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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Biblical Subtexts of Letter 138(D): Jane Austen’s April Fool’s Joke on the Courteous Courtier Clarke

In Austen L & Janeites, Ellen wrote about Jane Austen's Letter 138 to James Stanier Clarke dated April 1, 1816: Her reply [to Clarke] was originally from a religious perspective much harsher than the one she sent. [Eventually, s]he sent this:  
“Under every interesting circumstance which your own Talents & literary Labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, The service of a Court can hardly be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of Time & Feeling required by it.”
…[However, t]he original version points to the continual hypocrisy these positions required: For once LeFaye [by pointing out this alteration] tells us something to the point:
“In my opinion not more surely should They who preach Gospel, live by the Gospel, than they who live by a Court, live by it - & live well by it too; for the sacrifices of Time & Feeling they must make must be immense.”
In other words at a court the central [goal] of religion to be truthful and moral is not possible because you must continually be lying in some way or other so outside the court they had better live by the gospel for real to make up for the Immense sacrifices of time and feeling. Time shows this is a literary thought, for the Bible emphasizes truthful feeling not time. Austen would hate to give up her writing time to be living at that Pavilion….”   END QUOTE FROM ELLEN’S POST

I have quoted from Ellen’s post the part that has to do with the passage in Letter 138(D) which JA originally wrote one way, and then altered in the version she actually sent to Clarke, in order to discuss it in two respects. First, it provides a very interesting window into JA’s writing process, in the same way we glean insight from comparing the canceled chapters of Persuasion to the final published version. But second, I raise this point, because of the gorgeous, satirical Biblical allusions hidden in plain sight in it!

I originally analyzed JA’s second thoughts in rewriting that passage nearly six years ago during a private correspondence with a few sharp Janeite friends. At that time, I wrote to my friends the following comments about JA’s first stab at writing that passage:

“I just looked at Le Faye's edition of the letters, and it's even better, because this was a line that JA specifically worked on! Listen to how this line read in her first draft: [first version quoted by Ellen, above] This is verbose and dangerously close to being detected as overblown mockery, so she then compresses it and sprinkles some fairy dust on it, to come up with the following epigram of pure satirical gold:  "In my opinion, the service of a court can HARDLY be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of time and feeling required by it."
Need we any more proof of how elaborate a game she was playing with Clarke and the Prince Regent? That letter is as much a part of Emma as the words in the actual novel itself. How fitting that emulating Mr Knightley, and avoiding snobbery (intellectual snobbery in this case) is what allows us to see this novel, with its snob heroine, so clearly.”

 At that point, one of my friends responded with this brilliant catch: “The first version of Jane's quote comes from the King James Version of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:14  
“Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.”  

I replied as follows, and, having just reread it today, I stand by every word I wrote back then. Enjoy! But be sure to keep going after the following long quotation of myself, because I also have some current, fresh insights to add thereafter:

“Bravo! Evidently I knew more than I realized when I wrote about JA's first draft of that line that "This is verbose and dangerously close to being detected as overblown mockery". I shoulda paid attention to the Biblical aura of that line, as you did. It turns out that you've taken us to the heart of JA's subversive artistry, and WHY that line would have been dangerous close to being detected as mockery!! ;)
If we read all of 1 Corinthians, consisting of 27 verses, too quickly, it may at first seem like a defense of the idea that apostles should profit from their apostolic avocation. But, upon careful reading, we readily see (and I quote here from the excellent Harper Collins Bible Commentary, James L. Mays, General Editor) that it "is not so much a defense of Paul's conduct as it is an argument, using Paul as an example, for a RENUNCIATION [my emphasis] of rights and power in free service...It is an elucidation of Paul's apostolic freedom and power for the purpose of stressing his freely chosen self-limitation."

In other words, Paul is saying, "Of course, I COULD assert my right, based on these half dozen Biblical authorities, to demand compensation from those I preach to, but, because I actually am not in this thing for the money, and I do fear I be corrupted, and/or be perceived to be corrupt, if I take compensation, I am not going to, because it might taint my message, which is what REALLY matters!"

A quick look at what JA writes to Clarke immediately before that paraphrase from Corinthians tells us all we need to know about what had passed through JA's mind as she was first composing her letter to him:
"Under every interesting circumstance which your own Talents & literary labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step toward something still better."

I.e., in Clarke's letter to JA which she has just read [Letter #138(A)], he has just been shamelessly boasting to her that the Prince Regent has "been pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg" [of course, as part of the "transaction" by which Princess Charlotte is to marry into that very same Prince of Cobourg!], and has the gall to then ask that JA's NEXT novel be about the House of Cobourg, and dedicated to him.

I.e., Clarke, no doubt egged on by JA, in the letter she sent him enclosing a copy of Emma for the Prince Regent, in that same way that Mr. Bennet eggs Mr. Collins on to further heights of absurdity, has been gulled into identifying her as a fellow toady, and takes the bait!

JA then responds to his greedy boasting (again, shades of Mr. Bennet or Lizzy talking to Mr. Collins) by wishing him still (and Le Faye tells us that JA adds the word "still", which clearly is intended to hammer home the satire!] further emoluments for his efforts on behalf of God!

And that is when JA naturally thought about that chapter from Corinthians, as a devastating satire on Clarke's greed, and his utter forgetting of the reason he is supposed to have become a "divine" and why he is supposed to be there at the Court of the most powerful man in Europe, i.e., to perhaps remind the Prince Regent of his moral obligations! So, probably from memory, she quickly converts that Biblical verse to use in the letter.

But then she pauses, rereads what she wrote, and realizes that the first draft is WAY too close to the actual text of Corinthians. JA realizes that even Clarke, phony cleric that he is, may realize it is a Biblical text, or, just as bad, may wonder what JA is talking about, and goes to find someone who actually knows the Bible, and, one way or another, locates it in the Bible, and only then, perhaps, might realize that JA was mocking his greed.

And that is a grave risk, given that it may be opening Pandora's Box, since it just might alert Clarke or (a hundred times worse) the Prince Regent that Miss Austen is of a wickedly satirical bent, and then....what if the Prince Regent looks a little too closely at the second charade of Chapter 9 of Emma. The jig would be up for JA right then and there!

So....she thinks better of it, and alters her language to obliterate the religious context completely, and instead invokes the comparable language she used in P&P to describe Sir William Lucas's obliviousness to Lydia's diss of his daughter Charlotte's marriage to the buffoon Mr. Collins. She moves from the church to the court, which is anyway the proper emphasis in terms of how Clarke obviously sees himself, a courtier first and a churchman a very distant second.

In this way, JA gets to keep the satire (because Clarke is not only Mr. Elton, he is also, when you think about it, a strange and wonderful blending of Mr. Collins AND Sir William Lucas), and need not worry that Clarke might recognize the allusion to P&P, because surely he has not read a word of P&P, or if he has, he probably did not recognize that Mr. Collins was being ridiculed! And so Emma is saved from having all the copies of it seized from Mr. Murray's warehouse and burned!  This just gets better and better!

When I revisited this passage for the first time in 6 years, I immediately noticed another Gospel allusion hiding in plain sight in the altered passage, which JA inserted when she revised her first draft. I.e., when  JA wrote to Clarke “"Under every interesting circumstance which your own TALENTS & literary labours have placed you in…”,  JA was thereby punning on the Biblical meaning of “talent” as a term for a Biblical coin from Jesus’s Palestine, which is evidenced by repeated references to it in the Gospel of Matthew, in what is famously known as “The Parable of the TALENTS”.

This pun of course fits perfectly with the subtext of Letter 138(D) which I have spelled out above, in which JA is subliminally calling out Clarke’s obscenely mercenary greed in every sentence, especially by reference to the veiled allusion to Corinthians that my friend first detected.

But this veiled allusion to this famous parable in Matthew’s Gospel ups the satirical ante tenfold. JA is burlesquing Jesus’s parable, in the most sacrilegious way possible, and in effect is comparing Clarke to the third “unprofitable” servant, the one who, per Jesus, hid his “talents’ in the ground, instead of investing them wisely, and therefore was punished for this by expulsion by his master!

Given what I’ve written about the Prince Regent’s repeated cruel jokes at Clarke’s expense, and how JA wove allusions thereto into Emma, it seems beyond dispute that this veiled allusion to Jesus’s parable is JA’s way, under her breath, of warning Clarke of the unpleasant end that might be awaiting him, when the Prince tires of tormenting him and simply turns him out into the cold world.

And we also see that JA, in her revision of this passage, has not only toned down the obviousness of the veiled allusion to Corinthians, but has simultaneous slipped into an amazingly subtle additional Biblical allusion which complements the first one to a tee.  JA, in short, is invoking the authority of no one less than Jesus himself to let Clarke know what she really thinks about him. And, irony of ironies, it is precisely because Clarke is the epitome of the kind of clergyman who (as per my post earlier yesterday about the newly discovered Scrap written by Jane Austen) indeed repeats prayers without thoroughly understanding or feeling them! 

JA knew that there was no danger of Clarke ever noticing these veiled Biblical allusions, precisely because he had never even begun to absorb the radically subversive message of both Paul and Jesus, warning, in strikingly similar ways, against the poison introduced into the soul by Mammon (i.e., greed).


My final comment pertains to another word that leapt out at me today as I reread JA’s the final version of that passage which she sent to Clarke---and noted that in “The service of a Court can HARDLY be too well paid…”, she had subtly inserted the word “hardly”.

Why was this significant? Because, as I recognized today, with my sensitivity to the nuances of The Jane Austen Code being much improved since 2008, I instantly recalled that JA used the word “hardly” a number of times in her writing as a sharp satirical and ironical weapon.

So I will conclude this post with a sampler of the “best of” those passages in her novels and letters, besides this one in the letter to Clarke, to illustrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that JA was laughing uproariously inside as she imagined Clarke’s taking seriously what she intended as the height of irony:

S&S 2: "I would not wish to do any thing mean," he replied. "One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can HARDLY expect more."
This is my personal favorite, as Fanny’s callous ‘hardly’ precisely mirrors the usage in Letter 138(D).

S&S 22: “...You can't think how much I go through in my mind from it altogether. I only wonder that I am alive after what I have suffered for Edward's sake these last four years. Every thing in such suspense and uncertainty; and seeing him so seldom—we can HARDLY meet above twice a-year. I am sure I wonder my heart is not quite broke."
Of course Lucy is an accomplished mistress of irony, as she thrusts the needle into Elinor’s heart with that ‘hardly’.

S&S 34: "There is nobody here but you, that can feel for me.—I declare I can HARDLY stand. Good gracious!--In a moment I shall see the person that all my happiness depends on--that is to be my mother!"
And here again, Lucy zings Elinor with a “hardly”.

P&P 19: “…You can HARDLY doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life.”
Of course, Lizzy and every reader of P&P can readily doubt the sincerity of Mr. Collins’s attentions!

Emma 15: "…I admired your spirit; and I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two's snow can HARDLY make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all safe at Hartfield before midnight."
And here John Knightley nails Mr. Woodhouse by raising the direst possibilities with his “hardly”.

Emma 35: "Trouble! aye, I know your scruples. You are afraid of giving me trouble; but I assure you, my dear Jane, the Campbells can HARDLY be more interested about you than I am. I shall write to Mrs. Partridge in a day or two, and shall give her a strict charge to be on the look-out for any thing eligible."
And here Mrs. Elton’s “hardly” is just like Lucy’s, in her faux concern for Jane.

Persuasion 5: "So, you are come at last! I began to think I should never see you. I am so ill I can HARDLY speak. I have not seen a creature the whole morning!"
And of course Mary Musgrove is never too ill to complain!

Letter 62 to CEA: “But all this," as my dear Mrs. Piozzi says, "is flight and fancy, and nonsense, for my master has his great casks to mind and I have my little children." It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask, for we are brewing spruce beer again; but my meaning really is, that I am extremely foolish in writing all this unnecessary stuff when I have so many matters to write about that my paper will HARDLY hold it all. Little matters they are, to be sure, but highly important.”
I have previously noted this passage as one in which JA is saying to CEA, in code, this letter is coded with concealed meanings—pay attention. So the “hardly” fits that code to a tee.

Letter 144 to CEA: “And tell Caroline that I think it is HARDLY fair upon her & myself, to have [JEAL] take up the Novel line…”
This is perhaps most relevant to Letter 138(D), having been written by JA less than six months afterwards.

Letter 151 to Fanny Knight: “It is very, very gratifying to me to know you so intimately. You can HARDLY think what a pleasure it is to me, to have such thorough pictures of your Heart—Oh! What a loss it will be when you are married. You are too agreable in your single state, too agreable as a Neice. I shall hate you when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.”
I have always maintained that JA was being totally insincere in this flattery of the Emma-esque Fanny Knight, and so this “hardly” fits perfectly as well!

And I conclude this post by pointing out the most important fact of all, the one which puts all of the above satire in perfect context:


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S. In The Progress of Maritime Discovery by James Stanier Clarke (1803), Clarke pays repeated attention to the apparently pivotal ancient role of the Corinthians in the course of Mediterranean maritime history. My guess is that JA and/or one of her sailor brothers might have actually been familiar enough with this book by Clarke to have noted that, and, given with her love of irony, she would have recognized, and relished, the additional layer of learned irony, in her making a veiled allusion from Corinthians to the pompous fool who wrote about Corinthians in his own ponderous tome!

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