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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Which Austen novel do Austen scholars (academics and lindependents) believe is the "greatest"?

Last week, I read an interview with JASNA Lifetime Member Patricia Meyer Spacks...

....during which (on p.3 as you scroll through) Spacks made the following claim when asked which were considered, by Austen scholars, to be the _greatest_ Austen novels:

"...I think for most scholars it'’s poised between Persuasion and Emma. Earlier I thought Emma was the best, but I recently decided I think Persuasion is the best. I think most scholars would settle on one or the other." END QUOTE

It is not my intent in bringing this quotation forward to trigger a vigorous debate as to which Austen novel _is_ the greatest, although if anyone who responds to me wishes to express an opinion on that point (as I will do, below), you are welcome to do so.

What I was more curious about was whether those reading this post who have some familiarity with the opinions of Austen scholars (whether academics or independents) would agree with Spacks's above quoted comments that most Austen scholars would consider either Emma or Persuasion as Jane Austen's "greatest" novel.

Spacks's tabulation caught me up short because, while I have, over the past decade, heard or read a pretty large number of Janeite scholars, both academic and independent, who believe Emma is Austen's greatest novel, I cannot recall any (other than Spacks, as I just read in the above linked article) who believe Persuasion is Austen's greatest. I've read a _very)_ large sampling of scholarly writings about Jane Austen, and my recollection does not match Spacks's at all. Most scholars, I think, avoid the question altogether, but as to those who don't, aside from my recalling Emma getting the largest number of #1's overall---probably about half---my recollection is otherwise that the other half of those Austen scholars who have taken the plunge and rated the six novels according to greatness have been pretty much divided equally among P&P, S&S, MP and Persuasion, with each having its own special advocates--with only poor Northanger Abbey always being held to be in the shadow of the other 5.

So, my main question is, is Spacks correct and am I out of touch with a general Austen scholarly consensus which holds JA's last two completed novels (by dates of composition) as her greatest? Or has Spacks, perhaps, allowed her own preference for Persuasion to color her impression of what her colleagues think?

I should briefly state my own current personal answer on the "greatness" question, which has evolved considerably over the course of my intensive Austen studies during the past decade---I now mostly consider this a moot question, because I rate the difference in literary quality amongst the six novels to be extremely small and highly subjective, when stood up in comparison alongside the monumental greatness of each one of them. Now, had you asked me this same question 5 years ago, I would not have hesitated to place Emma at the top of the heap by a significant margin, and I would have shared the common Janeite belief that Northanger Abbey was not in a league with the others.

But now it's not that my respect for Emma has lessened, it's that my respect for the other 5 has grown. For example and most dramatically, my respect for Northanger Abbey has grown a hundredfold, as I've come to realize that part of what makes it so great is that JA deliberately masked its greatness beneath the veneer of a "mere parody" of the Gothic, deliberately leading the reader down the garden path of minimizing NA's value. Imagine a literary self confidence that could afford to write a work of genius and have part of that genius work so hard to make itself appear a light confection. That's a _lot_ of self confidence! respect for P&P has grown a hundredfold since then as well--because I've come to see that it is every bit as complex and great as Emma, but that JA hid that greatness beneath the veneer of a "too light bright and sparkling" veneer. And I believe that P&P should not suffer the ironic fate of being faulted for its unique status as the overwhelming _favorite_ or "beloved child" of Janeites, which is not the same thing, by a long shot, as the "greatest". I believe that P&P, like NA, was deliberately masked by JA as being somehow a lighter production than it actually is. Again, a manifestation of enormous authorial self confidence, and also a firm commitment to the philosophical underpinnings of all her writings, her obsession with the subjectivity of human perception and cognition.

And most of all I have come to see that because all six were published within a seven year period at the end of JA's life and just beyond, they are all in a very real sense part of _one_ prolonged ecstasy of publication, they are sextuplets from one giant artistic birth! So it is not at all surprising that I see them all as being so close to each other in literary quality--they were all, essentially, finished "at the same time", i.e., at the end of JA's all too short literary career, all finalized after she had been an accomplished writer for 20 years!

So, I will look forward to any and all replies that I prompt by the above questions and comments.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, September 24, 2012

Evangelical Cousin Edward Cooper's "Beauty & Courage"---NOT!

Last week in Janeites & Austen L, Christy Somer posted the following link to a portrait of Jane Austen's Evangelical cousin, Revd. Edward Cooper, which is now on display at the Jane Austen House Museum:

What is surprising to me is that, as far as I can tell from the article, the Museum, and those who have commented on that linked article, take no notice whatsoever of the ground breaking discovery a few years ago by Annette Upfal (working with her mentor and co-editor, Christine Alexander) that bears directly on that portrait of Edward Cooper now on display there.

I described Annette's discovery re Cousin Edward Cooper at the end of the following post last year at my own blog regarding miscellaneous passages in Jane Austen's Letter 33:

Specifically, I wrote:   "And the last item in my little potpourri of excerpts from Letter 33 is the following, yet _another_ "paean" to serial pregnancy and childbirth: "Caroline was only brought to bed on the 7th of this month, so that her recovery does seem pretty rapid. I have heard twice from Edward on the occasion, and his letters have each been exactly what they ought to be -- cheerful and amusing. He dares not write otherwise to _me_, but perhaps he might be obliged to purge himself from the guilt of writing nonsense by filling his shoes with whole peas for a week afterwards. Mrs. G. has left him 100l., his wife and son 500l. each."  The "Edward" who writes to JA is cousin Edward Cooper, the clergyman whom (according to Annette Upfal, and I believe her to be 100% correct) JA and CEA mercilessly satirized in Jane's 1793 History of England, first using a portrait of Edward Cooper's own ugly face to represent Edward IV, and then describing Edward IV in a similarly unflattering way:     "       END QUOTE

If you expand the size of the image of Cassandra's sketch of their cousin Edward Cooper, you can readily discern both the resemblance to the fancy full size portrait now on display at the Museum, and also also CEA's extremely unflattering and unsentimental depiction of the character of their cousin, which is, as I said, mirrored in the verbal description of Edward IV in The History of England text:

"This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who poor Woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th One of Edward's Mistresses was Jane Shore, who has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble Actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his Son."

When you look at CEA's sketch of Edward IV (aka Edward Cooper) and think about the text's specific reference to CEA's sketch as evidence of "his Beauty & his Courage", one realizes just how intentionally biting and personal this satire really was to both Austen sisters, since the word that would _least_ seem to fit with CEA's portrait of Cousin Cooper is "Beauty"--and the two wicked satirical girls wanted to make very sure that everyone really looked at CEA's sketch!

What makes the failure to take notice of Upfal's work in the Museum blog article (apparently written by Julie Wakefield) especially surprising is that Annette Upfal was actually one of the presenters at the July 2009 Chawton House Conference that I was privileged to present at as well, and Annette gave her talk about all the veiled Austen family portraits in Jane Austen's History of England right there, a short walk down the road from the House Museum.  I.e., Upfal's discovery should be common knowledge among Austen scholars, most of all within the small confines of Chawton!

But then again, perhaps the silence about Upfal's work in that article has something to do with the embarrassing kibosh that Deirdre Le Faye attempted to put on the celebration of publication of Upfal's book at that Conference.  As we discern from the article's quotation of Le Faye as seeing something of Cousin Cooper in Mr. Collins's cruel letters of condolence (actually, the honor of being the first Austen scholar to point out that parallel appears to belong to Robert Liddle _way_ back in his 1963 book about JA's novels), there is apparently an acceptably safe limit of satire that can be assimilated by mainstream scholarship, but when an Austen scholar like Upfal claims too sharp a personal satire, better to keep that sort of claim out of the spotlight.

So, to do my small part to remedy that omission, here is a link to the webpage for Upfal's book:

If you can't open my link for any reason, then go to and enter this data:

ISBN-10: 0733427804

ISBN-13: 978-0733427800

There you will see that Edward Cooper was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of biting Austen family satire that some might wish to keep in obscurity.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

What did Lady Catherine stop herself from saying to Lizzy Bennet at Rosings?

 As Lady Catherine cross-examines Lizzy at Rosings about this and that, every Janeite recalls the following exchange as part of it:

"Your father's estate is entailed on Mr. Collins, I think. For your sake," turning to Charlotte, "I am glad of it; but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family. Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?" "A little."

"Oh! then—some time or other we shall be happy to hear you. Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to——You shall try it some day. Do your sisters play and sing?" "One of them does."

We all know this passage, and, aside from noting that Lady C, for all her unpleasant personality traits, is something of a proto-feminist when it comes to property rights, it is a passage that would seem to merit no special attention.

Well, if you read through this message to the end, perhaps you'll agree with me that it's an especially interesting passage. Why? Because, as I was just reading that exchange today for the umpteenth time, for the first time it occurred to me that Lady Catherine never finished _one_ sentence that she started there......and, upon examination and reflection, I think I know _why_ Lady C thought better of her originally intended completion of that sentence--and it's a reason you will want to hear about as well!

Before I go on, though, I will raise two possible answers I _don't_ agree with, and explain why:

First, someone is going to suggest that this is not an incomplete sentence at all, but simply is a reflection of Jane Austen's authorial compliance with the 18th-19th literary convention of not naming real-world names. And, indeed, in P&P itself, we read in several places about the "--Shire" militia, which would seem to support that interpretation.

Except that JA was very fond of reflecting half-completed spoken sentences in exactly the same format as we see in Lady C's speech---indeed, the majority of Miss Bate's spoken sentences are partial sentences, and there is a great deal of mystery as to what endings Miss Bates was so frequently leaving unspoken.....

So, at most, I believe that JA was deliberately playing with that literary convention of unnamed names--in this case, perhaps the name of a particular maker of pianofortes---as an ambiguous cover for a very very explosive completion of that sentence. Read on.....

Second, someone will acknowledge that it was an incomplete sentence, but will suggest that Lady C's original thought was:

"Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to the instrument at _Longbourn_."

At first, that bland completion would seem to fit the circumstances. After all, Lady C has just been quizzing Lizzy about the _Longbourn_ entail, and Lady C (we learn a minute later) was laboring under the assumption (incorrect, as it turned out) that the Bennet household staff included a governess. So it would fit with that context and that assumption that since Lady C had established that Lizzy played and sang a little, it followed that there had to be a fairly decent pianoforte at Longbourn, and _that_ , therefore, was the very one to which Lady C was about to compare the Rosings pianoforte.

But, I claim, that interpretation crumbles under closer scrutiny and consideration. First of all, isn't it totally out of character for Lady Catherine to think twice about saying _anything_ that pops into her head, let alone to actually _change_, on a dime, what she was going to say? I can't recall any other speech of hers in the entire novel where we get the tiniest suggestion that this could ever occur--quite the contrary, Lady C. repeatedly takes a patent delight in saying _whatever_ she wants to say, to whomever she wants to say it, regardless of whether it might make that person uncomfortable. When we think about the great confrontation in the wilderness at Longbourn in particular, the very notion of Lady Catherine, 25 chapters earlier, being deferential to and solicitous of Lizzy Bennet's delicate class-based feelings--completely absurd!

And that's not all...isn't it also totally out of character for Lady Catherine to consider any valuable object associated with herself--a deity walking on earth---to be even remotely comparable to the same object associated with ordinary human beings?

In particular, is it plausible in any way to imagine that Lady Catherine would use the word "probably" before the word "superior" in that sentence, in describing a pianoforte at the Bennet household in relation to the pianoforte at Rosings?

No, that is even more absurd than Lady Catherine thinking twice. No, there is only one plausible ending to that sentence, it rings out to us from the depths of the text of the novel, like a thundering crescendo, and here it is:

"Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to the instrument at _Pemberley_" !!!

Contrast that completion in stark contrast to the "straw man" pianoforte at Longbourn.

First, it is _readily_ imaginable that Lady Catherine would have been highly sensitive to delicate points of status superiority between her own estate, Rosings, and the great estate of her late sister Lady Darcy--Pemberley. Lady C would not have blithely dismissed the pianoforte at Pemberley---even she was not so narcissistic as to imagine Rosings to be a greater estate than Pemberley.

And second, we already know that Lady C had an especially generous dollop of personal vanity associated with music:

There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?" Mr. Darcy spoke with affectionate praise of his sister's proficiency. "I am very glad to hear such a good account of her," said Lady Catherine; "and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel if she does not practice a good deal." "I assure you, madam," he replied, "that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly."

And there we have Lady C. speaking implicitly about that same Pemberley pianoforte.

So....if I am correct, and Jane Austen wished her careful readers to ask the question of my Subject Line, and then to work through the analysis to get to the end point I have reached, the next question is significantly more explosive:

Why in the world would Lady C. have been about to carelessly let slip that she considered it totally _normal_ that Lizzy Bennet would know anything at all about the pianoforte at Pemberley, in order to assess Lady C's comparison?

And...the followup bombshell question rushes upon us---does this strange apparent belief of Lady Catherine regarding Lizzy Bennet being familiar with the Pemberley pianoforte have anything to do with the most famous crux in all of Jane Austen's novels---i.e., who fed Lady Catherine the false gossip about Lizzy and Darcy being engaged, which famously boomeranged into their becoming actually engaged?

I will briefly reopen Pandora's Box and provide the answer to that last question first provided by Kim Damstra in the late 1990's, and then later independently rediscovered by myself in 2004, with about an 80% correspondence between his and my textual clues that led us both to the same basic conclusion--that answer being _Charlotte_ _Lucas_.

But as neither Kim Damstra, myself, nor anyone else, has previously noticed Lady Catherine's incomplete sentence before I did so this evening, it adds a burst of fuel to the fire----here, in Chapter 29, almost half a novel earlier, we have evidence that Lady Catherine thinks better of revealing that she sees Lizzy Bennet in her mind's eye charming the shades of Pemberley with her singing and playing!

Is it possible that Aldous Huxley really was onto something when he, in the screenplay for P&P1, shows us a Lady Catherine who is actually a deliberate but covert matchmaker between Lizzy and Darcy?

I told you it was something you'd want to read to the end!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A New Kind of Science

This post might seem to be a departure from my usual subject matter, but it’s really not. For the past 15 years, I’ve been developing my own outside-the-box approach to the study of literature, with heavy reliance on literary sleuthing out of covert textual clues left behind by the greatest authors like Austen, Shakespeare, and Joyce. And for the past 15 years, my eldest son Ethan has been developing his own outside-the-box approach to biology, informing his theorizing with an evolutionary perspective. As we’ve each moved on our separate paths, we have often noted the parallels between the study of literature and the study of nature, and so, today’s post is in honor of my son, who is putting  on the following-linked crowdsourcing event in NYC on Thursday evening October 4 at Dewey's Flatiron.

Ethan is one of the new breed of scientists who are looking to break free of longstanding models for the funding of basic science via traditional sources like government (which seem in grave peril of drying up these days) or Big Business (which does not always have the public's interest at heart, to put it mildly).
The research project he wishes to crowdfund is explained briefly in the link, and is on a modest budget with reasonable expectations of fulfilling their specific goal in demystifying the mechanism of the
amphetamine class of drugs on people. Ethan is very Internet savvy, and his Twitter name is @eperlste. He Tweets frequently, if you want to get a more specific sense of what he is about as a scientist.

For the past 5 years, after obtaining his Ph.D at Harvard, Ethan has been developing a new evolutionary approach to pharmacology at his lab at the Sigler Institute at Princeton. In this planned project, he will  collaborate with David Sulzer, whose Columbia Med School lab has for nearly 2 decades been a leader in psychopharmacology.

Members of our family will of course be among his crowdfunding donors, not just because he's our relative, but because we believe in his ability to use his ingenuity and expertise to make this new kind of
science happen, and be part of a growing wave for change, which will ultimately benefit our society as a whole.

This event will be in NYC, perhaps some of you (or anyone you know) who live in the NYC area
might want to attend and see if you want to find out more, and maybe decide to be a donor too (we're not talking about big bucks here overall, and the idea is to get lots of smaller donors!). Feel free, therefore, to circulate this post to any prospective attendee or donee!! And of course if anyone has a question for Ethan, let me know and I will put you in touch with him to answer it!

I've been his non-scientist "muse" for 15 years now, from the days when he managed to wangle himself an internship with a prominent immunologist at the NIH while he was still in high school--and I can say
that it has been a fantastic experience, as a layperson, to tag along with him on his theoretical journey to the point he has reached now, where he has developed an outside-the-box approach to pharmacology that really may bear rich fruit during the next decade. So, if any of you are non scientists, and want a ring side seat to watch how cutting edge science is done these days, this is your chance!  If this sort of thing catches on among scientists worldwide, who knows, maybe one day there will be no depending on the likes of Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney to decide if they want to fund science that the world desperately needs!

Cheers, ARNIE

Monday, September 17, 2012

"....a lucky source of regret..." and " ceaseless source of regret...": An unmistakable echo of Pride&Prejudice in Jane Austen's Letter 32

"[Brother Frank] kindly passes over the poignancy of his feelings in quitting his Ship, his Officers & his Men.-What a pity it is that he should not be in England at the time of this promotion, because he certainly would have had an appointment!-so everybody says, & therefore it must be right for me to say it too.-Had he been really here, the certainty of the appointment I dare say would not have been half so great-but as it could not be brought to the proof, his absence will be always A LUCKY SOURCE OF REGRET...."

Last year in Austen L and Janeites, Diane Reynolds made the following insightful observations regarding the above quoted passage in Jane Austen's Letter 32 dated Jan. 21-22, 1801:  "And then, so typically--I think at this point those of us who have been following the letters know her style in our sleep!--the characteristic commentary on how people lie, what Ellen would call the cant, what we might call the commonplace cliches, that JA sees through and just can't help commenting on--they must annoy/amuse/annoy her no end....The first part must be a parody what she hears people saying, as she says "so everybody says ..." Her opinion of it as nonsense is revealed in the second half of the quote."

Today, I was (surprisingly) brought back to Diane's sharp insight as I was reading along in Pride & Prejudice and came to the following bit of narration early in Chapter 42, as Elizabeth contemplates the disappointing stretch of life in front of her in Meryton during the lull between the departure of the Regiment for Brighton and of Jane for London, on the one hand, and the planned tour to the Lake Country, still off in the distance:

"Her tour to the Lakes was now the object of her happiest thoughts; it was her best consolation for all the uncomfortable hours which the discontentedness of her mother and Kitty made inevitable; and could she have included Jane in the scheme, every part of it would have been perfect. "But it is fortunate," thought she, "that I have something to wish for. Were the whole arrangement complete, my disappointment would be certain. But here, by carrying with me one ceaseless source of regret in my sister's absence, I may reasonably hope to have all my expectations of pleasure realised. A scheme of which every part promises delight can never be successful; and general disappointment is only warded off by the defence of some little peculiar vexation."

Both of these passages, as my Subject Line shows, refer to the sour grapes of a supposedly lucky source of regret.

In Letter 32, as Diane pointed out, JA is all about keeping it real, and not buying into fake pieties and consolation--the family must accept that Frank lacks an appointment, and not try to sugar coat the fact.

In P&P, we are seeing Lizzy at her worst. The mildly sour grapes of Chapter 27, when Lizzy cracks wise ("Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing, after all") with Aunt Gardiner after Wickham drops Lizzy like a hot potato in favor of the Freckled Heiress Miss King, are as nothing in comparison with these super-sour (dare I say it? Lydiaesque) paranoid selfish ramblings about being stranded in Meryton while two other sisters are away on trips.

Notwithstanding the extreme emotional distress that Lizzy knows Jane has experienced as a result of Bingley's abrupt and then prolonged abandonment of Jane mid-courtship, it is now clear to me, as I carefully read the above passage in Chapter 42, that Lizzy feels abandoned by _Jane_ in what Lizzy evidently and narcissistically experiences as her _own_ hour of need.

Pretty darned selfish and unempathic of Lizzy, when you think about it.  But I wager that most Janeites--like myself till today--have skimmed by that obscure passage without ever registering what is really going on in Lizzy's head.

As my 93 year old father tells people, based on his experience in reading P&P----with Jane Austen, you have to read every word, slowly, or else you will miss things--sometimes, important things.

And, in conclusion, the bonus of my connecting the dots between these parallel passages in Letter 32 and P&P is that it provides yet another clue (along with the other P&P echoes I have previously discerned in other JA letters) that JA's process of refining the text of P&P into pure literary gold over a period of years was an endless process--- whether she had thought of the conceit about Frank's promotion and then applied it to Lizzy's boredom, or vice versa, I think this is a particularly apt example of the fact that when she came up with a clever conceit, she enjoyed riffing on it again before putting it aside.

 Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jane Austen: my first penetration story

One of the cool statistics that Google Blogs provides is a sampling of the search terms that new readers Googled which led them to my blog for the first time.

Those who've been reading along here for a while might recall the most unlikely example of a set of search terms leading to this blog, which I recounted here 7 months ago:

Amazingly, there was a connection I had previously been totally unaware of between Jane Austen and the TV show Once Upon A Time (OUAT), focused on the mysterious character August Wayne Booth. And turns out that became the single most popular post I ever wrote in this blog, by a very long margin--so I became a permanent fan of blog statistics.

Well...I finally have another tale to tell of unlikely search terms that led to this blog, which is probably not going to generate thousands of new readers for this blog, but which I think most people   who've been reading along here for a while will find both interesting and disturbing/funny/amazing.

The search terms that popped up today were:


Needless to say, that caught my eye, particularly because (also, I hope, needless to say) I never  wrote any post even remotely resembling  that title. Not the purpose of this blog.

But it didn't take me very long to realize that it must have had something to with the raciest part of (the SEVENTEEN year old) Jane Austen's History of England, and here are the two related posts that an unwitting Googler was led to:

If you (re)read those posts, you will notice the happy serendipity of  the words "My first" referring BOTH to the story of a young person's first experience of a very personal kind, and also to the first syllable in the lubricious Sharade that the audacious young Jane Austen chose to put in her History.

And the most remarkable (and disturbing) part of this coincidence is that it is quite possible that in some way the Sharade on James the First's sexual proclivities was, in the young  Jane Austen's characteristic veiled way, the "shadow story" of Jane Austen's own first experience of that kind.

So, in that sense, the infinite random wisdom of Google actually led the Googler to  the right place after all.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Was Charles Dickens a Closet Janeite?

An old question has been raised again in another group---could Charles Dickens have been a closet Janeite?

Here's what I wrote about Dickens allusions to Jane Austen in yet another online venue over 5 years ago:

My acquaintance with Dickens is still relatively small, but I became aware last year of a curious bit of textual evidence which I'd like to invite comment on from you all who know Dickens very well.  I wonder whether Dickens had Austen's Mansfield Park very specifically in mind when he wrote the following passage in Martin Chuzzlewit:

Ch. 17: "Another little trait came out, which impressed itself on Martin forcibly. Mr. Bevan told them about Mark and the negro, and then it appeared that all the Norrises were abolitionists. It was a great relief to hear this, and Martin was so much encouraged on finding himself in such company, that he expressed his sympathy with the oppressed and wretched blacks. Now, one of the young ladies--the prettiest and most delicate--was mightily amused at the earnestness with which he spoke; and on his craving leave to ask her why, was quite unable for a time to speak for laughing. As soon however as she could, she told him that the negroes were such a funny people, so excessively ludicrous in their manners and appearance, that it was wholly impossible for those who knew them well, to associate any serious ideas with such a very absurd part of the creation. Mr. Norris the father, and Mrs. Norris the mother, and Miss Norris the sister, and Mr. Norris Junior the brother, and even Mrs. Norris Senior the grandmother, were all of this opinion, and laid it down as an absolute matter of fact. As if there were nothing in suffering and slavery, grim enough to cast a solemn air on any human animal; though it were as ridiculous, physically, as the most grotesque of apes, or morally, as the mildest Nimrod among tuft-hunting republicans!"

Why I ask is because, for those familiar with the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris is a kind of metaphorical overseer tormenting Fanny Price the metaphorical house slave of the novel. So the surname Norris and the institution of slavery is linked in both Martin Chuzzlewit and in Mansfield Park. However, perhaps someone who does not believe this is an allusion by Dickens to Austen will argue that Dickens, like Austen, must have known about the very famous 18th century real life slave ship captain turned abolitionist Robert Norris, and therefore claim that Dickens was alluding only to Robert Norris, not to Austen's Mrs. Norris, in the above passage, and that he had no idea about Jane Austen's covert "spin" on the Norris surname. However, I say that where's smoke, there may be fire, and I find some very thick "smoke" in the following passage from 2 paragraphs later in Martin Chuzzlewit, when Dickens wrote:
"In order that their talk might fall again into its former pleasant channel, Martin dropped the subject, with a shrewd suspicion that it would be a dangerous theme to revive under the best of circumstances".

So we have the narrator referring to an abrupt but tactful termination of the unpleasant subject of slavery and racism. Which reminds me an awful lot of the following passage from Mansfield Park: Edmund Bertram says to Fanny Price: "Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle."

And then Fanny replies as follows:   "But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?"

And then Edmund says this:  "I did-and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther."

And then Fanny says this (and this is the "punchline" for my claim of a Dickens allusion to Austen):  "And I longed to do it-but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like- I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel."

I think that such a passage in Mansfield Park would have appealed to Dickens's anti-racist idealism, because he'd have realized from it that Jane Austen was in fact very much concerned with slavery and racism, but was extremely covert in her allusions, as opposed to his own forthright allusions.   END QUOTE

As I reread the above for the first time in a few years, I still stand by what I wrote then.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Greasy Chawton and The Lady Bertram of Letter 78

In Janeites and Austen-L yesterday, Diana Birchall wrote the following regarding Jane Austen's Letter 78 written in January, 1813: "Some arch comment on the weather, employing the English flexibility of adjectives ("sloppy", "greasy")..."

I responded as follows:

Here is that arch comment in Letter 78: "It was just greasy here on friday, in consequence of the little snow that had fallen in the night..."

Diana, my sense is that this unusual usage of "greasy" here is JA's own _original_ twisting of English to meet her witty metaphorical demands---she has taken "greasy" out of the kitchen (with MP's Rebecca's "greasy" bread and butter--perhaps she was even writing that passage in MP as she wrote Letter 78?--- and Mr. Woodhouse's grease-free roast pork), and has inserted it into the wintry Hampshire countryside. There it seems clearly  to mean "slippery", referring, I would guess, to the late-January ground having a slick half-ice, half-snow surface that was perilous to walk on.  I checked in Google Books, and I could not find a single usage of "greasy" in any other book from 1700 through 1820 that referred to any sort of landscape.

For all that JA's writing is supposed to lack physical descriptiveness, I find the opposite to be so. Yes, she is _very_ spartan in her use of physically descriptive adjectives, but I think that's a good thing. Upon examination, they often turn out to be quite evocative--which makes JA's writing poetic in its compression and economy.

Diana  also wrote: "...then some dutiful messages from her mother, and a nasty comment about a Mrs. Bramstone, "the sort of Woman I detest." Deirdre points out this opinion was shared by diarist Hon John Byng, who wrote of this lady as "an artful wordly woman, of a notable self-sufficient capacity."  "

Here's the full quote: "Mrs. Bramstone is the sort of Woman I detest---Mr. Cottrell is worth ten of her. It is better to be given the Lie direct, than to excite no interest..."

There were actually TWO Mrs. Bramstons in Jane Austen's life--one was born Mary Chute and married Wither Bramston, the other was Wither Bramston's elder "dowager" sister. The comment by the diarist Byng quoted by Diana was about the latter, and it might seem that this would be a very straightforward comment about the dowager Mrs. Bramston, who disliked Jane Austen's writing.

However, I believe JA meant that sentence to be ambiguous, and to also work as a joke between her and her actual friend, the married Mrs. Bramston.  That arch, hyperbolic tone should put us on red alert that JA was horsing around, exaggerating for comic effect, and was not at all serious in her purported abhorrence for that "sort of Woman". For starters, had there been a genuine upsetting event as to which a "Lie" had been "given", I don't think JA would have written about it in this playful way.  And there is wit reminiscent of JA's Juvenilia when we read that what is detestable is "to excite no interest". This is pure raillery, teasing fun between friends.

And there is real-life evidence to support my claim that JA did not detest the married Mrs. Bramston (as usual, JA's spelling of proper names is very "greasy"!). First, Mrs. B was apparently an old friend who is mentioned a half dozen times (in pretty benign ways) in letters from the Steventon era.  Check 'em out, you won't find any sign of dislike between JA and Mrs. Bramston--in fact, in Letter 37, we read another passage about Mrs. Bramston, right after JA jokes--surely in a dark way--about the "fire sale" prices being offered for her precious books:

"Ten shillings for Dodsley's Poems, however, please me to the quick, and I do not care how often I sell them for as much. When Mrs. Bramston has read them through I will sell them again."

Whether Mrs. Bramston actually read Dodsley's poems through, who knows, but my point is that Mrs. Bramston is surely not detested by JA.

But second, and more significantly, we actually have the following opinion of MP expressed by the married Mrs. Bramston and recorded by JA, which illuminates our admittedly speculative opinion of _her_ mind and character much further:

"much pleased with it; particularly with the character of Fanny, as being so very natural. THOUGHT LADY BERTRAM LIKE HERSELF. Preferred it to either of the others--but imagined THAT might be her want of Taste--as she does not understand Wit."

Hmm....we know that Fanny Price has a soft spot for Lady Bertram, and vice versa. So it's very interesting to me that Mrs. Bramston is much pleased with Fanny's character in particular, and it's ten times more interesting still that Mrs. Bramston also thinks Lady Bertram is "like herself"! And for all that Mrs Bramston then deprecates her own Taste and understanding of Wit, I have a feeling that Mrs. Bramston herself is teasing about both of these points, that she enjoys good natured raillery every bit as much as JA, and further Mrs. B(RAMston) is showing JA that her taste and wit are actually sophisticated, able to appreciate the subtle ironies of MP, able even to see herself caricatured in the character of Lady B(ertRAM).

And the above is consistent with the following data revealed by Deborah Kaplan in her 1988 Persuasion article about the married Mrs. Bramston:

"Mary Bramston of Oakley Hall, for example, had strikingly broad [reading] preferences, recommending in her letters to a close friend histories, Gothic novels, the works of William Wilberforce, and of Lord Byron.”

No, I don't think JA detested Mrs. Bramston one little bit. And the icing on the cake of that interpretation is that I do believe that Lady Bertram really _was_ JA's _intentional_, but veiled, portrait of her dear old friend, Mrs. Bramston. For starters, as I have already suggested obliquely by my capitalizations---think anagrammatically----the name "Bramstone" (as JA spelled it in Letter 78) includes within its nine letters _six_ of the seven letters of "Bertram" (missing only the second "r")----and _both_ surnames begin with "B" and have the sequence "RAM" in them!

This kind of anagrammatical wordplay is of course JA's forte, and I am certain this was not accidental--indeed, I think that Mrs. Bramston understood the anagram, and _that_ was why she opined about MP as she did!

And....for me the best part of all is that this is not just inconsequential wordplay. I have for several years, for many substantive reasons, been of the firm opinion that Lady Bertram is, along with Harriet Smith, one of the two characters in all of JA's novels who begs to be interpreted topsy turvy from the obvious way of judging her character---i.e., Lady Bertram _seems_ to be little more than a human vegetable, a laudanum-drenched addict who barely moves from her sofa, and barely lifts a finger to protect Fanny.

But...I have known Lady Bertram to be playing possum, and actually to be Fanny's true protector and patroness. So....I say that Mrs. Bramstone is the Lady Bertram of Letter 78, and I defy anyone to accuse me of making a "greasy" interpretation!

ADDED 09/12/12: I thought some more about the relationship between Mrs. _Mary_ Bramston and her unmarried dowager sister in law, Mrs. _Augusta_ Bramston, and I realized that if Mrs. Mary Bramston was represented by Lady Bertram, then it only made perfect sense that her very unpleasant real life unmarried sister in law was represented by Lady Bertram's very unpleasant fictional unmarried sister in law......Mrs. Norris!

And the fact that in real life Mrs. Augusta Bramston was actually the _legal_ mistress of Oakley Hall [by the way, her father's name was _Edmund_!!] makes Mrs. Norris's presumption of the role of unofficial mistress of Mansfield Park--in her bossy domineering way--all the more hilarious as a satirical portrait of the very unpleasant Mrs. Augusta Bramston.

And we might also wonder whether Mrs. Augusta _Elton_ owes any of _her_ bossiness to Mrs. Augusta Bramston as well!

Cheers, ARNIE
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