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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Frank Austen Code

In followup to...

...with a little more digging, I found that Frank Austen’s naval service in the West Indies occurred not only early in his career, but also very late as well, actually for the duration of the latter half of the 1840's. Here is a passage from Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, 281 et seq., that summarizes the elderly Frank's return to the West Indies, where one could imagine ocean water warm enough for English sailors to swim in:

"In 1845 he took command of the North American and West Indies Station. This command in the Vindictive forms a notable contrast to his earlier experiences in the West Indies. How often he must have called to mind as he visited Barbadoes, Jamaica, or Antigua, the excitements of the Canopus cruises of forty years ago! How different too the surroundings had become with the regular English mail service, and the paddle-wheel sloops of war in place of brigs such as the Curieux — and, greatest change of all, no such urgent services to be performed as that of warning England against the approach of an enemy's fleet! Nevertheless, there was plenty to be done. The Naval Commander-in-Chief has no easy berth, even in time of peace. His letters tell us of some of the toils which fell to his share:  ‘Our passage from Bermuda was somewhat tedious; we left it on February 6, called oft Antigua on the 15th, and, without anchoring the ship, I landed for an hour to inspect the naval yard," rather an exertion in the tropics, for a man of seventy-three...’ “

So that alters my sense of the timeline of the “shark of the blue  species” anecdote. I now believe it originated after Frank’s late-career stint in the Caribbean. Also, character-wise, Frank as Sir Francis (he was knighted in 1837) and as an admiral in his mid-seventies would fit better with the rigid Mr. Spock-like persona depicted in Lord Brabourne's anecdote than Frank as a relatively young captain.

So, if I am correct in this inference, then JA's color-coded admiral wordplay in Persuasion was not based on the anecdote, but vice versa, i.e., Frank was covertly pointing to Persuasion. So I now see Frank, after his return to England around 1850, and further elevation up the ranks of the admiralty, as coming up with the tale of the  "shark of the blue species" in reminiscence of sister Jane's  color-coded wordplay around admirals in Persuasion.

That would have been very close in time to 1852, when he made his thinly veiled allusion to Mansfield Park’s "Rears and Vices" pun in his letter to Susan Quincy. I would imagine further that his encounter with Susan Quincy, and answering all her questions about Jane's novels and the navy, itself sent Frank back to rereading Persuasion and  Mansfield Park in particular-- because of course they are JA’s two most “naval” novels, and perhaps that revisiting, and thinking about what must have been Susan Quincy’s barrage of  questions about all the novels, that led Frank to see things in the novels that perhaps he had overlooked four decades earlier when he  first read them.

And...the part that decides this interpretation for me is that I was able to decode a second covert reference to Persuasion hiding in plain sight in Lord Brabourne’s anecdote, which I believe was placed there intentionally by Frank Austen himself, an allusion of which Lord Brabourne was, I am certain, blissfully unaware.  

And (to Everjane in Janeites), as I will now demonstrate, sometimes a Biblical allusion really is intentional and thematic!

The break in the case came when I returned to the allusion to the Book of Job that I mentioned yesterday:

"Whereupon Pakenham, becoming alive to his danger, acted upon the advice thus deliberately given, and, says the story, saved himself 'by the skin of his teeth' from the shark."

Job 19:20   My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.

In Chapter 19, Job is complaining bitterly about his being persecuted by God, and this is just one small part of his despairing litany. And Brabourne does put  “by the skin of his teeth” in quotes. So…I became curious  to know if any Austen scholar had ever suggested that there might be an allusion to the Book of Job in Persuasion, and that turned out to be a direct hit amidships, courtesy of Jocelyn Harris in her 2007  book about Persuasion,  A Revolution Almost Beyond  Expression, at page 192:

“Austen seems even to play with sacred scenes when at Lyme, Wentworth 's "tone of despair," as if "all his own strength were gone." [Is there no one to help me?" were the first words which burst from Captain Wentworth, in a tone of despair, and as if all his own strength were gone. ] For instance, when Austen writes, "They were wretched comforters for one another!" (122), she surely echoes "miserable comforters are ye all" in the book of Job (16:2), that difficult explanation for evil and pain — two large words that resonate throughout Persuasion If Job loses family, flocks, and health, only to have them all restored to him, Anne similarly loses then recovers everything. Such concepts of restoration, recovery, and. revival grant characters the merciful dispensation of a second chance ..”  END QUOTE

I applaud Harris’s discoverhy, and add that it seems that Frank’s motive in including a line from the Book of Job in the anecdote was to demonstrate, to a knowing reader, that he understood the Book of Job subtext in Persuasion.

First, here are the two full passages Harris was pointing to:

Persuasion Chapter 13:Anne was to leave them on the morrow, an event which they all dreaded. "What should they do without her? They were wretched comforters for one another." And so much was said in this way, that Anne thought she could not do better than impart among them the general inclination to which she was privy, and persuaded them all to go to Lyme at once.”

Job Chapter 16: 1-3: Then Job answered and said, I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. Shall vain words have an end? or what emboldeneth thee that thou answerest?

And here’s the thing---Chapter 16 of Job is very similar to Chapter 19 of Job, the chapter that includes the skin of Job’s teeth!  Both are litanies of bitter despairing responses by Job to the group trying to comfort  him about his many ills, and each Chapter begins very similarly as you can see:

Job 19: 1-3: Then Job answered and said, How long will ye vex my soul, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times have ye reproached me: ye are not ashamed that ye make yourselves strange to me.

So I see Frank, by overtly alluding to Job 19, showing that he understands perfectly the veiled allusion to the Book of Job in Persuasion. In his fable, Pakenham has recklessly exposed himself to danger by swimming with blue sharks, and in Jane Austen’s fable, Louisa Musgrove has recklessly exposed herself to danger by jumping from heights.

This is a literary game worthy of his sister Jane, and I see nothing in Brabourne’s telling of the anecdote that indicates that he is in on this ultra-subtle literary game played by the elderly Frank Austen.

We’ll never know how much help Jane gave Frank in decoding her novels, but my guess is that she did not  give him too much, and that he, a very clever fellow to the end, figured some of it out himself as an old man.

Now, in conclusion, I’ll quickly toss out for your perusal additional passages in Persuasion which seem to me to be part of the allusion to the Book of Job in Persuasion:

Job 1:2: His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.

Job is  represented in Persuasion as Mr. Musgrove, a rich squire with a very great household. This  fits perfectly with the despair  Wentworth feels when Louisa seems to be dying, and he imagines the reaction of her parents, just as Job feels when all his children are suddenly killed. But of course  Louisa comes back to life, as to Job’s children.

Then we have the following  curious comment by the ever inscrutable Mr. Shepherd, reaching for the name Wentworth:

"Bless me! how very odd! I shall forget my own name soon, I suppose. A name that I am so very well acquainted with; knew the gentleman so well by sight; seen him a hundred times; came to consult me once, I remember, about a TRESPASS of one of his neighbours; farmer's man breaking into his orchard; WALL TORN DOWN; apples stolen; caught in the fact; and afterwards, contrary to my judgement, submitted to an amicable compromise. Very odd indeed!"

In addition to the Biblical word “trespass”, we have the “wall torn down” which sounds a lot like what happens metaphorically to Job, who is described by Satan in the following verse as being protected by God, before Job is stripped of that solid  protection by God as a test:  

1:10: Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

Is it an accident that we read of high walls in the description of Uppercross?:

Chapter 5: Uppercross was a moderate-sized village, which a few years back had been completely in the old English style, containing only two houses superior in appearance to those of the yeomen and labourers; the mansion of the squire, with its HIGH WALLS, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized, and the compact, tight parsonage, enclosed in its own neat garden, with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements;

And how about this—there are a total of 30 usages of the word “CLAY” in the entire Bible, most of which are not metaphorical, but 6 of those 30 usages appear in the Book of Job, where, as numerous commentators have observed, it is used as a strong motif to suggest how fragile and fleeting our time is in the frail human body which will return to clay and dust all too soon. So we see another good reason why Mr. Shepherd’s  daughter is named “Mrs.Clay”! Here are those usages in Job:

4:19  How much less in them that dwell in houses of CLAY, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth?
10:9  Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the CLAY; and wilt thou bring me into dust again?
13:12 Your remembrances are like unto ashes, your bodies to bodies of CLAY.
27:16 Though he heap up silver as the dust, and prepare raiment as the CLAY;
33:6 Behold, I am according to thy wish in God's stead: I also am formed out of the CLAY.
38:14  It is turned as CLAY to the seal; and they stand as a garment.

And I will conclude (for now) with my personal favorite, Admiral Croft’s winking allusion to Psalm 74 (one of only four passages in the entire Bible referring to Leviathan, another being in the Book of Job—which has sometimes been speculated to be a shark) and the breaking of heads, the event which triggers the allusion to the wretched comforters in Persuasion:

Psalm 74: 13-15 Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers.

Persuasion Chapter 13: The Admiral wound it up summarily by exclaiming-- "Ay, a very bad business indeed. A new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking his mistress's head, is not it, Miss Elliot? This is breaking a head and giving a plaster, truly!"

So, for all these reasons, and more that I am sure will pop up upon further examination, I assert that we now have two examples of what can with justification be called The Frank Austen Code.

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