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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jane's Janes

[This is my response to comments by Tracy Marks in Austen L, shown in quotes, which are so interesting I wanted to respond to them in all the usual venues]

"I wonder how much the Elizabeth/Jane relationship was modelled on the real life Jane Austen/Cassandra relationship. Aand I still remain puzzled why Jane Austen named Jane Bennet after herself. From what I've read, her character was MUCH more like Elizabeth. As a writer, I can't imagine naming a character after myself and then giving her a personality so very different from myself. But then again, I don't have Jane Austen's skill at so fully immersing herself in a variety of very diverse characters <-"

Indeed, Tracy, you are barking up a very promising tree---all of my research on Emma has shown me that Jane Fairfax is named "Jane" precisely because she is the SHADOW heroine of that novel, and is an alter ego of the author, in much more profound ways than Emma is. That is the core "joke" of the novel.

So my short answer to you is that yes, you're entirely correct, Jane Austen did NOT name her fictional Janes after herself without giving them each a great deal of her own personality. To paraphrase Siggy Freud, this line of inquiry is indeed one of the royal roads to a greater understanding of all her novels--we need to bring to ourselves to a consciousness of who her fictional Janes REALLY are. .

And so, yes, that is why I have in the past few months come to also look much more closely at Jane Bennet, who of course is not a shadowy figure in P&P in the same way Jane Fairfax is--and that's also why I posed that question two months ago in these groups about characters who've been given too short shrift by readers, in order to prompt others to do likewise. And now you've rewarded me with an answer which sparks my imagination very strongly!

We read a lot of words spoken BY Jane Bennet in the novel, unlike Jane Fairfax, whom we almost never hear speaking, and surely that is important data in our forming our opinions about who Jane Bennet is, which we don't receive about Jane Fairfax. However, the key point is that while we hear Jane speaking a lot, we are NEVER inside Jane Bennet's head, and so our perspective on Jane Bennet is decisively shaped by the very strong impressions (first AND subsequent) of Jane that are imprinted in our minds by LIZZY's perceptions and opinions about Jane! Lizzy is a VERY strong minded and opinionated student of human personality, and she is also so charming and witty that it is nearly impossible to avoid being seduced into seeing things the way she does. So, it is very hard indeed to overcome Lizzy's "prejudice" about who Jane "really" is, and also, most of what Jane says in the novel is spoken TO LIZZY.

Think about the wisdom you sometimes hear spoken or read in self-help or other psychologizing books, about how dangerous it is to judge a person's entire character by the way that person speaks to, or behaves around, ONE person in the entire world! I think about myself, and realize that I appear as one sort of person when I am talking with my father, another sort of person when I am talking with my male buddies, a third person when talking to my sons, a fourth person when talking to my wife, and a fifth person when talking in these Austen groups! But who am I "really"? Very hard to say, even for me!

By the same logic, flipped, one of the thousand fascinating things about JA's novels is that we actually are in a position to get to know the heroines REALLY well, because we see them speaking to, and behaving around, a BUNCH of very different people. So, if we pay attention, we can make some pretty solid inferences about which aspects of their personalities are stable across different interpersonal settings, versus those aspects of their character which only spring into full force when they are around particular people in their lives. But...we must be careful not to be seduced into adopting the heroine's self-definition--that is as big a sandtrap in regard to judging her personality, as it is in judging the subordinate characters.

Which is why I claim P&P would be a VERY different novel, if it were told from, say, Jane Bennet's point of view. Jane is so discreet, so tactful, so willing to let Lizzy take center stage, so willing to be the best SUPPORTING actor, that we really have no idea what she's like when she's NOT around Lizzy! Maybe those are her moments to really run wild, to go crazy, to let it all hang out and shine on her own. The clues are there in the novel, if we dig for them. The one thing you can be 100% sure of, is that JA had this sort of double vision front and center in her own mind as she wrote her novels.

"For many children, sibling relationships are more impactful than their relationships with parents, and help them cope with the difficulties of childhood and adolescence, as well as provide a primary support throughout adulthood - perhaps moreso for females than male. And often I find, people choose partners who more likely resemble a sibling than a parent."

I also love your above observations about the often neglected impact of sibling relationships on personality development. That may be THE crowning glory of P&P, in its depiction of how five sisters affect and shape each other's development while growing up, and the way that this little family "ecosystem" evolves over the course of 15-20 years of living together under the same roof at close quarters, and the way that each one seems to gravitate toward a "niche" distinct from the niches of each of their other sisters.

It's obvious to me that during the "life" of P&P itself--JA's "darling child"---which was "conceived", as best we can tell, around 1798, but which had a very long gestation and was not finally born until FIFTEEN years later, the novel evolved in JA's mind, and on however many versions she went through on paper. And then, just before "delivery", in a burst of sheer genius (or was she prompted by one of her close friends and family who were giving her advice about the writing?), she took the incredibly bold step of performing RADICAL surgery on it JUST BEFORE it was born!! With all the lopping and cropping, it must have been almost unrecognizable in relation to what it was before the surgery. So that when it burst into the world, its apparent resemblance to its earliest "blastula" was probably almost nil. And yet....perhaps, as Lizzy says, in substance it was perhaps very much the same. And surely a part of what Jane Austen had in mind when she gave those words to Lizzy to speak to Wickham, was the novel itself.

That paradox is at the heart of the holy mystery and miracle of P&P!!!

Thanks for spurring me to think along this very fruitful line of inquiry, Tracy! ;)


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