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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

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


Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting blog you've got here. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

Julia Simpson

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you very much, Julia. I don't know how far you have browsed in the blog, but I would welcome your thoughts about any of the other posts as well, it is hard for me to judge which of my entries really hit the spot for other Janeites.