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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jane Austen’s Potpourri/Popery

On the subject of JA’s interest in the “infallible Pope” , I just revisited Pope’s Epistles in his Essay on Man (which has been mentioned in the past in this group), and the following leapt out at me:

Epistle 1: Awake, my St John! Leave all meaner things To low ambition, and the pride of kings. Let us, since LIFE CAN LITTLE MORE SUPPLY THAN JUST TO LOOK ABOUT US, and to die, Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man; A mighty maze! But not without a plan. …Together let us beat this ample field, Try what the open, what the covert yield….Eye Nature's walks, SHOOT FOLLY AS IT FLIES, And catch the manners living as they rise: LAUGH WHERE WE MUST, be candid where we can; But vindicate the ways of God to man.

Epistle 1: “In PRIDE, in reas'ning PRIDE, our error lies; All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies! PRIDE still is aiming at the blessed abodes, Men would be Angels, Angels would be Gods. Aspiring to be Gods if Angels fell.”

Epistle 2: “On life's vast ocean diversely we sail, Reason the card, but passion is the gale. And hence ONE MASTER PASSION in the breast, Like Aaron's serpent, swallows up the rest. “

I then did a quick search and found that scholarly awareness of the obvious Austenian echoes of these Popish passages (as you may already have noted, but I will quote her below) has been surprisingly thin.

Tucker wrote re JA’s own letter-writing that ‘the ability to ‘shoot folly as it flies’ was an integral part of JA’s genius…”, but he never connected the dots to P&P.

Kinsley (accurately) noted the connection of “one master passion” to Darcy’s famous comment:

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."

However, he did not take note of the linkage of that master passion to a serpent….

Josephine Ross (accurately) noted the resonance between Pope’s “Laugh where we must” and Lizzy’s “I dearly love a laugh but I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good.”

And Reuben A. Brower, in “From the Iliad to Jane Austen” at first seemed to zero in more globally:

“There is a deeper likeness to Pope that can be seen only by relating this and similar dialogues to the whole of P&P. Elizabeth, like Pope’s heroine, is being educated (though she doesn’t suspect it) in Good Sense; just as Darcy is being educated in love and openness of mind…”

But then Brower wrote the following absurdly cautious nonsense, so typical of so much of Austen scholarship even to this day:

“There is no case, or at best a slight one, for proving direct influence of Pope or of the The Rape of the Lock on JA.”

It’s absurd in part because The Rape of The Lock is so obviously a crucial source for S&S, as has been discussed by several mainstream Austen scholars, but also because Brower promptly refutes his own absurd caution by going on to give an example of JA parodying Pope’s Epistle #1 in her juvenilia ‘A Collection of Letters” with the following:

“…Ride where you may, Be Candid where you can,’ she added, ‘I rode once, but it is many years ago’-She spoke this in so low and tremulous a Voice, that I was silent.”
But then, Brower also misses the risqué implication of that low and tremulous reference to “riding”.

And then Brower again swings and misses at a fat pitch, when he quotes “Eye Nature’s walks, shoot folly as it flies…” and then writes “These lines are a better introduction to JA’s novels than to the ‘specious’ and ‘solemn’ argument of the Essay of Man”—but then he NEVER mentions P&P, whch is amazing, because Mr. Bennet is the very embodiment of Pope’s epigrammatic irony, when he paraphrases Pope’s Epistle #1 TWICE, in two of his many memorable lines, and then the narrator adds a third echo:

“…For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"

"When you have killed all your own birds, Mr Bingley," said her mother, "I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please on Mr Bennet's manor.”

To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.

As you can see, Mr. Bennet IS Alexander Pope in fiction, and as the action of P&P shows, Mr. Bennet, while a very clever, learned and witty performer in the verbal arena, was neither infallible nor wise in his performance as a father and husband.

Cheers, ARNIE

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