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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

1988 Persuasions article about Jane Austen's Knowledge of Anti-Epic Roman poetry of Ovid and Propertius

"Arnie, where do you have evidence that JA read the Ovid?? Twelfth Night I grant you she probably did know and the Dido story from The Aeneid. But beyond that, we need "proof" "

Elissa, I am glad you prompted me to search in my files some more, because about 4 years ago, I found a great article, written by a classicist Janeite whom I contacted and we became friends, Mary DeForest:

First Mary brilliantly discovers and unpacks a very sophisticated covert pun by Jane Austen in her 1809 letter to CEA, in a tour de force of inspired analysis, which suggests her familiarity with Ovid and his peer, Propertius:

"Jane Austen is tantalizingly silent about any classical attainments she may have had, but it seems probable that her father, who knew classical literature thoroughly, and who taught Latin to students both inside and outside his family, would have taught her a language that we know he passionately valued.True, it was unusual for women to be educated in the classics in her era, but some managed to learn Latin despite their fathers’ hostility to such enterprises.Jane Austen, whose father admired her work, would have certainly received instruction had she desired it. Whether she read classics in the original or in translation, she was comfortable with obscure figures of classical antiquity, Agricola, Caractacus, Severus, and Lucina. It is true that Propertius was, and is, not widely known. But in 1782 his first book of poems was translated into English by John Nott, whose nephew lived near the Austens and may have known them. If he did, Jane Austen would have had both an interest in Propertius and access to his poetry.

That she did know Propertius’ work is suggested in a letter she wrote to Cassandra:

I am sorry that my verses did not bring any return from Edward, I was in high hopes they might – but I suppose he does not rate them high enough. – It might be partiality, but they seemed to me purely classical – just like Homer and Virgil, Ovid and Propria que Maribus.

The classical authors at first seem to have been collected at random to demonstrate the writer’s ability to rattle off names. But in looking at them more carefully, we can see a pattern emerge that formulates both the literary tradition and the division within the literary tradition. All classical literature derives from Homer, and so Homer heads the list. Vergil’s /Aeneid/ carried Homeric epic across to Roman readers, and so his name is placed second. Since they are epic poets, their names are paired together, in opposition to the two names that follow. Ovid and Propertius, whose name is transformed into Propria que Maribus, represent the anti-epic tradition of love-poetry.

This is the fountain in which Jane Austen drew her inspiration, but the tradition moves relentlessly forward. On looking into Chapman’s Austen, we find that Propria que Maribus is adapted from the /Eton Latin Grammar/. This schooltext, written by William Lily, presented the rules of Latin grammar in a poem written in Latin. The section on nouns begins, /Propria quae maribus tribuuntur, mascula dicas/, “Things which are deemed appropriate to males, you should call masculine.” According to Jane Austen’s mischievous history of literature, the classical tradition, after the Roman period, passed through a schoolboy’s textbook. At the same time, Austen may have intended a jab at the British educational system that made Latin the exclusive prerogative of males^.

Jane Austen was, to be sure, a notoriously bad speller, but when she dropped the a in /quae/, this omission may have been deliberate. If it was, the meaning of the phrase is altered from “things which are deemed appropriate for males,” to “she who is also appropriate to men.” (The Latin adjective /propria/ is both neuter plural and feminine singular.) The /Eton Latin Grammar/, with its implied exclusion of women, is set against a new voice, which is feminine and not exclusive. This new voice, I suggest, is Jane Austen’s. “She who is also appropriate to men” captures a quality of Propertius that she would have appreciated. He was proud that his poems were read by women. (This attitude was rare in classical antiquity.) If Propria que Maribus stands also for Jane Austen as the culmination of the classical tradition, she is truly the British Propertia, so to speak, because she adopts Propertius’ literary philosophy both in other ways and in welcoming the opposite sex into her readership. Her most attractive men, like Henry Tilney, read novels, while the least attractive men, like Mr. Collins, do not.

Whether she read Propertius in the original or not, she knew him well enough to pun on his name. Moreover, she recognized the dichotomy in Roman poetry between epic and anti-epic because she opposed Homer and Vergil to Ovid and Propertius. Most importantly, she adapted the literary values of the anti-epic poets in her own works." END OF FIRST QUOTE FROM DEFOREST ARTICLE

Then, later in the article, DeForest includes her own speculation (which I had no conscious memory of, and therefore unwittingly repeated in one of my earlier posts today) about Ovid's Heroides:

"Some classicists see in the Roman love-poets the dawning of an emancipated attitude towards women. One reason for this is that they reversed the traditional hierarchical arrangement that sets warfare above the relationship between a man and a woman. In Homeric epic, the romantic interludes offer comic relief from the bloody battlefield. In the poems of Propertius and Ovid, the romantic interludes take up the foreground, while epic heroes are introduced as foils to the lover. The poets deflate the pompousness of epic poetry by rejecting the belief that a warrior’s life is more important, more difficult, more worthy of poetry than the experiences of a lover. Moreover, both poets subvert heroic legend by presenting epic poems as love-stories. The Iliad is the story of a woman’s unfaithfulness; the Odyssey is the story of a woman courted by many suitors; the Aeneid carries arms and the man into Dido’s bed. Ovid’s Heroides, letters from legendary women to their heroic lovers and husbands, presents heroic material from the women’s point of view. The first of these, the letter from Penelope to Odysseus, may have inspired Jane Austen’s Persuasion.In this novel, Jane Austen protests against the authority men have over literature: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

In Persuasion, Jane Austen poses a challenge to the most manly of classical authors, Homer, by retelling the Odyssey as a woman’s story. Persuasion is not so much a Georgian Odyssey as a Georgian Penelopeia, recounting the Napoleonic Wars from the point of view of the woman left behind. The parallels between the Odyssey and Persuasion are at first striking: a man and a woman are separated for many years; the man at sea, the woman at home. Both are courted by others. He flirts with an attractive young girl, after his physical return, but before his psychological and spiritual awakening and return to his true mate. She is courted by a wicked young man. The ancestral home, Homerically termed ancient and hospitable, is now in the hands of strangers. But the parallels only highlight the contrast. The ancestral home is in better hands than those of its true owners. The wicked suitor is actually the legitimate heir. One character is named Penelope, but her name hits us like a splash of cold water to remind us of the difference between the worlds described by Jane Austen and Homer. Penelope Clay, the treacherous, flattering friend of Anne’s sister, Elizabeth, has an epic model not in Odysseus’ wife, but in his wife’s treacherous maid. Like her epic prototype, she consorts with the wicked suitor. But since William Elliot is the legitimate heir to the ancestral estate, his union with Penelope parodies the Odyssey’s ending." END OF SECOND QUOTE FROM DEFOREST ARTICLE

So DeForest really is the pioneer here, as she wrote the above 22 years ago. But now her sense of the Heroides in Persuasion , which I echoed today, has been extended by Cathy and myself into S&S, and by Amalia Dillin and me into P&P. Each of these allusions reinforces the other two. And most of all, DeForest validates my own sense that the last source that JA would have taken straight was Virgil's epic and male chauvinist Aeneid, when she had the deflating,ironic Ovid, who 1800 years earlier had paved the way for her own brand of satire of powerful men.

Cheers, ARNIE

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