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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see"---The Song of Emma Woodhouse

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short fanciful post in which I united my love of two of my three favorite British icons--the Beatles and Jane Austen (Shakespeare being the third, of course):

Among the absurd scenarios I imagined was "Emma and Mrs. Elton doing a raucous duo rendition of Strawberry Fields Forever".

Of course, I was prompted to that absurd pairing by the strawberry picnic scene at Donwell Abbey, and in particular, the following famous stream-of-consciousness passage:

"The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—"The best fruit in England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade."

What occurred to me this morning, was that maybe--just maybe--John Lennon was a sharper elf than I had even given him credit for, and that perhaps the lyrics of one of his most famous songs were in some way inspired by that very same passage in Emma:

Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry fields Nothing is real And nothing to get hung about Strawberry fields forever
Living is easy with eyes closed Misunderstanding all you see It's getting hard to be someone, but it all works out It doesn't matter much to me [chorus]
No one, I think, is in my tree I mean, it must be high or low That is, you can't, you know, tune in, but it's alright That is, I think it's not too bad [chorus]
Always, no, sometimes, think it's me But, you know, I know when it's a dream I think, er, no, I mean, er, yes, but it's all wrong That is, I think I disagree [chorus]

I must start with a caveat----I have previously looked, and never could find any published indication that any of the Beatles took any particular interest in Jane Austen. And...according to Wikipedia, there was an actual place called "Strawberry Field" in Liverpool, which was a childhood memory of Lennon's, so there is already a plausible explanation for where Lennon got the idea for the song. I mulled over the possibility that John Lennon might, in some poetic way, have been paying tribute to Emma in "Strawberry Fields Forever", it occurred to me that there was a likely candidate as a kind of literary "matchmaker", who might have turned John Lennon on to the absurdist side of Jane Austen's writings, at that critical moment, in early 1967, and that matchmaker's name was Joe Orton:

It is an undisputed fact that Joe Orton--notorious bad boy of the theatre of the absurd in early Sixties London-- was a huge Janeite, who particularly loved (not surprisingly) the mad energy of JA's juvenilia, and also the way JA played with the Gothic in Northanger Abbey.

So, is it just coincidence that in Joe Orton's Diary, we find an entry from Jan. 20, 1967 in which he says he is going to meet the Beatles? Apparently, negotiations had begun, for Orton to script the Beatles's next film (which of course became Magical Mystery Tour). And I refer to this as a coincidence, because the single "Strawberry Fields Forever" was released a month thereafter, in February 1967, and the references to "Strawberry Fields" were only added during that intervening month!

So it seems an intriguing possibility that when Joe Orton met the Beatles, it would have been Lennon and Orton in particular, who would have gravitated to each other---they were both "bad boys", whose shared deep love of the absurd in words would surely have resulted in some spontaneous combustion of absurdist poetic interaction between them--and so I think it quite likely that Orton would at some point have turned the subject to Jane Austen--the way all of us Janeites invariably do when given any leeway--and Orton might've said to Lennon something like "You've got to read Emma, it will blow your mind. Jane Austen was not who you think she was. She was the Queen of the Absurd."

And so my hypothesis is that Orton turned Lennon on to Emma in particular, and perhaps even directed Lennon to one of the most experimental passages in Emma---the disjointed, mysterious dialog which Emma, her eyes closed as she lies on her back in the summer heat, and hears, through a heat-induced anagogic dream state, the spoken words which I quoted above. And perhaps that was all Lennon needed to inspire him to crystallize his immortal lyrics.

Certainly, I cannot think of a better description of Emma Woodhouse than "Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. It's getting hard to be someone, but it all works out, it doesn't matter much to me." That's Emma to a tee!

And as to Jane Austen's supreme achievement in creating multiple layers of reality in Emma, what more poetic description could be given of her timeless fictional world than to call it "Strawberry Fields Forever", " a dream" place where "nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about".

And I must conclude on a tragic note, because Orton, at age 34, was murdered in a crime of passion in August 1967, only six months after his meeting with the Beatles (the last year of his life was the subject of the great film, Prick Up Your Ears, with amazing performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina). And we all know that Lennon also died a violent death at the hands of a madman at age 40. And we all know that Jane Austen died a tragic death, apparently of natural causes, at age 41.

Food for thought on a Christmas morning, when the imagination runs free.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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