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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More About Jane Austen’s Newly Discovered Scrap

In response to my post yesterday....

...about the exciting news reports about a new scrap of text handwritten by Jane Austen herself found glued into a copy of her nephew's 1870 Memoir, Nancy Mayer, Diane Reynolds, and Ellen Moody all responded in Janeites & Austen L, and I responded to their  responses as follows:

First, re the authorship of The Scrap, I repeat the game-changing point I made yesterday:  

"The failure of scholarship (in the attribution of the two English articles) I allege is easily demonstrated by the following embarrassing fact ---nobody involved, either at the Museum, the College, or the two newspapers, knew or thought to connect the dots between The Scrap and the 8-line poem Jane Austen wrote in 1807 (as part of a friendly family female poetry competition rhyming every line with the word “rose”), the subject of the second half of which is….the inside story on a rustic parishioner’s tenuous grasp of the meaning of a Sabbath sermon!:

Happy the lab’rer in his Sunday clothes!
In light-drab coat, smart waistcoat, well-darn'd hose,
And hat upon his head, to church he goes;
As oft with conscious pride, he downward throws
A glance upon the ample cabbage rose
Which, stuck in button-hole, regales his nose,
He envies not the gaiest London beaux.
In church he takes his seat among the rows,
Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Lists to the sermon in a softening doze,
And rouses joyous at the welcome close.

While seeing the rest of the currently concealed text of The Scrap will hopefully shed further light (and how exciting to experience real suspense in Austen studies, as Janeites await the results of the paper-ungluing process!), my money remains on The Scrap being a revisiting by JA herself of the exact sentiment undeniably expressed by HER in 1807 in the above Rose Poem, a poem written in the exact voice of Mary Crawford!

After all, The Scrap is practically word-for-word identical with the 10th line of the Rose Poem!  Unless someone wants to go way out on a limb and argue that James Austen read sister Jane’s 1807 satirical poem and chose to plagiarize its punch line in a sermon, what plausible explanation is there for this unmistakable echoing, other than that  Jane was (as she often did in all her writings) echoing herself?

As I laid out in careful detail in my previous post, this scenario being played out right now on the Internet has been played out dozens of times since 1870—here’s the basic “script”: JA wrote something that the preservers of The Myth of Jane Austen find troubling in its implications, but they can’t get away with ignoring (or destroying) this embarrassing evidence of JA’s subversiveness, so they do what they can, and engage in damage control and protest too much about what it “really”means---in this  case, there’s a little of everything--attribution of  the embarrassing text to another family member; ignoring the clear satirical perspective; and ignoring a clear conflict of interest, and motivation to deceive, for the chief obscurer. In short, they minimize, they trivialize, and (as I showed again, above), when all else fails, they just plain ignore any additional textual evidence (from the Rose Poem, from what Mary Crawford says in several different ways) which makes the embarrassing satirical content obvious.

And I must also reiterate my emphasis on motivation to deceive—very specifically in this case, they ignore James Edward Austen Leigh’s proven track record as deceiver in the Memoir—with his “creative editing” of JA’s letters, his distortions of key biographical facts, which I’ve documented numerous times in the past.  Think I am exaggerating? Well, here’s one particularly egregious example of JEAL’s editorial shenanigans, among many:

To paraphrase Edmund Bertram, the (clergy)man who could engage in such blatant deception of his readers would be beyond the reach of MY “sermons” about literary critical deception and cluelessness!

But perhaps the saddest part of the current episode in literary spin doctoring is that I don’t believe any of it is intentionally deceitful or misleading. E.g., I don’t see Deirdre Le Faye barging in and imperiously dismissing claims of JA’s subversiveness by someone like Paula Byrne, unaware of how much she resembled Lady Catherine in such moments. Rather, the Myth of the sanitized, unthreatening Jane Austen is still so deeply engrained in mass consciousness, among Janeites and lay persons alike, that the Bowdlerizing assumptions arise spontaneously—as has been the case among good-faith “experts’ like the fellow trying to unglue the remainder of The Scrap, or the journalists uncritically reporting his blithe assumptions as if they were Gospel truth, or the readers criticizing all this  attention to Jane Austen . It is a banal collaboration that assures no disturbance of the Myth, which sails on undisturbed.

By the way, Diane correctly pointed out that the use of the masculine pronoun two centuries ago was often a kneejerk mechanism for hiding female identity, and so we should not automatically assume that The Scrap is about men only. However, in my reading, I did not automatically assume this, I based my interpretation on the fact that there were no female clergypersons giving sermons during JA’s lifetime. So if I am correct that the Scrap’s satire is directed at clergymen like the fictional Dr. Grant (the selfish gluttonous bon vivant) but also the fictional Edmund Bertram (who spends the entire novel rationalizing away all sorts of moral failures), then “man” really meant “man” in JA’s mind as she wrote The Scrap.

And behind Dr. Grant and Edmund Bertram, her deepest and most embarrassing satire was directed at the real life Reverend James Austen, whose serious moral lapses (e.g., his and his wife Mary also being the primary models for John & Fanny Dashwood—Elllen, that is the sensitive aspect of veiled Austen family biography in S&S that the Austen family wished to ignore and obfuscate, for obvious reasons) were a source of great distress and suffering on JA’s (and niece Anna’s) part over many years. And James Austen, I repeat, was James Edward Austen’s beloved FATHER!

Now, further  addressing Nancy’s suggestion about my trumping up a big controversy. It’s one thing if an unsophisticated laborer dozes in the pew while narcissistically focusing on display in church rather than moral improvement. As Nancy pointed out, that was a commonplace sentiment among the devout, to fret over the common folk not really paying attention in church. But it’s a much more serious (and subversive) satire, if JA’s primary target was-as I say it was--the clergy who were supposed to be the engines of moral improvement for their congregations filled with such laborers. If the shepherds have lost their way, the sheep might indeed be better off finding their own way. That’s not a message the leaders of the Anglican Church would want to be widely disseminated, especially among female readers of JA’s novels who might also be led to question the sexism which saturated every nook and cranny of the Anglican Church JA knew so well, from the inside.

So Nancy, I cannot agree with you that I am generating a false controversy, quite the contrary—this is a very old story of obscuring the true voice of Jane Austen, and even if I am the only voice pointing this out, I will continue to draw upon my own extensive research (which immediately alerted me to the existence of the Rose Poem, that nobody else even was aware of) to illustrate each and every such distortion that pops up, and show that the emperor is still naked.

 That was my first reply, which crossed Diane Reynolds's excellent followup, to which I immediately responded as follows: 

Diane: "Arnie points to the 1807 JA poem with a similar sentiment--no matter who ultimately authored the short quote, it could well be part of an ongoing family discussion, part of the family culture" 

Diane, although I know you don't mean it that way, I am always leery of references to Austen family culture which are usually code for Jane Austen being part of a Borg-like collective, in which she toed a conservative family line. I believe JA was fiercely independent in her thinking from a very young age, and that she pushed back HARD against all attempts by her family to rein her in. So, for all the reasons I have now stated twice, I am extremely confident that she authored The Scrap for her own satirical purposes. 

Diane: "I don't know that this means JA took her brother's sermons seriously in the aggregate (she may or may not have) but it does indicate that she took this particular issue seriously. That someone would preserve this particular quote written out by her suggests not only that this was important to her but that someone else knew she took this seriously."

Indeed, with my proviso that I see her as having been particularly sensitive to her brother's hypocrisy in his sermonizing--like Edmund Bertram, talking the talk but not walking the walk, instead rationalizing away all sorts of questionable behavior. 

Diane: "The idea of implicitly condemning rote prayer--what the Quakers would call "professing with possessing" the faith is a non-conformist view and at least hints at a social conscience--to feel fully the full force and meaning of Biblical texts would suggest changing behavior in ways that would help "the least of us." This points to a more radical view of religious faith--that worship and prayer are about more than individual or communal salvation for an afterlife in heaven--ie, about more than magical incantations for personal protection--religion is about enacting faith in the world. That this would be radical, of course, is always surprising to me, but it remains so to this day."

 Brilliantly articulated, Diane, and I agree on all counts. Indeed, JA was keenly aware of the sad irony that her own genuinely compassionate form of Christianity would have been considered "radical" and "Jacobin" in her day, because she dared to see the powers that be in England as corrupt, hypocritical, and selfish - i.e., exactly as Mary Crawford describes Dr. Grant! 

Diane: "I recognize that I project a good deal of myself into this reading of Austen, as we all tend to do, for one of my passions or bugaboos is that people don't actually read what is in front of them--don't thoroughly feel the full force and meaning of words on a page, but I think as well this was at the heart of Austen's project--much of her novelistic sleight at hand is arguably aimed at encouraging people to read in a fully engaged way. " 

Again, brilliantly summarized, and I could not agree more. My interpretation of The Scrap and the Rose Poem are, I claim, perfect examples of actually reading the words on the page that JA wrote, and taking them all very seriously, instead of buying into Bowdlerized, sanitized reframes of those words.

Diane: "As both Arnie and Ellen point out, the new scrap does connect strongly to MP and its exploration of the role of the clergy. While I read Austen's voice as satiric, rather than anticipating mid-Victorian piety--and I agree with Arnie that she identifies more closely with Mary than Fanny on the behavior of the clergy, I would agree Austen does indict using clergy livings as sinecures: It is not by accident that Maria points out the hovels on the outskirts of Sotherton, the site of the conversation in the Sotherton chapel, or that hovels in Emma appear on Vicarage Lane." 

Exactly so once again! As usual, Diane, you reward me for bringing my thoughts to these groups, as you always play a key role in teasing out more and more value from them, and inducing me to refine my stances.

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