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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Letter 13: Mary Bennet and Jane Austen's (broken) Shoelaces

In Janeites and Austen L, during our ongoing group read of Jane Austen's letters (this week, Letter 13), my comments about Jane Austen's deeply held belief that women should be allowed to "hold the pen" and write the novels and histories alongside the male authors, and that triggered a response from Nancy Mayer, to which I responded as follows:

[Nancy] "One of the reasons the men of the day were against women reading and writing novels was because they felt doing so would take the women away from their domestic duties."

Nancy, that was only a smokescreen. Men's _real_ fear--and JA repeatedly shows her awareness of this in her novels, most of all in the defenses of female novel-reading and novel-writing in NA and Persuasion--was that if women were granted an equal freedom to wield the pen, then women were going to use novels to form a network for communicating with _each other_--a very very primitive slow motion Internet, if you will--and then (as in the Arab world at this very moment), all hell might just break loose when women realized that they were _all_ under the thumb of a system that treated them like second class citizens and breeding cows. Like that Greek play when the women all withhold sex from the men till they stop waging war. Can't have that, can we?

That's why the male power structure seized on the French Revolution gone ugly as an excuse to smash _all_ criticism of the status quo in England, tarring all dissidents with the same ugly smears of "Jacobin" and "unsex'd female".

I have just finished preparing the 10-minute talk I will be giving at the Austenmania event that is being held next Monday, March 7, in the midst of an 8-show run of John Jory's Pride & Prejudice stage adaptation at Florida International University in West Miami:

My topic will be Mary Bennet as a veiled self-portrait by Jane Austen, a bookend to her other, much more detailed, veiled self-portrait, Miss Bates. Both of these self portraits revel ironically in two of the stereotypes that JA herself was heir to: the babbling, inconsequential, impecunious spinster aunt, and the bookish, nerdy, unattractive spinster sister. In both cases, she provides a number of textual clues which tell the knowing reader that the unknowing reader joins Lizzy in prejudging Mary, and joins Emma in prejudging Miss Bates, and neither Lizzy nor Emma ever realizes that these "ridiculous" women are actually their _superiors_ in both sense and moral worth.

The echoes of Pride and Prejudice are absolutely deafening in these late 1798 letters, I never realized what a gold mine they were in this regard. Even if we did not know from extrinsic sources that JA wrote her first version of P&P during 1798, these letters alone would prove it. In particular, I am glad that Ellen agrees with me that the satire on Mrs. Austen and her "admiring spectators" is unmistakably echoed in Mr. Bennet's satire on Mrs. Bennet near the end of P&P, and that Diane agrees with me as to the overall tone of these letters.

And apropos the current thread of discussion about how frustrated JA must have been to be distracted from her own serious work as an author by her mother's endless attention-seeking antics, we need only read the end of P&P to find yet another unmistakable echo:

"Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet's being quite unable to sit alone. "

There you have it, isn't that exactly what we have been talking about? Mary Bennet was the most accomplished girl in _her_ neighbourhood (as she hears an admirer telling Miss Bingley at the Meryton assembly), even though she is ignored and ridiculed, and JA knew that _she herself_ was the most accomplished author in the "neighbourhood" of England, even if her days were wasted performing the duties of an unpaid servant!

"Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralize over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance. "

I don't believe that JA ever had to be obliged to mix more with the world, mostly because I suspect that Revd. Austen encouraged and enjoyed her literary intelligence, unlike Mr. Bennet who, perhaps feeling threatened by Mary's serious passion for learning, while he himself was only an intellectual dilettante, can only sneer at Mary. However, I also suspect that JA did not reveal the full extent of her own inner Mary Bennet to her father, but instead presented her own inner Lizzy Bennet to him instead, in order to win his approval!

And every one of these letters we are reading depict JA's (sophisticated) moralizing about the human comedy she witnessed around her. For anyone to read these letters and think they are about small potatoes is to entirely miss the subtlety of JA's genius--she understood that it was the small things that mattered most--as in the famous Hasidic anecdote:

"As one master related of his visit to Dov Ber of Mezeritch, "I went to see how the Maggid tied up his shoelaces"

In reading these letters, and in reading her novels, we have the privilege of observing how JA (and her characters) tied up their shoelaces--and sometimes how, for concealed purposes, they pretended to break them.

Cheers, ARNIE

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