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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why would I lie about a thing like that?

This post is another that grows out of the discussion of Jane Austen's Letter #5 from September 1796, written by her to her sister Cassandra when Jane was not quite 21, on an extended visit to the home of their brother Edward Austen (later to add the surname "Knight") in Kent. Ellen Moody was surprised at my claim that Jane might have fabricated the incident reported by Jane in which their very young nephew Edward, Jr. was apparently punished severely.

[Ellen] "Arnie, why would Austen lie about such a thing?"

Before I respond substantively, I cannot resist posting the following link to a film I saw over 30 years ago that I loved:

In the film, the character played by Treat Williams, who had the widest smile in cinematic history, would make up all sorts of fantastic scenarios about things that had supposedly happened, and when people would look at him quizzically and then finally ask him if what he was saying was _really_ true, he would smile very very broadly and ask "Why would I lie about a thing like that?"

See the film, it is very sweet. And it's also relevant to my answer to you, Ellen. Because if there ever was an apparently rhetorical question that was really a serious question, it was that one. What he was saying was, "Think about it, what possible covert meaning might there be that I wish to convey in an indirect way, leaving it to you, my listener, to figure it out?"

My sense is that JA was a lot like the Treat Williams character, she would make up stories as vehicles for the _indirect_ expression of feelings about and attitudes toward people and events of personal interest. She was, at the deepest level of her being, a story-teller, who instinctively translated the stuff of daily life into little fables, and obviously CEA would have been 100% aware of this orientation in her wildly creative sister, and probably was her best audience, even if (as I have speculated) it was not CEA's "thing" to do this herself.

I think this is a very powerful tool for inducing a listener/reader to cease to be passive, but to become an active participation in the creation of meaning. By struggling to figure out why a writer would make up a story, it forces the reader to engage with whatever moral and psychological issues are involved. It is really the Socratic method, when you think about, and it is a much more powerful tool for teaching and persuasion than simply stating one's opinions.

But note, I said that I have no idea if it was an actual event or not--it could have been actual but much less severe, or it could have been a fable.

"If you don't believe this comment, what makes you believe her story about Edward."

Do you believe the story about Edward? I think it could very well _also_ be a complete fantasy! She was spending extended time around Edward and his young family and so Edward was front and center on JA's radar screen, as she observed the behavior of the young paterfamilias, and I think she already had a clear picture of Edward as a John Dashwood in training. And, in my opinion, already at 21, JA was a radical feminist and critic of wealth, very attuned to hypocrisies in regard to same.

And think of how JA exposes John Dashwood's hypocrisy in S&S---his shallow moral sense, his vulnerability to suggestion and influence by a rapacious wife--JA's narrator _never_ explicitly indicts John D, instead she _shows_ us all of this in subtle satirical ways.

So I have no doubt that JA saw Edward as a man with very unpleasant tendencies in this direction, or else JA would not keep returning to this theme over and over again in her letters over many years (just wait till you read, e.g., the beginning of Letter 6!!!), to whether Edward actually sought to make a financial killing in the aftermath of the death of a Farmer Clarinbould? My guess would be, "No"--instead, I can rather imagine JA lurking about, and overhearing Elizabeth Knight quietly making some Fanny Dashwood-like insinuations to Edward, and hearing Edward make some mealy-mouthed response.

JA's stock in trade in her letters, and also at times in her novels, was hyperbole, theater of the absurd. In real life, nothing happens like what we read in Chapter 2 of S&S or see in the early scene in _King Lear_ which it is based on. But that is great art, to dramatize a certain human characteristic, in this case, hypocritical rationalizing greed, and to mock it, to burn an indelible image into the reader's mind of a quintessential instance of same. When we see or think about hypocritical greed, the association to those two works of art is automatic. That is why Mark Twain, e.g., picked up on those two scenes and presented _his_ version of same, also covertly, in his fiction.

" Whipping is a strong word. I wondered if the boy had done something to irritate his father -- or mother."

Again, I think it is very likely that JA was simply riffing on the double meaning of the word "breeching" which I have already pointed out. The words "in the bargain" are a "tell" that this is hyperbolic absurdity, just as we see a hundred examples of it in JA's juvenilia.

"Nancy it's that each time anyone says anything in the least critical of whatever you have this immediate impulse to counter it as if to prove resolutely no matter what that the world is a good place basically."

Yes, that is what Nancy does, I share your opinion.

[Ellen] "Well one silence that leaps out at me and continues (I noticed) in the next letter: not one, not one mention of Elizabeth. She is the reigning woman in the house Jane is staying at. We hear of Edward, and there are remarks (playful mostly) about the mother, Lady Bridges (again these same jokes about marriage). I do guess Austen may be following Brer Rabbit's advice in the famous fable: if you can't say something good, don't say anything at all. These letters to Cassandra could be read by others and it could get back to Elizabeth."

But as I have just illustrated in my repeated references to Chapter 2 of S&S, JA is only being _covert_ in her references to Elizabeth Austen (not yet Knight), _not_ silent.

Another line from S&S comes to mind, which I think had an extra covert function, in addition to talking about Marianne's relationship with Willoughby:

"It was every day implied, but never professedly declared."

In my firm opinion, that _also_ describes John and Fanny Dashwood as covert representations of Edward and Elizabeth Austen.

The Clarinbould "episode" in Letter 5 was a "rough draft" of one "chapter" in that "story".

Cheers, ARNIE

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