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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Jane Austen’s R-Rated Songbook: Cousin Elliot and Harriet Smith in Lamberti’s Gondola…but not at the same time!

In Janeites & Austen L, Diana Birchall wrote: “A paean to my favorite author, and my favorite city.  "Jane Austen and Venice," on the Austen Authors website today.

Nicely done! I had absolutely no idea about Jane Austen's own songbook containing lyrics about a gondolier who seduces a sleepy blonde, and exults in his “triumph” at the end! As usual of late, you’ve ferreted out another interesting wormhole into the depths of a JA text, and have brought it forward for our consideration. I hope you enjoy where I was able to go once I maneuvered through that wormhole!  

First, I listened to the YouTube video, and the song sounded like a tender aria ironically describing a creepy seduction, which might (if the music had been a great deal more inspired) have found its way into The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte or The Barber of Seville, which have such ironic scenes.

Diane also wrote: “No wonder she wrote that the sense of an Italian love-song is not to be talked of, if the Italian songs she knew were like “La Biondina in Gondoletta”!”

As for that passage in Persuasion….

“This,” said she, “is nearly the sense, or rather the meaning of the words, for certainly the sense of an Italian love-song must not be talked of, but it is as nearly the meaning as I can give; for I do not pretend to understand the language. I am a very poor Italian scholar.” “Yes, yes, I see you are. I see you know nothing of the matter. You have only knowledge enough of the language to translate at sight these inverted, transposed, curtailed Italian lines, into clear, comprehensible, elegant English. You need not say anything more of your ignorance. Here is complete proof.”

I think you are spot-on in connecting it to “La Biondina”, but I’d go one large step further than you, and suggest that the presence of this particular song in JA’s own songbook puts this song, among all others, at the head of the list of likely candidates to be the very song that Anne is too discreet to translate for her amorous Cousin Elliot. And I am pretty sure that if there were any other racy Italian songs in JA’s songbook, we’d have heard about them by now!

But I do wonder what he means by “inverted, transposed, curtailed Italian lines”—what could the lyrics set forth in the program have looked like to warrant such a peculiar description? Or was he just being hyperbolic in his praise, attributing to the lyrics in the program a complexity of presentation they did not actually have?—anyone familiar with music and music programs of that era have a clue? Knowing JA, there must be some reality behind that verbiage.

And by the way, the presence of this song in JA’s own songbook also constitutes another nail in the coffin of the notion that JA was too proper and prudish to ever sing, or write, an R-rated word. What were Lamberti’s sexually heated lyrics doing in her songbook, even in Italian? Are we to believe that JA would have been ignorant of their meaning? No way! Here they are again, by the way:

As I gazed intently at my love's features, her little face so smooth, that mouth, and that lovely breast;
I felt in my heart a longing, a desire, a kind of bliss which I cannot describe!
But at last I had enough of her long slumbers and so I acted cheekily, nor did I have to repent it;
for, God what wonderful things I said, what lovely things I did!
Never again was I to be so happy in all my life!

But let me hasten to add, I believe that JA would have sung such a song, not in a salacious way, but as a worldly woman’s warning—blondes who fall asleep in gondolas are at risk of being molested! Note that the song tells us nothing about how the blonde felt about the gondolier’s cheeky words and deeds, and that’s not a good sign!

But let’s get back to Persuasion for the most important part---do you see the subtle ironic twist here? Cousin Elliot, sneaky dog that he is, already understands the Italian lyrics perfectly from the start!!! That is precisely why he pretends ignorance of the Italian and asked Anne to translate them for him in his faux-ignorance, i.e., so as to trap Anne into speaking aloud those very same licentious lyrics! He wants to compromise her virtue, give her a romantic jolt, make her blush.

When she deftly avoids this trap (not even realizing that it was intentionally laid by him), his immediate counter-move is to flatter Anne excessively, then tickle her vanity with the hint of a prior informant (who must be Mrs. Smith, we will later infer) as to Anne’s virtues and talents, and then, when Anne bites at that bait, he finishes with a broad hint at his desire to marry her.

He recognizes that Anne is no sleepy blonde girl in a gondola, but a woman who will require a lot more work to get himself one day to the same position with her as the gondolier achieved so effortlessly with his conquest. However, he comes on SO strong and heavy handedly, that he inadvertently reveals that he is something of a creep. He actually thinks that Anne will be turned on by the words of a song about a Don Juan-type gondolier and his “conquest”.  I am sure you all agree with me that this wouldn’t have worked, even if Anne were not already in love with Wentworth.  Cousin Elliot is no Henry Crawford, who’d never make such a revealing gaffe. Which is why Henry is much more dangerous to a woman of quality than Cousin Elliot.  

And by the way, Diana, your also including in your post a discussion of Margaret Kirkham’s spot-on analysis of the controversial (and in my opinion faux) anecdote in JA’s letter about deaf Mr. Fitzhugh not being able to hear a cannon shows an unexpected connection between that anecdote and Lamberti’s gondolier’s song:

Diana: “Kirkham believes that Jane Austen did not actually recommend Corinne to the deaf gentleman, but was referring in jest to the moment in Venice when Corinne hears a cannon fired thrice across the lagoon. A GONDOLIER explains to her that the firing of the cannon “signifies the moment when a religeuse takes the veil in one of our convents in the midst of the sea. Our custom is for a girl, at the moment she pronounces her sacred vows, to cast behind her the bouquet of flowers she has carried throughout the ceremony, as a sign that she renounces the world, and a cannon is fired to announce the sacred moment.”

Knowing JA’s fertile imagination and love of “unbecoming conjunctions”, I imagine JA juxtaposing Lamberti’s lecherous gondolier with de Stael’s pious gondolier who reports the (inadvertently sexual?) cannon shot which announces a girl’s renunciation of sex, and chuckling about the conjunction to herself, and making a note to use this irony somehow in her novels.

But here’s another link in JA’s subtle chain—that passage in Persuasion also reminded me of the following passage in Ch. 27 of Emma:  

“The other circumstance of regret related also to Jane Fairfax; and there [Emma] had no doubt. She did unfeignedly and unequivocally regret the inferiority of her own playing and singing. She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood -- and sat down and practised vigorously an hour and a half.
    She was then interrupted by Harriet's coming in; and if Harriet's praise could have satisfied her, she might soon have been comforted.
    "Oh! if I could but play as well as you and Miss Fairfax!"
    "Don't class us together, Harriet. My playing is no more like her's than a lamp is like sunshine."
    "Oh! dear, I think you play the best of the two. I think you play quite as well as she does. I am sure I had much rather hear you. Every body last night said how well you played."
    "Those who knew any thing about it, must have felt the difference. The truth is, Harriet, that my playing is just good enough to be praised, but Jane Fairfax's is much beyond it."
    "Well, I always shall think that you play quite as well as she does, or that if there is any difference nobody would ever find it out. Mr. Cole said how much taste you had; and Mr. Frank Churchill talked a great deal about your taste, and that he valued taste much more than execution."
    "Ah! but Jane Fairfax has them both, Harriet."
    "Are you sure? I saw she had execution, but I did not know she had any taste. Nobody talked about it. And I HATE ITALIAN SINGING. THERE IS NO UNDERSTANDING A WORD OF IT. Besides, if she does play so very well, you know, it is no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach. The Coxes were wondering last night whether she would get into any great family. How did you think the Coxes looked?"
    "Just as they always do – VERY VULGAR."

So here we have another passage in which the Italian words to an art song are not understood. And guess who it is who objects to such a song? It’s the one female Austen character (or is there another?) who has "fair hair", i.e., who is blonde---Harriet Smith!

This makes me wonder whether JA intended her knowing readers to guess that Frank and Jane were also singing about the Italian gondolier and his blonde conquest! And how fitting it would be that Harriet—who, in my reading of Emma plays the dumb blonde role for all it’s worth, while she quietly has a “taste” of half the major male characters in the novel by the time it ends—would be the one JA chooses to say that she hates an Italian song she could not understand.

And there’d be a further irony, which is that I see Harriet as playing possum (or asleep at the switch) with all these men, allowing them to think her a dumb blonde who doesn’t know any better, when all the while she is like Lucy Steele, with her eyes on the biggest prize in Highbury, someone a dozen steps up the social ladder from a gondolier—Mr. Knightley.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: And there is a third Austen passage which might be implicated in all of this as well: the following passage in Ch. 10 of P&P, the details of which I never really noticed before. Of course this occurs in the salon at Netherfield:

"Mrs. Hurst sang with her sister; and while they were thus employed, Elizabeth could not help observing, as she turned over SOME MUSIC BOOKS that lay on the instrument, how frequently Mr. Darcy's eyes were fixed on her. She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great a man; and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her was still more strange. She could only imagine, however, at last, that she drew his notice because there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present. The supposition did not pain her. She liked him too little to care for his approbation.
After playing SOME ITALIAN SONGS, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air..."

Whether Miss Bingley was also playing the Gondolier song, I do not venture to guess.

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