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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Essays by E. M. Forster & Janet Todd in A Truth Universally Acknowledged (2009): Contrasting Fanny Price & Anne Elliot

 I’ve been browsing through the 33 essays in A Truth Universally Acknowledged (2009), and, halfway through, I’ve found surprisingly little to surprise or intrigue me, as they seem to be a lot of well-written but ultimately safe variations on the basic theme of Jane Austen’s extraordinary genius. Although I do of course agree wholeheartedly that JA was an extraordinary genius, these essays provide very little specific textual detail or special insight in evidence therefor, and (much worse, from my perspective) contain barely a whiff of anything controversial. This is mainstream Austen criticism at its most mainstream. And given the roster of heavyweight names included among the article writers, that’s a real disappointment.

I’ve found two exceptions to this boring general rule so far, which I’d like to discuss, both of which have the merit of actually confronting specific verbiage in JA’s fiction in a provocative way, even if I don’t agree, in whole (as with Forster) or in part (as with Todd) with the interpretations—at least they give you something to dig into, and think about a bit more deeply, and I hope you’ll enjoy my reactions:

E. M. Forster’s 1924 essay “Jane Austen: The Six Novels”:  

Forster, right on the heels of calling himself  “slightly imbecile” in his adoration of JA, immediately does an unacknowledged about-face, and exhibits the colossal hubris of asserting that JA erred grammatically in her composition of the “all caps” passage in the following narration in Chapter 33 of MP, describing Fanny’s agitated thoughts after Crawford has been pressuring her to marry him:

“Here was again a want of delicacy and regard for others which had formerly so struck and disgusted her. Here was again a something of the same Mr. Crawford whom she had so reprobated before. How evidently was there a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned; and alas! HOW ALWAYS KNOWN NO PRINCIPLE to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in!"

In 2006 in Janeites, I commented on Forster’s hubris, and I still stand behind every word I wrote then:

Me: “The reader in tune with JA's often poetic renderings of consciousness (there are a large number of such 'poeticizing' phrases in Emma, I have found) will not even break stride upon reading the verbiage in all-caps. That reader sees the poetic parallelism and realizes that the words "always known" stand in place of the single adverb for that concept that the English language somehow lacks, and thus accepts this sentence structure and moves along.
But consider the arrogance of the following commentary, written in 1924 by the famous E.M. Forster, upon looking into, and (in my opinion) overly praising, Chapman's editing of MP. First Forster describes the "typical" Janeite reader: "One reads and rereads, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, one greets her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers. The Jane Austenite possesses none of the brightness he ascribes to his idol. Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said. For instance, the grammar of the following sentence from Mansfield Park presents no difficulty to him: 'And, alas! how always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.'
.... Something is amiss in the text; but the loyal adorer will never detect it. He reads and rereads. And this fine new edition has, among its other merits, the great merit of waking the Jane Austenite up....The novels continue to live their own wonderful internal life, but it has been freshened and enriched by contact with the life of facts.....To promote this contact is the chief function of an editor, and Mr. Chapman fulfills it. All his erudition and taste contribute to this end.... And so, to a lesser degree, with the sentence from Mansfield Park. Here we emend "how always known" into "now all was known;" and the sentence not only makes sense but illumines its surroundings. Fanny is meditating on the character of Crawford, and, now that all is known to her, she condemns it."  END QUOTE

Back to me in 2013---boy, did Forster have chutzpah or what?! He not only fails to "get" JA’s Joycean stream of consciousness, he mocks those who accept JA’s depiction of Fanny’s ruminations, and then applauds Chapman's arrogant rewriting thereof into clunking, deadened prose. This is sexist intellectual bowdlerization at its absolute worst.

Janet Todd’s 2009 essay “Why I Like Jane Austen”

I am generally not a great fan of Janet Todd’s analyses of Jane Austen’s fiction, having often found that her undoubtedly acute eye for close textual reading is often clouded by the conservative “spectacles” through which she perceives JA’s fiction. Todd’s conservative spin is often diametrically opposed to my own reading of JA, and also to that of one of my main Austen scholarly inspirations, Jocelyn Harris, particularly in regard to the extent of Austen’s allusiveness.

Todd’s contribution to A Truth Universally Acknowledged is illustrative of both of her close reading talent and her conservative stance. It is the conservative Todd who quietly mocks Rozema’s Mansfield Park, as if the absurdity of depicting Sir Thomas Bertram as “a raping slave owner” and Tom Bertram “the spendthrift son [as] a sensitive child” was so obviously beyond Jane Austen’s actual intentions as not to require any discussion at all in order to dispose of Rozema’s (to my mind, brilliant) interpretation.

However, Todd atones for missing the boat from Antigua, with some sharp close reading, even though I believe she does not see the whole picture, as I’ll explain, below.

Todd focuses on three scenes in JA’s novels which have (in Todd’s view) been ignored by adapting screenwriters, and she is correct in that regard on all three counts. The first two scenes are covered by her in the same paragraph of quotation and analysis:

Todd: “[Anne Elliot] has learned romance with age, an unnatural development, as the novel says—but she has also learned more thoroughly to display some very salutary selfishness. I find this strain of selfishness marks both of Austen’s most virtuous heroines. When contemplating Louisa Musgrove, who is quite possibly near death after her stubborn jumping from the Cobb,
‘Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to [Captain Wentworth] now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.’
In other words, at this crucial time, she thought that she herself might show to good advantage beside her injured competitor. [Similarly, i]n the midst of everyone else’s misery over her cousin Maria’s adultery, Fanny Price in MP finds herself moving from utter desolation—in which state she imagines that ‘instant annihilation’ might be best for all her Bertram relatives--to ‘being exquisitely happy’ when she realizes that in the wake of this misery she can return to the family and play the important role of comforter. It’s worth noting that no film or TV adaptation catches these moments, for a look of triumph, unlike a rush of love, from either young woman would be unpalatable; the fleeting thought must stay on the page.”  END QUOTE

I would add to Todd’s above analysis the following comments and caveats:

I cannot find evidence of any Austen scholar, professional or amateur, other than Todd, ever having picked up on Anne Elliot’s private triumph when Louisa falls, so, first of all, kudos to her for that. I believe that this has been missed by everyone else, because most Austen readers get so caught up in Anne’s sense of herself as an unselfish martyr, that they don’t take a step back, as Todd did, and think about the faintly unpleasant aroma rising out of Anne’s reaction.  But Todd doesn’t extrapolate from this brilliant observation all the rich implications that it carries.

What Todd ought to have pointed out, for starters, was that, even though Fanny Price does at first indulge in some distinctly Collins-esque Calvinist fantasies about death as cure for scandal, Fanny, upon getting the summons to return to Mansfield Park, and in striking contrast to Anne Elliot, shows real self-awareness on this point, and spends no small amount of time forcing herself to focus on the misery around her even during her own exquisite happiness:

“She was, she felt she was, in the greatest danger of being exquisitely happy, while so many were miserable. The evil which brought such good to her! She dreaded lest she should learn to be insensible of it. To be going so soon, sent for so kindly, sent for as a comfort, and with leave to take Susan, was altogether such a combination of blessings as set her heart in a glow, and for a time seemed to distance every pain, and make her incapable of suitably sharing the distress even of those whose distress she thought of most. Julia's elopement could affect her comparatively but little; she was amazed and shocked; but it could not occupy her, could not dwell on her mind. She was obliged to call herself to think of it, and acknowledge it to be terrible and grievous, or it was escaping her, in the midst of all the agitating pressing joyful cares attending this summons to herself.”

Note that Fanny keeps forcing herself to keep in mind that all is not joy in Mansfield Park. And the contrast between Anne and Fanny is even more pronounced, because Tom’s condition was stable at that instant, and certainly neither Julia nor Maria was in danger of dying; while Louisa, to the best of Anne’s knowledge and as Todd points out, does appear to all to be in danger of death or permanent injury.

So, while Todd is correct in pointing out the unpalatability for an unsophisticated Austen film audience of virtuous Austen heroines caught in the act of private unvirtuousness, Todd doesn’t take note of the unpalatability even for a sophisticated Austen scholar like herself, of this contrast between her two virtuous heroines, i.e., a closer reading reveals that Fanny’s sin of schadenfreude is venial in this instance, while Anne’s is almost…..deadly! Todd refers to Anne’s reaction as “salutary selfishness”, when it ought properly to be called what it is, which is clueless hypocrisy. Anne doesn’t walk the moral walk that Fanny walks—or put another way, Anne has a good dose of the Elliot pride, which is exactly why she judges her father and sisters so strongly on that very count, because she is in denial of her own Elliot pride!

And I suggest that Jane Austen actually gives a giant textual clue to the alert Janeite who has read all her novels, which subliminally connects the dots between Anne’s selfish wondering in Persuasion and Fanny’s more complicated “being exquisitely happy” in MP. That clue is in Persuasion, when JA writes the following immediately after Anne and Wentworth have finally been united:  “here they returned again into the past, MORE EXQUISITELY HAPPY, PERHAPS, in their re-union, than when it had been first projected…”

By this clue, JA is pulling for the reader to recall Fanny’s “being exquisitely happy”, and then to contrast her relatively self-aware reaction to Anne’s near total self-blindness.

And that contrast actually brings me to Todd’s third interesting textual illustration, when she analyzes (as many Austen scholars have done)  the famous “fat sighings” scene with Mrs. Musgrove on the sopha in Persuasion. Todd quotes the relevant passage and then writes:

“…Political correctness makes sizism unacceptable. As with the moments of triumphant self-assertion in MP and Persuasion, , this episode is absent from the recent films.
On no evidence, critics assert that, if she had lived to revise this last novel, JA would have excised the passage on inelegant grief, for, as with other writers, we have a propensity to claim that what we don’t like in an author was an error, an oversight, or an aberration….[JEAL], presenting his aunt as a decorous Victorian lady author, explained the lapses in Persuasion by the fact that she had not entirely revised the work.”  END QUOTE

Again, I see Todd trying to distance herself from a film audience and Victorian nephew who ignore JA espousing unpleasant views; but, ironically, what Todd (and many other Austen scholars) completely miss is that the ruminations on Mrs. Musgrove’s “fat sighings” are not those of Jane Austen herself, but are from the mind of her hypocritical heroine, Anne Elliot!

It is Anne who is so caught up in her own perpetual emotional suffering over a period of several years that she has no empathy to spare for a mother who continues to suffer in a remarkably parallel way. Again, Anne’s judgmentalism is amplified by her unconscious projection of her own flaws onto another person, so as not to have to see herself clearly.

PLUS… I’ve noted before, Mrs. Musgrove is sitting on the sopha in between Anne and Wentworth, and it is the matron’s great bulk which constitutes a visual barrier preventing Anne and Wentworth from even looking at each other—so Anne is just plain irritated by this simple physical fact, in a way that would not have occurred to her in another setting!

In short, Anne’s lack of self awareness on the sopha with Mrs. Musgrove is cut from exactly the same cloth as Anne’s lack of self awareness when she gloats over Louisa Musgrove’s injuries. Todd is correct in pointing out the hypocrisy of filmmakers who cleanse these disturbing undercurrents out of their Austen adaptations. But, ironically, Todd fails to see that she herself is also ignoring deeper ripples of those same undercurrents, which would force her to acknowledge that JA’s portrait of Anne Elliot is not meant to be as flattering as most Janeites, including Todd herself, believe it to be. There’s political correctness, and there’s critical correctness, and Todd is guilty of the latter in this instance.


I conclude by saying that one reason why I like Jane Austen is that she can have such an effect on bright Janeites like Forster and Todd, as to provoke them both to utterly miss the boat on certain textual points, while at the same time provoking Todd to read against the grain and spot the hidden connection between Anne and Fanny, which in turn has given me rich grist for my own Austen sleuthing mill.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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