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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Radicalization of a Young Genius

The group reading of Jane Austen's letters that began 3 months ago is proceeding at its deliberately glacial pace, and it is bearing rich rewards, as we are now on Letter #12.

It really is fascinating to read these letters along with those who read them so fundamentally differently than I do, especially Nancy Mayer. We read these letters in opposite ways, just as we read the novels in opposite ways, and feminism is at the center of our mutual opposition.

The more I think about it, the more certain I feel in my original interpretation of Dr. Hall's stillborn child described in Letter #10:

I find it hugely significant as a "crux" for interpretation, as I am the only one talking here who explains the explosion of rage behind it in a way that does _not_ diminish Jane Austen the person. What otherwise must be read like an extremely intemperate, cruel, unChristian, and sneering joke at the expense of a poor mother's suffering--something that probing, insightful Janeites like Elissa can actually feel the need to shut away from sight, is, to me, JA's flaring outrage _on behalf of_ , and firm feminist solidarity with, that victimized woman. This is not something to hide away, it's something to celebrate, this is truly righteous
anger, safely vented in private where it does no personal harm to anyone, but which has the intent to shake CEA out of her zombie-state and join JA in screaming "We're M.A.D. as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!!!!!!!"---except CEA is not willing to go to the
barricades with JA.

Ellen Moody speculates about CEA not merely being deferential to male authority in writing to James first, but actually punishing JA for "malevolence" (like "Mrs. Hall of Sherburne") expressed in recent letters. That is a fascinating speculation on Ellen's part, and I will
keep it in mind, alongside my somewhat more benign interpretation of CEA being servile to male authority without trying to punish JA. Either way, it's a bad deal, and CEA richly deserves the petard-hoisting that JA delivers to her in Letter #12. This game of CEA, whether it is
collusion with the status quo, or active suppression of JA's outrage, is something JA is intent upon putting to an end.

Reading these letters slowly and sequentially like this is almost like reading them in real time, isn't it? And the context of slowly reading these letters has shown me that the late Fall of 1798 was clearly a watershed in JA's evolution as a thinker about the (inferior) place of women in her world. She was going through a painful experience in the very last stages of being jilted in slow motion by Tom Lefroy (and I concur with Ellen's recent comments regarding same), and also observing the endless pregnancies, and deaths associated with same, all around
her, and the casual selfishness and disregard of her brothers in regard to the constriction of women's lives in terms of travel and responsibility for droves of children, etc etc. It is a moment of radicalization, where the free-floating chaotic aggression of the Juvenilia against the absurdities and hypocrisies of the "adult" world around her begin to coalesce around a theory of the world that JA finds herself trapped in. It is an awakening, and she feels a lot of anger, and, with hindsight, we can say that JA has another _decade_ of suffering in front of her before she finally gets that "room of her own", the firm place to plant her feet and then begin to move the world, a female literary Archimedes.

No wonder the first version of the highly feminist Northanger Abbey (called Susan then) appears at this time, but promptly gets put on a shelf by the publisher. No wonder the first versions of the outspoken feminists Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood appear at this moment, but also do not get published. This is nothing less than the author finding her voice and her mission, and beginning to realize that she is up against a very big machine. But she is a very stubborn person, she never gives up, even as she lies dying, 20 years later, she keeps working at spreading her gospel.

And these late 1798 letters are an accurate reflection of that metamorphosis going on in the mind of a young genius.

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

mary cantwell said...

Arnie, if Jane Austen were speaking of some hypothetical person's behavior (re: letter to sister) she might say something like: "It is an undeniable fact that the woman has certain genuis; it does not signify, however, that she does not sometimes also have those qualities which we most abhor."
I believe that the letter was written in a most petulent rage, but this does not diminish Jane Austen's great qualities. She probably WAS under great stress and fear for the loss of life, both mother and child. I only know of one woman my age (52) who died in child birth, but even today, we all breathe a sigh of relief when mother and baby are well... it is still life and death.
As for the letter, Jane probably expected a note from her sister and given their extremely close relationship, her sister probably new damn well she was expected to send a letter. So, did Cassandra DELIBERATELY fail to send a letter because she was sick of cow-towing to her sister or was she just exhausted and failed to get to it?
Jane was probably a bit of a bully within the family. Geniuses are sometimes like that. Probably by ages 2 and 3, Cassandra realized that Jane was the brilliant one and she would have to follow her lead. This does not mean that Jane was not a thoughtful, considerate person at other times in her life, but she had a wit that could injure. Let's just say I would read everything she ever wrote, but probably would not have sat at her cafeteria table in high school so as to avoid the scathing comments. She had great empathy and understanding of human nature, and I think you have to have a little "evil" inside in order to see it in others. I know that I have it.