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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Two off-the-beaten-track gems of feminist interpretation of Jane Austen

As I wind down my ambitious goal---which I first conceived almost six years ago to the day---of reading just about everything scholarly ever written about Jane Austen that in any way, shape or form might bear on her feminist shadow stories--which means, a hell of a lot of books, articles, webpages, emails--I am talking thousands---there is, in addition of course to the steady stream of current writing about Jane Austen, still a trickle of scholarly wisdom from the past which I from time to time continue to come across, every time I think of a new word or phrase to search.

Even now, after all my obsessive searching and researching, this still occurs because there is no such thing as a definitive bibliographic database of listings of same, despite the attempts of some to compile them--nothing close, in fact. There are many many many articles and books, mostly but not all written before the era of the Internet, which are off the official grid, and which are therefore very difficult to find. Whereas certain sources tend to be read and cited a great deal, others are off the beaten track and therefore don't get read or cited.

That all was prelude to telling you briefly about two wonderful relatively obscure scholarly writings which I have read during the past few days, which provide rich validation to my sense of Jane Austen's mysteries, even though both of them purport to interpret only the overt stories of the novels, not the shadow stories.

The first is Mary Evans's 1987 book Jane Austen and the State , and the following is a brief sampler of quotations from her book which could not be more congruent with my own sense of Jane Austen's goals as a feminist author and societal critic:

From the Introduction: "This is not to suggest that Jane Austen belongs in any sense to a tradition of the ‘Left’...but it does mean that the values she endorses are incompatible with the practices and policies of contemporary Toryism, particularly because of her concern for the protection of women and children, and for the articulation of their rights and views...Unlike some Victorian novelists, Jane Austen does not argue that women are helpless victims; on the contrary, she maintains that they are active makers of their fate. But what she does show is the vulnerability of women in the economic marketplace, a vulnerability that leads to the paradox of both their inadequate protection (in the sense of real provision for their needs and those of their children) and their excessive restriction (in terms of their inferior civil liberties and assumptions about female dependence)."

And this from P. 2 of Chapter 1: "Thus the central thesis of this essay is that JA offers her readers a radical morality, and that far from endorsing the given, and emergent, values of late 18th century capitalism, she was in many ways deeply critical of them. The taken for granted association of Austen with conservatism—a position echoed even by those critics who have located Austen in a social context—misinterprets….her attempt to elucidate a morality that is independent of the material values of the capitalist marketplace, and the claims that she articulates for the equality of men and women and the right of women to moral independence and autonomy. …Austen represents not a conservative but a liberal tradition: a tradition opposed to the equation of moral worth with wealth, and to the extension of patriarchal authority...."

The other gem I uncovered is the 1999 book Smile of discontent: humor, gender, and nineteenth-century British fiction by Eileen Gillooly

Specifically, the first half of Chapter 3 (entitled "Humor as Maternal Aggression") is a masterful close reading of the manner in which Mary Crawford and Fanny Price are presented in MP, which is extremely congruent with my postings in September 2010 in this blog about the cat and mouse game between the brashly complex character of Mary Crawford and the shyly complex character of Fanny Price. Here is a brief sampling to illustrate:

"In charging Mary with both sexual and gender misconduct (her laughter, to his mind, is not simply femininely indecorous under the circumstances but lewd), Edmund unwittingly associates her with the adulterous Maria. Unlike Maria, however, who is castigated for her crime, Mary finds sanctuary from censure in her doubleness. Not only is she 'double' to Fanny (her function as counterheroine, narratologically speaking, precludes her moral condemnation), but because her doubly indecent laughter (sexually suggestive and of female origin) proceeds from her (always doubly determined) humor, it evades fixed meaning, and, in so doing, she escapes punishment."

"The humor that Mary and the narrator share is as alike in rhetoric as in perspective. Both reply upon wordplay, italics (or emphasis in Mary's case), litotes, and periphrasis to give their humor form, and both fix upon targets that are consistently, if not exclusively, 'feminist': Sir Thomas's oppressively paternalistic treatment of Fanny and his daughters, the debasing practices of the marriage market, or the gender bias of the dominant attitude toward adultery, for example. On the issue of sexual inequality in the punishment of adultery, indeed, not only is the narrator at her most explicitly (proto)feminist, but her moral judgment is notably closer to Mary's than at any other time..."

You will have to read these books yourself to do them justice, and I do heartily recommend them to you.

Cheers, ARNIE


mockingbird said...

I have just ordered a very cheap copy now of Mary Evans.....the other I already have!
thanks Arnie

Arnie Perlstein said...

Jennifer, of course I am not surprised that you took special note of this particular post, given that it was our shared perspective on Jane Austen as a stron feminist that first put you on my radar screen!