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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 17, 2011

PD James's Trojan Horse Moments about the mystery with(out) a murder

Someone wrote the following question in Austen L: "I saw this article in the L.A. Times Calender section, and although I've never heard of this author, I felt this was significant, especially given the publishing house. It seems to indicate just how this story has affected so many people. Has anyone heard of P.D. James or read her books?"

She received a couple of responses about James's distinguished authorial career as "perhaps the preeminent author of detective fiction in the English speaking world from the 60's through the 80's", and "Meaty, complex and well-written stories, more cerebral than the usual fictional detective dross."

However, I would like to give another, Austen-specific perspective on PD James. In an essay she wrote over 20 years ago, she famously wrote that Emma is the mystery without a murder, and then went on to explain about all the clues in Emma which, when you REread Emma, you realize were clues to the secret engagement between Jane and Frank. A Sacramento prof named David Bell did his own alternative version of that argument a few years ago in a Persuasions Online article, focused on the pianoforte/spectacle rivet scene.

James and Bell were both very clever, but they both missed the most important point of all, as I always explain in my Jane Fairfax presentation. That point is that, yes, all those clues definitely do point toward some sort of clandestine relationship between Jane and Frank, but there is _nothing_ in the first 49 chapters that definitively points toward Jane and Frank having fallen in love at Weymouth and then got engaged.

The clues _also_ fit perfectly well with Jane having another, rather more serious problem, when she comes to Highbury, as I've been saying publicly since January 2005, a problem that her engagement to Frank, which came afterwards, was supposed to solve......

And by the way, I believe PD James had what I call a "Trojan Horse Moment" when she claimed Emma was the mystery _without_ a murder. Leland Monk first wrote about Frank doing his aunt in way back in 1990, and when you read the relevant text, it is truly astounding that it too 174 years for someone to see it:

"The following day brought news from Richmond to throw every thing else into the background. An express arrived at Randalls to announce the death of Mrs. Churchill! Though her nephew had had no particular reason to hasten back on her account, she had not lived above six-and-thirty hours after his return. A sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more. "

I mean, really. How many hints did JA have to give? There are 5 in those few sentences alone, in addition to a variety of other bread crumbs scattered through the novel, as well as the situation itself at that stage of the novel's action, when everything is suggesting that Frank is about to blow like Mt. St. Helens, from the pressure of living under his aunt's thumb, and from having salvation one small death away, just within reach.

If her death took place in an Agatha Christie novel, I think it's fair to say that Frank doing her in would be considered too heavy handed a revelation for the connoisseur. But such is the power of JA's ability to throw charms over her reader's eyes, and also nearly 200 years of groupthink that JA did not do such things, that the idea of a discreet country house murder seems so shocking. So James was certainly right, JA's masterfuly ability to mystify her readers in the most subtle ways imaginable, is indubitable.

And, speaking of Monk's article, I did not know anything about it in Nov. 2004 when Juliet Youngren, who used to be a Janeites regular, rocked _my_ world, and wrote the following:

"On the surface there appears to be little crime in Jane Austen's fiction- nobody murders Aunt Norris....I remember somebody had a theory about Frank murdering Mrs. Churchill, though..."

That meme combusted in my brain along with all the other offstage action I had been noting in S&S and P&P since July 2002, and I soon thereafter realized that Jane was pregnant.

And the rest, as they say, is both history _and_ mystery.

Cheers, ARNIE

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