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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jane Austen's Strong Interest in Elizabeth Inchbald the Outspoken Feminist Author

As many well-informed Janeites know, the play-within-the-novel in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is Lover's Vows, one of two famous English late 18th century translations of a contemporary German-language play by the (then) famous German dramatist, August Von Kotzebue (for more about it, read here):

The other day in Austen-L, Anielka Briggs wrote about Elizabeth Inchbald, the translator/adaptor of Lover's Vows, including the following comment:

"...I am beginning to think that Mrs. Inchbald is a much-overlooked source of inspiration to Austen...."

I just responded as follows:

Yes, of course that is the case! Or, as they say on The Simpsons, DOH!

Would Jane Austen have bestowed the most complex, overt literary allusion in all of her fiction upon a work translated (and, in so doing, also subtly but significantly altered) by Mrs. Inchbald, if JA had not held Mrs. Inchbald in the greatest esteem? Lover's Vows must have been, to JA, the perfect vessel to carry her feminist, rabble-rousing message in Mansfield Park.

Not coincidentally, I was just thinking about Mrs. Inchbald 10 days ago in regard to Jane Austen, Anielka, and I believe you know the exact reason why, because it was something _you_ wrote 10 days ago, seemingly entirely unrelated to Mrs. Inchbald, which quickly led me to her, and also led me to update and improve my old files on JA's interest in her. And I bet you already know exactly what it was, so I will give you the chance to tell everybody first--if you don't by tomorrow morning EST, then I will.

Now, what I believe attracted JA to Mrs. Inchbald most of all were exactly the same personal and literary characteristics which attracted JA to the great female historian, Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, as I wrote about not long ago.....

...and that was Inchbald's outspoken feminism, her self-assured confident female voice, unwilling to back down to male attempts to dismiss or denigrate her as a writer and a person, and her willingness to publicly satirize and/or condemn male sexist greed, abuse of power, and hypocrisy at every turn---exemplified by Baron Wildenhaim, to whom the resemblance of Sir Thomas Bertram is disturbingly close, and entirely intentional on JA's part.

And your quotation from Inchbald's 1796 novella, Nature and Art ("Yours off to put an artificial bloom on my cheeks which is nearly as disgusting as the ill-conducted artifice with which I attempt gentleness and love") is a perfect example of Inchbald's fearless exposure of hypocrisy, greed, and socioeconomic snobbery. If one reads the concluding scene of that novel, you find a very jaundiced eye cast on the ill effects of wealth and high status on human character, that I believe exactly mirrors Jane Austen's own authentically Christian perspective:

"....He continued, " I remember, when I first came a boy to England, the poor excited my compassion; but now that my judgment is matured, I pity the rich. I know that in this opulent kingdom, there are nearly as many persons perishing through intemperance, as starving with hunger,—there are as many miserable in the lassitude of having nothing to do, as there are of those bowed down to the earth with hard labour,—there are more persons who draw upon themselves calamity by following their own will, than there are, who experience it by obeying the will of another. Add to this, that the rich are so much afraid of dying, they have no comfort in living."
"There the poor have another advantage," said Rebecca: " for they may defy not only death, but every loss by sea or land, as they have nothing to lose."
"Besides," added the elder Henry, " there is a certain joy, of the most gratifying kind that the human mind is capable of tasting, peculiar to the poor ; and of which the rich can but seldom experience the delight"
"What can that be ?" cried Rebecca.
"A kind word, a benevolent smile, one token of esteem from the person whom we consider as our superior."
To which Rebecca replied, " And the rarity of obtaining such a token, is what increases the honour."
"Certainly," returned young Henry: " and yet those in poverty, ungrateful as they are, murmur against that government from which they receive the blessing."
"But this is the fault of education, of early prejudice," said the elder Henry:—" our children observe us pay respect, even reverence, to the wealthy, while we slight or despise the poor. The impression thus made on their minds in youth, is indelible during the more advanced periods of life, and they continue to pine after riches, and lament under poverty—nor is the seeming folly wholly destitute of reason; for human beings are not yet so deeply sunk in voluptuous gratification or childish vanity, as to place delight in any attainment which has not for its end, the love or admiration of their fellow beings."
"Let the poor then (cried the younger Henry) no more be their own persecutors—no longer pay homage to wealth—instantaneously the whole idolatrous worship will cease—the idol will be broken." END OF NOVELLA

Or, as Jesus put it so poetically and succinctly, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, Inchbald and JA both agreed strongly with Jesus on this point---let the poor no longer pay homage to wealth, and the idol of avarice and snobbery will be broken--that is the core theme of Mansfield Park, when it is read properly, and the idol--the petty tinhorn dictator---who is broken into a million pieces is Sir Thomas Bertram.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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