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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Biblical Influence on Austen

[In Janeites and Austen L, Anielka Briggs wrote] "Austen could have combined any number of Pride and Prejudice references to create an exegetic layer-cake of meaning."

I've been talking about JA's allusive layer cake since 2002 in Janeites, and I (and some other Austen scholars too) have also _specifically_ mentioned the title and the opening sentence of P&P as examples of those multiple layers. So I am glad--and not at all surprised---that you agree on those points, Anielka.

[Anielka also wrote] "If you want to reflect a little on the judgemental way you see her, try comparing the fifteen-year-old involved in a relationship with an older man with that of Mary, an unmarried fifteen-year-old involved in a relationship with Joseph. I think Austen meant to challenge us and make us examine the ways in which we condemn or condone social behaviour and how it aligns with the Christian message."

I am so glad you wrote that comment. That second sentence of yours (beginning with "I think Austen meant...") is exactly what I have been saying for many years in these groups, but with special emphasis in my series of posts from about 6-9 months ago, which were all about the Hebrew (but also a bit of the Christian) Biblical allusive subtext of Mansfield Park. And it is remarkable that you chose as an example Mary the 15 year old mother of Jesus. Here is a quote from me from Dec. 9, 2010, in the archives of both of these groups and in my blog, in a post about the 15-year old Philadelphia Austen, and my claims about JA having covertly represented her paternal aunt, in Emma and also in others of JA's fictions, as perhaps having been a teenaged prostitute in Covent Garden circa 1750:

" sense is that JA was first and foremost an author of fictions and that was her most sacred duty, in her eyes--because she saw herself as having a great gift from God, which it was her duty to share with the world. It was not vanity for a very great genius to see herself as playing a special role in the world, it was pragmatic reality. She understood from a very young age that she was different, special, "chosen", and she struggled to come to terms with what to do with her gift. She chose a path that I celebrate, honor, enjoy and learn from every single day. She has been a great teacher for me in so many profound ways. I think she resolved that struggle on how to reconcile her role in the family with her role as an author in 1809, and decided that this was her destiny, to bring these stories to the world, including the shadow stories of women in her time. From that point forward, she was resolute in executing her plan. I have emphasized several times that JA made use of her aunt's painful early life as grist for her literary mill, not in a cynical, selfish, judgmental way, but with a combination of compassion and worldly wisdom which put her aunt's early life choices in perspective, and found useful life lessons in life. Her aunt did not live and die in vain. Her story was preserved by her loving niece. Read what Anne Elliot says in Persuasion. Read what the narrator says in Northanger Abbey. JA saw herself as telling the history of women--the HERstory of women, from a woman's perspective, something that she saw a desperate need for, a need that trumped all other considerations. You and I and others were in great dispute about Samuel Johnson recently. It is not accidental that JA alluded to Johnson's Misella, the prostitute, in her novels. Emma (with Jane Fairfax) and Mansfield Park (with Fanny Price) both have the painful shadow story of prostitutes hanging over them, that is why Fanny Hill is such an important subtext of both of those novels, and that is why Phila Hancock is there too. Despite my other complaints about Johnson, he did not write about Misella in a prurient or evil way, he was telling that untold story. And JA saw her aunt as a real life Misella. I am not saying that Phila Austen was the real life model for Fanny Hill, or the real life model for Misella, but she may as well have been, from JA's creative perspective, as she wove those fictional sources together with her own aunt's life to create her own suffering heroines."

In a nutshell, my above post shows how I see JA's deep Biblical knowledge and theoretical understanding being used by her in the service of what I claim was the bedrock of her moral agenda, i.e., to heal the injured body of English womanhood, and, on the flip side, to enable women to celebrate the wonders of their bodies, free from male oppression. And crucial to that feminist project was to educate women, not in the shallow sense of sterile "accomplishments", not even in the higher level of useful education that Wollstonecraft advocated for women, but most of all in training women to think outside the box of human subjectivity.

And this example of the young Phila Austen also illustrates that the multitude of sexual innuendoes that populate JA's novels is, to me, a reflection both of JA's depicting how a woman's sexuality can get her into trouble in a sexist world that exploits women's bodies, but also of JA's claiming a woman's right to celebrate her own sexuality, including her own (very normal and healthy) enjoyment of sexual humor. She was the greatest scholarly interpreter of Shakespeare who has ever lived, in my opinion, and part of her deep understanding of Shakespeare involved JA's enjoying ribald sexual humor, and also understanding that it was not, as Samuel Johnson so stupidly suggested, a distraction from Shakespeare's deepest meanings, but actually a royal road that led right to them.

And so, for JA to allude to Fanny Hill in Emma, as I claim she did, was not a case of JA having her mind in the gutter, but JA pointing to the social reality that undergirds Cleland's farce, in which vulnerable young women were driven into prostitution---and so it is no accident that Mrs. Elton wants to drive Jane Fairfax into "governessing". That she also finds black humor in all of this is a reflection of her genius, it is a species of "gallows humor", the freedom of the oppressed person to laugh at the oppressors.

In your last post, Anielka, you went through an exegesis of Christian Biblical themes hidden in both the second charade in Emma, and in the James I Sharade in The History of England, and I believe you have made a very good prima facie case for these Christian Biblical allusions being intentional on JA's part. I don't doubt that your full exposition of same will be even more interesting. I have no problem with that at all, it fits well with my own Biblical allusive discoveries, and it is a welcome addition to the subtextual material all Janeites so inclined have to work with.

But the one instance where I disagree with you--strongly--is in your begging what I see as the most important question of all. I.e., "What is the relationship between the different layers of subtext that JA intentionally but covertly wove into her novels?" You seem to be claiming that a Christian Biblical interpretation supersedes every other layer, and renders other layers superficial, irrelevant, or even ridiculous. I strongly disagree with that claim, and I instead see as the deepest layer JA's focus on epistemology, how we know what we know. Her novels are training manuals for thinking, directed primarily toward a contemporary female audience. That is the essence of the feminism I claim for JA, and I see nothing in what you've brought forward in your Christian exegeses which is contradictory to my claim, in fact, it only supports it all the more. It all depends, as JA herself would have pointed out, on your point of view.

Time will tell how my above-stated understanding of the relationship of your theories and mine will be received by the world of Janeites, and vice versa. I am sure it will be a very interesting era in Jane Austen scholarship.

I cliam that JA presents all these layers of covert subtext so that a (female) reader who is so inclined will be challenged to find them, and, in so doing, will develop their ability to hold contradictory ideas in their minds and to tolerate that sort of ambiguity, because the world is ambiguous, and error is most likely to arise from the craving for certainty. I claim that is the deepest purpose of the shadow stories I have excavated in her novels.

A very Buddhist/Hindu perspective actually, and I would not at all be surprised to learn one day that JA gained access, either via her world-traveller sailor brothers or from some other source, to Eastern spiritual writings at some point in her life, and that there are a few covert allusions to the Buddha or the Gita somewhere in JA's novels.

So I welcome your making your full argument whenever you get around to doing so, I am very confident that whatever interesting discoveries you bring forward will be harmonious with my interpretation of JA as a radical but covert feminist.

Cheers, ARNIE

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