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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jane Austen's Nuts: Part Two

In followup to the discussion of the meaning of "nuts" in Jane Austen's Letter 91, which I analyzed in my immediately preceding post....

...Anielka Briggs wrote the following in Austen-L:

"But if, Diane and Ellen, we are to believe that Austen and CEA implicitly referenced testicles when referring to nuts in the letters, what then, are we to make of Persuasion? " Louisa drew Captain Wentworth away, to try for a gleaning of nuts in an adjoining hedge-row" Surely not......? And if you are quite sure that Austen uses nuts in this sense in her letters and novels, what then are we to make of other testicular analogies such as strawberries? "Come, and eat my strawberries. They are ripening fast" If these frumentaceous testicle analogies you suggest Austen is using are genuine, then do you really think Austen could place these words in Mr. Knightley's mouth when addressing Mrs. Elton? Could Austen place strawberries in Mrs. Elton's mouth when they belonged to Mr.
Knightley? Is it possible........? "    END QUOTE

I responded as follows: 

The answer is obviously "yes, yes, yes, yes."

In particular in that scene in Persuasion, Anne cannot _see_ Wentworth and Louisa, she can only hear them. So that makes their dialogue particularly suggestive, as to what they are doing with their bodies while they are speaking these words:

"...You are never sure of a good IMPRESSION being DURABLE; everybody may SWAY IT. Let those who would be happy BE FIRM. Here is A NUT," said he, catching one down from an upper bough, "to exemplify: a beautiful glossy nut, which, blessed with original strength, has outlived all the storms of autumn. Not a puncture, not a weak spot any where. This nut," he continued, with PLAYFUL SOLEMNITY, "while so many of its brethren have fallen and been trodden under foot, is still in possession of all the happiness that a hazel nut can be supposed capable of." Then returning to his former earnest tone -- "My first wish for all whom I am interested in, is that they should BE FIRM. If Louisa Musgrove would be beautiful and happy in her November of life, she will cherish all her present powers of mind." He had done, and was unanswered. It would have surprised Anne, if Louisa could have readily answered such a speech: words of such interest, spoken with such serious warmth! she could imagine what Louisa was feeling."

That emphasis on being durable and firm, and not swaying---could it be more obvious? And yet, Anne could _not_ (consciously) imagine what Louisa was feeling, and why Wentworth and Louisa went verbally silent at that point--because Anne is clueless and naive.

And then Ellen Moody added her thoughts in Austen L, and I responded as follows:

Ellen: "Aneilka, all you have said is besides the point."

Ellen,  her name is spelled A-N-I-E-L-K-A.  Your consistent misspelling of Anielka's name is actually very much _to_ the point, which is your remarkable---indeed nearly infinite--capacity to consistently _ignore_ what is right before your eyes in Jane Austen's writings, when you hand down such imperious judgments as "There is nothing in all those passages to suggest that the nuts Captain Wentworth picks up from the autumn landscape is being salacious." I will now demonstrate how wrong your statement is, on multiple levels.

First, even within the narrow context of that short hedgerow passage, there is plenty to make it a very plausible interpretation that Wentworth and Louisa are engaged with the birds and the bees, and not the nuts and the trees, at that moment.  It is _universally_ understood at that stage of the story (Chapter 10) that Captain Wentworth is still feeling a great deal of bitter anger and resentment towards Ann. And he has therefore been flirting quite brazenly with Louisa for several chapters, when this scene occurs. He has been flirting so strongly with Louisa because Louisa has patently been inviting his attentions.  And, at this particular instant, the two flirters have separated themselves from the other four walkers, which presents them with a _unique_ opportunity to be alone and unobserved. So, for Frederick and Louisa to engage in a little hanky-panky in that situation is _exactly_ what a reasonable reader would suspect to be the case. It is totally _in_ character.

Second, once we enlarge the scope of our analysis, we find that there is a great deal of additional context that supports the interpretation of hanky-panky between the Captain and Louisa. It was in Chapter 8, _only_  _two_ chapters earlier, that Frederick and Louisa have engaged in an extended, coded conversation, chez Musgrove, in company with the Crofts, the other Musgroves, and Anne, in which the sexual innuendo fairly drips from the pages of the novel:

As I have been writing about this scene for years, there is a strong current of thinly veiled aggression being expressed by both Frederick and Louisa specifically toward Anne, speaking derisively of her as "used goods" in the sexual/marriage marketplace, via the image of the "old Asp" and "any old pelisse, which you had seen lent about among half your acquaintance ever since you could remember...".  Louisa, in contrast, is brand new, very attractive "merchandise" freshly out on the marriage block, which Wentworth seems very intent on sampling, while making very very certain that Anne is aware of this--and hard as Anne tries to look away, on some deeper subconscious level, Anne is disturbed by what she is forced to witness.

So I take from that larger context the very real possibility that Wentworth and Louisa are very much aware that Anne is eavesdropping on them behind the hedge, and so they put on a little performance (just think about what the matchmaking schemers do in a similar setting in Much Ado About Nothing, a scene JA knew and loved well) for an audience of one, i.e., Anne, the better to break her heart with.  But again, Anne is so heavily defended, she (like Ellen, who is equally heavily defended) does not let it in, Anne is incredibly naive.

And third, to enlarge the context still further, it was David Lodge who famously wrote the following passage decades ago in one of his novels:

" [Prof. Morris Zapp] snatched up the text and read with feeling: " . . . she found herself in the state of being released from him . . . Before she realized that Captain Wentworth had done it . . . he was resolutely borne away . . . Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles with the most disordered feelings. How about that?" he concluded reverently. "If that isn't an orgasm, what is it?" He looked up into three flabbergasted faces. The internal telephone rang. . . "

I agree 100% with both Professor Zapp, and also with his creator, David Lodge, that this is a prime example of sexuality hidden just beneath the surface in Persuasion, which certainly supports the notion that there would be _other_ sexual innuendo elsewhere in Persuasion---and guess where that passage is--in Chapter 9, sandwiched in between the "dear old Asp" passage in Chapter 8 and the hedgerow passage in Chapter 10---so it illustrates that Anne, despite herself, is beginning to thaw sexually, as a result of her exposure in close quarters to the heat being generated between Wentworth and Louisa, and with the right trigger, she is swept up in her own unpent sexual energy--which is why we hear about her "blooming" not long afterwards.

Ellen: "It's out of character and would offend Anne Elliot too. She would not register it as a mind Austen invented and it's her register of consciousness all is filtered through."

Ellen, that is a staggering statement---you have decided (based on who knows what) that Jane Austen, the author, was incapable of having one of her heroines, Anne Elliot, be clueless as to an event which occurs in her presence, or as to her own reactions thereto. Need I remind you that JA's novels are filled, from one end to the other, with examples where her heroines _are_ clueless about events which occur in their presence, and as to which they misunderstand their own reactions?  Why should Anne Elliot in particular be exempt from misunderstanding what she sees, any more that Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse?

It is precisely _your_  profound, ideologically-based tone deafness to irony, Ellen, which leads you to believe that JA was incapable of showing Anne Elliot's thoughts in an ironic light. JA has done this with each of her heroines precisely so as to catch her readers up in her heroines's delusions and misconceptions, so that we readers, at least, will eventually understand, probably only upon _re_reading, that there was more going on than met the eye in so many scenes in these six novels.

Ellen: "Reading Austen's letters and words (the compliment to Cassandra and thanking her for the "intelligence") as if she wrote text (presumably for us too) in a state of mind closely akin to someone today inventing or doing a Sunday Times cross-word is contrary to common sense. "

That would be _me_ who has often used that exactly metaphorical parallel between crossword puzzles and subtextual fiction like JA's, so I will reply to that statement as well. I suggest to you, Ellen, that what is "contrary to common sense" is to fail to identify Jane Austen (like her greatest role model, Shakespeare) as precisely that sort of writer who embeds subtextual puzzles in her writing.  And, again, the authorial motivation is not merely to play sadistic literary parlor tricks, but to replicate for her readers the uncertainties and confusions of real life, to present her readers with ambiguities up the wazoo, and to challenge us to sort out truth from falseness to the best of our (fallible human) ability.---and hopefully, to get better at it, by means of training ourselves (safely) in the experimental, illusory space of her novels, where we get to reread them and test fresh hypotheses as to what is going on.  And eventually, to learn to treat what we see in real life with equal circumspection, having been sensitized to the myriad ways our pride, prejudices, sensibilities, and the persuasion of others, may sway our opinions about what we see.

Cheers, ARNIE
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