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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The extraordinary “precisely the right (and wrong) word” qualities of Jane Austen’s writing

Ellen wrote: "…her language, plain but having a great deal of accurate meaning for each word are important and insofar as that is conscious (and it's not quite as words either come to us or don't) is also central..."

Diana responded on that point: "Yes, that is one of the things I most admire about her. That "precisely the right word" quality, in which the precision and "rightness" have a luxurious fullness! And yes, to summon the word that is so very right, is partially an involuntary function."

Of course what you put your finger on, Diana, is crucial—Janeites can enjoy, forever, over and over, the exquisite combination of taste, wit, irony, intellect, and wisdom that Jane Austen managed to capture epigrammatically in a thousand different sentences and paragraphs in her novels. But I would suggest that, abundant as the pleasure and edification is that we reap from this aspect of her writing, this is only the half—and perhaps the less remarkable half--- of full appreciation of JA’s word choice genius.

Any analysis of Jane Austen's word choices needs to also take into account a hugely significant aspect of her word choices, which has rarely been recognized by Austen scholars. It’s something I believe was very consciously at the core of her authorial strategy and agenda, an aspect of her writing I also am certain she largely absorbed from her lifelong immersion in, and captivation by, the unfathomable genius of Shakespeare—and, as I will now briefly explain, it’s a major reason why they’re both more universally popular and admired than ever before.

To wit, there are also a thousand different places in her novels where JA deliberately chose precisely the WRONG word! I.e., if her goal as a writer had been merely to communicate, with maximum clarity and minimum ambiguity, her narrative descriptions and explanations, and to have her characters all do the same, then her novels would be completely different than they actually are, and would, to me, not be worth reading—they would be intolerably boring and unenlightening.

Jane Austen did something infinitely more difficult and valuable- she deliberately wrote ambiguously-- for a number of reasons, but most of all, I believe, so that she would thereby create alternative coherent shadow stories which were as plausible as her overt stories.

And the Rosetta Stone of this deliberate ambiguity is her famous dictum in her post-P&P letter:

"There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but “I do not write for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

This epigram is the Rosetta Stone of Austenian ambiguity for two major reasons:

First, it wittily describes the quintessential example of her intentional textual ambiguities—there are dozens and dozens of such pronomial ambiguities scattered throughout ALL of JA’s novels, which do indeed require a great deal of ingenuity from a reader in order to parse out the alternative readings, and then check them against the rest of the text, to test how well the alternative readings fit with the textual surroundings.  

And second, it itself is an extremely ambiguous statement --- on the surface, it sounds like JA is admitting that she was careless as a writer, and is being shockingly flippant about these careless errors, basically saying, I can’t be bothered to go through my “beloved child” to make sure it doesn’t contain these syntactical errors, but I can trust my super-smart readers to do my authorial due diligence for me.

It still astounds me that so many Austen scholars have taken that statement straight, without questioning  whether JA really means to laugh off being a slovenly writer as being perfectly okay with her. It’s so ridiculous, especially because we know how many times JA must have revised and revised P&P in particular—the first half of the novel feels like there is not a single WORD that has not been massaged and shaped to perfection.

To me, it has always been obvious that the against-the-grain meaning is what JA expected CEA, a sharp elf, to recognize, i.e., that JA has placed such pronomial (and for that matter, many other kinds of) ambiguities in her novels, precisely so that her readers would be challenged to use all the ingenuity they could muster, in order to see two or more plausible meanings, and to hold them both in their minds simultaneously. And JA is sharing a very private laugh with CEA, as if to say, just under the surface, look how I’ve completely taken in our presumptuous family members (some of whom might well have been shown that very letter by CEA!) who think they can advise me as to my writing errors—this is exactly the  tone of JA’s letters to James Stanier Clarke—JA was the mistress of the perfect put-on.

But, getting back to the ambiguities in her novels---that’s still not all. The key point in this ingenuity, which elevates such ambiguous writing from mere sterile literary puzzle–construction and transmutes it into the highest level of literature, is that Jane Austen, by such ambiguity-creation, thereby creates an uncanny verisimilitude of real-life, such that the reader is forced to judge and analyze what is happening in the story, without having an omniscient, objective narrator to hold their hand and explain everything.

I.e., as in real life, the reader must struggle to create meaning, and must learn to tolerate not being sure if his or her inferences and conclusions are accurate—and in that struggle, especially upon rereadings, when more is seen in the text than upon first impression, and when the reader’s subconscious has had a long while to work, unseen, on making sense of what was at first confusing or bewildering, the reader is educated, becomes smarter and wiser. Without the pain of that struggle, there is no gain in insight.  

And that is how JA found a way to write novels which are at once supremely psychologically and morally didactic and yet also supremely entertaining and moving. JA at her peak was able to transcend that seeming paradox, without even a whiff of the classroom or the pulpit. Just as Mr. Miyagi, by the backdoor, taught Daniel the basics of martial arts in The Karate Kid, so too JA has taught us all, with varying degrees of success with different readers, how to read both her novels and our own lives against the grain. I know she’s been teaching me for nearly 2 decades now how to still the voice of my own internal (and highly subjective, prejudiced) “narrator”, and to struggle to see what really is happening in her novels and in my own life, from a more objective, balanced point of view. As the Buddha advised us, this is a lifelong struggle, but it’s great to have as a “confidante” the woman who, two centuries ago, wrote these very Zen sentiments:

‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

The Jane Austen I know loved to instruct, and found a way to teach what was most worth knowing, packaged in the greatest stories ever told.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

ADDED 7/31/14 at 12:37 PM

Nancy: I have always taken her saying about sharp elves as meaning that most readers will know who was speaking and so didn't need a he said or she said. NO syntax , no errors, no subterfuge- just being able to decide which character uttered the speech."

But there are many such ambiguities in her writing, which she could have easily avoided had that been her intent. I've actually collected them, it's easy because they're the ones that get brought up all the time in
Austen book reads.

And that's not even talking about the Mother of all Austen Ambiguities, the one that gets raised constantly, and which couldn't be more crucial to the story---of course, I refer to the question of who told Lady Catherine about Lizzy and Darcy being engaged. I've seen a dozen different answers proposed, and unless you have a coherent alternative narrative in mind, there's no rational way to pick among them.

Now, do you really think that JA was that careless as to create that ambiguity accidentally? Or not to care about leaving that as a loose end?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Frank Churchill aka Catullus as Mrs. Elton's abominable puppy: Two Curs fighting over a Bone outside Ford's

This is a followup to my recent post on the above topic, as I respond to Anielka Briggs's interesting comments on my post: 

Anielka: “I hate to disappoint you but I had already used all those connections.”

Anielka, I’m a little surprised that you didn’t, right off the bat, specifically mention Catullus’s elegant acrostic in the “Scylla” Poem 60—given your and mine long focus on JA’s multiple-answered acrostic charade (a crucial insight for which we both are indebted to Colleen Sheehan’s seminal discovery), I’d have expected you to lead with that headline. Be that as it may, that ancient acrostic, hidden in the very same short poem by “Puppy” that names a famous mythological character who sounds like a puppy, is what seals the deal for me—no question, Jane Austen really must have had Catullus on the brain as she had Mrs. Elton talk about that ‘abominable puppy’ acrostic charade-writer in Emma.

Anielka: “Nevertheless well done so far.”

Likewise. And that’s the point—what you just found synergizes powerfully with my prior insight, which I arrived at several years ago without any awareness of the Catullus connection, i.e., that Frank is Mrs. Elton’s abominable puppy---he gave that charade to Miss Hawkins before Mr. Elton gave it to Emma. The odds are microscopically small that BOTH my discovery AND yours would dovetail together so perfectly by random coincidence.  I am very glad that you’ve provided strong additional and convergent evidence that Frank is a puppy.

Anielka: “Here's the clue: "TWO curs quarrelling over a dirty BONE"… There are TWO dogs quarrelling over the dirty bone. This was a contemporary political expression alluding to the idea that whilst two parties are busy arguing over a political bone of contention, a third will come in and snatch the prize away. Emma is watching a metaphor; a motif repeated in the narrative”

Also an excellent catch! I have one important quibble, though. You leap to the conclusion that there is only one meaning for that proverb, but Google Books just alerted me that there were, in contemporary publications, no fewer than THREE variants on that proverbial motif of two dogs fighting over a bone, when JA was writing Emma.

One was the most famous one that you mention, about the third dog snatching the prize.

A second one, called an English proverb, goes as follows:
“Two wives in a house, two cats with a mouse, two dogs with a bone, will never agree in one.”

That has a different moral from the first version. It’s (obviously) about how some prizes—a husband, a mouse or a bone--by their very indivisible nature can’t be shared. And that brings to mind the most famous indivisible prize in literary history--two mothers with a baby—i.e., the King Solomon Dilemma.

And…there’s also a third variant, which appears, of all places, in Part 3, Canto 2 of Samuel Butler’s very famous mock-epic 17th century poem Hudibras:

 “…The Poet steps out of his road, and skips from the time wherein these adventures happened, to Cromwell's death, and from thence to the dissolution of the Rump parliament. This conduct is allowable in a satirist, whose privilege it is to ramble wherever he pleases, and to stigmatize vice, faction, and rebellion, where and whenever he meets with them….

So, ere the storm of war broke out,
Religion spawn'd a various rout
Of petulant capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts,
That first run all religion down,
And after every swarm its own.
And yet no nat'ral tie of blood,
Nor int'rest for the common good,
Could, when their profits interfere!
Get quarter for each other's beard.
For when they thriv'd they never fadg'd,
But only by the ears engag'd ;
As by their truest characters,
Their constant actions, plainly appears.
Rebellion now began, for lack
Of zeal and plunder, to grow slack…

If I am interpreting Butler correctly, the meaning of his use of this proverbial motif is that the very existence of a rare prize can cause strife between otherwise amicable neighbors. Butler uses it in the context of sectarian religious strife, but this is intriguing in light of the subtle hints of a rupture between Donwell Abbey and Hartfield two years before the action of the novel, a rupture which is apparently healed by the outing to Donwell Abbey. Perhaps Romeo & Juliet stuff.

So as you can see, we actually have three different plausible proverbial meanings bubbling around beneath JA’s invocation of that dog-bone proverb, and I can think of a dozen ways of parsing it in terms of the shadow story of Emma.

Anielka, I think that if we keep worrying these connected “bones”, and avoid biting each other in the process, then our very different visions of Jane Austen’s shadows will nonetheless both be nourished by the marrow we are able to extract from it.

I conclude by pointing out that I gave interpretations within the last year of two of Emma’s other observations as she waits at Ford’s:

“a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket”

I suggested that this was actually the increasingly pregnant Jane Fairfax wrapped in shawls and disguised as an old woman so as not to attract attention to her body, while procuring vitally needed groceries.


“Mr. Perry walking hastily by”

I suggested that Mr. Perry is no longer alive during the action of the novel, and that Emma only thinks she sees Mr. Perry, when it is actually someone else entirely.

So, although I did note that this passage at Ford’s was a riddle requiring decoding, you are indeed the first to spot the proverbial significance of the dogs fighting over a bone.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Frank Churchill aka Catullus as Mrs. Elton's abominable puppy

“"Oh! for myself, I protest I must be excused," said Mrs. Elton; "I really cannot attempt—I am not at all fond of the sort of thing. I had an acrostic once sent to me upon my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. AN ABOMINABLE PUPPY!—You know who I mean (nodding to her husband). These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is exploring about the country in summer. Miss Woodhouse must excuse me. I am not one of those who have witty things at every body's service. I do not pretend to be a wit. I have a great deal of vivacity in my own way, but I really must be allowed to judge when to speak and when to hold my tongue. Pass us, if you please, Mr. Churchill. Pass Mr. E., Knightley, Jane, and myself. We have nothing clever to say—not one of us.”

It has been over 8 years since I first identified Frank Churchill as the unnamed “abominable puppy” in the above speech by Mrs. Elton. As I have parsed it out, on Valentine’s Day, Frank first gives to (the then) Miss Hawkins the “courtship” charade (which, as Colleen Sheehan first showed in 2006, contains two anagram acrostics on the word/name “Lamb”),  and then, some time later,  Frank (the “fairy”) then passes on to his former wing-man Mr. Elton, who then recycles it by giving it to Emma.

I began publicly speaking about that interpretation, which ties up so many loose ends in Emma in a perfect harmonious whole, in May 2010, in my presentation to the NYC JASNA regional group, and I most recently briefly summarized my argument on this point here:

Anyway, today, in Janeites and Austen-L, Anielka Briggs brought forward what I believe to be another significant piece of that same literary jigsaw puzzle, a piece of which I had previously been completely unaware, but which I will demonstrate, below, to be part yet another thread in that same harmonious whole I described years earlier:

Anielka: “Having posted about Cicero as a style-sheet for Austen's prose it's only fair to reveal that Cicero's friends feature in various Austen novels. You may remember that the AUGUSTAn and Julian poets were fond of acrostics. One poet is famed for his impudent references to his lover. Clodia Metelli was a somewhat conceited, fairly well-to-do woman and kept plethora of boyfriends on the boil, including Austen's style-guru, Cicero. Clodia also dumped the impudent chap who wrote poetry to her. What was the name of her impudent erstwhile lover?  Catullus
And what does "Catullus" mean?  PUPPY.  So the "puppy" who wrote acrostics on her name is Catullus.  (Clodia was immortalised by Catullus as Lesbia) “  END QUOTE

Combining (i) my prior insight about Frank as the poetic puppy with (ii) Anielka’s very intriguing catch of the name of the poet “catullus” meaning “puppy”, I hypothesized that Jane Austen might just have been covertly presenting Frank Churchill as a Regency Era Catullus. So I decided to dig deeper, to see what else came up.

First, I checked and verified that my classical scholar friend Mary DeForest had, way back in 1988, made the following comment in her 1988 Persuasions article about classical literary influences on Jane Austen: 

“The Roman poets invented a new genre of poetry, consistent love-elegy, a cycle of poems narrating the vicissitudes of a single love-affair.  The most famous example is Catullus’ cycle of poems about Lesbia. “

But Mary, while recognizing that Jane Austen had drawn inspiration for her own mock self-depreciations,  had not realized that Jane Austen might have had specific Roman poems on her radar screen—specifically, those very same Lesbia  poems that both Mary (in 1988) and Anielka (in 2014) had mentioned.

It didn’t take long to find the Lesbia poem which Catullus scholars universally agree is the best textual evidence supporting the identification of the real life Clodia as Catullus’s source for his fictional Lesbia:

Lesbius is beautiful. Of course he is! Lesbia would choose him
  over you, Catullus, with your whole family.
But yet, this beautiful man would sell Catullus, with family,
  if he could find three kisses from men who know him.

And that last line about Lesbius having to scramble to gather three kisses from friends reminded me immediately of Frank’s playful challenge at Box Hill:

“[Emma] only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."

Be it prose or verse? I’d say, in this case, very definitely verse-Catullus’s very clever verse!

And that last line from that most famous of the Lesbia poems also brought to my mind the playful last line of Garrick’s Riddle---the dirty part that Mr. Woodhouse doesn’t quite remember:

Must I this youth address?
Cupid and he are not the same—
Tho' both can raise or quench a flame —
I'LL KISS YOU if you guess."

So, the idea that these really were JA’s teasing hints of Catullus hidden in plain sight in the word games of Emma was growing more and more promising. But it turns out, as you’ll see shortly, I was only half done.

Next on the list of leads to check was picking up on Anielka’s general suggestion about the love of acrostics in Latin poetry—did that, I wondered, apply specifically to Catullus’s poetry?  The poem I quoted first about Lesbia was actually only one of nearly a hundred poems about Lesbia that he wrote. Did any of them contain an acrostic? Google quickly confirmed that this was the case:

Lesbia Poem 60

Num te leaena montibus Libystinis
Aut Scylla latrans infina inguinum parte
Tam mente dura procreavit ac taetra,
ut supplicis  vocem in novissimo casu
contemptam haberes, a nimis fero corde?

Either a lioness from Libya’s mountains
Or Scylla barking from her terrible bitch-womb
Gave birth to you, so foul and so hard your heart is!
The great contempt you show as I lie here dying
With not a word from you! Such a bestial coldness.

In Catullus (1992) by Charles Martin, we read about the above poem at p. 72:

“G.P. Goold, an editor and translator of Catullus, recently [actually, in 1965, as far as I can tell] noted a clue that had been overlooked for at least the past seven hundred years: if you read down the first letters of each line and then read up the last letters, you find a telegraphically terse ACROSTIC message: NATU CEU AES, by birth like bronze…”


N (um) …A(ut) …T (am) … U(t)     = NATU
C(ontemptam) … (cord)E … (cas)U = CEU
(taetr)A … (part)E … (Libystini)S    = AES

This down-then-up acrostic in Lesbia Poem 60 means “by BIRTH with bronze”, in a stanza which refers to giving BIRTH.  Clearly not a random event.

So, we DO have an acrostic, and a particularly elegant one, in Lesbia Poem 60! Did Jane Austen recognize it? I believe so, and that is in part why Mrs. Elton refers to the author of the “lamb/ courtship” acrostic/charade as a “puppy”---and “terrible” is a good synonym for “abominable”---but all of that is just prelude to the most Mrs. Eltonesque part of this particular acrostic Poem 60.

Note the image that Catullus chose to depict the idea of terrible in Poem 60—it’s Scylla, of course one of the two proverbial mythological sea monsters who makes Odysseus’s seafaring quite challenging in The Odyssey.

So what?” you say? “ Well, I leave it to Daniel H. Garrison in his Students Catullus at p. 125, in his footnote for Scylla in Poem 60, to explain why I connect Poem 60 to JA’s charade in Emma:

“…as described in the Odyssey, [Scylla] yaps like a PUPPY, in Lucretius the canine component has grown to a ring of rapid dogs attached to her body. Here and in Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid they comprise the lower part of her body.”

So Scylla was famous to Roman poets like Catullus, who surely knew Homer’s epic well. And indeed, in Book 12 of The Odyssey, we learn about Scylla that “She makes a horrible sound that is no louder than the whine of a PUPPY ...”

So, to sum up the key points, is it just one gigantic coincidence that:

Catullus (whose name means ‘puppy’) wrote a 4-line poem with its one named character being Scylla (whose voice was famously that of a puppy) and with an elegant acrostic---a poem written as part of a series of poems which included one other poem that concluded with a playful reference to three kisses;


Mrs. Elton repeatedly refers to a “puppy”  as the author of a charade (consisting of  two 4-line stanzas, each one with an anagram acrostic on another animal name-“lamb”---a charade written as part of a series of word games in Emma which included one which concluded  with a playful reference to a kiss, and another one  which referred to a playful reference to three

I think the conclusion is obvious.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter