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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 26, 2012

P.S. re Aphra Behn, Jane Austen and The Witty Few (i.e., Sharp Elves)

In followup to my previous post about Aphra Behn.....

...I did some Googling looking for any other references to "the witty few"--I just had a hunch that Jane Austen would have left some other witty clue to her general admiration for Aphra Behn's feminist writing, and to her specific admiration for the sentiments expressed by Behn in the Preface to The Lucky Chance. It turns out that my hunch was correct, and it is easy to demonstrate.

What I quickly found, by Googling "the witty few", was the following poem, which I noted with satisfaction had been included in an anthology edited by some Lady of Quality named.....Aphra Behn (in 1685)!!! That was two years before The Lucky Chance was first performed. So it turned out that Behn enjoyed that turn of phrase "the witty few" so much that she deployed it _twice_---once in prose in the Preface, and once in poetry, as follows:

The Female Wits by a Lady of Quality

Men, with much toil, and time, and pain, At length, at fame arrive;
While we, a nearer way obtain The palms for which they strive.

We scorn to climb, by Reason's rules, To the loud name of Wit;
And count them silly modest fools, Who to that test submit.

Our SPARKLING way, a method knows, More airy and refined;
And should DULL Reason interpose, Our lofty flight 'twould bind!

Then, let us on! and still believe! A good bold faith will do!
If we ourselves can well deceive; The World will follow too!

What matter! though the witty few, Our emptiness do find;
They, for their int'rest, will be true! 'Cause we are brisk and kind.

Whether Behn wrote the above poem first and the Preface second, or vice versa, or wrote them both contemporaneously, seems unimportant to me. What seems _very_ significant to me, however, is that this poem expounds a more assertive feminism than the Preface---this poem playfully yet unmistakably asserts the idea not merely of female _equality_ when it comes to Wit, but of female _superiority_! I believe Behn is suggesting that what passes for Wit coming from most famous male pens (I suspect she would have excluded Shakespeare from that judgment, however) is too heavy handed---the male writer works too hard, and too obviously--whereas the female wits, who are the "heroines" of this poem, work with a lightness of touch which is much more effective, because more subtle.

And of course, when I thought about .....

(i) writing that was "light", and

(ii) the words "sparkling" and "dull" both appearing in the third couplet, and

(iii) (as I pointed out in my previous post) how Behn's "Since 'tis to the witty few I speak..." was transformed by JA into her famous "_Dull_ Elves" quote about the (deliberately) ambiguous pronouns of Pride & Prejudice.....

...I was immediately prompted to connect all these dots to the _other_ very famous epistolary quote of JA's about Pride & Prejudice, which she (totally disingenuously) called "too light, bright and _sparkling_"!

There can be no reasonable doubt that JA was so exuberantly proud (in the best sense) of her achievement in writing and publishing Pride & Prejudice in January 1813, that she felt it only proper to pay covert homage to one of her literary heroes, Aphra Behn, by covertly alluding to Behn's own exuberant celebration of her own talents!

Therefore, this is yet another reason why those who read JA as being sincerely modest and self-deprecating in calling P&P "too light bright and sparking" are reading JA's writing upside down from her true meaning! JA obviously _loved_ to dream that she was about to achieve the kind of fame that she believed Behn had merited, but had never fully received, since she was a woman--hence the plain brass floor plaque in a forgotten corner of Westminster Abbey.

And it wasn't just in January 1813 that JA was channeling that exact same satirical sentiment of Behn's in the above poem. No, JA also noted Behn's dismissing the toilsome, painful, time-consuming wit of male writers who achieve fame by the literary equivalent of brute force, when JA's narrator obtruded into the text of Northanger Abbey in the famous Defence of the Novel in Chapter 5, and asserted in no uncertain terms:

"And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the [female] novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, WIT, and taste to recommend them."

Indeed, JA held to these sentiments over the length of her lifetime, I suggest, and I also suggest that JA's above-described veiled allusions to Behn _also_ "have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend _them_"!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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