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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Remember that we are English, that we are Christians

"No, Jane was not a saint but neither do I believe she was a secret libertine in her thoughts . I do think everyone in her family was Human. That they all loved each other; that they made mistakes, were frustated, and sometimes thoughtless. I say that just as we are not to make Jane a saint, we should be careful about demonizing her father and brothers. They weren't responsible for the social mores of their time. We are just on letter 10. We should be interpreting these letters only on the information about people and places up to this time period. We should look at these letters with an open mind and try not to read into them emotions raised by actions ten years later."


I see the consistent veiled critique of James and Edward in many of JA's letters, and I call them as I see them. When you write "They weren't responsible for the social mores of their time" and "We should be interpreting these letters only on the information about people and places up to this time period", in my opinion you consistently beg the most important questions, and you consistently keep your mind closed to the possibility of feminist-tinged criticism of men behaving badly, that I see everywhere in JA's letters.

The issue of serial pregnancy, death in childbirth, women's bodies worn out by caring for a litter of babies, is one that very much was a "social more of the times"--and that is _precisely_ what infuriated and motivated JA to write her novels as she did.

As I emphasized in my JASNA AGM presentation about Mrs. Tilney as the veiled tragic heroine of Northanger Abbey, the key speech which shows this is the following castigation of Catherine by Henry, which in the conventional reading is _not_ ironic, but in my unconventional (but _not_ unprecedented) reading, is saturated with dark irony:

"“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to — Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

Catherine misunderstands Henry's rant--she assumes he knows that she has been speculating about General Tilney intentionally murdering his wife, but she is wrong in that, as there is _nothing_ whatsoever in the novel to suggest that Henry does realize what Catherine has actually been suspecting--because he never asks her, and she never tells him! If you don't believe me, reread those chapters, you will see that I am correct.

But....what _Jane Austen_, qua author_, suspected, judged, remembered, understood, _and_ observed [I love that litany of four verbs which run the gamut of what it means to know something] was that her married English "sisters" were all subjected to the genuine atrocities of serial pregnancy, death in childbirth, overwhelming demands of child care, broken down health, and (further down the list) no possibility of realizing their own creative potential in any way other than as a breeding animal, because even for those who survived the gauntlet of pregnancies, their education has been so pitiful that a great deal of their native intelligence, never developed the way men's creative gifts were developed, i.e., by formal education, has not prepared women for any other useful or creative endeavors, and it has simply withered on the vine.

And JA was also pointing out that English laws _did_ connive at these atrocities, by stripping wives of all their property, by allowing husbands total control over their sex lives (unless, like Mrs. Bennet, Mary Musgrove, or Lady Bertram, they contrived to have a permanent "headache"), and by allowing husbands to take custody of children in the event of divorce. And, what's more, the social mores and literary memes of the day (remember Anne Elliot pointing out about men holding the pen, and Catherine pointing out that men wrote all the histories, and never paid attention to the lives of women?) all turned a blind eye to these atrocities, treating them as completely normal; where the voluntary spies, mostly men, were too busy rooting out "Jacobins" to worry about protecting wives from their husbands--that would have been asking the wolves to tend to the sheep! And the newspapers printed not a word about these atrocities, because, of course, they were written by men. And worst of all, in JA's mind, I think, England was a _Christian_ country, and she found it a profound abomination that the caring for the poor, the leper, the outcast, which was the thing about Jesus I believe she loved most, had no place in the Anglican morality she witnessed in the likes of James Stanier Clarke, and satirized in the likes of Mr. Collins, Mr. Elton, Dr. Grant, and even in the moral obtuseness of Henry Tilney (in this rant of his, most of all) and Edmund Bertram. Instead of defending wives, the Church actively promoted the notion that wives should simply submit to their husbands.

And so these atrocities were not only tolerated, they were _invisible_ to the husbands who committed them!

And _that_ is why JA harped on these atrocities, over and over and over again, overtly in her letters, and covertly in her novels. She saw that no one else was saying that the Emperor had no clothes! And so I turn your claim that the mores of that time period turned a blind eye to these things on its head--yeah, men really did not think there was any problem with the status quo---but all the more reason to back up Jane Austen-who is the reason we are here talking in the first place---in _her_ desire to bring these sins to light!

Who cares that a wolf has no evil intent when it kills a sheep? if the wolf kills, and we have it in our power, it is moral to protect the sheep. So who cares if James Austen and Edward Austen, and Earle Harwood and many other men in JA's world, were raised (by complicit mothers) to be selfish and entitled, and so were not mindful of the wrongs they unwittingly committed? Their _behavior_ toward women was often bad, Jane Austen noticed this, and wrote about it, and that is what mattered to her, and matters to me. conclusion, I say that the Subject Line I selected, from Henry's rant, is actually JA's clarion call and exhortation to everyone reading her novels---"_Remember_ that we are English..."--the land of the Magna Carta and the Mansfield decision, where English air was enough to make a person free.....unless you were a woman. "_Remember_...that we are Christians"---the religion that stood most of all for mercy to the downtrodden....unless you were a woman. JA was saying to everyone, "Allons, citoyens!" and trying, in the only way open to her, to bring about a (peaceful) revolution in England where women had true equality with men!

In that sense, harking back to my discussion with Kathy Elder last week, I believe that JA's novels really are veiled sermons, and that JA saw herself as a novelist qua public theologian, filling the moral void by using the bully pulpit of her fiction to spread a new feminist gospel.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: And by the way, where do you get this "secret libertine" thing? That JA would be less judgmental of women than of men in her world, seeing extenuation for their sins because of the gender power differential, and that JA would enjoy a good, clever, sharp dirty joke, like any normal person--does this make her a secret libertine? That starts to sound like Polwhele's dangerous slander of outspoken, uncowed (in _both_ senses of that word) women as "unsex'd females"! It is obvious to me that _many_ intelligent women of JA's day, despite their educational disadvantages, were plenty aware of the injustice against them in the status quo---but they did not hold the pen, they did not hold the gavel in Parliament (in fact, they could not vote at all!), they did not stand at the pulpit, and so they were profoundly silenced!

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