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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reading Girls, Loving Spinster Aunts, and Complaining Wives: Did Jane Austen REALLY Mock Them, or Just Pretend to?

Ellen Moody wrote in Janeites and Austen-L as part of a response to Diana Birchall’s short story about Mary Musgrove’s constant complaining being rationally based: 
"...I was not talking of dull machinations to make best sellers but a serious critique of the way Mary Musgrove is understood.  What I found interesting in the story is that it opens up the unfairness  of Austen's presentation and suggests a larger perspective which could generalize out to other women in her position. I see Austen's presentation of Mary Bennet in the same light, only more cruel and self-flagellating for was not Jane a reading girl?"

Ellen, I not only suggested 3 years ago that Mary Musgrove's whining was actually a clever survival strategy, I have been saying for over 5 years now that Mary Bennet is a POSITIVE self-portrait of the young Jane Austen---she only seems to be a pedantic fool, because we see and hear her only through the eyes and ears of Elizabeth Bennet, who has no better insight into Mary's character than Emma does into the character of anyone around HER.  And speaking of Jane Austen’s Marys being presented in what appears to be a consistently negative light in her novels, I have also been saying for years that Mary Crawford in MP is a much deeper, smarter, ethical, and loving person than Fanny Price realizes, or will admit to herself. Indeed, I believe that Fanny is sexually attracted to Mary, who has been quietly courting Fanny during the entire length of her stay at Mansfield Park!

But back to Mary Bennet---as I and a handful of other renegade Austen scholars have demonstrated repeatedly, Mary Bennet's handful of speeches are chock full of veiled (and intellectually profound) allusions to Hume, Locke, Wollstonecraft, and other intellectual luminaries, whom Jane Austen herself surely read all her life. Mary only seems like a pedant to Lizzy, because just as Lizzy has never taken the time to practice her piano-playing, Lizzy has also never taken the time to read Hume, Locke, and Wollstonecraft.  Mary is not just quoting from these great books, she is interpreting them through an autodidactic feminist lens, applying them to real life in amazingly subtle and insightful ways.

The most perfect example of that is what I have argued repeatedly since 2010, i.e., that it is Mary who repeatedly WHISPERS to Lizzy during the second half of P&P, warning Lizzy of the danger that Lizzy is being seduced by Darcy's great wealth, good looks, and campaign of supposed character reform--but Lizzy is just not listening, because she thinks Mary is talking about Lydia, and because she just hears "Yada yada yada" when Mary speaks.

And such anti-intellectualism was not just a phenomenon of JA's era. Think about modern-day political debates. Isn't that the way left-leaning intellectuals are perceived today in many First World countries by many of those on the other side of the fence politically--"they think too much", "they're not in the real world", "they're pedants and phonies", "their book knowledge is trumped by common sense", etc etc. Jane Austen observed the deep anti-intellectualism that surely was out there in her time, as it is in
ours, and Mary Bennet is her character who, when properly understood, best embodies JA's profound and subversive irony on this point. As do Miss Bates and Harriet Smith, in a different way.

So, Ellen, I suggest that you take seriously the possibility that you have missed the massive irony that undergirds many of Jane Austen's characterizations --- i.e., many of the characters (but most of all
every one of JA's heroines) who seem to have brilliant psychological insight are, when viewed from the alternative perspective that JA carefully but subtly provides everywhere, seen to be deeply clueless,
especially in their  negative judgments on the people closest to them. You have to work to read the narration of the novels as subjective, in order to then re-place yourself in a different point of view, where you can see what the heroine ignores.

And, in exactly that same vein, but conversely, many of the characters who appear to be fools are not fools at all, but are merely and mistakenly perceived as fools by the clueless heroine. So it's not just
Mary Musgrove, or Mrs. Bennet, or Harriet Smith, or Miss Bates, it's also Mr. Rushworth (counting speeches), Sir Walter Elliot (with his witty jokes on admiral ranks and facial coloration), and other "fools" who turn out to surprise us with remarkable examples of their insight and awareness.

Most important of all, my way of reading Jane Austen with "double vision" (recall Miss Bates speaking about the advantages of two pairs of "spectacles") resolves the massive paradox that Ellen's way of reading Jane Austen constantly creates -because, indeed, why WOULD a reading girl like Jane Austen make such cruel mockery of a reading girl like Mary Bennet? And why would a loving spinster aunt like Jane Austen make such cruel mockery of a loving spinster aunt like Miss Bates?

You try to resolve the paradox by saying that JA had a great deal of self-hatred that she poured into her novels, but that's not the Jane Austen I see--I see a Jane Austen who was intensely proud of her
hard-earned autodidactic erudition and genius--she taught herself everything by reading, reading, reading, and thinking, thinking, thinking--like a Regency Era Good Will Hunting--- and she turned herself into one of the immortals not only of literature, but also of literary criticism (because her novels brim over with veiled insights into the masterworks of Shakespeare, the Bible, Milton and a hundred other authors great and little), psychology, and (yes) history--because her novels are, as the discussion at Beechen Cliff strongly hints, a radical new form of social history. And the proof of her success as a writer of history is that reading her novels tells us, today, much more about real life, especially the real life of women, during the Regency Era in England than all the solemn histories of Regency Era England put together!

Food for thought!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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