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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Did Jane Austen “go to Venice”, as Fanny Price “took a trip” into China, and as Mr. Woodhouse “traveled” to St. Mark’s Square? You better believe it!

Laurel Ann: “Wonderful Diana, you never cease to amaze me. This would make a wonderful article for Jane Austen’s World magazine. Very well researched and thoughtful. Jane did go to Venice, as many of the gentility did of her era, through the written word, paintings and illustrations. Armchair traveling like Mr. Woodhouse! I hope to see it”
Diana: “Thank you, Laurel Ann – I love your thought, “Jane Austen did go to Venice,” as an armchair traveler. Indeed she did. Perhaps people entered more vividly into that kind of traveling in those days, than we do nowadays, when travel is so much easier.”

I only noticed this morning that Laurel Ann’s (Austenprose) above-quoted comment on Diana Birchall’s blog post a few weeks ago…..

….entitled “Jane Austen and Venice”, and then Diana’s reply to Laurel Ann’s comment, both take on a whole new (and quite unintended, I am sure) meaning, when those comments are read through the lens of my own blog post six weeks ago…

…about Jane Austen’s wickedly sly, double entendre’d homage, in Mansfield Park, to Wycherley’s (in)famous “China”.

As my Subject Line suggests, I would argue that Fanny Price’s “trip into China” is as definitive an example of “armchair travel” in JA’s novels, as is Diana’s reference (which Laurel Ann praised) to Mr. Woodhouse’s “armchair travel”.

Which made me reread Mr. Woodhouse’s “guided tour” (courtesy of Mrs. Weston) of foreign exotica…

“Books of engravings, drawers of medals, cameos, corals, shells, and every other family collection within his cabinets, had been prepared for his old friend, to while away the morning; and the kindness had perfectly answered. Mr. Woodhouse had been exceedingly well amused. Mrs. Weston had been shewing them all to him, and now he would shew them all to Emma;—fortunate in having no other resemblance to a child, than in a total want of taste for what he saw, for he was slow, constant, and methodical. ….Jane had not been gone a quarter of an hour, and they had only accomplished some views of St. Mark’s Place, Venice, when Frank Churchill entered the room.”

…..and then pause and really wonder not only about those “views of St. Mark’s Place” but also about the nature of some of those “engravings”, and in particular about Mr. Woodhouse being “exceedingly well amused” by them. Were these engravings and views merely exotica….or erotica?

Support for the latter interpretation can be found in distinct echoes (entirely intentional, I claim, on Jane Austen’s part) of two earlier scenes in Emma and one in Mansfield Park, to boot:

ONE: Mr. Woodhouse’s desire to immediately “shew them all to Emma” echoes Mr. Woodhouse’s equally strong desire, 32 chapters earlier, to share with Emma (and Harriet) all the words to Garrick’s  Riddle (as Jill Heydt-Stevenson first discovered 14 years ago, showing that it was actually about the horror of men with syphilis having sex with virgins in order, so they thought, to cure them)---a desire which we may be grateful he was unable, due to his faulty memory, to satisfy, as that was one bit of “armchair travel” as to which Emma would most certainly NOT have wished to have the use of her father’s “horse” and “carriage”! Let Mr. Woodhouse find his “cure” by “traveling” somewhere else!

And much better for Emma to “stay home” at Hartfield—and maybe I have stumbled upon a pervasive hidden code for Emma’s oft-noted uniqueness among Austen heroines, in her never having “traveled” away from home? Is this code for Emma’s sexual innocence and inexperience? I think so!


TWO: Frank’s walking into the room at the Abbey, interrupting the “views of St. Mark’s Place”, echoes Emma, Miss Bates & Harriet walking into the room at the Bates residence at the very beginning of Chapter 28, finding Frank and Jane in disarray, as they have clearly also been interrupted while making some sort of “music” together, while Frank was supposed to be fixing that “rivet” on Mrs. Bates’s spectacles! In both scenes, some private activity between a man and a woman has been interrupted, and I infer a similar embarrassment in the latter scene as the narrator tells us about in the earlier one.


THREE: It’s no coincidence, either, that Mary Crawford, of course the Queen of Double Entendre with her “rears and vices” witticism, also brings the reader’s attention, albeit obliquely, to Venice:

"To say the truth," replied Miss Crawford, "I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.”

It has been my interpretation for a while that “this shrubbery” is metaphorical (in this novel pervaded by the sexualized aura of the Garden of Eden), and describes Fanny’s very same “heart” which Henry Crawford so Freudfully wishes to make a hole in. Therefore, Mary is saying to Fanny, in code, even though Fanny does not get it, that Mary would like to see herself having sex with Fanny,  in line with the central thesis of my following blog post from February of this year:

Bottom line: I think both Wycherley and Jane Austen (and certainly also Mary Crawford, the Doge and Mary’s uncle) would both have found the unintended double entendre in Diana’s and Laurel Ann’s exchange extremely amusing, in particular Diana’s last sentence: “Perhaps people entered more vividly into that kind of traveling in those days, than we do nowadays, when travel is so much easier.”

It would be a question beyond the reach even of the protagonists of the wonderful new show Masters of Sex to determine whether people in Jane Austen’s era did indeed enter more vividly into “that kind of traveling”, even though such “travel is so much easier” today, with the abundance of “transportation” available via modern technology. I think we’ll never know for sure, but it’s an interesting question to ponder.

What I don’t need to ponder is the question of whether Jane Austen herself, in her real life, did “armchair travel” to places like “China” and “Venice”, as well as the Mansfield Parsonage “shrubbery”?

I know, from all of the above, as well as a thousand other passages in JA’s writing, that the answer is, as Molly Bloom would have repeated many times, simply “Yes”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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