(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jane Austen's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I have previously pointed out the intentional deceptiveness of Henry Austen, in his 1818 Biographical Notice about the recently deceased JA, most of all in what he writes about his sister's alleged novelistic allusive sources and influences:

"...She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high [as Richardson's Grandison]. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals. Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals."

I most recently wrote about Henry's suspicious comments a few weeks ago, in regard to the all-female Sarah/Henry Fielding-infused playlet that JA staged, directed, and starred in at Godmersham in 1806:

In a nutshell, I made an extensive case for an intricate allusion by Jane Austen to works of both Henry and Sarah Fielding, reworked by JA for didactic purposes, to raise a budding feminist consciousness in her elder Godmersham nieces (and their aunt Harriot Bridges).

I believe Henry Austen was very much aware of how important an allusive source Henry (and Sarah) Fielding's writings were for Jane Austen, and (at least in 1818, when he had already been a rabid Evangelical clergyman for a couple of years after the collapse of his banking career) he had a strong personal desire to squelch any awareness of what _he_ considered to be his sister's "gross" interest in the Fieldings.

In particular, as I will elaborate today, I think Henry Austen understood that Henry Fielding's most famous novel, _Tom Jones_ was of _special_ interest to JA. And I am writing about this topic today because, fortuitously, the allusion to the Joseph story in Persuasion that I wrote about in my two posts yesterday...... _directly_ connected to Jane Austen's allusive focus on _Tom Jones_ ! Here's how it all hangs together.

The only work of Henry Fielding that JA mentions explicitly in any of her novels is _Tom Jones_, when the Neanderthal John Thorpe responds to Catherine Morland's question about novels as follows:

"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."

Having the brutish John Thorpe endorse_Tom Jones_ would hardly seem like a ringing endorsement by JA of the high quality of that novel. So why _did_ Henry Austen feel it necessary to single out Fielding's writing for special dismissal in his Biographical Notice? Didn't Thorpe's endorsement already settle that question?

Apparently not, and I suggest that this is because Henry Austen was very aware that sister Jane's acute interest in _Tom Jones_ was anything but negative, and further he knew that her interest spanned, at a minimum, the entire duration of her mature writing career, i.e., just over twenty years. Here's some of the best evidence for that assertion.

In 1796, JA wrote to sister CEA the following famous passages in her two earliest surviving letters, detailing, with Elizabeth Bennetesque wit and vivacity, some of Jane's flirtations with Tom Lefroy, nephew of Madam Lefroy:

Letter 1: "...After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove-it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded...."

Letter 2: "...Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, and I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat..."

Janeites familiar with P&P will instantly recall that there are a number of instances in which we hear about the feelings of Darcy and Lizzy being "wounded", and I say it is no coincidence, because here in these 1796 letters we have two seeds of those many passages in P&P. Which is part of why, in my opinion, the biopic _Becoming Jane_ took exactly the _wrong_ interpretation of these passages, by dramatizing a scene between Jane and Tom, in which Tom convinces the timid Jane to venture out of her comfort zone and read something edgy, like _Tom Jones_.

Whereas what I believe actually occurred was precisely the opposite, i.e., that Jane already was quite familiar with _Tom Jones_ (I would guess, based on the extreme raciness of her Juvenilia, by as early as age 13 or 14), and it was _Jane_ who was pushing the uptight, moralizing (but very handsome, intelligent, and ambitious) Tom Lefroy to lighten up and "give away his white coat" (i.e., get off his preachy high horse and open his heart to the "wounds" of love), and enjoy life a little, or else his company was going to quickly become tedious and irksome to Jane--I also hear the tone of Marianne mocking Brandon here, and I think Marianne, as well as Lizzy Bennet, is indeed a self-portrayal by JA of her young self.

And it is an incontestable fact that the mature writings of Tom Lefroy reveal _him_ to have been a lifelong strictly religious, even puritanical man--the last man, in other words, to be foisting the "gross" _Tom Jones_ on an already overly satirical young woman. No, Tom Lefroy was the furthest thing from the James McAvoy we saw on the screen---Tom L. was very likely the kind of pompous, uptight young snob who, like Darcy at the Netherfield ball, is ripe for teasing of the most delicious and deflating kind.....such as attributing to him a love of the risque _Tom Jones_!

Anyway, even aside from what I think are these very plausible inferences of the allusion to _Tom Jones_ in those two 1796 letters, what is an undeniable fact, on the face of these letters, is that the 21 year old Jane Austen not once but _twice_ refers to that one scene, buried in the vast midsection of the text of _Tom Jones_, in a very _specific_ way that she evidently expects CEA to understand without providing explanatory details. This tells us that _Tom Jones_ was a novel that Jane and Cassandra had read together, several times, well enough for CEA at least to interpret her sister's riddling comments about Tom's white coat.

Here, by the way, is the relevant scene from _Tom Jones_, Chapter, 14:

"As soon as the serjeant was departed, Jones rose from his bed, and dressed himself entirely, putting on even his coat, which, as its colour was white, showed very visibly the streams of blood which had flowed down it… He had on, as we have said, a light-coloured coat, covered with streams of blood. His face, which missed that very blood, as well as twenty ounces more drawn from him by the surgeon, was pallid. Round his head was a quantity of bandage, not unlike a turban. In the right hand he carried a sword, and in the left a candle. So that the bloody Banquo was not worthy to be compared to him. In fact, I believe a more dreadful apparition was never raised in a church-yard, nor in the imagination of any good people met in a winter evening over a Christmas fire in Somersetshire. "

For all that Henry Austen refers to Fielding's writing as gross and unworthy of the admiration of his sister's alleged delicate aesthetic sensibility, it is curious that JA chose to joke about that particular passage, in which Fielding has slipped in an allusion to the Ghost of Banquo from Macbeth, a rather serious, potentially tragic, allusive shadow. In fact, if you read the scholarly literature about _Tom Jones_, you quickly find out that _Tom Jones_ is a veritable La Brea Tar Pit, filled with all sorts of interesting literary and historical allusive "bones" sticking up out everywhere in the reader's field of vision---- and many of those allusions are very serious, scholarly, and dark, hardly of the kind that you'd expect to find in a novel that Henry Austen considered "gross".

And here's the bottom line, the biggest irony hidden in Henry Austen's harshly negative (dare I say, Thwackumesque) judgment on Fielding's writings. Would you believe that one of the more significant allusive sources buried not very shallowly in _Tom Jones_ is the _Bible_? And, in particular....(you guessed it!), the Joseph stories from Genesis!

Of course, when you think about it, it is easy to see Tom as Joseph, and Blifil as an amalgam of the jealous resentful brothers of Joseph! And is it then just a coincidence that a vivid symbol that links the Joseph stories in the Bible to _Tom Jones_ to JA's first two surviving 1796 letters is the image of a coat stained with blood? Of course not! It (and also other Biblical allusions in _Tom Jones_) shows that Fielding knew his Bible very well, and that the 21 year old JA knew her Bible very well, too, and recognized Fielding's Biblical allusion, and deployed it to great satirical effect in her verbal jousting with Tom Lefroy at the ball, as reported in Letters 1 & 2--in direct riposte, I suspect, to the pious Tom Lefroy urging Jane Austen to read more in the Bible and less in _Tom Jones_! I.e. we have JA, her courage rising at such a sanctimonious challenge, deftly turning his advice on its head, and tossing back to him the advice that he read _Tom Jones_, and see what great literature, informed by a sophisticated, secularized understanding of those Bible stories, could bring to the table of life.

And so of course Henry Austen, in the process of writing the Biographical Notice, and probably perusing (of course with Cassandra's permission) JA's letters to CEA in the aftermath of JA's death, would be confronted, in the very first two letters, with JA's satirical delight in the wonders of Fieldling, at the expense of Tom Lefroy, and Henry would take it personally, because, in a very real sense, his own life journey had been a movement from Tom Jones toward Tom Lefroy. And Henry would have been in strong agreement with Fielding's contemporary, "Dr. John Hill, who afterwards worked up a quarrel with Fielding, advised a gentleman compelled to retire to the country on account of ill health, to take with him only the Bible, any chapter in which he would find 'as much novelty as one in 'Tom Jones'...when new fallen from the almost creative pen of its author.' "

The battle lines were clearly drawn, but Henry Austen was determined to steal JA away from "the Devil's party", and to deceive the world by giving false testimony that JA was on the side of the Thwackums and not the Fieldings. But now it is finally time to deep six that deception, and replace it with the truth. Jane Austen's novels are truly the works of a great mind wearing an amazing technicolor dreamcoat, who saw her own face in the mirror of the Joseph of Genesis and the Henry Fielding of England, and understood that the highest wisdom and morality could be derived from a deep synthetic understanding of them _both_.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. At some future date I will return to the subject of _Tom Jones_ and Jane Austen, and dip into the complex, varied allusion to _Tom Jones_ in Northanger Abbey, which is the bookend of the evidence that shows that till the end of her creative life, she had _Tom Jones_ at the center of her radar screen.

No comments: