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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

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