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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Nest of My Own, A Room of One's Own

After my previous response to Diana Birchall and Elen Moody about pregnancies in Austen's novels, I never expected that it would lead to a dramatic new insight. But
it turned out that this thread was a model of the serendipity of online conversations like this, where posts by different people can sometimes function as "dominoes" which fall, almost effortlessly, one tipping the next one over, reaching an unexpected ending which I hope you will find as wonderful as I do. The title of this post is a clue to where the final domino fell.

[Diana] "...I agree that Austen doesn't do trickery just for the sake of fooling people, or that making puzzles is her objective. But she slants things, plants false impressions, withholds narrative, in order to make us think what she wants us to think, to create the ultimate impression she wants us to go away thinking about. This is not unfair or lying. It is artfulness. As an artist she has an impressive bag of tricks and skills, shades and subtle suggestions, to lead us winding through her tale."

Yes, Diana, once more, bravo! Your excellent summation is another, concise way of saying what I said verbosely late last night--it is artfulness for a worthy, didactic purpose. This, to me, is the highest form of morality--it's easy to be moral by rigidly holding to rule such as telling truth, but it's much harder when you venture into the grey area, and search for the exceptions to the rule, for the situations where rigidity would lose the quality of mercy--that is why there were always courts of equity alongside the courts of law, where hardships caused by the law could be mitigated by consideration of mitigating circumstances. I am convinced that JA sought to teach her readers to develop the judgment and also the attentiveness to seemingly trivial details which are not trivial, which are necessary in order to only bend the rules when it is truly an appropriate action to do so. And I see her novels as the most perfect embodiment of that higher morality. I see her seeing the novel as a modern vehicle for accomplishing the sort of teaching that Jesus (and Buddha, and other spiritual wisdom models from around the world) accomplished by aphorism, parable, and the like.

Anyway, I am eager to move on to the next thing you wrote, which is what led to the serendipity of insight I started by mentioning.

[Diana] "People always talk about her little bit of ivory, but I remember another part of that sentence. Where she says to her nephew that she can't be suspected of stealing "two strong twigs and a half toward a nest of my own," she is truly describing the building-up process with which she writes. Many twigs, some of them bent, to create a whole transcendant work."

And the serendipity arises because, in answering Ellen in my immediately preceding post a few moments ago, I quoted Todd writing about Woolf's attitude toward JA--and as a result of that, as I was quickly reviewing an old Word file I had compiled about Woolf's take on Austen, I read the following quote by Woolf describing JA's writing:

"Humbly and gaily she collected _the twigs and straws of which the nest was to be made, and placed them neatly together_" [!!!!]

And of course Woolf _also_ , as the title of her most famous literary critical essay, _"A Room of One's Own"_.

So, it seems to me, Diana, that your instinct for the meaningful has shown me the way to connect all the dots here--in my opinion, Woolf _must_, in writing those two phrases, have had in mind the passage you referred to in JA's letter to JEAL:

"...two strong twigs and a half toward a nest of my own would have been something...."

And that is part of Woolf's problem---as with her impatience with JA for (apparently) suggesting darkness that JA then does not (seem to) follow through on, she fails to realize what I have claimed before, i.e., that JA is being _completely disingenuous_ in these self deprecating words to JEAL, very much like the disingenuousness of JA's other famous self deprecations in her letters to James Stanier Clarke, another clueless narcissistic wannabe author with exaggerated literary pretensions. In my opinion, JA knows very well that she has squeezed the whole human world into that little nest, but she is content (harking back to our parallel summations about JA's artfulness) to allow JEAL, and Clarke, and Woolf, to make their own false assumptions that her writing had such wide scope.

The allusion by Woolf to Austen seemed so obvious to me, that I thought, i can't be the first person to notice it. I was curious to know whether anyone else had previously written about this veiled allusion by Woolf to Austen, so I Googled, and, serendipitously, I found the following:

In one part of the above-linked essay byDr. Sreemati Mukherjee, Reader, Dept. of English,Basanti Devi College, which I strongly recommend in toto, she (?) first writes:

"In 18th c. England the rise of the middle-class and the circulating libraries gave birth to the professional woman writer, who wrote for money and entertained her audience with tales of heroism, horror and fantasy. As the novel was still new there were no generic prescriptions to be followed. While the novel was considered as trash by the great writers of the time, who were significantly male, the women kept catering to an increasing women-readership of the genre. It was within this social arrangement that Jane Austen wrote her novels. She wrote about a world she knew, about people she recognised and never trespassed into the unknown. It was not a lack of imagination that
prevented her from moving into a gothic clime or even creating an ‘Angria” or a “Gondal” for herself, but as her advice to her niece Anna Austen Lefroy reveals, a fidelity to reality and an innate meticulousness prevented her from stepping out of the known. In her letter she writes: "… Let the Portmans (characters in Anna's novel) go to Ireland ; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.." (August 10, 1814). In yet another letter she boasts to Cassandra about her housekeeping and says “an artist cannot do anything slovenly”
(November 17, 1798). It is from such scattered references that we understand Austen's consciousness of her art. In the letter to her nephew James Edward Austen, she compares her art against the ‘manly style' of the former. With characteristic humour she writes: …Two chapters and a half to be missing is monstrous! It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, and therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them: two strong twigs and a half towards _a nest of my own_ would have been something. I do not think however, that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?" (Dec. 16, 1816) It is necessary to note her choice of words here
- from a more homely description of _“two strong twigs and a half” for her ‘nest'_ she moves on to an elaborate conceit of painting. The desire to be specific is clear. After a preliminary use of a diffused term “bit” – it is “two inches wide” in size and the medium is “ivory” and she works upon it with a “fine brush” – again suggesting the utmost care and precision that her craft employs...."

So Mukherjee is writing about Woolf's reactions to Austen, and quotes "a nest of my own". And then, only a half dozen paragraphs later, without any apparent awareness of a connection to "a nest of my own" , she then writes the following in which she refers to "A Room of One's Own":

"Woolf goes on to say that _it is not enough to have a room of one's own._ The woman writer must jump over the second impediment and overlook the question “what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions”. For to consider such a question would surely “rouse her from her artist's state of unconsciousness”. Woolf stresses on the need to express the experience and fantasies of a woman sincerely and truthfully. In/A Room of One's Own,/ Woolf compares the flawed women's novels to “pock-marked apples in an orchard”. “It was the flaw in the centre that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others” (p.71). Woolf credits Jane Austen and Emily Bronte for being able “to hold fast to thething as they saw it without shrinking”. Earlier in the same chapter Woolf places Austen alongside Shaskespeare for “writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching”. Yet a little before, in the same paragraph, Woolf opines that “to Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing/Pride and Prejudice/”, hence she hid it from visitors (p.65). In these obviously contradictory observations I note the limitations or confusions of Woolf's own ideas about the artistic process. For a writer who sees the necessity of having “a room of one's own” and economic independence to write, Woolf fails to see in Austen's jealous protection of her work the artist's careful nurturing of the work of art. It is unlikely that Jane Austen who never resorted to pseudonyms and who so openly supported the novel, as an art form, would have considered the art of writing as discreditable. Is it not possible that she might have taken the precaution to prevent any unwanted question or suggestion, well meaning or otherwise, from her visitor(s) which politeness would not have allowed her to avoid? With her family she was certain of no such unwanted attention and felt comfortable writing amidst the din of the living room. I am tempted to observe further that when Woolf wrote the word ‘discreditable' she was being guided by ‘the angel'. "

So, first, what a wonderful "Trojan Horse Moment" for Mukherjee, to place these two phrases, one by Austen, the other by Woolf, in such close proximity, without apparent awareness that Woolf's title is a subtle veiled _allusion_ to Austen's phrase! And second, as I just read Woolf writing about "pock-marked apples in an orchard", it was equally obvious to me that Woolf, probably intentionally, was making a similarly subtle veiled allusion to both the discussion about the insipid apricots at the Mansfield Park parsonage, _and also_ to the entire Sotherton scene so saturated with Edenic allusion to the tree of knowledge, etc.!

It feels to me like we, today, are walking in the footsteps of Austen and Woolf, in a garden of delightful knowledge!

Cheers, ARNIE

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