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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jane Austen's Deployment of Ambiguity

Nancy Mayer's response in Janeites to my recent posts about Warren Hastings's trial give me the opportunity to clarify one crucial aspect that I see in Jane Austen's repeated covert allusions to Warren Hastings in various of her novels, i.e., the deployment of ambiguity for thematic and didactic purposes:

[Nancy] "He wasn't convicted though. Arnie, you do have a habit of using pejorative adjectives about people you dislike , against whom no charges have been proved. The charge of corruption was brought, it is said, by a man with whom he had fought a duel. A great many of the charges were political and had to do with the East India Company and other interests. Hastings had the support of the east India Company."

And do you doubt, Nancy, that politics played an equal, if not more decisive, role in his acquittal? The crucial point in all of this is _not_ to know for certain whether Hastings really was guilty or not, but that there was, and still remains to the present day, very serious doubt about Warren Hastings's role in India-and that doubt, that ambiguity about whether Hastings was a tragically maligned hero, or a monster who got off the hook for monstrous crimes, or something in between, is _precisely_ what drew JA to use him as a real life source!

Look at Shakespeare's history plays, which JA knew very well. They are all in exactly the same vein--was Prince Hal/Henry V a villain or a hero? was Richard II a victim or deserving of his fate? JA, like Shakespeare, was acutely aware of how power and such ambiguity walked hand in hand.

[Nancy] "This does not mean I approve of all his actions, nor am I condoning all that the British did in India , just observing that in the case of Hasting, they didn't prove anything."

In a nutshell, the Warren Hastings his _defenders_ saw was the Sir Thomas Bertram and the Colonel Brandon (I will not address Hastings's _other_ representations in JA's novels) _you_ see in MP and S&S, respectively. The Warren Hastings his _accusers_ saw, however, was the Sir Thomas Bertram and the Colonel Brandon I see in the _shadows_ of MP and S&S, respectively.

So that those who do see the allusions to Hastings in MP and S&S will also see those allusions as being consistent with their beliefs about Hastings. JA's perspective was one step up the logical chain, i.e., her goal was to assist her readers in attaining that higher perspective, the one in which _both_ opposing points of view would be recognized and fully taken into account as a dialectic. Again, an epistemologically-informed perspective.

In my opinion-indeed at the center of my entire approach to JA's writing--that was JA's m.o., repeatedly exploiting such ambiguity for complex thematic and didactic purposes.


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