....Sure, a gouty man would grow pretty attached to the curative water he drinks to help ease (or so he thinks at least) his gouty symptoms. But it's almost a Hollywood cliche to see the character with a drinking problem drinking "water" or some other innocuous sounding beverage from a flask they carry around with them. And doesn't frequent alcohol consumption aggravate gout?

And so if Mr. Allen were a closet alcoholic, he'd be very much concerned with impression management, especially with Catherine--he would not want her to get the idea, and he sees how naive and trusting she is--so what better "cover story" than to say he is drinking "water"! Suddenly, the darkly comic potential of Mr. Allen's personality come into focus--is he enough of a self-deluding rationalizer to lace his Bath water with booze? That would be positively Falstaffian! ;)


And I haven't yet gotten to James Morland. Catherine reassures herself not once but twice that however much the Oxford crowd drinks to excess, her brother James, who hews to the straight and narrow, surely does not! But again here, as in the scenes I was discussing a few days ago about Catherine's "new idea" about the "messenger from Woodston", I think the (young) lady doth protest too much once again.

It almost sounds like Catherine has (like Mrs. Norris) "made herself deaf" at the instant that Thorpe, probably slurring his words anyway because he's already pretty tipsy, tells Catherine about James's drinking at Oxford. She does not want to imagine her brother drinking to excess while away from home and pursuing his clerical studies. And yet, think about it--James is Thorpe's friend. And not just his friend--he has gotten seriously involved with Thorpe's sister! The picture begins to emerge of James, falling in with Thorpe's heavy drinking crowd, and then being "accidentally" introduced to Thorpe's sister---James at that moment would be putty in Isabella's scheming hands!

And that is not the last we hear in the novel about Isabella and alcohol. In Chapter 19 we read Henry Tilney's surprisingly gentle comforting of Catherine as he foretells the ending of the sad saga of Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe, after the Captain jilts her:

"The mess-room will drink Isabella Thorpe for a fortnight, and she will laugh with your brother over poor Tilney's passion for a month."

Catherine gratefully accepts the proffered comfort, but Henry (and we) know better regarding the future of Isabella and James as a couple, and surely JA intends the sharp irony of Isabella likely having ensnared James in the first place via alcohol-impairment, and then Isabella being hoist on her own petard, the destruction of all her hopes of ensnaring the heir of Northanger Abbey being toasted in a haze of cynical, misogynistic soldierly besottedness.

In conclusion, I can't prove any of the above, but I think I have made a pretty good prima facie case that JA has gone to a great deal of trouble to raise a reasonable doubt about Mr. Allen's, John Thorpe's, and James Morland's proclivities in regard to the consumption, whether overt or covert, of alcohol.

And so, I say, not one but THREE cheers (a salutation which itself takes on new meaning in this very special context) to Alicia, for "raising" MY "spirits" this morning!!!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Jane Austen's Punning

“And....there must be so many more throughout her canon and letters that you have yet to find!”

Christy, given that I have never stopped finding them during the nearly 6 years I have been intensively researching her writings (I have found nearly a thousand of them so far, and have only shared a small percentage of them publicly in these groups), I too think it likely there are many many more.

“It certainly makes me wonder why this endeavor into finding the puns of Austen was never pursued in the past and elaborated on.”

Needless to say, I’ve given that question a great deal of thought over the years, and here are my best explanations:


First, it is useful to compare JA’s way of deploying puns and wordplay with that of Shakespeare, whose writings she knew so well. Many (but by all means NOT all) of Shakespeare’s puns and wordplay are deliberately made blatant and made obvious to the audience. It seems that most people take them as comic relief, especially when in the tragedies and court histories, and do not expect them to carry any special thematic meaning. This is particularly the case with the fools, and with certain unique characters like Hamlet and Falstaff who almost cannot speak a sentence without a pun. I think they are very wrong, because Shakespeare, even in his blatant and outrageous puns, almost always had ulterior motives, in terms of slipping in thematic significance.

But in terms of blatantness, JA is quite different from Shakespeare—she almost never makes an obvious pun, she almost always sets them up with total deniability, so that in each individual instance, if you just take them at face value, you can almost always conclude, ‘Oh, it was just unconscious, or, if conscious, a trifle’. It’s only when you realize that there are a thousand of them scattered through her novels, that you realize, this could not possibly be unconscious, or a trifle.
Samuel Johnson, in what is to me one of the most outrageously WRONG and narcissistic pontifications in the history of literary criticism, wrote the following about Shakespeare’s puns, which were also called “quibbles” in his day:

“A quibble is to Shakspeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profluidity of his disquisitions, whether he be enlarging knowledge, or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchanting it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

Basically, Johnson did not get the joke, and blamed the jokester, instead of his own lack of insight.

It seems certain that JA was aware of the above pronouncement by Johnson. One thing I am certain of is that JA did NOT share Johnson’s low estimation of Shakespeare’s punning. But she knew of Johnson’s reputation and that, as a woman, her writing would be taken much less seriously than a man’s writing. So she probably made a mental note as a young adult that she would rise above the blatant punning and wordplay of her juvenilia and be much more subtle in her deployment of puns, precisely so that the Samuel Johnsons of the world would not condemn her own punning in this way.

Indeed, she could no more resist a pun than Shakespeare, but she went about her punning in a characteristically female way, i.e. covertly.


Again, Shakespeare is a touchstone for the second major reason why only a fraction of JA’s puns have been noticed by other scholars, and why I have apparently been the first to find so many of them. If you read the scholarly literature about Shakespeare, you find countless articles and book chapter which focus on particular words and clusters of words, and how Shakespeare uses wordplay thematically. Obviously, Johnson’s edict on Shakespeare’s puns has been laid by the wayside by mainstream Shakespeare literary critics, and so there has been an exhaustive, collective scholarly effort to excavate and explicate a large number of Shakespeare’s puns. There is a whole industry devoted to this effort, which continues apace.

Why? Because he’s Shakespeare, and he was the greatest writer, and he was a man, so everything he wrote has during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries been studied in enormous depth.

Compare that situation to the way JA’s writing has been approached by scholars. You can search high and low in the scholarly literature on her writing, as I have, and the number of papers which have focused on her usages of particular puns, wordplay, etc., make up only a small percentage of the aggregate of scholarly criticism of her work. I believe, pure and simple, it’s a kind of subconscious sexist dismissal, a sense that JA was not in Shakespeare’s league, and so was not worth delving so deeply into all of her arcana and small scale punning and wordplay.

Which is exactly the trap she set for her readers—she figured that if you come to her novels with no expectation that she would be doing anything ambitious or innovative as a writer, then she will give you the novel you expect. But she also took great pains to write so that if you come to her novels with large expectations that she would be doing daring and radically innovative writing, and was hiding stuff everywhere in plain sight, then THAT’s when her novels light up with puns and wordplay like Christmas trees.


The final reason why so many of these puns have been invisible is that detecting them is a specialized skill which requires a great deal of practice to perfect. Anyone who does NY Times crossword puzzles knows that you don’t just start doing the hardest puzzles (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) right away, you have to build up to doing them by starting with the Monday puzzles, and struggling to develop the ability to fill in the gaps in incomplete patterns. It’s a skill that takes time to develop, and then needs to be maintained (use it or lose it).

So, luckily for me, I happen to be a semi-worldclass crossword puzzle solver. When I competed in Will Shortz’s annual national tournament in 2007 after watching the movie Wordplay, I came in #300 out of 750 contestants. I was nowhere close to the level of the very best solvers (they leave me in the dust—and by the way, most of them are young adults), who can do, in 2 minutes, a hard puzzle that I can do in 15 minutes. But the average puzzle solver can’t even make a dent in the hard puzzles. There’s a wide range of ability out there.

Anyway, exactly the same skill is required in order to spot JA’s puns and wordplay. If you are someone who has never developed that skill, then they will be largely invisible to you as you read the text of the novels. But it is 100% certain that JA herself was a worldclass pattern spotter and puzzle solver.

I have spent the last 6 years working very hard to develop to a very high level, my own ability to spot and grasp the significance of, JA’s wordplay. It’s not an accident that I see them where others do not.

Now many Janeites will say, this is not a part of JA’s writing that makes her great. To which I reply, you are wrong, it is part and parcel of her overall greatness. In part, this is because I think JA was always making a very large point, which is that our world is one giant puzzle. To make sense of what is going on around us, we need to treat the world like a puzzle to be solved.

That’s why all her novels are obsessed with epistemology—how do we know what we know? How can be we be sure that what we think we see is real? First impressions, wrong guesses, mysteries—these are recurring themes in her novels because they are recurring themes in real life.

Cheers, ARNIE

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another Austen pun previously undetected.......

In Ch. 20 of Northanger Abbey, as they approach the Abbey, Henry Tilney begins his famous Gothic parody, deliberately provoking and inciting Catherine's already feverish Gothic imagination:

"Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call. With this parting cordial she curtsies off — you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you — and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock.”

Do you see the pun hiding in Henry's over the top narration?







"To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted...."

Everyone reads Henry's comment about "raising" Catherine's "spirits" as referring to raising her heart rate and anticipation, but it also reads equally well, when you think about it, as referring to the "raising" of "spirits", i.e., the conjuring up of ghosts!

And, again, to be sure the reader knows this is intentional, and not unconscious, JA gives us that extra wink--this time later in the same sentence---"undoubtedly haunted"!!

And also as with the "disconcerted" and "discomposed" puns in P&P and MP, this is not merely clever and very funny wordplay, it is also extremely thematic, when you consider that the ghost of Mrs. Tilney most definitely "haunts" Northanger Abbey, in the sense that painful and sad memories of her DO haunt Henry, Eleanor and even the General, too, and before long, the "ghost" haunts Catherine as well!

Cheers, ARNIE


[Followup to my earlier message "Music to my ears", responding to comments by Christy and Elissa in Janeites]:

Christy and Elissa,

I am deeply honored at the depth and breadth of your responses to my various imaginings and theories. That is all I could wish for in a Janeite reading my ideas and giving them not merely a fair shake, but a genuinely heartfelt and well-thought-out reaction.

Christy, first some quick reactions to your comments:

“Fascinating to all of us (Janeites), being held under the spell of her endearing and maddening ironies, ambiguities, and inconsistencies, she gave a brilliancy of life to her prosed players that brings her artistry to a collectively relate-able place that crosses the centuries; and this deeply long-lived appreciation will most likely continue as long as there are human worlds inhabited.”

Amen, sister!

“At least, for me, with regards to the puns and special inclusions of ironic contrasts coming from the old male literary masters of her learned-reading history, along with her abundant feminine-reading influences, I can certainly see that there are many connections....”

Christy, you are paying some serious dues, reading as widely and intensively as you are doing, and it is obvious to me that you are already reaping a huge payoff, as you spiral ever more deeply toward the center of the multi layered onion that is Jane Austen. I consider you to be on the same journey I am, and it does not DISCONCERT me in the slightest that you don’t agree with all I say, quite the contrary. ;)

“And would not have JA and her family very well have relished the playfulness of all of this with those double, triple and even quadruple meanings so often afforded to them because of this familial sharing of such exceptional intelligence and cleverness. “

Indeed! Although I do suspect that what her family initially treasured might in time have come to seem dangerous to some members of her family who might have come to realize that her relentless search for truth had led her to see her family in very complicated ways, mixing much bad with much good.

“And another thought on what has been considered and conversed on the "disconcerted"..... Even though it may be seen by some as a stretch, when one performs on a musical instrument, piano or harp, a budding artist's creative imagination might very well be often tempted in taking that necessary license for going beyond the ordinary perception of ones moment to moment performance; and feel themselves as if in a concert-especially if there is any kind of an audience.”

I LOVE your formulation, Christy, that beautifully extends what I started to elaborate myself in my discussion of the scene in MP when Henry Crawford starts riffing on Edmund’s future “performances” as a clergyman.

I will add that I reread Chapter 18 of P&P in its entirety yesterday, and I was very pleased to note (ha ha) that the theme of performance was pervasive in it, with Lizzy making the statement to Darcy about not speaking unless to amaze the room, a sentiment Darcy will echo in Ch. 31 in his equally famous statement about “not performing to strangers”.

And…(now segueing to reply to Elissa’s post riffing on the word “concert” which came in just as I was composing this message):

Yes, Elissa, your acute ear for metaphorical wordplay is spot-on in analyzing the word “concert” in its sense of two or more “performers” making “music” together, and it is clearly a meaning JA had in mind for poor Mary Bennet, whose fantasies of “playing in concert” with Mr. Collins have been dashed yet again by her cruel father.

I say “again” because I noticed yesterday for the first time that it is ALSO Mr. Bennet who, in Chapter 15, prods Mr. Collins to walk into Meryton with Lizzy, Kitty, Jane, and Lydia. Although the narration does not point it out, what he ALSO accomplishes by this action is to deprive Mary—who stayed behind at Longbourne, and surely spent some time in her father’s library looking at his books—of the opportunity of some relatively private time with Mr. Collins to discuss Fordyce and thorough bass.

So, twice in four chapters, Mr. Bennet is the driving force in sabotaging Mary’s chances with Mr. Collins. What an insensitive narcissitic jerk he can be sometimes!

And….I had a sly purpose in writing about “composing” this message, because I also found the following wonderful additional wordplay in P&P on this same theme of music and love, in that very same passage in Chapter 15 where we hear about Mr. Bennet’s getting rid of Mr. Collins:

“Lydia's intention of walking to Meryton was not forgotten; every sister except Mary agreed to go with her; and Mr. Collins was to attend them, at the request of Mr. Bennet, who was most anxious to get rid of him, and have his library to himself; for thither Mr. Collins had followed him after breakfast, and there he would continue, nominally engaged with one of the largest folios in the collection, but really talking to Mr. Bennet, with little cessation, of his house and garden at Hunsford. Such doings DISCOMPOSED Mr. Bennet exceedingly.”

So what this means, and surely this was deliberate on JA”s part, wordplay in stereo if you will, is that because Mr. Bennet was DISCOMPOSED by Mr. Collins in Chapter 15, he chose to DISCONCERT Mary in Chapter 18!

Cheers, Arnie

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Music to my ears

[The following is a short sequence of two posts I sent today to the usual online groups, the first setting the theme, the second exploring a variation on same]

[JA is Jane Austen, CEA is Cassandra Austen, MP is Mansfield Park, P&P is Pride and Prejudice]

For anyone who thinks Jane Austen was not obsessive in her punning.........take a look at this passage in P&P:

"[Mr. Bennet] took the hint, and when Mary had finished her second song, said aloud, "That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit."

Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted, and Elizabeth, sorry for her, and sorry for her father's speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good."

Now, when everybody reads those few sentences, we all smile at Mr. Bennet's droll sarcasm, and then perhaps some of us, like Elizabeth, feel a pang for Mary, because Mr. Bennet has indulged his sense of humor a bit too nastily, in his sly way.

But.....what I don't think many (or perhaps any?) Janeites have ever noticed before is the sly pun which lies hidden in the narration that follows Mr. Bennet's little announcement to the room. Can you see it, now that I am pointing you to it? I never noticed it myself till 10 minutes ago, and I am still chuckling, and marveling at how cleverly JA hid it in plain sight, and how I could possibly have not seen it before in the twenty or so times I have read that passage previously.

If you don't see it, and can’t/won’t persevere till you do, I will give you the answer down below, if you scroll down......





AND NOW.......

The pun is in the word "disconcerted"---not only was Mary "disconcerted" in the usual meaning of the word, i.e., thrown for a loop; she was also, literally “disconcerted”, in the sense of being prevented by Mr. Bennet from performing any more art songs, i.e., from giving the “concert” she wished to give!

If the word “disconcerted” had not existed in the English language before then, the word might even have seemed tailor made to the action taken by Mr. Bennet vis a vis Mary, sort of like when you read about a jouster being “unhorsed” by the lance of his jousting opponent.

Think it’s just unconscious and unintentional on JA’s part? Or you agree with me that it’s entirely intentional, and want to hear more about it?

Consider then a few extra bits of evidence:

In Letter 51 dated 2/20-22/07, JA recommends Mrs. Grant’s _Letters From The Mountains_ to CEA. I mention this because Google Books directed me to the following passage from one of Mrs. Grant’s letters, which I believe, for reasons which will be obvious when you read it, JA herself had a chuckle, and then decided to take what appears to me to be Mrs. Grant’s unconscious pun, and do her own (far superior and entirely conscious) version of that same pun:

“This music was both vocal and instrumental but no such voice, no such instrument, had I ever heard. Could I sit still when curiosity was so powerfully excited? Believe I did not, but, stealing down on tiptoe, beheld a great dark-browed highlander, sitting double over the fire, and playing. "Macgrigor na Ruara," on two trumps at once, while a nymph, half hidden amongst her heavy locks, was pacing backwards, turning a great wheel, and keeping time with voice and steps to his mournful tones- 1 retired, NOT A LITTLE DISCONCERTED, and dreamt all night of you and Malvina by turns.”

Not much of a pun, if intentional on Mrs. Grant’s part, certainly it does not elicit a chuckle.

And so, if I am correct that JA got her inspiration from Grant for this pun, it must therefore have struck JA as a bit of synchronicity, and a very good omen indeed when, on 1/24/13, just five days before various members of the Austen family received their own copies of the freshly published P&P, JA received a copy of Mrs. Grant’s Letters.

Perhaps as an act of good karma, having read Mrs. Grant’s book already, and taken from it whatever amusement and knowledge she desired from it, as well as any benefit it had for her writing, she passed the book on forthwith to Miss Papillon to read, perhaps alerting Miss Papillon to read the above quoted passage at the time….. ;)

And my final evidence, which I think is the most powerful of all, for why this had to be an intentional pun on JA’s part, is that she gave ANOTHER, subliminal hint of it, in Chapter SIX of P&P, to prepare the sensitive reader for what was to come twelve chapters later:

“Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well; and Mary, at the end of A LONG CONCERTO, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by SCOTCH AND IRISH AIRS, at the request of her younger sisters, who, with some of the Lucases and two or three officers, joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.”

So there you have JA creating an association between the word “concert(o)” and Mary, and, for good measure (ha ha), JA also gives a tiny tip of the tam to Mrs. Grant’s passage, which was, you perhaps already noted, about a highland (i.e. Scottish) air.
For all of you who wonder, as I have been, for some time now, bringing forward hundreds of little tidbits just like this one, which I have found in JA’s novels, which seem to you to be accidental, or unconscious, or a great deal of work for very little effect—because, after all, in 200 years, how many readers have noticed the pun on “disconcerted”, let alone heard the echo of the “concerto” in Chapter 6, let alone had the slightest idea about any of Mrs. Grant’s letters???---well, obviously (to me at least) it must have been VERY meaningful to JA, in order for her to take the trouble to lay this short trail of “bread crumbs”, and to covertly acknowledge Mrs. Grant to boot.

And I claim that in most of these cases, she embedded these tiny jewels all over the place in the text of her novels, not merely for her own benefit and amusement, and perhaps also of a few close friends and family members whom she alerted to watch out for them, but also because many of them turn out to be part of six very large, intricately bejeweled, and incredibly beautiful “crowns”, i.e. the shadow stories of each of her novels.

It’s all music to my ears, and I hope, also, to those of you who hear the music, too.

[Now comes my second post, in followup to the above]

Via a tweaking refinement of my word searching, I found the following passage in Chapter 23 of MP which, it is clear to me, and I will demonstrate to you, is a variation on the punning theme initiated by JA in that scene in P&P when Mary is "disconcerted" by her father. In so doing, I also seek to illustrate the way a pun could, over the course of a year, evolve and blossom into a rich and highly thematic metaphor in the mind of a genius. And the greatest beauty of this is that JA left it all so understated, that it has remained invisible to all, or almost all, Janeites.

The context in MP is that Henry Crawford has returned to Mansfield Park, and he first waxes nostalgic about Lover's Vows, knowing it will aggravate Fanny. Recall his "project" to make a hole in Fanny's heart, and this is an early part of his nasty little campaign, as he probes for ways to worm his way into a conversation with Fanny, who parries his thrusts at first, but then finds no way to avoid responding to him.

Then, Henry, also knowing it will aggravate Fanny, turns his virtually unlimited talents for sophistry and rhetoric to the generation of mocking speculation about (what Crawford playfully but edgily suggests is) the mercenary nature of the quiet discussion between Dr. Grant and Edmund. And that's just a warmup, a deliberate segue toward his true intended subject, the one that will REALLY gnaw at Fanny--- i.e., Edmund's future career as a preacher of sermons. Of course Henry does not start a discussion related to theology or charitable morality, as Fanny would like--instead, after first cynically canvassing the financial benefits of a career as a clergyman, now Henry turns to a second NONRELIGIOUS aspect of such a career--Henry really is Satanic, isn't he?--- which is as a performer who "delivers speeches" to an audience.

And note how Henry (and his creator, JA) has prepared us for that turn of subject by his playing up Mr. Rushworth's 42 speeches, and also how Fanny was so solicitous of Mr. Rushworth during the Lover's Vows rehearsals, when nobody else was. Again, Henry is speaking in code about Fanny and Edmund, drawing the parallel without ever saying an explicit word about it.

Now, with that prelude, here is the passage:

“Bertram,” said Henry Crawford, “I shall make a point of coming to Mansfield to hear you preach your first sermon. I shall come on purpose to encourage a young beginner. When is it to be? Miss Price, will not you join me in encouraging your cousin? Will not you engage to attend with your eyes steadily fixed on him the whole time— as I shall do—not to lose a word; or only looking off just to note down any sentence preeminently beautiful? We will provide ourselves with tablets and a pencil. When will it be? You must preach at Mansfield, you know, that Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram may hear you.”

“I shall keep clear of you, Crawford, as long as I can,” said Edmund; “for you would be more likely to DISCONCERT me, and I should be more sorry to see you trying at it than almost any other man.”

“Will he not feel this?” thought Fanny. “No, he can feel nothing as he ought.”

The party being now all united, and the chief talkers attracting each other, she remained in tranquillity; and as a whist–table was formed after tea—formed really for the amusement of Dr. Grant, by his attentive wife, though it was not to be supposed so—and Miss Crawford took HER HARP, she had nothing to do but to listen; and her tranquillity remained undisturbed the rest of the evening, except when Mr. Crawford now and then addressed to her a question or observation, which she could not avoid answering. Miss Crawford was too much vexed by what had passed to be in a humour for ANYTHING BUT MUSIC. With that she soothed herself and amused her friend.


So, we see again a very interesting conjunction of "disconcert' with music and performance, just as we did with the dis-concertization of Mary Bennet, but here I think JA's metaphorical grasp of the potential of that play on words has greatly deepened between P&P and MP. All sorts of interesting metaphorical vistas open up for me as I read this passage. Edmund shows himself to be quite the metaphorical gymnast as he puns on "disconcert", showing that he is aware that Henry is jerking his chain a little, by emphasizing that Edmund, for all that he did not wish to act in Lover's Vows, will be playing the role of his life (literally and figuratively) when he assumes the role of clergyman-he will have to ask himself the proper place of theatricality in the pulpit, he will have to ask himself how much of his decision to become a clergyman relates (as Henry initially teased) to the income he will earn from it.

And it's interesting that here, as in P&P, we have a "Mary" who plays a stringed instrument, which has morphed from the weightiness of a piano to the ethereal lightness of a harp. And perhaps Mary took her "cue" from Edmund's witty pun on "disconcert", and in so doing "amused her friend"--by which I think (but am not entirely sure) we are supposed to read as Edmund--or is it Fanny?

All those resonances swirling just under the surface of this virtuosic bit of writing by JA--quite the opposite of "disconcerting" for the "attuned" reader.

Cheers, Arnie