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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Amiable Young Men!

Letter #6 has proved to be the richest source yet for discussion in Janeites and Austen-L of veiled allusions to all sorts of matters in her world.

Here is the passage in Letter #6 which provoked an interesting exchange today:

"Edward and Fly went out yesterday very early in a couple of shooting jackets, and came home like a couple of bad shots, for they killed nothing at all. They are out again to-day, and are not yet returned. Delightful sport! They are just come home, Edward with his two brace, Frank with his two and a half. What amiable young men!"

[Diana Birchall] "I'm interested that people seem to see this comment as being sarcastic, against her bird-murdering brothers."

I love the sound of that incongruous rhyme of "bird-murdering", nicely done, Diana!

[Diana] "But I read it differently. I don't think it ever entered into Jane Austen's head to be against bird killing; it was too much a part of country life, and she ate those birds and knew where they came from. Nobody thought shooting birds was a bad thing then - that's a much later invention."

I agree with Ellen [Moody] on this one, with a caveat. Yes, of course Diana is correct that hunting for food was a normal part of rural life back then, and it would have been hypocrisy for anyone other than a vegetarian (which JA was not) to suggest that killing the birds to provide the meat was per se immoral or even worthy of ridicule.

However....I do believe that JA also was inclined to mock men who got their macho kicks shooting birds, and then boasting about how many, etc., especially if the men who sought vainglory in this way otherwise had no useful career and spent a good deal of their time doing not very much of use to society--besides shooting birds, they went to balls, played cards or gambled, and went on outings of pleasure. Someone like Frank Churchill or Willoughby, e.g.

In short, I think JA saw the killing of birds as a necessary evil, one that it was unsavory and immoral to enjoy too much.

[Diana] "In her books she paints most attractive and natural pictures of hunting (Charles Musgrove is certainly an amiable young man)"

Well, there I strongly disagree. While Charles Musgrove is not a villain, he's no hero either, not by a long shot. I think JA saw Charles Musgrove as a self-absorbed idler, who, whether or not he had native intelligence, had never developed much of it by reading or other study, and therefore had not much going on between his ears---he was a time-waster, and a guy Anne Elliot never gave a serious thought to as a potential husband. He thinks Mary is a pain in the butt, but he's no prize as a husband either--they deserve each other!

And as for the ironic use of the word "amiable" by JA, remember what Mr. Knightley says: "No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English."

[Diana] "and I think she literally did think Edward and Frank were out having a good time and*were* "amiable young men.""

And I think JA, in addition to her frequent and persistent ridiculing of brother Edward, also had lots of negative opinions about James Austen, too, and his hunting obsession would have been one of them. As for Frank, though, I suspect JA did not begrudge her elder sailor brother the sport, as she knew it was a rare experience for him, and that he would soon be out at sea for long stretches when there would not be much fun at all, and sometimes danger.

Ellen is also perceptive in noting the subtle difference between the words "shooting" and "killing". In 2011 America, as we all know far too well from the recent tragic events in Tucson, _both_ of those words have an ugly connotation because they almost never are used in public discourse as referring to sustenance hunting in the wild, and are almost always associated with human beings shooting, and often killing, other human beings. However, in JA's time, the reverse was true, people were not shooting each other right and left, and "shooting" was therefore very much of a euphemism, and JA pointedly eschews that euphemism in Letter #6.

[Ellen] "...a dislike of hunting as cruel can be found in poems of the 1680s, Margaret Cavendish's Hunting the Hare is just a famous instance."

Now, that is a very interesting reference by Ellen, of which I had not previously been aware. I just read some of the verses of Cavendish's poem, in particular the following which relates to what I've been saying about the hunting episode in Letter #6:

"Men, hooping loud, such acclamations make, As if the Devil they did prisoner take, When they do but a shiftless creature kill; To hunt there needs no valiant solder's skill."

Per Katie Whitaker's bio of the same name, "Mad Madge" also wrote "A Dialogue of Birds": "Walking in the fields and woods, Margaret listened as sparrow, magpie, finches, linnet, partridge, woodcock, quail, peewit, snipe, swallow, and parrot each told of mankind's particular cruelties to their kind--hunting them with dogs and hawks, wasting their flesh in gluttonous feasting, shooting them for eating a little fruit, [etc.]"

That's precisely what I am talking about, the way many men went about hunting was not "kosher", and I use that term in the Jewish sense, that it was often not done in the most scrupulously moral way possible.

And I think this is actually a very important, even crucial, point in understanding JA's moral perspective, it is all of a piece with JA's critique of the many ways in which privileged men (but also privileged women) wasted their potential, and patted themselves on the back for doing not much of any good in the world. She also hated the exploitation and abuse of the weaker by the stronger. I don't think JA really found such men or women at all charming or amiable!

And it's no accident that Gay's fable "The Hare and Many Friends" appears twice in her novels.

JA was acutely sensitive to animals as metaphorical stand-ins for the weakest of humans, in particular, women, who were "hunted" for sport by the likes of Henry Crawford, just for the pleasure of making a hole in their hearts, or Willoughby (another of JA's hunters). The same men doing the hunting in the same way, with different "prey". And of course JA also decried the status of English wives as breeding animals.

Cheers, ARNIE

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