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Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Satiisfaction of Living on Quality Street Which Even Religion Cannot Give

Here is the quiz I presented yesterday:

In Janeites, Louise Culmer and Ros Gordon have both given the correct answer:

Quality Street by J. M. Barrie---of course the author of Peter Pan (in its various versions as novel and play), and, as I will explain, apparently a closet Janeite (so  far, I could find no explicit acknowledgment of same by Barrie).

Before going further, here is a link to an online version of the full text of Quality Street:

I first became interested in JM Barrie as a secret Janeite a few months ago, when I came across the following scholarly article in the course of my research…

Media Matters in J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose” by Christopher Wixson

…which contained the following intriguing comment:

“Staging uncanny eruptions of the fantastic in the midst of more ordinary scenes of middle-class life, Barrie produces a theatrical experience almost as enigmatically ethereal as Mary Rose herself. That Barrie playfully chooses Morland as Mary Rose's maiden name establishes a connection to Gothic narrative, evoking Jane Austen's 1798 novel of haunted spaces and the triumph of sense over sensibility, Northanger Abbey. The play's Sussex manor setting is permeated by uncanny elements, as doors open and close amidst a "thousand whispers," the ghost "all over the house, in every room, and on the stairs." Unlike Austen, though, Barrie does not explain away these occurrences as mere fantasies of an impressionable female mind infused with sensational novels, allowing them instead to remain anxious textual disjunctures that build to significance within a play that lacks an adequate medium for assimilating them.”

What I found intriguing was not so much Wixson’s interpretation of spectrality in Barrie’s play, as the clear indication that Barrie had made a very striking veiled allusion to Northanger Abbey, and it made me wonder what Barrie meant by it.

Long story short, I obtained and read a copy of the text of Mary Rose and was a little disappointed when the “smoke” from Northanger Abbey that Wixson had outlined  did not lead to a “fire” of more veiled Austenian allusions, at least as far as I could discern. Mary Rose is a play that attracted  a lot of attention in its day, with a great deal of speculation about the mysterious treatment of time and the supernatural  in it, but not a whisper I could detect, prior to Wixson’s article, about any Austenian resonance. Perhaps  someone else might see more in the play text than I was able to, but Barrie  does not seem to me to have had any clue about the significance of the ghost of Mrs. Tilney, as I have previously opined.

But in the back of my mind, I retained the slim hope that there might be some other part of the Barrie oeuvre (he wrote a lot) where that Austenian fire might have been left smouldering in some interesting way.

Well, yesterday, I found it---as usual, via serendipity, while looking at something else. Again, long story short, I was led to another play by Barrie, Quality Street, which, it was immediately obvious, was saturated with Persuasion —but let me add immediately, I am far from the first to note that resonance, as you will see, below.

If you read through the play text, and I encourage every serious Janeite to do so, I think Barrie’s focus on Persuasion will be obvious to all, even beyond the bullet list of parallels I initially provided. But it’s interesting to read some critical reactions from nearly a century ago, after the play was performed, first on Broadway, and later on the London stage.

Here’s what HM Walbrook said in 1922:  “The work is indeed an invention, "a thing which nobody but Mr. Barrie would have written." It bears the stamp of his personality and genius in every scene. Several critics called it an echo of Jane Austen's "Persuasion," but the two stories are almost as little alike as Thrums is like Bath. The similarity between Quality Street and any of Miss Austen's works is little more than an accident of period and atmosphere. What appears at first to be its main idea that a woman found by her lover to have aged and faded may put on fresh youth and reconquer him is not particularly original. Indeed, as the play proceeds we perceive that such is not its main idea at all. The audience are merely led for a time to believe that it is; but before the third Act is over they discover to their delight that the author has a very different device in store.”

Needless to say, I find Walbrook to be totally and cluelessly wrong about the Austenian resonance being a  coincidence. Here is another contemporary take that doesn’t quite take the leap to saying Barrie was a Janeite, but is a whole lot sharper than Walbrook:

Drama and Life  by Arthur Bingham Walkley, 1908:  Its theme, to speak generally,  is the joy of living —of living, as the pedants would say. More particularly the theme is the desire of women to love tenderly and to be honourably loved in return. That desire is never more charmingly exhibited than it is in young spinsters verging on an age when love seems in danger of passing them by. It is the theme of Jane Austen's Persuasion. If that classic instance comes automatically to the pen it is because Mr. Barrie's play chooses Jane Austen's period, and his characters speak the delightfully stilted language of Jane Austen's people. It is true they all speak that language a little too emphatically; they are more royalist than the king, more Austenite than Jane herself. There are too many " ma'ams," and "vastlys," and "elegant females," and " vowings," and " protestings." Jane Austen's idiom was much more like our own than Mr. Barrie would have us suppose. And there are incongruities which grate on the ear. Jane Austen would never have talked of " object-lessons" or of a lady being " gown'd." To say "This will be a great year for females" and "I long to dazzle a male" is to burlesque her style. In harping on Jane Austen I am paying Mr. Barrie the greater compliment. He gives us something very like her delicate sampler-work, her pomander fragrance. And the story he tells might have been told by her.”

I agree with Walkley that Barrie’s writing style did not match JA’s, but I like that Walkley did in effect spot the ghost of Jane Austen  in Quality Street.

And here’s the lowdown on film adaptations , which  Ros has already mentioned in part, The play was adapted twice for film; a Marion Davies vehicle in 1927, and a 1937 one  starring Katherine Hepburn.  And by the way, the play was so popular that chocolates and caramels were named after it.

As I Googled to check to see if any others in the present time had seen Austen in the play or movie, I was led, of all places, to a November 2010 post at the excellent blog of my good Janeite friend, Jenny Allan:

“…a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) becomes an old maid waiting for a young man (Franchot Tone) to return from the Napoleonic Wars. OK, Kate Hepburn and Franchot Tone--I'm there already. Throw in Napoleonic Wars and you've definitely got me intrigued. And doesn't this outline sound just a little bit like PERSUASION?! Oh, Universe, you've done it again. You've reached into my brain and provided me with exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it. What a fun discovery this movie was. It IS a screwball version of Persuasion. Take out Louisa's head injury and add in Anne Elliott posing as her own coquettish, young niece, and you more or less have Quality Street. This film has all the tea-swilling, pelisse-wearing, repressed-sexual-smoldering of a Jane Austen adaptation and all the chaotic misunderstandings and physical gags of 1930s RKO comedies….”  [read the rest of the post at her blog!]

So, make of it what you will, but add J.M.  Barrie to the list of famous  closet Janeites. What I find intriguing is that Barrie was obsessed in his writing with the fantasy of defeating Father Time, and somehow remaining young  beyond the usual time allotted for same. That obsession would certainly led him unerringly to Persuasion  among all of JA’s novels.

If anyone else, including  but not limited to Louise and Ros, wants to say what you think was on Barrie’s mind when  he alluded to Persuasion, I am very curious to hear it.

I leave you with my favorite line from the play, which is not spoken by any character, but is the  first  line in the initial setting of the stage:

The scene is the blue and white room in the house of the Misses Susan and Phoebe Throssel in Quality Street; and in this little country town there is a satisfaction about living in Quality Street which even religion cannot give.”

Indeed, for me, and, apparently, for Barrie as well, there is a satisfaction about reading Jane Austen’s novels which even religion cannot give. And I do believe the same held true for the satisfaction Jane Austen felt when creating the characters who lived on her fictional streets and lanes.

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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