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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jane Austen the radical but covert feminist Part 268

My earlier post about Mary Bennet as Jane Austen's alter ego also prompted the following response from Christy Somer in Janeites:

[Christy] "I was just attempting to maneuver through the various (three in this post) "claims" you keep discovering your `treasures' in.~~~~:-) "

Christy, I'll make it very easy for you---the following part of my last post is my unequivocal bottom line about the depiction of Mary Bennet in P&P, and the parallel to the depiction of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:

"I suggest to you that there is one more turn of the ironic screw here, which is that while on the surface JA's narrator does seem scornful of Mary, that flipflops when you read the narrator as a reflection of Lizzy's subjective perceptions. Then what you have is Mary Bennet as JA's covert self portrait! JA has led the reader down the garden path, seeing if we will take the bait and join with the rest of the Bennet family in unjustly and at times cruelly scorning Mary, but hoping that we will struggle with our inner Mr. Bennet and instead realize that we've been guilty of a wrong first impression of Mary, and reconsider.

So we have a surface parody of Mary, but a veiled anti-parody which vindicates Mary (who I claim is named after Mary Wollstonecraft). And I claim exactly the same sort of anti-parody in Northanger Abbey which has a surface parody of Catherine, but a covert anti-parody which vindicates Catherine's keen perceptions."

And now, to paraphrase Lizzy Bennet, comment on that if you dare! ;)

[Nancy] "All the conduct books reminded the girls that modesty and humility were to be their beauty aids. Austen's readers would have know that and seen Mary as rudely seeking attention."

Nancy, I suggest that you actually make my point for me. It is clear to me for many reasons that JA felt nothing but scorn and contempt for such conduct books and their female-UNfriendly "advice" (which is really suppression in thin disguise).

I was just yesterday reading the following witty ditty written by Mary Wortley Montagu 44 years before JA was born, which sums up in two lines the gist of such "advice" to women:

"Be plain in Dress and sober in your Diet
In short my Dearee, kiss me, and be quiet."

So how ironic and sad that even Lizzy Bennet, who thrills us as readers when she so pluckily breaks the conduct-book rules which frown on a young woman assertively speaking out ("Upon my word," said her ladyship, "you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person."), unwittingly channels those same books when they suppress _Mary's_ attempts at public artistic expression. Lizzy is a _totally_ unconscious hypocrite. Even though Lizzy does feel genuine empathy for Mary when Mr. Bennet maliciously "disconcerts" Mary, Lizzy, when push comes to shove, does not
understand the meaning of female solidarity. That is why Lizzy ignores the mysterious whisperer (who I claim is actually Mary) at Longbourn who whispers to Lizzy:

"The men shan't come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?"

By that time, Lizzy is so deep into Darcy that she is not even listening.

And this sad irony re artistic accomplishment is closely aligned with the treatment of intellectual accomplishment in P&P which I touched on yesterday, vis a vis extensive reading. Lizzy effortlessly dismantles Caroline Bennet's shallow anti-intellectualism, but then unwittingly acts Caroline's role vis a vis Mary, cavalierly dismissing Mary's genuine intellectual accomplishments (as I've written before, Mary's comments in the novel are actually based directly on the writings of Hume, Adam Smith, Wollstonecraft, and other intellectual titans) as a sterile, egotistical self indulgence and waste of time.

And finally, the parallel of Emma's jealousy of Jane to Lizzy's jealousy of Mary is a strong one, I claim. Lizzy, like Emma, as a musician, gets by on charm more than genuine artistic and intellectual accomplishment. And we all know that Emma loves to make long lists of books to read, but does not love to actually read those books.

Again, where Emma has Mr K to puncture her ego on these points, and force her to acknowledge Jane's genuine superiority, Lizzy has only Mr. Bennet who inflates her ego to an alarming degree, even as he cruelly crushes every one of Mary's attempts to fly.

And finally, the parallel to JA in real life, as reflected in JA's late 1798 letters we've been discussing the past 2 months, is also quite striking.

In short, all of the above is prime evidence of Jane Austen the radical but covert feminist.

Cheers, ARNIE

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