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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Amazingly Biblical and Tevye-esque Eclat of Mr. Bennet’s Veiled Proverbs

For nearly twenty years now, even since I first watched P&P2, I have believed that Sholem Aleichem was very slyly alluding to the Bennet family in P&P, when he conceived of the family of Tevye the Milkman, his wife Golda, and his numerous daughters, each with her own very different character and suitor, three of whom he marries off.  

I first posted about this in Janeites in 2001 after another listmember threw out that same idea, and most of my focus was on the many parallels between the respective wives, daughters, and suitors in Meryton and Anatevka.  

And even though this resonance, particularly with respect to Mrs. Bennet and Golda, was enhanced in the translation of Sholem Aleichem’s original stories from page to play, and then to film--of course Fiddler on the Roof— it’s clear to me that the Bennets were already firmly in the mind of the author sometimes referred to as the Yiddish Mark Twain a century ago. So, I would suggest, he could even more readily fit  the moniker “the Yiddish Jane Austen”.

However, it was only today that I realized there was another rich vein of covert allusion by Sholem Aleichem to Jane Austen hiding in plain sight, which focuses on parallels between Mr. Bennet and Tevye themselves, and not merely on parallels between their wives and daughters----specifically their shared love of book study, in particular the Bible, and their shared fondness for expressing that love aphoristically and humorously.

Of course everyone knows that Tevye practically never stops paraphrasing the Bible--interpreted by him according to his own unique, off-center homespun theology— it’s his hilarious yet poignant trademark, his go-to way of coming to terms with the often absurd and even tragic conditions of his existence in the quintessential Jewish shtetl, Anatevka, symbol of the soon to be vanished world of Eastern European Jewry from which my own ancestors came, under the thumb of the cruelly anti-semitic Czar. And what does Teye dream of, besides going to Jerusalem? He dreams of having the free time to study the Torah.

But what I only realized last night, by chance, was that Mr. Bennet, in his own quintessentially English way, and reflecting a level of formal education and polish which Tevye lacks, nonetheless does very much the same things, and feels the same way, that Tevye does! His home library is his sanctuary, his “synagogue”, surrounded by his beloved holy books—and if we dig a bit beneath the surface, we realize that one of those beloved holy books must have been the Bible, just as with Tevye!

Mr. B, after all, is the speaker of some of the most memorable epigrams and bon mots in the entire Austen canon—his only serious rival in that department being Mary Crawford—and so, ironically, it is he whom his daughter Lizzy inadvertently describes when she delivers one of her famous barbs to Darcy:

"…I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a PROVERB."

Did you catch that giant wink by JA to the Book of Proverbs? JA, the sly daughter of an Anglican clergyman, gives Mr. Bennet’s wry humor a distinctly Biblical twist, focuses EIGHT TIMES on a single word that has both Biblical (and Shakespearean) resonance:    FOOL.   And that is our giant clue that zeroes in on one particular chapter in the Book of Proverbs, as you will shortly see.

But first consider Mr. Bennet’s eight references to fools and folly:

In Chapter 7, he calls Lydia and Kitty “two of the silliest girls in the country” and the reiterates to his wife  “I must so far differ from you s to think our two youngest daughters uncommonly foolish.”
In Chapter 13, he describes Mr. Collins to Lizzy as follows: “I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him." and then when Mr. Collins follows him into his library, he complains that he is “prepared to meet with folly and conceit in every other room of the house, [but] he was used to be free from them there.”
In Chapter 23, he pronounced his agreeable experience “to discover that Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife, and more foolish than his daughter!” in marrying Mr. Collins.
In Chapter 42, he found consolation for his folly in mismanaging Lydia and his finances but he also “to his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.”
In Chapter 49, he pronounces "Wickham's a fool if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship."
In Chapter 53, once more in mock-petulant mode, he utters: "No, no. You forced me into visiting [Bingley] last year, and promised, if I went to see him, he should marry one of my daughters. But it ended in nothing, and I will not be sent on a fool's errand again." But he does go, and then we learn that “Bingley was punctual to his appointment; and he and Mr. Bennet spent the morning together, as had been agreed on. The latter was much more agreeable than his companion expected. There was nothing of presumption or folly in Bingley that could provoke his ridicule, or disgust him into silence; and he was more communicative, and less eccentric, than the other had ever seen him.
In Chapter 57, finally, in describing Mr. Collins’s second letter to him, he reports: “The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte's situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch. But, Lizzy, you look as if you did not enjoy it. You are not going to be missish, I hope, and pretend to be affronted at an idle report. For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
And then, after Lizzy responds: "Yes—that is what makes it amusing. Had they fixed on any other man it would have been nothing; but his perfect indifference, and your pointed dislike, make it so delightfully absurd! Much as I abominate writing, I would not give up Mr. Collins's correspondence for any consideration. Nay, when I read a letter of his, I cannot help giving him the preference even over Wickham, much as I value the impudence and hypocrisy of my son-in-law.

So the portrait is indelibly painted from one end of P&P to the other of a husband/father/scholar who believes it is human nature, and one of life’s most piquant pleasures, as he so aptly sums it up, “to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn.” In short, fools and folly, especially in family, are the fodder that famously feed Mr. Bennet’s fetish. (So there, Mrs. Jennings, some wordplay on the letter F).

But now think about Mr. Bennet as you consider the following, being verses 1-12 and 18-19 in Proverbs 26, the subtitle might well have been “Fools & Folly”:

1 As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honour is not seemly for a FOOL.
2 As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come.
3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the FOOL's back.
6 He that sendeth a message by the hand of a FOOL cutteth off the feet, and drinketh damage.
7  The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of FOOLS.
8 As he that bindeth a stone in a sling, so is he that giveth honour to a FOOL.
9 As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouths of FOOLS.
10 The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the FOOL, and rewardeth transgressors.
11 As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a FOOL returneth to his FOLLY. 
12 Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is MORE HOPE OF A FOOL THAN OF HIM.
18 As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death,

What first caught my eye, and suggested this post to me, were verses 4&5, and then, upon reading through the entire chapter, also verse 19.  Don’t the first two uncannily seem to address Mr. Bennet’s M.O. as a satirist? He takes special delight in deceiving Mr. Collins, by answering his foolishness with a straight face, pretending to be impressed, and never letting Mr. Collins in on the covert joke at his expense. And Mr. Bennet is less careful when he repeatedly puts his foolish wife on, answering her folly by leading her on, before zinging her.  

And then throw Verse 19 into the mix, and now JA’s veiled allusion becomes extremely obvious, as Mr. Bennet’s most famous aphorism, in Chapter 57, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"  pings several keywords in that Verse.  

Now, the interesting question is, does that repeated practice make Mr. Bennet a fool of a different kind, as Verse 4 suggests? Should he have been honest with his guest, as Verses 5 and 19 advise? I think the answer is complicated, and that, to me, is Jane Austen’s agenda in covertly alluding to those verses. She wants those of her readers who hear the echo of Proverbs 26 to examine and reflect on this question, and come to some reasoned opinion, recognizing that there is no simple proverbial wisdom to guide us in life, but shades of grey that require nuanced thinking.

What is your answer about Mr. Bennet? Is HE a fool?

And what do you think about the comparison between Mr. Bennet and Tevye? Who is a wiser man?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Actually, I realized as I was composing this post, that I also heard a distinct echo of Verse 6 in Charlotte Lucas’s covertly & deliberately planting the false rumor of Lizzy and Darcy being engaged in her foolish husband’s ears. Charlotte does this, according to Kim Damstra in 1999, and then myself in 2004, so that Mr. Collins will predictably turn the rumor into fact when he immediately informs Lady Catherine, who will then predictably descend on Lizzy at Longbourn, all resulting in the boomerang net effect of bringing Darcy and Lizzy together.

I see this hidden pattern as JA’s playfully perverse special exception to the rule of Verse 6, because sometimes fools are the very best messengers, when one is a “Lucifer” like Charlotte, who cannot risk taking direct action, but who figures out a way to turn fools into inadvertent puppets.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“very ungrateful”: Fanny’s appalling lack of empathy for Mary—and Mary’s truly Christian response

I’ve been on a Mary Crawford kick all month, as my presentation in Montreal gave special emphasis to Mary’s covertly Shakespearean aura, and to my increasingly firm and documented view of Mary as the most unfairly maligned of all major Austen characters.

In a nutshell, just as it is difficult to see the real Jane Fairfax, because our vision of her character is so strongly blocked by Emma’s relentlessly clueless misunderstanding, jealousy, and lack of empathy, so too is our perception of Mary at least partially obscured by Fanny’s relentlessly clueless fear, jealousy and lack of empathy for Mary.

But…unlike the situation with Jane Fairfax, who almost never speaks, and whose letters we never get to read, we have a number of opportunities to hear Mary speak---including several times when Fanny is not present-- and we also get to read two of Mary’s letters to Fanny. So it is much easier to discern the complexities of Mary’s character than is the case with Jane, IF we can overcome the initial hurdle of being trapped inside Fanny’s head and heart.  

I’ve scoured the Internet and relevant databases for every scholarly analysis of Mary’s character I could find, and in one of them, an obscure, never-cited article from the fringe of Austen scholarship written nearly 40 years ago, I came across a wonderfully on-point bit of textual evidence that, I believe, crystallizes this apparent paradox of Mary being judged harshly by Janeites, even as her behavior is far more like Jesus’s than Fanny’s. Sound crazy? It won’t take me long to show otherwise.

As my Subject Line suggests, this has to do with the descriptor “very ungrateful”—this phrase appears only twice in the entire Austen canon, and you may not be surprised to learn that both of them occur in Mansfield Park. It should not be surprising, because one of the most persistent themes in the novel is that of gratefulness, and Fanny Price is almost always the subject of this theme. We are constantly reminded of Fanny’s vulnerable position at Mansfield Park, and how often she is under pressure to express gratitude for benefits which readers today would consider only her rightful due, and how often she is also under pressure to express gratitude, and to comply in her behavior,  in response to what we today can clearly see as abuse that is inflicted on her.

But there is (at least) one instance where it is not Fanny who is the locus of this theme, but Mary. And, surprise surprise, the one who expresses judgment on Mary for not being grateful is not Mrs. Norris, or Sir Thomas, it’s none other than Fanny herself!: In Chapter 7, we read the following tete-a-tete between Fanny and Edmund, as they debrief Mary’s “rears and vices” pun:

"Well, Fanny, and how do you like Miss Crawford now?" said Edmund the next day, after thinking some time on the subject himself. "How did you like her yesterday?"
"Very well—very much. I like to hear her talk. She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her."
"It is her countenance that is so attractive. She has a wonderful play of feature! But was there nothing in her conversation that struck you, Fanny, as not quite right?"
"Oh yes! she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished. An uncle with whom she has been living so many years, and who, whatever his faults may be, is so very fond of her brother, treating him, they say, quite like a son. I could not have believed it!"
"I thought you would be struck. It was very wrong; very indecorous."
"Ungrateful is a strong word. I do not know that her uncle has any claim to her gratitude; his wife certainly had; and it is the warmth of her respect for her aunt's memory which misleads her here….“  

Indeed Edmund is correct that Mary hardly owes a debt of gratitude to her uncle, who has exposed her to behavior that we cannot know precisely, but which has a strong whiff of being a whole lot worse than just an overly quick replacement of a late wife with a young mistress. But Fanny displays an appalling  lack of empathy for what it must have been like for Mary in her uncle’s home after the death of her beloved aunt. Fanny, who was uprooted from her home at a young age, seems not to be moved by the fact that Mary has felt compelled to leave a comfortable home immediately after the death of a beloved aunt.

And modern psychology (which JA anticipated) tells us that we ought not be surprised, because Fanny, as I stated above, is so often a victim of the particularly ugly experience of being abused and then being required to say thank you for that abuse! Fanny not only suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, she judges other victims who don’t “catch” that disease! But now here’s the hidden catch, that tells the alert reader that JA really did portray Mary, albeit covertly, around the edges of Fanny’s biased point of view, as a really good and moral person.

Check out this famously painful passage in Chapter 15, when Tom is pressuring Fanny to play Cottager’s Wife:

"You must excuse me, indeed you must excuse me," cried Fanny, growing more and more red from excessive agitation, and looking distressfully at Edmund, who was kindly observing her; but unwilling to exasperate his brother by interference, gave her only an encouraging smile. Her entreaty had no effect on Tom: he only said again what he had said before; and it was not merely Tom, for the requisition was now backed by Maria, and Mr. Crawford, and Mr. Yates, with an urgency which differed from his but in being more gentle or more ceremonious, and which altogether was quite overpowering to Fanny; and before she could breathe after it, Mrs. Norris completed the whole by thus addressing her in a whisper at once angry and audible—"What a piece of work here is about nothing: I am quite ashamed of you, Fanny, to make such a difficulty of obliging your cousins in a trifle of this sort—so kind as they are to you! Take the part with a good grace, and let us hear no more of the matter, I entreat."
"Do not urge her, madam," said Edmund. "It is not fair to urge her in this manner. You see she does not like to act. Let her chuse for herself, as well as the rest of us. Her judgment may be quite as safely trusted. Do not urge her any more."
"I am not going to urge her," replied Mrs. Norris sharply; "but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—VERY UNGRATEFUL, indeed, considering who and what she is."
Edmund was too angry to speak; but Miss Crawford, looking for a moment with astonished eyes at Mrs. Norris, and then at Fanny, whose tears were beginning to shew themselves, immediately said, with some keenness, "I do not like my situation: this place is too hot for me," and moved away her chair to the opposite side of the table, close to Fanny, saying to her, in a kind, low whisper, as she placed herself, "Never mind, my dear Miss Price, this is a cross evening: everybody is cross and teasing, but do not let us mind them"; and with pointed attention continued to talk to her and endeavour to raise her spirits, in spite of being out of spirits herself. By a look at her brother she prevented any farther entreaty from the theatrical board, and the really good feelings by which she was almost purely governed were rapidly restoring her to all the little she had lost in Edmund's favour.
Fanny did not love Miss Crawford; but she felt very much obliged to her for her present kindness; and when, from taking notice of her work, and wishing she could work as well, and begging for the pattern, and supposing Fanny was now preparing for her appearance, as of course she would come out when her cousin was married, Miss Crawford proceeded to inquire if she had heard lately from her brother at sea, and said that she had quite a curiosity to see him, and imagined him a very fine young man, and advised Fanny to get his picture drawn before he went to sea again—she could not help admitting it to be very agreeable flattery, or help listening, and answering with more animation than she had intended.
The consultation upon the play still went on, and Miss Crawford's attention was first called from Fanny by Tom…” END QUOTE

In my JASNA AGM talk, I pointed out what I originally blogged about in May of this year, which is the pointed irony of Mrs. Norris tracking, word-for-word, the veiled Shakespearean allusion to Hamlet’s famous pessimistic speech (“What a piece of work is man”) spoken by Cottager’s Wife in Lover’s Vows, the very character whom Mrs. Norris is pressuring Fanny to play!

But it’s Mrs. Norris’s referring to Fanny as “very ungrateful” that I am focused on today—and look at who steps up to defend and console Fanny—it’s not Edmund (whom Fanny thinks is “too angry to speak” but, truth be told, he just fails to step up once again when Fanny is subjected to abuse), it’s Mary!

And the double irony is that we are reminded of Chapter 7, when Fanny, faced with a choice as to whether to judge Mary for her pun about her uncle, elects to judge and fault Mary, leaving it to Edmund to point out the strong mitigating circumstances.  

So, if that’s not turning the other cheek on Mary’s part, I don’t know what is! Even though Mary was not present when Fanny rendered judgment on her privately, Mary is no dope, and she surely readily inferred from what must have been Fanny’s shocked nonverbal reaction to Mary’s “rears and vices’ pun that Fanny had put a negative spin on it.

And yet, in the moment of truth, Mary not only did not retaliate, by piling on Fanny, she actually was the only one in the room brave and moral enough to defend and take care of Fanny in that very traumatic situation.

And, there’s one final turn of the moral screw—because, as I have argued repeatedly, Mary’s “rears and vices’ pun, properly understood, was the only way Mary could warn Fanny that William’s promotion in the navy was going to come at a very high “price” in that Admiral Crawford and his Danteseque circle of admirals were going to subject William’s “rear” to their “vices”! And that’s what JA is reminding us of, when Mary inquires, while consoling Fanny after Mrs. Norris’s nasty attack, if Fanny had heard lately from William at sea. But again, Fanny is clueless, she is unaware of what Mary is actually up to.

So, in both instances, Mary was actually defending Fanny and William the underdogs—in the first case, she gets blamed for it by Fanny, but at least in the second instance Fanny, in spite of herself, begins to soften toward Mary, and deservedly so.

So, putting this all together, Mary’s behavior in both instances is what we would expect from a highly evolved moral being, willing to suffer pain to help the helpless, even willing to help someone who does not understand her—the most Christian of actions, if we follow Jesus’s actual words and not what many of the powerful hypocrites, like Sir Thomas, who acted in his name only in the world of the novel and JA’s real world as well.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Friday, October 17, 2014

P.S. re Harriet Smith as a Papagena turned Heiress when she attained the age of 18 years…and 2 minutes!

After sending my earlier message, I did a little followup Googling, and found the following very interesting factoid in Colleen Sheehan's Persuasions Online article about the "Prince of Whales" solution to the "courtship" charade in Emma:

"As for Harriet Smith, “the natural daughter of somebody,” the mystery of her parentage is resolved in the last chapter of the novel.  Born 23 June 1796 (Midsummer’s Eve), her nondescript surname leads one to suspect that it may not be her real name.  On the other hand, it is interesting to note that Smythe was the maiden name of Maria Fitzherbert.  Harriet’s parentage is revealed on August 12th, the birthday of the Prince Regent."

\Undoubtedly, that was intentional on JA's part--Colleen did not have, however, any idea that Harriet's birthday was actually a significant event, because of her inheritance.  

But reading that prompted me to go back to Ellen's calendar, and sure enough, here is the entry for August 12:

"Harriet tells tale to Emma, all "unintelligible" to Emma; Harriet's parentage discovered, 55:462. We should remember Harriet's last words: "now I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does choose me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful", 47:407."

Here is fuller textual context from Harriet’s speech to Emma in Chapter 47:

"I never should have presumed to think of [Knightley as a suitor] at first," said she, "but for you. You told me to observe him carefully, and let his behaviour be the rule of mine—and so I have. But now I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does chuse me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful."

Notice the “now”---although Emma is utterly clueless about Harriet having just inherited a lot of money, clearly Harriet is well aware of this fact, and that is why, given that Harriet is also well aware that Knightley is cash poor, that “it will not be any thing so very wonderful” if Knightley might want to marry Harriet for her money!

And….just to be clear about the full import of my last post----this hidden fact of Harriet’s reaching the crucial age of inheritance (isn’t that exactly what happens in a couple of Burney’s novels as well?) explains perfectly why Harriet would play the role of ditzy fool for 46 chapters, kissing Emma’s butt ten times an hour----but then would suddenly reveal her true self, as a variant of Lucy Steele, but in very deep undercover mode. Once Harriet had her inheritance, there was no reason for the disguise any longer, and so, ironically, in the chapter that begins “Poor Harriet!”, it’s actually poor EMMA who is getting a major splash of ice cold water thrown over her own narcissistic fantasies of superiority. It’s Harriet who no longer needs to bother with Emma, not the reverse.

Amazing stuff, isn’t it?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


I just reread my posts, and realized that in my rush, I had overlooked that Ellen DID indeed recognize that June 23 was both the date of the Donwell Abbey outing AND Harriet's birthday. Sorry about that, Ellen!

However, while Ellen correctly understood that this was an intentional interlocked hidden calendar code created by Jane Austen, she did not realize it had implications and significance that would reverberate like a loud church bell through the entire structure of the shadow story of Emma.