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

Sunday, July 8, 2012

P.S. re Jane Bennet sings Les Miz and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head

In Janeites, Nancy Mayer just wrote "Some very good sleuthing about word definitions" in reference to my immediately preceding post a short while ago under the above Subject Line:

Nancy, thank you very much! It happens that I was about to post a brief followup to that post, to bring forward one additional and (I think) very compelling and validating bit of textual evidence.

To set the stage properly, for those who do not wish to refer back to that previous post, I will repeat only the last portion here:

"And by the way, if you were wondering, there are also a handful of usages of that word [misery/miserable] in JA’s _letters_, and one of them, it turns out, is startlingly and significantly altered in meaning by that same ambiguity. To wit: Letter 59, 10/14-15/08 to CEA, written upon the tragic occasion of the death in childbirth of Elizabeth Austen Knight, reads, in part, as follows: “…& poor Edward restless in MISERY going from one room to the other…perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth—Dearest Fanny must now look upon herself as his prime source of comfort, his dearest friend…”
Surely all Janeites who’ve read that passage about Edward’s “misery” have interpreted that misery as describing the predictable grief of any husband upon the sudden death, in agony, of any prematurely deceased wife. But I believe, based on the ambiguous usages of “miserable” and “misery” in JA’s novels, that JA, in October 1808, intended it to also include that added layer of “repentance”. I.e., JA’s moral judgment was that Edward’s expected grief ought to have been magnified by his knowledge that Elizabeth had died because _he_ had made her pregnant for the dozenth time during her all-too-short life! This interpretation is especially likely in light of JA’s well documented hobby horse about women dying in childbirth which I have written about countless times, and which, I’ve asserted for over three years now, is the core theme of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey and its ghostly heroine, Mrs. Tilney.
And so, in a very real sense, Edward Austen was the “Mrs. Bennet” of this real life horror story, having been the reckless instigator of his wife’s premature death, and Elizabeth was the victimized “Jane”! And, as I write this, it gives me a shiver to connect the dots from this textual interpretation to another longstanding interpretation, whereby a woman getting caught in the rain was a Freudian metaphor (entirely intentional on JA’s part) for a woman getting pregnant! So, this ambiguity of the word “misery” supports the claim I made to the SW California branch of JASNA last December, which is that Jane Bennet’s “illness” was caused by “rain” which dropped from a man, not from the sky--and hence the second part of my cryptic Subject Line!"

A few moments ago, after rereading my previous post to make sure I caught any errors that might have escaped my notice while writing it, it occurred to me to do additional word searches which it had not occurred to me to do sooner----within JA's novels, I searched for any passages containing both "restless" and "misery"; then both "restless" and "miserable"; then both "restlessly" and "miserable". It turned out that the third was the lucky charm, because I was taken to the following passage in Chapter 12 of Northanger Abbey, which, because I found the above quoted passage in Letter 59 about brother Edward near the end of my earlier sleuthing, I had not realized that both such passages contained variants of those two search terms:

"On the beginning of the fifth [act of the play], however, the sudden view of Mr. Henry Tilney and his father, joining a party in the opposite box, recalled her to anxiety and distress. The stage could no longer excite genuine merriment—no longer keep her whole attention. Every other look upon an average was directed towards the opposite box; and, for the space of two entire scenes, did she thus watch Henry Tilney, without being once able to catch his eye. No longer could he be suspected of indifference for a play; his notice was never withdrawn from the stage during two whole scenes. At length, however, he did look towards her, and he bowed—but such a bow! No smile, no continued observance attended it; his eyes were immediately returned to their former direction. Catherine was RESTLESSLY MISERABLE; she could almost have run round to the box in which he sat and FORCED HIM TO HEAR HER EXPLANATION. Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation—instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else—she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause."

So, here we have a usage of "restlessly miserable" in NA which, like "poor Edward restless in misery", is plausibly interpretable as referring to misery as repentance! However, whereas in Letter 59, the repentance is tragic, arising out of a death that occurred only because of the recklessness of the penitent, in NA the repentance is _comic_, arising out of trivial apparent “misconduct” on Catherine's behalf, which Catherine wished to explain to the Tilneys--and that trivial misconduct was that she missed their appointment the previous day because Thorpe had (basically) kidnapped her! Catherine felt guilty even though she knew she wasn’t culpable, because she was so desperate to be back in Henry's good graces, which of course she does achieve, once they speak and she melts his heart with her artless goodness and affection.

But even though the one usage from real life is tragic, and the one from fiction is comic, what does it tell us that JA used that virtually identical pairing of words---“restlessly miserable” in NA and”restless in misery” in Letter 59? I say that it's NO coincidence at all that this comic passage occurs in NA, which, as I stated at the end of my previous post, was _the_ epicenter of JA’s death in childbirth theme, which of course is exactly what JA is suggesting Edward ought to feel "miserable" (i.e., repentant) about!

Since I know I am not psychic, and I had no conscious awareness whatsoever of this parallelism until the search engine showed it to me, I find this to be rather extraordinary validation of my interpretation of JA's _intentional_ exploitation of the ambiguity of "miserable" and "misery", in particular my explosive claim that JA was making a strong, but veiled, moral condemnation of brother Edward, blaming him for the death-in-childbirth of his wife Elizabeth! I revealed in my presentation at the JASNA AGM in October 2009 in Portland, the unnamed play that Henry and Catherine are watching, which so rivets Henry's attention, is _another_ story in which a "ghost" haunts the protagonist----Hamlet!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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