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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mrs. Jennings’s “Monstrous” Biblical Clue about Michaelmas in Sense & Sensibility: Her Three Accurate Prophecies That a St. Michael Would Cast Lucy-Fer Out…but She Climbed Back to Heaven Anyway!

Michaelmas (Sept. 29) was this past Sunday, and, as has been observed by a few list participants this week, Jane Austen had a “thing” about Michaelmas. Michaelmas is more or less the date when the action begins in Pride & Prejudice and Emma, and Michaelmas is also the date when the leasing of Kellynch to the Crofts begins (Michaelmas being a customary starting date for English leases of that era) in Persuasion.

But what got me thinking about Michaelmas as a “code word” for something interesting lurking just beneath the surface of Sense & Sensibility was Diana Birchall’s blog post (actually on Michaelmas)...

…in which Diana quoted the following passage from Ch. 50 of S&S…

“The first month after their marriage was spent with their friend at the Mansion-house, from whence they could superintend the progress of the Parsonage, and direct everything as they liked on the spot; could chuse papers, project shrubberies, and invent a sweep. Mrs. Jennings’s prophecies, though rather jumbled together, were chiefly fulfilled; for she was able to visit Edward and his wife in their Parsonage by Michaelmas.”

…and then Diana asked an excellent question:

“Now, Michaelmas occurs on 29 September in England, but here is a problem:  the Autumnal Equinox in Jane Austen’s day usually fell on 23 or 24 September. So how could Mrs. Jennings visit Elinor and Edward on Michaelmas after a month of marriage if they were married in “early autumn”?  Is this a rare instance of an Austenian stumble?  It would seem to be far more likely a misunderstanding of the Equinox on my part, than a mistake by Jane Austen…”

Diana then went on to report the answer I came up with from some quick research, which was that the first day of JA’s autumn was almost certainly September 1 (for reasons explained in her post), which would mean JA made no mistake after all in the above passage.

However, in researching that answer, I came across something striking in S&S that I had never noticed before, which is that Mrs. Jennings seemed to be obsessed with Michaelmas as a kind of prophetic, mysterious, marital deadline.  

First, in Chapter 32, we find Mrs. Jennings abandoning the expectation that Colonel Brandon would marry Marianne, but instead beginning to expect that the Colonel would marry Elinor instead, and, furthermore, would do it right after Michaelmas:    

“…Mrs. Jennings…who knew only that the Colonel continued as grave as ever, and that she could neither prevail on him to make the offer himself, nor commission her to make it for him, began, at the end of two days, to think that, instead of Midsummer, they would not be married till MICHAELMAS, and by the end of a week that it would not be a match at all. The good understanding between the Colonel and Miss Dashwood seemed rather to declare that the honours of the mulberry-tree, the canal, and the yew arbour, would all be made over to HER; and Mrs. Jennings had, for some time ceased to think at all of Mrs. Ferrars.”

Then, in Chapter 37, Mrs. Jennings reports to Elinor that Mrs. Ferrars has disinherited Edward, and in Chapter 40 Mrs. Jennings learns that Elinor and Colonel Brandon are not actually planning to marry as Mrs. Jennings mistakenly believed. As Mrs. J and Elinor discuss the impending marriage of Edward and Lucy, we read the following:

[Mrs. J] “…It seems quite ridiculous. But, my dear, we must touch up the Colonel to do some thing to the parsonage, and make it comfortable for them, before Lucy goes to it."
[Elinor] "But Colonel Brandon does not seem to have any idea of the living's being enough to allow them to marry."
[Mrs. J] "The Colonel is a ninny, my dear; because he has two thousand a-year himself, he thinks that nobody else can marry on less. Take my word for it, that, if I am alive, I shall be paying a visit at Delaford Parsonage before MICHAELMAS; and I am sure I shan't go if Lucy an't there."
Elinor was quite of her opinion, as to the probability of their not waiting for any thing more.

So now Mrs. Jennings has returned to her Michaelmas refrain for a second time, but this time it is to predict that Edward and Lucy will be at the Parsonage by Michaelmas.

Mrs. Jennings is then echoed in this expectation in Chapter 41 by Lucy herself:

“Edward, having carried his thanks to Colonel Brandon, proceeded with his happiness to Lucy; and such was the excess of it by the time he reached Bartlett's Buildings, that she was able to assure Mrs. Jennings, who called on her again the next day with her congratulations, that she had never seen him in such spirits before in her life.
[Lucy’s] own happiness, and her own spirits, were at least very certain; and she joined Mrs. Jennings most heartily in her expectation of their being all comfortably together in Delaford Parsonage before MICHAELMAS. So far was she, at the same time, from any backwardness to give Elinor that credit which Edward WOULD give her, that she spoke of her friendship for them both with the most grateful warmth, was ready to own all their obligation to her, and openly declared that no exertion for their good on Miss Dashwood's part, either present or future, would ever surprise her, for she believed her capable of doing any thing in the world for those she really valued. As for Colonel Brandon, she was not only ready to worship him as a saint, but was moreover truly anxious that he should be treated as one in all worldly concerns; anxious that his tithes should be raised to the utmost; and scarcely resolved to avail herself, at Delaford, as far as she possibly could, of his servants, his carriage, his cows, and his poultry. “

And finally, in Chapter 50, after Edward and Elinor are married, Mrs. Jennings’s prediction is strangely fulfilled:

“The first month after their marriage was spent with their friend at the Mansion-house; from whence they could superintend the progress of the Parsonage, and direct every thing as they liked on the spot;—could chuse papers, project shrubberies, and invent a sweep. Mrs. Jennings's prophecies, though rather jumbled together, were chiefly fulfilled; for she was able to visit Edward and his wife in their Parsonage by MICHAELMAS, and she found in Elinor and her husband, as she really believed, one of the happiest couples in the world. They had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows.”

Indeed, Mrs. Jennings’s prophecies “though rather jumbled together, were chiefly fulfilled”, and we may wonder why we are reminded of the ironic prophecies regarding Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, where the true significance of a similarly cryptic prophecy is not understood till it is fulfilled (in Sophocles, tragically, but in S&S, happily).

Two weeks ago, I was discussing with game theorist Michael Chwe & others in the Janeites group about Lucy as s secret schemer who (I was the first to claim, over a decade ago) deliberately sets up the dominoes to fall in such a way as to leave her ultimately in firm control of the Ferrars family, with a career as a Lady Catherine de Burgh in her future. At that time, Michael and I had the following exchange:

Michael: "I am not saying that Mrs. Jennings is in on it, of course."

Me: “But what if she is indeed in on it? Don't rule it out till you test the hypothesis empirically! I think she is....”

Well, I am here today with some hard empirical evidence, hiding in plain sight in the text of S&S for over 2 centuries!  I say that Mrs. Jennings is not a latter day Tiresias, she does not have the gift of prophecy, but the reason she was able to make a mostly accurate prediction of the outcome of the marital quadrille in S&S, is precisely because she must have been a co-conspirator all along with Lucy Steele, to bring this outcome about!

And the best part is, the biggest clue to Mrs. Jennings’s involvement in Lucy’s scheme is Mrs. Jennings’s repeated references to Michaelmas. In what way? My Subject Line has already given you a monstrous big (as Mrs. Jennings would have put it)  hint, but now I’ll spell it out in short order.


Here is the essence of Michaelmas in a single sentence:
"Michaelmas Day is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, celebrated on 29 September. St. Michael is the patron saint of the sea and maritime lands, of ships and boatmen, of horses and horsemen. He was the Angel who hurled Lucifer (the devil) down from Heaven for his treachery."

There are, apparently, two Biblical sources for this understanding about St. Michael.

First, in Jude 1:7-9, we read:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities.
Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.

And second, in Revelation 12: 1-11

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.

So now I understand exactly what Mrs. Jennings was saying, Tiresias-like, with her constant prophecies about a Michaelmas deadline for marital bliss. It’s so simple and yet powerful, it is definitely in the running for Jane Austen’s crowning glory of hiding-in-plain-sight.  Here’s my syllogism.

What I've been saying since 2002 is that Lucy Steele tricks Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood into disinheriting Edward, only when Lucy already knows that she's got Robert in her pocket.

That’s the precise moment when Lucy Steele (soon to be Lucy Ferrars or Lucy-Fer) stages her own eviction from "heaven" (i.e., Fanny's London residence) by prompting her bigmouth sister into blabbing about Edward and Lucy. 

So in effect, Lucy turns Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny D into comic parodies of St. Michael, because they hurl Lucifer down from Heaven.

But then, after a short time below, Lucifer climbs right back up and within a short time establishes herself not just as the favorite, but as the ruler of "heaven"!

But Lucy is not actually evil, because the ripple effect of her scheme is to leave Elinor married to Edward and Marianne married to Colonel Brandon—so she has, beneficently, taken care of Elinor and Marianne just as much as she has taken care of herself!

So we see that the scheming by Lucy which I first noted in 2002, and the Lucy-fer word game which I first noted in 2005, and now the Michaelmas allusion to St. Michael which I just noted now, are all part of one elegant package, courtesy of Jane Austen’s infinitely brilliant mind.

And I reiterate—Mrs. Jennings has so accurately predicted Michaelmas as a deadline for all this to come to pass, because Mrs. Jennings, who is also a good person, has assisted Lucy every step of the way, in order to bring about this happy ending for all.

I conclude by pointing out that this subversive deployment of Christian scripture is hardly the work of a pious, devout, meek, conservative reader of the Bible. Obviously, it is the work of an audacious, subversive, independent, self-directed genius of both observation and writing. JA shows that she understands that sometimes the only way to achieve justice and mercy in a situation is to engage in audacious, persistent deceit in order to defeat the real “dragon” in S&S, which is the sexist suppression of women’s rights and desires. Mrs. Jennings and Lucy-fer turn out to be the “good angels” in this morality tale.

Cheer, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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