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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When Kathleen Met Joe (a while after Nora met Jane and a LONG while after Darcy met Lizzy)

Is there anyone living today who knows Jane Austen's stories well who was not shocked and saddened to wake up to the news of Nora Ephron's death this morning? I would guess, very few Janeites, if any.

I found out about NE's death this morning when I woke up, even before I heard or read any news, because a good Janeite friend had emailed me the following and I always read my emails first:

She assumed I already had heard the sad news, so It took me about 5 seconds to realize why she had sent the article to me today---but, as I read it, I was not at all surprised to learn that Nora Ephron had left all these many clues to her mortal illness hidden in her 2010 publication---and the reason I was not surprised is the same reason why I was not at all surprised to then see "Pride and Prejudice" in the list of things Nora Ephron would miss.

Like all other Janeites who've seen You've Got Mail, one of my many favorite scenes in the film (and there truly is no need for a spoilers alert, as I am pretty sure that pretty much everyone reading this post has already seen You've Got Mail...probably has seen it at least six times!) is when Kathleen arrives for her fateful first meeting (and planned mutual in the flesh viewing) with her longtime email friend.

Of course, the email friend who shows up is actually Joe Fox, in real life her mortal corporate enemy, and when he realizes who she is while she has no clue who _he_ is, he does little credit to his character by deciding to have some unwholesome totally one-sided fun at her expense, by concealing his true identity. As he lingers around, revealing (to the viewer) a sadistic streak, he ribs her about the copy of Pride & Prejudice which she has brought along as part of her "costume", and which, it is clear, he has read in advance of their rencontre.  And as he's a smart guy, perhaps he even realizes that he bears an unsettling resemblance to Darcy, and so he proceeds to take a few potshots at Darcy, just to really aggravate her, while he is enjoying her increasing discomfort waiting for her "friend" who has (apparently) not shown up. As I said, pretty sadistic, with a strong dose thrown in of enjoyment at exercising power over another person who does not like to be controlled. _Definitely_ not gentlemanly.

Now to my point in sketching that scene---I would imagine that most people (including most Janeites) who have seen the film do not give much thought, if any, as to whether Nora Ephron may have had some covert meaning in mind when she chose Pride & Prejudice, as opposed to some other romantic novel, as the book that Kathleen brings to the restaurant (and of course the gag about P&P is returned to once--or twice?---later in the film as well). If this authorial choice on Ephron's part is given consideration, I would imagine that the analysis that follows is usually limited to taking note of the obvious parallels between Darcy and Lizzy in P&P, and Joe and Kathleen in YGM--the sometimes hot sparks that fly, accompanied by a plethora of witty, barbed repartee, between the rich powerful egotistical young man and the feisty, sensitive young woman, before true love is eventually recognized by both at the end of the story, to great romantic effect.  As the literary jargon would put it, it's a _trope_ (God, I hate that word, and what it stands for!) that NE has wheeled out, and not worth more consideration than that.

Well, I saw You've Got Mail in the movie theater when it came out in 1998, but it was only in 2006, several years after I began my own quest to unravel the mysteries of Jane Austen's shadow stories, and I noted the thread in the Janeites group which mentioned P&P as a source for You've Got Mail, that it began to dawn on me that Nora Ephron might have had a literary trick or three of her own up her sleeve as well, beyond the obvious, in putting P&P in Kathleen's hands in that restaurant.

At that time in 2006, I added the following interesting quoted comments by Ephron to that thread, and they are worth repeating now:

[Ephron] "For many years I had a problem with Emma, as compared to, say, Pride and Prejudice. I loved P and P, and I loved its practically perfect heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. Emma, on the other hand, has a much more problematic heroine: Emma Woodhouse is bossy, controlling, obstinate, pigheaded, and manipulative. In short, she is horribly like me at my worst. Getting older has mellowed me in many ways, and now that I like to delude myself that I'm not as much like Emma Woodhouse as I used to be, I've grown to love the book. Still, Pride and Prejudice is probably my favorite book ever, ever, ever. "

That last sentence, with its almost Shakespearean repetition of "ever, ever, ever", came as no surprise.  And so it stood with me until a _month_ ago when, after what seemed like the 5th time in as many months that I was flipping channels on the treadmill TV at the gym and You've Got Mail popped up on the screen again, and I watched 40-50 minutes of it _again_. As the final third of the film came on the screen, this time I  watched the romantic climax for the first time in a while, and I was struck _again_ by a troubling thought that had been nibbling at my brain for at least a decade, which is, "After the film credits stop rolling and Kathleen has time to think about the fact that Joe had intentionally concealed  from her his true identity as her email friend from that fateful meeting in the restaurant until he came strolling up (sans wet shirt) with his dog along Riverside Drive, will she truly forgive him for this months-long continuous, elaborate deception? And if she will, _should_ she?"

I am still on the fence in terms of my own answers to those questions, and that these questions are put into play at all is a crucial clue to the sly brilliance (not Austen level genius, but I am sure Ephron herself would have been the first to place JA above her in the literary pantheon) of You've Got Mail, which is that I believe the allusion to P&P is actually _central_ to a deeper appreciation of Nora Ephron's screenwriting excellence in the construction of You've Got Mail, and that allusion goes to the heart of those troubling questions beneath the light bright and sparkling ending of You've Got Mail.

A full explanation of what I mean is beyond the scope of this post--I plan on including same in my book, as I believe that Ephron actually glimpsed not insignificantly into the heart of what I call the "shadow story" of Pride & Prejudice---but suffice to say that the parallels I see between Lizzy and Darcy, on the one hand, and Kathleen and Joe, on the other, run very deep, and some of them are hiding in plain sight, but, to my mind, have never been fully articulated in print (and I've looked for it).  

I will briefly touch on two as illustrations of a much deeper pattern: 

First, as was pointed out by Jane George in Janeites back in 2003, there is an interesting parallelism between the _original _ epistolarity of First Impressions (of course, JA's first version of P&P) and the virtual epistolarity of Kathleen's and Joe's long correspondence. But, that is only the most superficial layer of the parallelism--what makes it much more interesting is that in both P&P and in You've Got Mail, it is "mail" that the heroine receives from the hero that utterly changes her perception of him to, in the end, a very positive one.

In P&P, of course, it is the letter that Darcy writes and then hand delivers to Lizzy which rocks her world, and reverses her longstanding negative opinion of him--Ephron very cleverly alters the periphery of that structure while preserving its essence---it is not one piece of "mail" written by Joe which alters Kathleen's opinion of Joe, but many, and over a period of time which continues right up till the final scene. 

And so in both stories, we see that a woman's opinion of a man, based on her face to face conversations with him, and observations of his behavior in the flesh, is subject to alteration by words written by that man and read by that woman. Is this a good thing? Most readers and viewers would say, in this case, yes. But it's something to think about, I suggest, that both Austen and Ephron meant for at least some folks to reflect on.

And here is my second example of covert allusion to P&P in You've Got Mail---before meeting Joe in person, Kathleen is at the center of a vibrant female community, with both an older woman and a younger woman, who create a uniquely female space where the business of selling books is humanized, and which strikes such a deep chord in the neighborhood (composed of more than 4 and 20 families) that the closing of the story takes on an almost tragic feeling.  And what do we see at the end, the vague promise that somehow that female wisdom and aura will be incorporated (ha ha) into the corporate structure of the megastore that has supplanted Kathleen's store. Is this a good thing? Again, I suggest that Ephron has picked up on something deeper in P&P, something beyond the happy ending, that is troubling, and that I touched upon a few years ago here in discussing the ending of P&P:

Had one of Kathleen's co-workers said to her, "The men shan't come between us", or words to that effect in 1998-speak, what would she have replied? What should she have replied?

Yes, perhaps Kathleen has found true love with Joe, but these most romantic of stories are also great enough to raise questions about the costs of romance, and also... (and here I also would like to think that Nora Ephron would find my comments intriguing--but I fear I will never know for sure)..whether true love _really_ is as true as it seems, even when it appears to have passed through a rigorous vetting process of a "merry war"?

So, RIP Nora Ephron, and thank you for being the closest thing Hollywood has seen to Jane Austen during my own lifetime.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: And I am sure Ephron, if she saw Friends With Benefits, was well aware of, and enjoyed, the covert allusion to When Harry Met Sally in FWB that I wrote about here:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Many LeBron and Obama Haters Are Peas in a Rotten Pod

OK, transparency dictates that I reveal upfront that I (together with everyone among my nearest kinfolk) am a rabid Miami Heat basketball fan. I was a season ticket holder during the Shaq-Wade years, and I had the privilege of attending several games during the epic 2006 road to the championship.

Having said that, it will surprise no one that I am in sports fan nirvana right now, basking in the glow of the championship the Heat just won over Oklahoma City last night, carried on the Atlas-like shoulders of LeBron James.

And it's the personal stories that make me just as happy as the victory on the court-and most of all, it's the redemption and vindication of LeBron James, as he finally (I thought) got several 900-pound gorillas off his back all at once, as his superhuman athletic performance on the court was matched by the maturity, class, honesty and sincerity shown by LeBron in his postgame comments. This included his acknowledgment that last season he played angry and strayed away from the fundamentals, playing like he had to prove everybody wrong; that he had let his teammates and fans down. I was thrilled to hear his unambiguous and wonderful admission about his reaction to his own inexplicably inferior (by his standards) play in the Finals against Dallas, i.e., that he was humbled, and didn't do it in the right way. And he also made it clear that if he had it to over, he would not turn "the Decision" into "the Circus".

As I watched LeBron say these words, and many more during the past few weeks, my admiration for LeBron the basketball superstar was eclipsed by my admiration for LeBron the maturing young man who (after all) is still only 27 years old, practically the same age as 2 of my sons!

I was, simply, proud of him for growing up, admitting his errors (which, after all, were never anything remotely close in intensity to the REAL and often ugly misdeeds of so many other sports figures--all LeBron had been guilty of was being very narcissistic and having very poor judgment in public self-presentation)  and being brave enough to show his repentance to the world.

But in the midst of all this joy, there was also alloy, as Jane Austen might have put it. What caught my eye and ear today, as I surfed ESPN and sports webpages, and disturbed me a lot, and made me want to write about here in my blog, was the report of polls (apparently taken AFTER last night's Heat victory over OKC) which indicated that about 70% of nationwide respondents did NOT feel happy for LeBron James now that he had finally won.

For just a second, I could not believe my eyes and ears. After all, the sports commentators were ALL unanimous in their praise for LeBron's personal behavior during this championship run, and especially last night and today in the intense media glare. He had fessed up very authentically and directly, and so I thought, hey, all but the most dieheard haters would have, at least, to give the devil his due, and acknowledge that LeBron had admitted his faults, and had done a pretty good job of beginning a new path and trying to not repeat them.  They might not like the prospect of his winning more championships, but at least he would not be Jack the Ripper in their eyes.

But I quickly confirmed that ESPN was not leading me astray, when I read articles like the following:

And THAT's what leads me to my punch line, which is that i felt more than a slight shiver as I realized that I had seen this picture before---I immediately recalled the one genuinely ugly aspect of the public reaction to LeBron's leaving Cleveland for Miami two years ago--the disgusting public responses by the (white) owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, with his (to my mind blatant, albeit cluelessly unself-aware) racist take on LeBron's departure--it really did seem like Gilbert was not merely upset at LeBron's making his departure from Cleveland something of a media circus, but that Gilbert really saw LeBron as a very highly paid "slave", who had the audacity to leave the "plantation" of the owner who had taken SUCH good care of him....

And THAT led me to connect the dots still further from the hostile public reaction to LeBron's leaving Cleveland, and even still, apparently today, the unforgiving persistence in that hostility among most fans, to the endlessly persistent hostility toward perhaps the only black man in America with an even HIGHER public visibility than LeBron at this moment--Barack Obama. I was unpleasantly reminded of the vile racist vitriol that has followed him every step of the way during his rise to, and then service in, the Presidency. Again, it's more than just political disagreement, there is (as Richard Pryor so tellingly told it like it was) that EXTRA layer, which is white racism, especially toward black men.

I wish it wasn't so, but that 70% LeBron Hatred strikes me as having a disturbingly similar origin as the persistent Obama Hatred. In both cases, these are "uppity" black men who achieve extraordinary fame and success in the wider society--at a time when so many Americans--black, white and all others--are suffering economically. And they are both also given zero tolerance for even the hint of wrongdoing, whether real, trivial or totally fabricated.

In short, I believe that if it had been Kevin Love (arguably the best WHITE American basketball player in the NBA right now) who had bolted from the Minnesota Timberwolves and said he was "taking his talents to South Beach", and had then won his first ring last night, and had said all the things LeBron said, that 70% would never have been higher than 30% in the first place, and would be in the single digits today.

So I conclude by saying....

Cheers (to LeBron and to Obama),
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Now if Roger Federer can only win Wimbledon and thereby become #1 in the world again.......

"...principally by Tom...": Tom Bertram Closet Embroiderer

In Chapter 16, Fanny retreats to her "nest" and angsts over whether to yield to the pressure to participate in the amateur theatricals, and we then read the following:

"It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples; and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them. The table between the windows was covered with work-boxes and netting-boxes which had been
given her at different times, principally by Tom; and she grew bewildered  as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced."

What caught my eye this time around were the words "principally by Tom"--why in the world would Tom (as opposed to Maria or Julia) be the principal donor of numerous gifts (so many that they cover the table) to Fanny, presumably over a period of time, of _female_ things like work-boxes and netting-boxes?

Before sending this post, I checked the Janeites and Austen L group archives, and see that 2 years ago, the sharp-eyed Diane Reynolds posed that very same question:

"...and the work and netting boxes, mostly from Tom (what does that mean?), on her table."

Now, some will immediately claim that making Tom the donor of these boxes was authorial expediency on JA's part, since the theatricals are Tom's  inspiration and darling project, so JA had to find some way of making Fanny feel obligated specifically to Tom.

But I categorically reject all such diminishments of JA's authorial  integrity, suggesting that she would be so slovenly in her work product (particularly in regard to items used for embroidery and sewing, crafts which depend on minute attention to small details!), and so I am led to ask, Why Tom in particular? What might JA have been trying to bring out  about him in this subliminal way?

And one explanation that immediately comes to mind is that Tom (however secretly) might himself have been using those netting boxes and work boxes, because he enjoyed exercising his creativity in these traditionally female ways!

And then, when he grew up and perhaps put these hobbies behind him, what  was he to do with these boxes? Sure he could have tossed them, but perhaps he felt a sentimental attachment to them, and preferred to give them to an appreciative donee, which I am sure Fanny was, every time he gave her one. And also, Fanny would be a discreet donee, one who would not blab all over the place about who gave the gifts to her, especially if Tom asked her not to tell, taking the role of a giver of charity who did not wish to draw
attention to his charity.

Which of course relates right back to my previous speculations as to Tom's  gender orientation, such as:

So, as usual, attention to JA's minute details, the ones that seem to be throwaways, leads straight to significant subtextual meaning!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mr. Price's Cordial Hug and....Mr. Woodhouse's Unsullied Cordiality!

Nancy: "Of course fanny wasn't a teetotaller. That wasn't even much considerd except among the Quakers. Everyone drank wine. Children of an age to eat at the table when no guests were expected, had their wine diluted. It was gradually made with less water until they had adult glasses of wine."

All the same, I don't think I am the only Janeite who would be surprised to know that Fanny drank regularly, even diluted wine. The more I reflect on it, the more I think it is a classic, characteristic JA irony, with some sophisticated anticipation of Freud thrown in, to depict Fanny's visceral disgust at her father's drunken aroma in such a subversive way---it would indeed make perfect psychological sense for Fanny to repress away any resonance between her father's crude drinking and her own genteel drinking, especially the resonance based on a very real commonality between them- we can readily infer that Mr. Price's drinking to excess is fueled in part by his lifelong lower class status, and his resentful anger toward rich powerful people far above him in status, like Sir Thomas; and I can certainly imagine that part of what might have given Fanny a strong taste for alcoholic beverages would be her own (totally justified) sense of having been abused and treated like a second class citizen at Mansfield Park for the previous decade.

In short, Fanny has such a strong negative reaction to her parents in part because she unconsciously realizes that she has not climbed so far above them as she might have thought, she is still second class in the eyes of the elite snobs, and so _both_ she and her father take some comfort in alcoholic to drown the very real sorrows they both feel.

Nancy: "A cordiale was not so much a stiff drink as a medicinal draught/ She wanted a composer. A slightly sedative potion."

Was "composer" a term of art in JA's era, to describe a slightly sedative potion? If it was, then that would explain a _LOT_ about the following three passages about Mr. Woodhouse in _Emma_ which heretofore had been totally invisible:

Chapter 1: The wedding over, and the bride-people gone, her father and herself were left to dine together, with no prospect of a third to cheer a long evening. Her father COMPOSED HIMSELF TO SLEEP AFTER DINNER, AS USUAL, and she had then only to sit and think of what she had lost.

Chapter 11: The beginning, however, of every visit displayed none but the properest feelings, and this being of necessity so short might be hoped to pass away in UNSULLIED CORDIALITY. They had not been long seated and COMPOSED when Mr. Woodhouse, with a melancholy shake of the head and a sigh, called his daughter's attention to the sad change at Hartfield since she had been there last. "Ah, my dear," said he, "poor Miss Taylor—It is a grievous business."

Chapter 25: Then turning to Mrs. Weston, with a look of gentle reproach—"Ah! Miss Taylor, if you had not married, you would have staid at home with me." "Well, sir," cried Mr. Weston, "as I took Miss Taylor away, it is incumbent on me to supply her place, if I can; and I will step to Mrs. Goddard in a moment, if you wish it." But the idea of any thing to be done in a /moment/, was INCREASING, not lessening, MR. WOODHOUSE'S AGITATION. THE LADIES KNEW BETTER HOW TO ALLAY IT. Mr. Weston must be quiet, and EVERY THING DELIBERATELY ARRANGED. WITH THIS TREATMENT, MR. WOODHOUSE WAS SOON COMPOSED ENOUGH for talking as usual. "He should be happy to see Mrs. Goddard. He had a great regard for Mrs. Goddard; and Emma should write a line, and invite her. James could take the note. But first of all, there must be an answer written to Mrs. Cole."

I hope my all-caps on certain key phrases makes clear the subversive interpretation that I was led to make by your giving me that unexpected meaning of the word "composer".

The passage in Chapter 1 seems to suggest that Mr. Woodhouse's standard bedtime operating procedure was to take a massive sleeping "composer"!

The passage in Chapter 11 suggests to me that Emma may have slipped her father a "cordial" in order to "compose" him, in preparation for a dangerous bit of verbal combat with his irascible son in law John K--and I just love the pun in "unsullied cordiality", which I see as a "twin" of the pun on Mr. Price's "cordial hug". In this passage, "cordiality" clearly refers _both_ to the desired politeness of the encounter, and also to the medicinal means of achieving that politeness!

Best of the three, the passage in Chapter 25 is a mini-epic in itself, describing the covert medicinal operation conducted by "the ladies' in order to drug Mr. Woodhouse out of his agitation over the prospect of the Coles's dinner party. I.e., the better way to allay Mr. Woodhouse's agitation was to deliberately arrange to administer to Mr. Woodhouse the treatment of a strong cordial, as a result of which he would indeed have soon become "composed" enough for talking as usual!

So, Nancy, as often has been the case, in your rebutting one of my claims, you've actually opened a second door wide open for me, that actually reinforces my original claim--and for this, I thank you once more!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Mr. Price's cordial hug

I don't know about the rest of you, but I never previously gave any thought to Fanny Price's drinking _any_ sort of alcoholic drink (did Rozema show Fanny as drinking at any point in her 1999 adaptation?), but I stumbled upon a passage today---having found something else in it which I won't complicate matters by describing here and now----that caused me to delve into this topic of Fanny and alcoholic beverages for the first time.

The passage is in Chapter 46, not far from the end of the novel, and comes right after Fanny reads Edmund's eagerly awaited letter. Fanny is still exiled in Portsmouth, and after Edmund first reports the bad news that Maria and Henry have still not yet been located, and further that Julia has also eloped with Yates, he then abruptly changes course 180 degrees and reports that Sir Thomas has authorized Fanny's return to Mansfield Park, accompanied by Susan.

Here is Fanny's reaction:

"Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial. Never had she felt such a one as this letter contained. To-morrow! to leave Portsmouth to-morrow! She was, she felt she was, in the greatest danger of being exquisitely happy, while so many were miserable. The evil which brought such good to her! She dreaded lest she should learn to be insensible of it. "

Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial? This passage is startling (at least to me) and almost sounds like a cliche,  the modern version would be something like "Never had Fanny more wanted a stiff drink"!  But what then _really_ caught my eye were the words "Never" and "more". Why? Because, when you pause and think about them, they imply that this is far from the first time in her still young life that Fanny has wanted a cordial. It appears, in fact, that Fanny has _often_ wanted a cordial, going back quite some time in order to justify the word "Never", presumably to settle her nerves after some nerve-wracking experience or other.

When you think about it, who _wouldn't_ be driven to consume copious amounts of alcohol by the lethal cocktail of Sir Thomas and Aunt Norris???

And that fruitful line of inquiry led me to quickly scan through the text of MP, looking for any _other_ hints  lurking there about Fanny's drinking, to see if I might find some other tantalizing references to Fanny's relationship with alcohol, and it turned out that Chapter 7 was the mother lode:

"...if Edmund were not there to mix the wine and water for [Fanny], would rather go without it than not...."

The above describes Fanny's pouting internal monologue, as she struggles with her jealous feelings toward Mary and Edmund and their "spirited" horseback riding adventures. And again, as in the Chapter 46 passage, JA is subtly careful to hint at an ongoing family tradition of Edmund mixing wine and water for Fanny to consume, presumably every day or close to it. But.. I for one was relieved by Fanny's drinking diluted wine, because, even tiny as she is, she is probably not getting drunk from it.

But then, later in that same Chapter 7, after the infamous Fanny-swelters-while-stooping-among-the-roses episode, Fanny imbibes some wine, and no mention is made of whether Edmund dilutes it or not--my guess is that he does _not_ :

"Edmund said no more to either lady; but going quietly to another table, on which the supper-tray yet remained, brought a glass of Madeira to Fanny, and obliged her to drink the greater part. She wished to be able to decline it; but the tears, which a variety of feelings created, made it easier to swallow than to speak."

And perhaps there are other passages in MP  in a similar vein which I have not as yet figured out how to sleuth out, but I think it's now crystal clear that JA means for us to know that Fanny, for all her prim and proper ways,  is _not_ a teetotaller. Why JA would choose to subtly underscore this aspect of Fanny is a question I will leave for another time, but of course anyone who wants to take a stab at it responding to me now would be most welcome!

Regardless, I did find  one _other_ passage in MP which, even though it does not report any drinking of alocoholic beverages by Fanny, nontheless, upon close examination, seems to be an integral part of this particular matrix of covert subtext in Mansfield Park.

This passage, which appears in Chapter 38, describes Fanny's first reunion with her father in Portsmouth after a decade away:

"With an acknowledgment that he had quite forgot her, Mr. Price now received his daughter; and having given her a cordial hug, and observed that she was grown into a woman, and he supposed would be wanting a husband soon, seemed very much inclined to forget her again. Fanny shrunk back to her seat, with feelings sadly pained by his language and his smell of spirits; and he talked on only to his son, and only of the Thrush, though William, warmly interested as he was in that subject, more than once tried to make his father think of Fanny, and her long absence and long journey."

Is it just a coincidence with the Chapter 46 passage I quoted at the start of this message which reports Fanny's need for a "cordial", that the hug which Mr. Price gives Fanny is described as "cordial"? Sure it can mean "cordial" in the sense of "polite", but, given that we hear in the very next sentence about Mr. Price's "smell  of spirits", I think it's safe to say that JA was having a little darkly ironic fun here, punning on "cordial" so as to convey, subliminally, that Fanny would have been most repulsed by her father's smell of spirits at the moment of that unavoidable hug. A hug which reeked of cordials! And perhaps part of Fanny's feeling of disgust has some strong whiff of Freudian repression about it, as she knows that she herself is not averse to imbibing liquor!

So, I hope you'll agree with me that Mr. Price's cordial hug, which might at first have seemed uninteresting, turned out to be a "bread crumb" (or should I say a "shot", as in a shot of liquor?) was worth considering!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Henry Tilney's (and Jane Austen's) invitation to a metaphorical dance

I really love the following passage in Chapter 16, which is one of many in Northanger Abbey which make a mockery of the notion that NA is an "immature" work of JA's, deemed by all too many Janeites as not worthy of consideration on a par with the other 5 novels--and I want to try to explain why I love it so much, and why I think there's much more going on in it that at first meets the too-quickly moving eye.

The passage I will now quote is a discussion of judgment and charity in the moral and psychological assessment of other people, and it arises abruptly when Catherine naively assigns the best of intentions to both Isabella and Captain Tilney, unwittingly eliciting a teasing, provocative response from Henry:

“Your brother [i.e. Captain Tilney] will not mind it [Catherine's assertion that Isabella would not want to dance with him], I know,” said she, “because I heard him say before that he hated dancing; but it was very good–natured in him to think of it. I suppose he saw Isabella sitting down, and fancied she might wish for a partner; but he is quite mistaken, for she would not dance upon any account in the world.”

Henry smiled, and said, “How very little trouble it can give you to understand the motive of other people’s actions.” “Why? What do you mean?”

“With you, it is not, How is such a one likely to be influenced, What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person’s feelings, age, situation, and probable habits of life considered — but, How should I be influenced, What would be my inducement in acting so and so?” “I do not understand you.”

“Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.” “Me? Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”

“Bravo! An excellent satire on modern language.” “But pray tell me what you mean.”

“Shall I indeed? Do you really desire it? But you are not aware of the consequences; it will involve you in a very cruel embarrassment, and certainly bring on a disagreement between us." “No, no; it shall not do either; I am not afraid.”

“Well, then, I only meant that your attributing my brother’s wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good nature alone convinced me of your being superior in good nature yourself to all the rest of the world.”

Catherine blushed and disclaimed, and the gentleman’s predictions were verified. There was a something, however, in his words which repaid her for the pain of confusion; and that something occupied her mind so much that she drew back for some time, forgetting to speak or to listen, and almost forgetting where she was...." END QUOTE

I assert that there is no moment more romantic or more multilayered in all of JA's writing than this witty serving of apparently light banter, because there is so much to be gleaned from it, once you stop and take the trouble to savor its full implications.


First we have Henry, who could have allowed Catherine's naive assessment of Isabella and Frederick to pass without comment. But instead, something---and I think that "something" is nothing less than his growing feeling of love and admiration for Catherine---leads him to teasingly but gently confront Catherine---or rather, JA brilliantly and subliminally echoes the famous earlier exchange between Henry and Catherine in Chapter 10 when he says "I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage"--here in Chapter 16, we have country-dance as a veiled emblem of serious conversation--i.e., JA is depicting an implied invitation by Henry to Catherine to participate in a kind of "dance" with him, a dance not involving _physical_ movement on a dance floor, but rather of _psychological_ movement during an exchange of ideas.

And what is thrilling to me is that Catherine immediately, instinctively and implicitly accepts Henry's invitation, via her direct questions and her utter lack of pretense--when she does not understand what he means, she does not pretend she does, but instead simply asks him, repeatedly and persistently, to explain what he means! This is a sign of her truly high intellect, because she intuitively grasps that he has criticized her for her kneejerk, superficial, and utterly incorrect assessment of Isabella's and Frederick's motives, and she has a deep instinctual hunger to understand human motivations. Already after her short time in Bath, at the tender age of 18, she has begun to realize that the naive trusting view of the world that seemed to work just fine at home is not quite cutting it out in the real world, and she is smart enough to want to improve her mind, and to recognize that Henry would be the perfect guide to initiate her into a world of accurate knowledge.

And how lovely it is that Henry, in turn, takes _her_ seriously, and continues to "lead" her in this little verbal "dance", by taking another "step": he answers her brilliantly and concisely, pointing out that Catherine, who is a good, well intentioned person, simply cannot imagine the motivations of people who merely pretend to be good people, but who actually are engaged in a great deal of selfish and hurtful chicanery.

But again Catherine is clueless as to his meaning, and acknowledges her lack of understanding.

And that leads Henry to his Zen-like comment about the inequality of their understanding, which in turn prompts Catherine's immortal line: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible".

What a brilliant way of showing us Catherine's take on the situation---she has developed a category for cryptic statements like Henry's, which is that "speaking well" means "being unintelligible"--but what still eludes her is that "speaking well" is not a mysterious perverse game in which educated people aspire to be unintelligible to uneducated people--while that might be true of some pretentious snobs, in Henry's case he is a kind of Zen master, trying to "lead" Catherine into thinking outside the box in which her mind is trapped, to begin to question other people's apparent motives, not to take things at face value.

But this is not entirely a one way street of enlightenment---the important lesson that Catherine is (unwittingly) teaching _Henry_ here is that for all his superior intellectual knowledge and understanding, it's time for him to stop his endless passive-aggressive intellectualizing of feelings, and to truly take her seriously enough to explain things to her in language that the very concrete, practical mind of Catherine can process effectively--so that she could actually understand what he meant originally about Isabella and Frederick.
And it is my interpretation of NA as a whole that this lesson that Catherine teaches Henry is every bit as important as the lesson he teaches her--which is why I have genuinely high hopes for their marriage after the novel ends, it really will be a marriage of equals by the time their first "dance" is completed!

But back to the above quoted passage. Who could not be thrilled by Catherine's brave and generous response--she is willing to hear the truth from Henry even if it is not what she wants to hear, and, as much as she already loves Henry, she is not afraid to disagree with him about something significant. No wonder Henry, who has been jaded by experience with a hundred debutantes with greater superficial "accomplishment" than Catherine, is irresistibly drawn to this diamond in the rough--a natively brilliant country girl with an utterly open mind.

And that's when Henry gives Catherine "a something" that she has so richly earned, i.e., a heartfelt beautiful compliment to her "superior" "good nature" which makes her blush and briefly transports her to another realm, as she realizes what he means, and then bathes in the glow of that compliment. Could there be anything more romantic than the thrill of being truly admired by the man who, Catherine can now have grounds to hope, really loves her?


And all of that would be enough, if that were all there was going on in that passage. But I assert that there is a whole additional metafictional layer implicit in this passage, in which it is Jane Austen who issues the invitation to "dance", and it is up to the reader to decide to interrogate NA and ask, "What does JA mean?"

I assert that if we read the above passage metafictionally, what quickly emerges is that JA is inviting the naive _reader_ to take the trouble, accept JA's invitation to a higher-level metafictional dance, by being willing to step outside the conventional way of reading fiction. How? By actively working to break free from the constraints of the naive, limited subjectivity of JA's clueless heroines, and to attempt, on our own, reading against the textual grain, trying to discern the motives of the other characters in her novels which are being concealed from the heroine---and therefore also from the reader! Otherwise, those concealed motives will remain forever unintelligible to the reader, and therefore, in turn, a whole layer of her novels will remain forever opaque to the trusting reader who rely entirely on the apparently "simple" superficial meaning of the narration as conclusive. Are we brave enough to accept JA's invitation to this rarefied dance?

No doubt some of you reading this will respond that I am reading way too much into this passage--and my response is to remind you that NA in particular is a novel which at a half dozen points _explicitly_ raises metafictional concerns--e.g., when JA's narrator abruptly intrudes and starts talking about novels, when Henry and Eleanor discuss concealed perspectives at Beechen Cliff, among others..... it is entirely consistent with those other explicitly metafictional passages to read Henry's teasing about unintelligibility as being JA's very serious implicit meditations on how fiction--particularly fiction like NA---ought to be read.

So, I conclude by inviting you to take the trouble to reread the above quoted passage in Chapter 16 and to ponder the pros and cons of the argument I've made in this post, and to let me know what you think.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charlotte's Opinion of Matrimony Was Not Exactly Her Own

My last public formulation of my complicated thoughts about Charlotte Lucas as a closeted lesbian can be found here:

I had reason yesterday to revisit the passage in which Charlotte first reveals her engagement to Mr. Collins to Elizabeth, and this time around, I saw something in it that had me shaking my head partly in admiration for JA's ability to hide stuff in plain sight, and partly in chagrin that I had overlooked that stuff the first 30 times I read that passage!

I will first make my point implicitly by means of ALL CAPS of certain key excerpts within the passage, and then state the significance I see in those excerpts if you scroll down the page, for those who wish to have a go at figuring out what I claim is there--I think the capitalizations make my interpretation clear:

Miss Lucas called soon after breakfast, and in A PRIVATE CONFERENCE WITH ELIZABETH related the event of the day before.

The possibility of Mr. Collins's fancying himself in love with her friend had once occurred to Elizabeth within the last day or two; but that Charlotte could encourage him seemed almost as far from possibility as she could encourage him herself, and her astonishment was consequently SO GREAT AS TO OVERCOME AT FIRST THE BOUNDS OF DECORUM, and SHE COULD NOT HELP CRYING OUT:

"Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte—impossible!"

The steady COUNTenance which Miss Lucas had commanded in telling her story, GAVE WAY TO A MOMENTARY CONFUSION here on RECEIVING SO DIRECT A rePROACH; though, as it was NO MORE THAN SHE EXPECTED, she soon REGAINED HER COMPOSURE, and calmly replied:

"Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza? Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman's good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?"

But ELIZABETH HAD NOW RECOLLECTED HERSELF, and MAKING A STRONG EFFORT FOR IT, was able to assure WITH TOLERABLE FIRMNESS that the prospect of their relationship was highly grateful to her, and that she wished her all imaginable happiness.

"I see WHAT YOU ARE FEELING," replied Charlotte. "You must be surprised, very much surprised—so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope YOU WILL BE SATISFIED WITH WHAT I HAVE DONE. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."

For my interpretation, scroll down....





My interpretation is that the ALL CAPS portions of the above quoted passage could be transposed, without any alteration, to Cleland's Fanny Hill, a novel which I have previously claimed was not only well known to JA, but which she actually alluded to in great depth--so to speak---in _Emma_:

Those ALL CAPS portions could be transposed without any alteration provided, of course, that the non-capitalized portions were suitably altered!

And JA's point in all this, I assert, was not to suggest that Lizzy and Charlotte were having actual physical sex during their "private conference", but rather to suggest a subliminal aura of the physical attraction that I believe _did_ exist between Charlotte and Lizzy, one which perhaps Charlotte wished to consummate but which Lizzy was not ever going to---it is as if the narrator, picking up the scent of that attraction, has herself become aroused and therefore chooses words with heavy Freudian overtones to describe the conversation.

And I also just realized, as I was writing this post, that part of the reason why I am confident that Lizzy would never have positively responded to a direct sexual APproach from Charlotte is contained in the narrative paragraph which immediately follows the above, and I have again used ALL CAPS to show the relevant clue:

"Elizabeth quietly answered "Undoubtedly;" and after an awkward pause, they returned to the rest of the family. Charlotte did not stay much longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match. The strangeness of Mr. Collins's making two offers of marriage within three days was nothing in comparison of his being now accepted. SHE HAD ALWAYS FELT THAT CHARLOTTE'S OPINION OF MATRIMONY WAS NOT EXACTLY HER OWN, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage."

"not exactly her own" is JA's dry-as-toast understated ironic way of saying, indirectly, that Lizzy has always known that Charlotte was not heterosexual!

And this fits perfectly with my claims that Charlotte Lucas the schemer (as first articulated by Kim Damstra 13 years ago, and then unwittingly repeated without crediting by John Sutherland) knew that in the end of the day, she'd be in close proximity to Elizabeth on a permanent basis, when Darcy gives Mr. Collins a living in close proximity to Pemberley!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Claims that Jane Austen Was Amoral

 Louise Culmer wrote the following in Janeites:
"It had never actually occured to me to consider Austen as a latter day saint, and certainly not as a champion of the underdog. She was very much a woman of her class and era, and her views are those typical of both. I think it's good that she makes fun of both men and women, it wouldn't be very pleasant if she   made fun of only one sex and not the other. She has little interest in servants, the only one ever to express an opinion in any of her books that I know of is Mrs Reynolds, in Pride and Prejudice. And real poverty is scarcely ever mentioned, only the relative poverty of the gentry, the 'poor' Dashwoods with their £500 a year, a sum most people in those days could only dream of. Wealth beyond imagining to the average servant or farm labourer. Her imagination is limited to the people of her own class, but she was brilliant at writing about them." END QUOTE 
By the same logic, we should, e.g., judge Martin Luther King and all of the civil rights pioneers of the mid-20th century in the United States as having imagination limited to poor, discriminated-against black Americans, because, when you think about it, he must have had a massive blind spot to all the people in Africa, Asia and South America who were starving to death and/or actually enslaved during the same time period--because, relatively speaking even black Americans who lived during the mid-20th century had "wealth beyond imagining" to the average person at the bottom of the pile in the Third World---because the average black American---whose life was horrible compared to the average white
American---actually had food to eat, and shelter over his head, and was not in daily danger of dying. Everything's relative.

So unless there are some genuine Mother Teresas devoting their lives to the starving billions of our world, who take time out from their crusade to be members of this group, I suspect there is not a single person reading this message to whom the same standard of moral judgment would not apply in exactly the same way that so many readers judge Jane Austen.

Except for the one in ten thousand who actually devotes their imagination, resources, and polemical skills to defending the poorest of the poor in the entire world,  we all focus on wrongdoing that affects ourselves and our peers.

To judge Jane Austen for not being an overt Mother Teresa in her writings seems absurd to me. Jane Austen, the radical feminist I have perceived, was enough of a social reformer and rabble rouser, in her own way, to set her above almost all her peers in that department in her time.

It's obvious to me from her letters that she was a compassionate person toward those less fortunate than she---but she was a pragmatist, she recognized that it was difficult enough to work toward social reform within her own milieu, without taking on the absurdly difficult task of helping the poorest of England, or the enslaved of the English colonies.

There will always be a cause more desperate than the one taken on by any
reformer, which he or she has ignored.

And in any event, when JA's novels are read with awareness that JA's central point was that point of view was decisive in perception, you realize that the servants and the very poor are invisible in her novels not because she did not care about them, but because her clueless heroines never gave a second thought to the plight of those much more unfortunate folks. That was JA's point, and that's why in particular JA has Emma making her charitable rounds in Highbury with Harriet in tow---JA is actually showing the hypocrisy of her peers who truly never gave a second thought to the those far below them in society.

JA was not Dickens, she was much subtler--there's a distinguished place for _both_ of them in the history of social reform via literature.

The causes JA took on, they're good enough for me, her morals were first rate in my book.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter