(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Response to "Who Murdered Jane Austen?"

The following link was posted this morning in Janeites:

I had the following reactions:

Clearly, Mark Shernick (the author of the blog post) did a lot of homework, and did a clever job of stringing all the pieces together in a flowing and engaging narrative. But there are so many permutations of each of the links in his chain of argument, there are so many potential cross and doublecross purposes of all of the key players, so many begged questions, that a number of alternative and conflicting explanations would, with little tweaking, also fit the pattern he has articulated. All the same, Shernick undeniably spins a very good yarn, and even though I wasn't convinced, I enjoyed reading it and having my own assumptions challenged in an entertaining, intelligent way.

To me, the greatest weakness in Shernick's argument is how little it depends on what is written in JA's novels (and letters) themselves—other than his picking up on Colleen Sheehan's article (about her discovery of the "Prince of Whales" and "Lamb" code words hidden in the "courtship" charade in Emma--and how strange that he doesn't repeat them explicitly, for effect, for the many readers who would not bother to follow the link), Shernick seems completely unaware of any other satirical portraits of patriarchal ogres in JA's writing, including not only the Prince Regent, but also James I, Warren Hastings, among other public figures, to JA’s own relatives and acquaintances.

E.g., Shernick portrays Warren Hastings as a New Tory Godfather "protecting" the Austen family (making the Austens sound a little like the Medicis, even though, ironically, Shernick apparently is unaware of the Galligai-Medicis connection in JA's Letter 159 to Anne Sharpe) and as the arch enemy of the Prince Regent. But Shernick apparently doesn't realize that JA repeatedly skewered Hastings himself in the characters of Sir Thomas Bertram and Colonel Brandon, among others.

Whereas I follow Occam's Razor--I've found that the single coherent theory that fits the most facts about both JA's writing and JA's biography the best --that explains why, e.g., she would skewer BOTH the Prince Regent AND his political enemy Hastings --- is that she was a covert radical feminist -- and she was an equal opportunity satirist in that regard, skewering taking on both Warren Hastings AND the Prince Regent, looking past their disparate politics, and instead focusing on the common denominator between them, i.e., their abuse of patriarchal power over women.

This is a simpler and more powerful explanation, for why anyone would want to silence JA, whether during her lifetime by dire physical means, or, long after her death, by JEAL & his ilk of whitewashers of JA's life and fiction. There is not enough “smoke” to support the claim that there was afoot in the Regency Era a covert desire to take revenge for her sharp satires, against her and/or against the Austen family, as if she were the literary mouthpiece for the Borgias or Medicis of Regency Era England!

And, finally, as to whether  anyone at all actually murdered Jane Austen, I remain agnostic on that point, pending any dramatic finding of super-saturation of her hair with levels of arsenic or another poison that could only have occurred culpably, and not via innocent administration of food and drugs to her.

What is clear to me is that JA was a whistleblower who covertly exposed the wrongdoing of a lot of people, mostly men, doing bad things, mostly to women, and so there clearly was motivation to silence her among those who were being exposed, if they were aware of what she was up to in her writing. But  it’s obviously a huge leap from motive and opportunity to actual doing of such a dark deed.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jane Austen's Letter 160: JEAL Erasing Martha Lloyd from JA’s Final Days

“Had I not engaged to write to you, you would have heard again from your Aunt Martha, as she charged me to tell you with her best Love.”

Regarding JA’s above P.S. to Letter 160 to nephew and memoirist James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL), Diane Reynolds wrote in Janeites and Austen-L: 
“Martha must have visited, for she uses the fact of JA writing to JEAL to send her love and hence not have to write a letter herself: people work through others so as to reduce their own letter writing burden.”

Diane, I also noticed that immediately, but I don’t think JA’s mentioning Martha  had anything to do with Martha’s letter-writing burden---I speculate that JA, before she sealed Letter 160, felt strongly that she needed to make JEAL (and, perhaps also, James and Mary Lloyd Austen?) aware that, yes, Martha WAS there with her in JA’s hour of acute need.

Now, why would that  be so important to JA? Those who’ve followed my posts going back a number of years, know that I am one of those who see an extreme intimacy between JA and Martha extending over decades---a closeness which I still really wonder about as to its full extent---and so it’s clear to me that JA would have wanted Martha there, too, along  with CEA, to care for her, and JA was not going to conceal this from Martha’s jealous sister, Mary.  Martha meant everything to JA, and vice versa, and so the PS to Letter 160 is in exactly the same vein as JA’s Letter 159 to Anne Sharp, where we see JA reaching out to the other (perhaps) great more-than-platonic female love of her life, when JA feels her own mortality most acutely.

And all of that also makes me further wonder whether it was merely a quick visit, or if Martha was there for an extended time. And then my next thought, given that JA’s intensely close relationship with Martha apparently made some members of the Austen family very uncomfortable, was to wonder whether our favorite fraudulent editor, JEAL, in any way addressed  Letter 160 in his Memoir?

Sure enough, I found yet ANOTHER example of JEAL’s  intentional deceptions as an editor, and this time, his purpose was to erase Martha Lloyd—his own maternal aunt, I must add---from JA’s final days, because, apparently, it just would not do to raise any questions in his readers’s minds as to what Martha was doing there, in the dying invalid’s residence---where, according to the Myth of Jane Austen, of which JEAL was the chief architect, there were only supposed to be Austen family members present---members whose presence would not disturb any sense of propriety as to the true nature of JA’s romantic heart.

And it’s really simple to explain how he did it this time, in order to make me add this Letter to JEAL’s List of Editorial Shame. It’s not that he took the liberty of making a few trivial tweaks of JA’s verbiage—yes, that does show his hubris, as he thought she needed an editor like him to clean up her writing style ----but that’s peanuts and not worth our attention. Rather, what’s infinitely more important is that, after he quotes the ENTIRE Letter 160 throughJA’s signature, he proceeds to entirely omit the P.S.conveying Martha’s wishes ….to JEAL himself!

Now, again, why, why, why, would JEAL quote Letter 160, and delete only that one sentence? The answer is the same as the reason why he  did  exactly that same sort of surgical editing of Letter 156 to Charles Austen—HE DID NOT WANT the world to know that Martha was there in Winchester!

And further evidence of this specific  intention is to examine what comes next in the Memoir right after (and I mean, without ANY intervening text)  JEAL quotes Letter  160 in its entirety except for that P.S. about Martha:

“The following extract from a letter which has been before printed, written soon after the former, breathes the same spirit of humility and thankfulness:—
‘I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender, watchful, indefatigable nurse, has not been made ill by her exertions.  As to what I owe her, and the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray God to bless them more and more.’
Throughout her illness she was nursed by her sister, often assisted by her sister-in-law, my mother.  Both were with her when she died.  Two of her brothers, who were clergymen, lived near enough to Winchester to be in frequent attendance, and to administer the services suitable for a Christian’s death-bed.  “

Could it be clearer how deceitful JEAL was? Had he included the P.S., he would have had to include  Martha in the group that attended, or visited JA in Winchester—otherwise, the reader would  say “What?”.

But he was again in a Catch 22. If he had allowed Martha into the inner circle, that would have been, as Emma would have put it, “a dangerous opening” (just before Mr.Woodhouse ejaculated in her ear), it would have required JEAL to amend his description of Martha Lloyd in the Memoir, which made it sound as if Martha had been JA’s intimate friend while JA lived at Steventon, but then was not intimate with her thereafter (the only mention of Martha I can find in the Memoir after  JA’s early surviving letters, is a very ambiguous one in an 1814 letter JA wrote to CEA as follows: “I hope Martha had a pleasant visit again, and that you and my mother could eat your beef-pudding.”).  

Now, why would JEAL go to such lengths to omit Martha from the story of JA’s last days? Why would he decide to quote  Letter 160, but then delete an explicit reference to Martha from Letter 160, and then, right away, give a laundry list of those who were there when JA was dying, INCLUDING JEAL’s OWN MOTHER, but erase Martha from that narrative as if she had disappeared entirely from JA’s life nearly two decades earlier?

Those are, I think you realize, rhetorical questions—I think the answers are obvious---this is par for the course for JEAL, especially with everything that has to do with JA’s death—whether it’s the cause of JA’s terrible  relapse or who really there for JA when she was dying, JEAL exercises the full and awful power of the editor and biographer in sole possession of the actual facts, in order to conceal all the facts which he did  not wish to be seen by the world!

Badly done once again, James Edward!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Jane Austen & Miss Bates the Queens of Fairyland

It’s an old story by now, that I consider (and Diane Reynolds agrees) Miss Bates to be the most telling self portrait JA ever wrote. Well, today I found another important jigsaw puzzle piece that helps fill in and flesh out that portrait still further.

Recall first how Miss Bates first addresses Emma after arriving at the Crown Inn ball:

“Dear Miss Woodhouse, how do you do?—Very well I thank you, quite well. This is meeting quite in fairy-land!—Such a transformation!—Must not compliment, I know (eyeing Emma most complacently)—that would be rude—but upon my word, Miss Woodhouse, you do look—…”

I thought immediately of the above passage, among others involving Miss Bates, when I read the following description by JEAL in his Memoir of his aunt’s way with her nieces and nephews:

“… Her first charm to children was great sweetness of manner.  She seemed to love you, and you loved her in return. This, as well as I can now recollect, was what I felt in my early days, before I was old enough to be amused by her cleverness.  But soon came the delight of her playful talk.  She could make everything amusing to a child.  Then, as I got older, when cousins came to share the entertainment, she would tell us the most delightful stories, chiefly of Fairyland, and her fairies had all characters of their own.  The tale was invented, I am sure, at the moment, and was continued for two or three days, if occasion served.’… “

And then:  

“...Very similar is the testimony of another niece:—‘Aunt Jane was the general favourite with children; her ways with them being so playful, and her long circumstantial stories so delightful.  These were continued from time to time, and were begged for on all possible and impossible occasions; woven, as she proceeded, out of nothing but her own happy talent for invention.  Ah! If but one of them could be recovered!..”

Which then sends me right back to Emma, when Knightley chastises Emma for humiliating Miss Bates:

“You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her….”

And there we have Fanny Knight, who must in 1815, at age 21, have already shown JA the kind of casual snobbish disrespect that prompted JA to portray it in Emma.

And when you think about it, Emma is indeed the ultimate “fairy story”—long , circumstantial, delightful, playful, woven out of JA’s own (infinitely) happy talent for invention, and (as a winking punning bonus), with its own eponymous “fairy” –Mr. Perry aka the imaginary “peri” of  the novel!

Emma is also the ultimate sophisticated literary “charade”, written by Jane Austen, the Queen of Fairyland:

“…Mr. Woodhouse came in, and very soon led to the subject again, by the recurrence of his very frequent inquiry of "Well, my dears, how does your book go on?—Have you got any thing fresh?"
"Yes, papa; we have something to read you, something quite fresh. A piece of paper was found on the table this morning—(dropt, we suppose, by a fairy)—containing a very pretty charade, and we have just copied it in."
She read it to him, just as he liked to have any thing read, slowly and distinctly, and two or three times over, with explanations of every part as she proceeded—and he was very much pleased, and, as she had foreseen, especially struck with the complimentary conclusion.
"Aye, that's very just, indeed, that's very properly said. Very true. 'Woman, lovely woman.' It is such a pretty charade, my dear, that I can easily guess what fairy brought it.—Nobody could have written so prettily, but you, Emma."
Emma only nodded, and smiled….”

And I can only nod and smile as well at these (to me, obvious) self referential tips of the mobcap by JA to herself. JA knew that she had surpassed her triumph with P&P, and that she had written the fairy story that would, like Scheherazade, last 1001….years.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The pleasures of reading Jane Austen's novels are enhanced by knowing about Jane Austen the person

From the NY Times Bookends piece.... “whether knowing about an author’s life deepens or detracts from the pleasures of reading fiction”, I selected quotes from each of the two opiners, to which I will respond:

First, Thomas Mallon, English prof: “Applying the writer’s biography to one’s reading of a novel strikes me as less a matter of cheating or impurity than an additional, incidental pleasure… At its best, critical interpretation informed by biographical fact can deepen our emotional pleasure in a novel and our intellectual grasp of it as well. Flipping through the reviews of literary biography and authorial memoir that I’ve done for this newspaper over the years, I can see example after appreciative example of how a work of fiction ends up being illuminated by shining light on the author’s life.”

And second, Adam Kirsch, magazine editor/columnist: “The self that matters to us as readers is the one we encounter in, or hypothesize from, the novelist’s pages. It is impossible to read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma,” for instance, without developing a very vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been; indeed, the pleasure of Austen’s intellectual company is one of the primary reasons we read her. In this she stands at the opposite pole from Shakespeare, who as a dramatist camouflaged even his literary personality.”

My principal quibble with both of the above pundits is that neither even attempts to account for the subset of authors (whether novelists, dramatists, or other) whose fictions carry an intentional “message” and/or a didactic purpose.  While I have no idea what % of authors fit that description, I am 100% certain that Jane Austen was one of them, and that she had an extraordinarily ambitious didactic agenda, one which simultaneously succeeded (because so many readers have been positively altered by their/our  encounter with JA’s fictional worlds) and failed (because her deepest authorial goals have not—yet---been achieved).

As I have long since passed from the first stage of reading her novels solely for the exquisite pleasure they provide as stories, to a second stage of wanting to understand them, and the agenda of the genius who wrote them, as deeply as I possibly can, I believe that a casual interest in who Jane Austen was as a person will simply not be sufficient to enable a reader to reach that level of insight about what she really sought to do as an author. It might suffice for many other authors, but not for her.

So the facts of the lives of authors like Austen are of the greatest importance to me, insofar as those facts provide windows into that message or didactic purpose, especially with an author who was so cryptic and ironic in her few private statements specifically about her writing. My sense of the covert radical feminism of Jane Austen the person, and of her didactic goal to provide meaningful experiential instruction in life, from that perspective, to her female readers, has been sharpened and informed hundreds of times by what I’ve learned about JA’s life. In a nutshell, I’ve learned how to read her novels from reading her letters, and how to read her letters from reading her novels, in an endless upward spiral of deeper understanding of their essential unity. And I’ve simultaneously learned to take with great skepticism the biased (and repeatedly bogus) interpretations of JA’s authorial agenda by her earliest biographers, most of all brother Henry and nephew JEAL. If you look back and rely on them, beware, your understanding of Jane Austen the person and author will surely be frozen into a huge pillar of ersatz salt and misunderstanding.

As for Kirsch’s intriguing comment, I would agree with him that reading JA’s fiction, and nothing more, definitely gives us a vivid sense of “the kind of person” she was, IF we limit what we mean by that to the certainty we all derive that JA must have had the highest level of  “penetration”, .i.e., intelligence, both intellectual and psychological, combined with the sharpest sense of irony and humor. Only a very dull elf would suggest otherwise on either of those points.

But I am curious to know if Kirsch meant anything more than those safe inferences—e.g., did he also believe he got a strong sense of her personal politics, spirituality, and/or other opinions about a variety of issues? If so, did he see her as a Tory or a Radical? a high church Anglican or a theist? an ally, or an enemy, of the patriarchy of  her England?  I wonder if  Kirsch is aware of all the controversy in Austenworld today on all of those points?

My sense of Jane Austen on all those points has been decisively informed equally by both her fictions and her letters, as they are, as I suggested above, inextricably woven together. I doubt that any elf, no matter how sharp, could have discerned her true stance on all those points without as deep and sustained a study of her biography as well as of her novels.

But lest anyone misconstrue any of the above in one respect----I get even more pure reading pleasure from reading JA’s fictional creations today than I did nearly 20 years ago, when my JA reading career began by my opening Chapter 1 of P&P. Like listening to a Mozart piano concerto for the 200th time, it is a deeper, richer pleasure every time, and it never palls.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter