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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 24, 2011

Jane Austen’s Astonishing Double Put-Ons in Letter 50 re Sarah Burney’s Clarentine and also in Northanger Abbey re the word “Unnatural”

[Christy Somer quoted, and then commented in Janeites and Austen L, on the following passage in JA's Letter 50]

“-We are reading Clarentine, & are surprised to find how foolish it is. I remember liking it much less on a 2d reading than at the 1st & it does not bear a 3d at all. It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind.”
[Christy] From my perspective, here is another comment which seems to, more likely, negate the possibility of Jane Austen ever placing subversive (‘unnatural‘) and sensationally disruptive (’forced difficulties’) material within her texts. " ENDQUOTE

I strongly disagree with Christy and I will in this reply make the case for why I believe JA’s reference to "unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind" is actually a sophisticated bit of wordplay that works as mock criticism of Burney’s novels on two different levels, and also opens a portal deep into Jane Austen’s sense of herself as both an author and as a reader.

To start, based on our longstanding disagreement about subtexts in JA’s writing, I feel safe in interpreting Christy as reading JA's reference to "unnatural conduct" and “forced difficulties” as references to depictions of inappropriate sexually charged behaviors of the kind I so often claim are depicted covertly in JA’s novels, which I describe positively as subversive, but which she describes negatively as sensationally disruptive.

I would like to suggest first that there is a second, completely different way of understanding the phrases “unnatural conduct” and “forced conduct”, i.e., as references to a skill in which JA was _almost_ without peer- the gift of creating completely _natural_, realistic characters and placing them in totally _natural_, realistic circumstances! In that alternative interpretation, “unnatural conduct” refers to action in a novel which would never happen in real life, "forced difficulties" refers to _contrived_ plot twists which artificially create drama, and "without striking merit of any kind", refers to writing without _artistic_ merit, i.e., bad writing.

Now...although I have not (yet) read Clarentine, I have read enough _about_ it to know that it actually _does_ depict morally questionable action, including action involving one character oppressing or "forcing" another (female) character, such a depiction being precisely of that nature that Regency Era patriarchal critics of female novel reading considered to be very dangerous especially when read by young “impressionable” women.

And I also have good reason to believe, independently of this passage in Letter 50, and based on my previous research, that JA actually and genuinely admired the writing of Sarah Burney, including, but not limited to, speculations by (at least) a couple of reputable scholars (not named Arnie) who suggest that JA alluded to Clarentine in Mansfield Park.

So I propose to you that JA was in this seemingly throwaway sentence in Letter 50 engaging in some very sophisticated wordplay revolving around _both_ of the alternative meanings of the words "unnatural" and "forced". To be more precise, I claim that JA was engaged in _mock_ criticism of the _moral_ content of the novel, as if JA were that sort of conservative reader, which I am certain she was not!---and…at the same time, JA was also engaged in _mock_ criticism of Burney's _authorial_ skills, as if she thought Burney was really an inept writer—which I also am certain JA did not think!

In short, this little throwaway passage in Letter 50 is a _double_ put on, and I have a fair amount of evidence to back this claim up, if you have the patience to read all the way through the remainder of this post. What you will read about are connections to Mark Twain, Shakespeare, _and_ James Austen in ways that I, for one, did not dream of, when I started writing this post nearly 3 hours ago. It took on a life of its own, and I hung on for dear life to do my best to do justice to what I saw.

Now, my responding to Christy’s comment, and thinking about Austenian wordplay, immediately led me to wonder, how _did_ JA use the word "unnatural" in NA, which is after all the Austen novel that not only contains her famous Defence of the Novel, but also is integrally wound up with characters reading a number of explicitly named novels (Udolpho, The Monk, Tom Jones, Belinda, & Camilla are all mentioned by name, in addition to the Northanger novels). And what I found surprised even me, as being so universally validating of my reading of _both_ of those alternative meanings of "unnatural" in Letter 50—i.e., I claim that JA engaged in the _same_ double entendre in NA, using “unnatural” in _both_ senses I have described above!:

Ch. 5 [the end of the Defence of the Novel] "Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of IMPROBABLE CIRCUMSTANCES, UNNATURAL CHARACTERS, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it. "

Ch. 7: [Catherine] ventured at length to vary the subject by a question which had been long uppermost in her thoughts; it was, "Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?" "Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation." "I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."
"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them." "Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe," said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
"No sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant." "I suppose you mean Camilla?"
"Yes, that's the book; such UNNATURAL STUFF! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it." "I have never read it."
"You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not."This critique, the justness of which was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine, brought them to the door of Mrs. Thorpe's lodgings, and the feelings of the discerning and unprejudiced reader of Camilla gave way to the feelings of the dutiful and affectionate son, as they met Mrs. Thorpe..."
Ch. 14: "The Tilneys called for her at the appointed time; and no new difficulty arising, no sudden recollection, no unexpected summons, no impertinent intrusion to disconcert their measures, my heroine was most UNNATURALLY able to fulfil her engagement, though it was made with the hero himself."

Ch. 22: "Catherine attempted no longer to hide from herself the nature of the feelings which, in spite of all his attentions, [General Tilney] had previously excited; and what had been terror and dislike before, was now absolute aversion. Yes, aversion! His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters, CHARACTERS which Mr. Allen had been used to call UNNATURAL and overdrawn; but here was proof positive of the contrary. "
I believe that in each of the above four passages, the surface meaning of “unnatural” refers to the aesthetic meaning, but there is also a plausible second _moral_ meaning. Just like in Letter 50!

All of this reminds me of a thought I have had before, which is that reading and writing fiction was for JA a kind of holy or sacred act, an act of "communion" between author and reader that was of the greatest moral importance (read the entire Defence of the Novel in Ch. 5 of NA for her full manifesto on the subject), and so it really did offend her when other authors put forth efforts in that arena as if they were serious works of literature which JA found inferior--she was genuinely disappointed in such effort, and it really mattered to her. Just as I am sure it mattered to her when a preacher gave a sermon that did not do justice to the Biblical passages referred to. These were all serious matters for JA.

Having said all of that, I believe that Sarah Burney’s novel Clarentine did not disappoint JA at all, quite the contrary. That JA went to all this trouble in a short passage in a letter in which she claimed to have not much to say, was, I suggest, a big red flag for CEA, with JA saying, in code “I really do have something important to tell you, albeit in code, in this letter!”
And one giant clue to readers of Austen’s fiction that she is engaged in a double put-on here is JA’s reference to having read Clarentine a second time, but then deciding it is not worth a third reading. This is a sentence that is exactly analogous to the famous “tell” in P&P as to Elizabeth Bennet’s deep (but still unconscious) attraction to Mr. Darcy:
“"From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."
And the “tell” of course is that, when you step back and think about it, Elizabeth would not have said this if she had not been giving a _lot_ of thought, for quite a while, to the question of whether she would “ever be prevailed on” (e.g., by Charlotte or by her mother, to name two would be “prevailers” in her life!) “to marry” Darcy in particular!
And that connection between Letter 50 and P&P immediately reminds me of what I have written in the past about Mark Twain’s very famous bon mot about REreading P&P, when I have said that I believe he pays a sly homage to JA in the disguise of a putdown:

“_Every time_ I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone"

The idea of rereading as a form of compliment from one writer to another, as expressed in Letter 50, fits perfectly with that bon mot, and also the rest of what I see as Twain's covert praise of JA:

And so now I will add to my previous set of admiring understandings about Mark Twain’s famous dictum about JA, the _additional_ wonderful nuance that Twain must have also had it in mind to pay sly tribute to that very same reference to Sarah Burney’s Clarentine by JA in Letter 50, a passage in which JA _also_ hid a compliment to another novelist in the guise of a criticism involving rereading!
Which only makes all the more implausible the still nearly universal belief among Janeites that Mark Twain really hated JA’s writing!
But there’s even more surprising ore to be mined from this rich vein of exploration.
That fresh insight about Mark Twain also fits very nicely with one other major idea I have had for nearly two years about Twain's engagement with JA's fiction, an idea that goes beyond what I have written about in my blog, which indeed stretches all the way back to the following usages of the word "unnatural" by the one other writer in the English language who I believe _was_ a peer of Jane Austen when it came to writing characters and stories:

"Revenge his foul and most _unnatural_ murder....Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and _unnatural_"

Of course I am referring to Shakespeare! As Christy heard me say in my presentation about NA in Portland in 2009 at the JASNA AGM, beneath all the other subtext in Northanger Abbey I perceive the ghost of Shakespeare's Hamlet, both figuratively and literally. I.e., I see JA, in writing NA, as rewriting the Ghost of King Hamlet as the Ghost of Mrs. Tilney in her own female-centered reworking of Hamlet, with Mrs. Tilney as the representation of all the English wives who died in childbirth, whose deaths were, in JA's opinion at least, and mine as well, "most foul, strange and unnatural"! And much more in that same vein….


And finally, I just noticed something wonderful as I reread Christy’s post one more time, to be sure I was responding to what she actually wrote, and now, after sorting out all of the above aspects of this wonderful wormhole into JA’s creative psyche, I read what Christy wrote with new eyes:

To wit, when Christy quoted what JA wrote about James Austen:

"…his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife's…"

I now see that in a way, JA is comparing James to a bad _writer_, who is derivative and "forced" (that word again!), but here JA is suggesting that James is "writing" his own _life_ badly, because he's emulating a very bad "writer", Mary Austen, who, as JA famously pointed out, does not enjoy reading novels. What JA is saying, in so many words, is that living life is a lot like writing a novel (a very 20th century metafictional concept, but also one inspired by the amazing 18th century novel Tristram Shandy), and James Austen did not cut it in either realm, at least in JA’s book.

I think that this little tidbit about James Austen in Letter 50 is a lens that enables us to perceive the heretofore invisible presence of James and Mary Austen in Northanger Abbey. Like the Emperor in the children's story, we can now see that JA is taking on the role of the child in the fable--who is a _lot_ like Catherine Morland, now that I think about it!---and she is saying, in so many words, that James Austen is wearing no clothes---i.e., he is a poor excuse for a writer, and an even poorer excuse for a brother, son and father!
And the way this personal judgment on James Austen is so tightly interwoven with all of the literary significance I have described, above, tells me that JA’s creativity was, at least in part, fueled by her anger at James Austen, and the betrayal of her and the rest of her family that she accused James of to her dying day.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. And finally, Christy, now I hope that perhaps you, after reading all of the above, may agree with me that I have given a half dozen reasons in indirect support of your (to my mind, spot-on) discerning an echo of Isabella Thorpe in JA's comments about Revd. Moore--because I have shown in so many ways that Letter 50 is itself so saturated with Northanger Abbey and all its references to novels—and you're observation adds one more jewel to that crown! ;)

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