(& 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

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

And there is more from Paul's Epistles in that same vein, that Jane Austen skillfully deploys in her letters to James Stanier Clarke in the service of further lampooning the eminently lampoonable court librarian.