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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Opinions Jane Austen Collected Re Mansfield Park & Emma: Mrs. Pole's Opinion Mattered, the others were for private laughs

Diana Birchall wrote the following in Janeites and Austen about the opinions Jane Austen collected about her third and fourth published novels, Mansfield Park and Emma:

"Yet Ellen is right about Austen not having anybody to validate her genius, and her collecting the little scrapbook of puerile remarks from idiots is pathetic. She clearly wanted, longed for the praise that was her due, but you don't *need* that praise to know you are good. She knew, even though she could not live to see it."

Diana, I could not disagree more about Jane Austen's motivations in collecting opinions from friends and family. It would indeed have been pathetic had she actually been longing for praise from most of the family and friends of family whose opinions she collected about Mansfield Park and Emma-she knew very well that theirs were not well informed or aesthetically acute opinions.

And anyway, she not only knew she was a good writer, she knew by the time she finished P&P, if not sooner (after all, at that point, she was 37 years old, not a babe in the literary woods at all!), that she was an immortal, worthy to sit at the same table of highest genius with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton, and superior to all the English novelists (Richardson, Sterne, Fielding, Smollett, Radcliffe, Burney, Edgeworth, etc etc) who preceded her.

So her collecting of these opinions was more or less the same sort of in-joke for her own benefit, and that of only a few very trusted friends with whom she could safely share such a joke, as her letters to James Stanier Clarke. The common theme was Jane Austen allowing (no, inviting) fools to hang themselves with their own foolish words.

The quintessential example of the delight JA took in observing the blindness of the very people she was satirizing in her novels as to their being satirized, is what niece Fanny Knight opined about _Emma_:

"not so well as either P. & P. or M P.--could not bear Emma herself.--Mr Knightley delightful.-- Should like J. F.--if she knew more of her."

What would have made Jane Austen roar with laughter and pleasure (of course when she was far far away from Godmersham) was the clear implication that Emma the character was significantly based on the real life Fanny Knight, and, further, that the fictional Emma spends most of the novel obsessing over Jane Fairfax--so of course the real life model for Emma would do exactly the same as her fictional "twin"!

But, on the other hand, the opinion of Mansfield Park which "Mrs. Pole" rendered...

"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman -- most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not experimentally acquainted with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates." Mrs. Pole also said that no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly."

...which is far and away the most brilliant and insightful of the entire lot of opinions that JA collected, was one that I am sure Jane Austen sincerely valued and even cherished. Why?

Because, as I discovered 7 years ago, and first blogged publicly about nearly 2 1/2 years ago...

...Mrs. Pole was none other than the second wife of Erasmus Darwin, and therefore also the step-grandmother of one of the greatest scientists in the history of the planet, Charles Darwin!  It is easy to imagine Mrs. Pole sitting with 7 year old grandson Charles on her knee, reading him excerpts from Pride & Prejudice

So, when Mrs. Pole said that Mansfield Park demonstrated JA's experimental acquaintance with human nature in the society of the English gentry, Mrs. Pole meant this literally, i.e., she recognized what an extraordinarily acute observant scientist JA really was, and that the extraordinary realism of JA's novels was born from JA's uncanny gifts as a "naturalist" observing the human animal in "the wild"--a gift that Mrs. Pole's grandson would first exhibit during his voyage on the Beagle a scant 14 years after the death of Jane Austen!

In short, Jane Austen knew whose bad opinion to laugh at, and whose good opinion to cherish.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

ADDED 7/17/13 at 11 am EST:

Diana Birchall responded to the above as follows:  "I believe you're right about the collected opinions, Arnie, good observations - and I love the Mrs. Pole story!"

Thanks, Diana!

Ironically, I think the most significant aspect of my discovery of the true identity of Mrs. Pole is not even that Jane Austen was in a personal relationship of some kind with the widow of Erasmus Darwin, but that it never occurred to any Austen scholar before me to even check to see who she was! It literally took me 5 minutes via Google to find out, and so I am sure that, even in the pre-Internet Era, it would not have taken very long for an Austen scholar to sleuth around and find out that she was Erasmus Darwin's second wife (and, by the way, the object of his very famous love poetry!), and also that she and Erasmus were part of the same social circle as JA's cousin Edward Cooper, the one JA detested. So JA had both opportunity and motive to meet Mrs. Pole and become her friend!

So for no one to have discovered it before means that no one ever tried to discover it before. And the fact is, therefore, that no one ever checked into it--- even though Mrs. Pole's opinion is so well-written and interesting in its own right---because, I suggest, these Opinions collected by JA were not considered worthy of any study at all....because, I think, they were all taken at face value, and as a kind of trivia about the novels.

That incredible collective passivity and lack of curiosity is all about the myth of Jane Austen as self-deprecating, modest, unaware of her genius, which still largely holds sway among many literary scholars even today.

It is only when someone, like myself in this case, blasts past that myth, and looks upon JA as a self-aware genius with huge feminist ambition to change the world, over time, that data like these collected opinions get scoured for clues about relationships JA had, especially with other women from outside her family circle. And our knowledge of Jane Austen the person is dramatically altered.

Diana wrote: "Don't agree about her coaching Anna however (see comment I just posted)."

I did see it, and you make your case as persuasively as it can be made--but I still get the feeling that JA is not just going through the motions, I think she holds out hope for Anna to really succeed as a novelist.  But of course you could be correct, it's not a point that can be definitively resolved by us today, from a distance of 200 years and without further data.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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