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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 30, 2012

Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square, and Jane Austen's Attitude Toward King George III's (Dra)GOONS

Diane Reynolds initiated an interesting thread in Austen L and Janeites:

[Diane] "Is there a term to describe the kind of family Austen grew up in?"

"Dysfunctional" and "sexist" are the first two that come to my mind. (joking, and yet not joking at all)

[Diane]: "While technically "nuclear" in that only two generations, parents and children, lived together, it seems different from the kind of small, intensely individualized nuclear family we have today and that I think of as beginning in the Victorian era. The Austen family functioned, as far as I can tell, more like a business unit, especially in the sense that the needs of individual children were apparently subordinated to the overall needs of the family--I am thinking particularly of the young Jane and C being sent off to boarding school apparently to make room for more students. We can infer Ja being "punished" later in life for her refusal to marry and hence contribute to the finances and status of the family unit as a whole."

That is a brilliant insight on your part, Diane, you prompted me to think back to a joking, and yet not joking, post that I wrote a few months ago:

What your metaphor of family as economic collective (which is another way of conceptualizing what you're saying, if i am not mistaken) made me realize was how uncannily similar the dynamics of JA's family are to the current political debate going on in various parts of the world, but most visibly in the 2012 US presidential campaign. I.e., issues of fairness as to how the costs and burdens of achieving collective well-being are shared by different categories of members of the collective.

I am certain that JA viewed the Austen family/collective the way many people from the Occupy Wall Street/left end of the public spectrum (including myself) view the United States today, which is why the following famous epistolary statement by JA, describing the Pillaging of Steventon by James and Mary Austen.....

"The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another"

...could effortlessly be adapted into a slogan for the bottom line of the Occupy Wall Street political stance:

"The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich the 1% at the expence of the 99%".

In many ways the Presidential race will be a referendum on whether a majority of Americans believe that to be the case or not.

I've written variations on that theme of unfairness and exploitation in the Austen family from JA's point of view on many occasions, most notably this one:

So, to answer your question, we might very well see an analogy to the banishment to genteel urban poverty in Southampton inflicted on JA (and by a notion of collective punishment, on the other two females in the Austen nuclear family, CEA and Mrs. Austen as well) in JA's fiction with Fanny's banishment to not so genteel urban poverty in Portsmouth, and in modern American politics in the aggressive reactions against Occupy Wall Street protesters by some governmental authorities, or even to union-busting and other governmental tactics designed to keep the less powerful members of the collective in line.

Which leads organically to the question of Jane Austen's attitude toward various analogous uprisings against oppression of the 99% by the 1% in her world, as to which I conclude in pretty much every instance that JA was firmly (but veiledly) on the side of the 99%. This is too large a topic to cover in this post, other than to list the most significant of the many areas where this applies:

Resistance to the enclosure movement under which the 1% destroyed much of the rural commons that the 99% had previously enjoyed for centuries;

Resistance to horrific conditions in the British naval, which boiled to the surface in mutinies at Spithead and elsewhere during JA's early adult years;

Resistance to colonial slavery by African slaves;

etc etc.

And it occurs to me that just as the famous rant by Henry Tilney about Catherine's gothic horror imaginings about General Tilney was really meant to be read ironically as a validation of Catherine's imaginings about the horrors inflicted by the ordinary English husband, so too we are meant to read the following equally clueless rant by Henry Tilney, this one against his sister Eleanor, as Jane Austen's veiled admiration for the ordinary English folk who rose up but were brutally suppressed in the following passage:

"My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern—do you understand? And you, Miss Morland—my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London—and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George's Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window. Forgive her stupidity. The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general."

"The Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the street of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons..."---is this not a chilling description of Tahrir Square during the final stages of the Egyptian Revolution?

And does anyone seriously believe that Jane Austen really was thinking kind thoughts about "the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney" in that moment? Of course not! Her heart was with the poor suckers being beaten to a pulp by the Kings' GOONS (aka Dragoons), just as the world's heart went out to the Egyptians attacked by Mubarak's mounted thugs!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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