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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jane Austen's Intricate Zigzags of Staggering Grand Mastery

This post is perhaps the best example I can think of, which illustrates the enormous synergy that is possible via this sort of asynchronous Internet communication among literary amateurs – it took only 12 hours for my post yesterday night (written in Portland Oregon) to trigger responses from Jane Fox (I believe, in London, England?) and Elissa Schiff (in NYC) which together catalyzed me to produce an extraordinary TREBLE harvest from my initial hunch, based on my decade of obsessive research into all things Austen, that the “zigzags of embarrassment” in the carriage ride back to Hartfield on a snowy Christmas Eve was thematically significant. It turns out that it was ten times MORE significant than I even I had realized or imagined possible—read on and you will see that I am not engaging in hyperbole.


Last night, I wrote, in part:
I checked in Google Books and there are a handful of uses of the word "zigzag" before the publication of Emma, but they all use the word in a physical, tangible sense, e.g., to describe faults lines in geology. However, JA appears to me to have been the first to use it in an intangible, metaphorical sense, as she describes a psychological sort of zigzagging. That is so characteristic of JA, as a wordsmith--- she appropriates words from the full range of her omnivorous reading on a hundred diverse subjects, and transmutes them all into a new metaphorical vocabulary for her complex psychology.”

Jane Fox responded:
Austen was a fan of Cowper: 1782 W. Cowper /Conversation/ in /Poems/ 255   Though such continual zigzags in a book, Such drunken reelings have an aukward look.
Compare also: 1796 E. Burke /Lett. Peace Regic. France/ ii, in /Wks./ (1842) II. 311 The fanaticks going straight forward and openly, the politicians by the surer mode of zigzag.”

Jane, thank you! You’ve scored not one, but two direct hits, as I will now explain.

First, as you surely already noted, the Cowper line you quoted is tagged by JA three times (i) of course, the “zigzag”, (ii) Mr. Elton is definitely “drunken”, and (iii) Emma thinks “If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate AWKWARDNESS”.

But further, when we look at the full context in the Cowper poem, which is on the subject of rhetorical digression, we find yet a FOURTH verbal “tag”:

Digression is so much in modern use,
Thought is so rare, and fancy so profuse,
Some never seem so wide of their intent,
As when returning to the theme they meant;
As mendicants, whose business is to roam,
Make every parish but their own their home.
Though such continual zigzags in a book,
Such drunken reelings have an awkward look,
Than rove and stagger with no mark in view;
Yet to consult a little, seemed no crime,
The freakish humour of the present time:_
But now to gather up what seems dispersed,
And touch the subject I designed at first,
May prove, though much beside the rules of art,
Best for the public, and my wisest part.

I.e., in the very same poetic sentence as zigzag, drunken and awkward, we also have the (implicitly straight, non-digressive) “creep to what is true”, which JA has transformed to the “foot-pace” that Mr. Woodhouse insisted on!

So, beyond the shadow of a shadow of a shadow of a doubt, this is clearly an intentional allusion to Cowper by Jane Austen.

But I am only halfway done with Jane, because it’s also clear that Jane Austen consciously alluded to that Burke quotation as well, which I now repeat here:

“The fanaticks going straight forward and openly, the politicians by the surer mode of zigzag.”

Let’s look at that quote in its full context. That comes from one of Burke’s famous letters about the French Revolution—he is describing what he sees as the unholy alliance between two types of evildoers among the French revolutionaries: the “fanatick” atheists who have been emboldened to openly and unabashedly attack Christianity and God, and the cynical politicians who do their diabolical work not from fanaticism but from opportunism, and it is in that section that Burke uses “zigzag” as follows:

“To [the politicians] who had little or not at all reflected on the subject, religion was in itself no object of love or hatred. They disbelieved it, and that was all. Neutral with regard to that object, they took the side which in the present state of things might best answer their purposes. They soon found that they could not do without the philosophers; and the philosophers soon made them sensible, that the destruction of religion was to supply them with means of conquest first at home, and then abroad. The philosophers were the active internal agitators, and supplied the spirit and principles: the second gave the practical direction. Sometimes the one predominated in the composition, sometimes the other. The only difference between them was in the necessity of concealing the general design for a time, and in their dealing with foreign nations; the fanaticks going straight forward and openly, the politicians by the surer mode of zigzag. In the course of events this, among other causes, produced fierce and bloody contentions between them. But at the bottom they thoroughly agreed in all the objects of ambition and irreligion, and substantially in all the means of promoting these ends. Without question, to bring about the unexampled event of the French revolution, the concurrence of a very great number of views and passions was necessary….” END QUOTE

It has long been clear to me that Knightley is a representation not only of Samuel Johnson but also of Edmund Burke—so how fitting that Knightley (who hates Frank for his finesse, for his being a “practiced politician”, for his double-dealing, trickery, gallantry and tricks) should subliminally come to Emma’s mind in the “ghost” of Burke, as a contrast to Elton. Knightley sees himself as the defender of the status quo of privilege and power in England, and who better to personify him than Burke!

And it’s also now clear that Burke read his Cowper, and was inspired by Cowper’s rhetorical turn on “zigzag” to make up his own in the political realm. And that 1817 American quote  I found, I now see, was written by someone who read Burke, but who was vehemently opposed to his Tory conservatism:

"Farmers and mechanicks have been political slaves in all countries, because we are political fools. We know how to convert a wilderness into a paradise, and a forest into palaces and elegant furniture; but we have been taught by those whose object is to monopolize the sweets of life, which we sweat for, that politicks are without our province, and in us a ridiculous affection; for the purpose of converting our ignorance into the screen of regular advances, which artificial interests or legal factions, are forever making in straight or ZIGZAG lines, against the citadel of our rights and liberties."
And that is only the end of Part One, even more wondrous evidence of Jane Austen’s staggering genius  await you in Part Two:


Elissa responded to my post in relevant part as follows:
In the action of Emma, we certainly see much "diagonal" jumping around on the board of potential matrimony until our Mr. Knight(ley) captures his queen, Emma in her father's territory where he, Mr. K., will ultimately come to live and essentially control the entire board/territory.  I remember in the late 1960s, someone in a college seminar wrote a very cogent junior thesis on the "chess movement" relationships and patterns in Emma and did use that very example of Mr. K. offering to rearrange the path as an example.”

Elissa, it happens that the Late Sixties junior thesis you recall was probably based on a reading of what Frank Bradbrook wrote in 1961, when Bradbrook described the movements of the characters in Emma, thusly: “Austen sometimes reminds one of a finely balanced watch: the entrance and departure of the characters resemble the moves of an expert chess-player.”

And then A. Walton Litz in his 1984 edition of Emma, added in a similar vein:
“[Emma] sees her peers as pawns in a very public game of romantic chess. This contrasts enjoyably with our growing realization that in their own lives these people tend to believe themselves kings, queens and bishops...

And I found the following comment in the archives of the Janeites group:
Brenda Ellis, 2002: “It seems that the more I read Emma, the less I like Emma herself. Her most redeeming quality seems to be the ability to take criticism quite well, and put forth effort towards correcting problems that she recognizes in herself. That is undoubtedly a positive quality. Otherwise, she strikes me as a great manipulator whose primary interests in life revolve around moving everyone in her social circle about as if they were players in a chess game. She has no personal connection with anyone. She's quick to judge others harshly, but doesn't judge her own self. These attributes in themselves are really personality characteristics and don't necessarily in themselves represent a problem, but for Emma these tendencies are not offset by any challenge to overcome the weaker aspects of her character. Her manipulations and superiority are encouraged everywhere. She's too smart for her own good, and holds a position in society where she's not likely to be questioned by anyone. She likes Mr. Knightly because he's the one person smart enough to call her on behaving badly. He won't let her play him like a pawn like everybody else does. Does this seem an accurate portrayal, or am I being too harsh?”
And of course there is much parallel between the idea of the action in Emma as a chess match, and Michael Chwe’s “game theory” approach to JA’s writing.

So the idea of Emma as fitting the schemata of a chess match has been out there in various forms for quite a while. But, all the same, kudos to you, Elissa, for making the crucial connection between that meme and my post, a connection which turns out to be…..well, something truly unbelievable-----like the treasure room that the hero finally reaches at the end of National Treasure.

All that was needed to ignite this intellectual mixture and illuminate the treasure room was my instantly recalling, when I read your above comment, that Colleen Sheehan, in the first of her two extraordinary 2006 articles in Persuasions Online presenting her discovery of the “Prince of Whales”  solution to the “courtship” charade in Chapter 9 of Emma,...  
also included other brilliant catches as to the satire on the Prince’s many foibles, including this one:

[Sheehan]: “One of Austen’s gibes aimed at the Prince involved his extravagant urban scheme for the part of London now called the West End.  In chapter 12 of Emma the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley, in an attempt to turn a conversation between his brother and Mr. Woodhouse away from its dangerous path about the merits of vacationing in Southend versus Cromer, interrupts and changes the subject: 
 “True, true,” cried Mr. Knightley, with most ready interposition—“very true.  That’s a consideration indeed.—But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty.  I should not attempt it, if it were to be the means of inconvenience to the Highbury people, but if you call to mind exactly the present line of the path. . . .” 
…the primary linkage to the Prince in this seemingly innocuous passage from Emma turns not on a battle of watering holes, but on the name “Langham,” coupled with plans for improvements to transportation. 
During breaks from his notorious peccadilloes, the Prince Regent found time to spend vast sums of royal money on redesigning portions of London.  In 1811 Marylebone Park became the Crown’s property, and the Prince employed the architect John Nash to “improve” it….When the New Street plan was made public in June 1812, it caused immediate controversy in Parliament.  In an attempt to preserve Portland Place, the Duke of Portland made an offer to Lord Foley for his property, which, if successful, would have scuttled Nash’s plan.  Nash quickly and at great risk offered a significantly higher purchase price, which Lord Foley accepted.  He then sold a portion of the land to Sir James Langham, M.P., upon which Langham planned to build a house; by the terms of the sales agreement, Nash would serve as his architect.  Nash also sold the part of the land needed for the planned New Street to the Crown.  
Nash was not, however, able to complete the processional path as designed.  Two major problems cropped up.  First, homes on the east side of Cavendish Square would have to be torn down to make way for the new route, and the residents vociferously objected.  Nash was thus forced to redesign it, moving the path further to the east and CREATING AN ABRUPT KINK OR “WIGGLE” IN THE STREET. …“All of the events leading to and including the Nash-Langham row occurred prior to or while Austen was writing Emma. Some of it was public knowledge, but Austen had other and closer sources privy to the operation. Her brother Henry was a business association of Henry Sanford, who resided in Piccadilly and was a cousin by half-blood and friend to Sir James Langham. Henry Austen was also himself acquainted with Langham …On 30 November 1814, when Austen was intensely at work on Emma, she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight about a particularly delightful guest who would join them that evening: “Mr Sanford is to join us at dinner, which will be a comfort, and in the evening while your Uncle & Miss Eliza PLAY CHESS, he shall tell me comical things & I will laugh at them, which will be a pleasure to both.” It is highly likely that some of the “comical things” that Sanford drolly reported to Austen for her amusement had to do with the squabbles between Nash and Langham and the residents of Cavendish Square ...” END QUOTE FROM SHEEHAN ARTICLE

The lightbulb that had gone on in my mind had to do with that “wiggle” Colleen mentioned---if you look at the street map that Colleen Sheehan provides in the article you can clearly discern the “wiggle”, which is about a 160 degree turn to the right.

And the lightbulb moment for me was that, as anyone who knows the rules of chess can tell you, the only piece on a chess board that does not move in a straight line is…….the KNIGHT! It moves two steps in one direction and then one step at a right angle to the initial direction. The net angle moved by the Knight on a chessboard is therefore almost exactly that same 160 degree angle of Nash’s street “wiggle”!!!

So excuse me for my extreme enthusiasm on this point, but I believe this illustrates the unbelievably seamless, subtle intricacy of Jane Austen’s veiled allusions better than almost any example I can think of.
Just follow the bouncing ball.

I.e., Mr. Knightley’s reference to the creation of a wiggle in the footpath to Langham is the kind of seemingly random, trivial detail that seems to have absolutely no effect whatsoever on the arc of the plot in Emma. In fact, JA subtly but decisively leads the sharp reader to infer that all that matters in this case is that Knightley has quickly sprung (or should I say, zigzagged) into action, “with ready interposition” (another chess-term!) in order to block the mutual attack between Mr. Woodhouse and John Knightley, which (like that carriage ride to Hartfield) has suddenly turned very dangerous. But…these “random” details all point unerringly—albeit via an allusive zigzag, if you will---to what Sheehan discovered--this rich hidden subtext involving the Prince Regent’s creation of a great deal more than a footpath in the heart of the Prince’s Highbury (as his actions show he thought of London as being subject to his control the way Knightley thought of Highbury), a footpath with a “zigzag” path.

And the icing on the cake of this extraordinary private joke on JA’s part—what takes this to another level of obsessive intricacy---is that JA left that clue in that letter she wrote while writing Emma, a clue which linked Henry’s friend Langham to the playing of chess, which perfectly captures the movement of that street by the Prince Regent! So the meme of chess in Emma is a true matrioshka, each of these layers of meaning embedded inside the others.
And that would be enough….but there are even more winks at the game of chess in Emma, in particular in connection with Knightley. 
The idea of Knightley as a Knight on a chessboard is repeatedly suggested, most of all by Emma being so disturbed by Knightley traveling by horseback rather than by carriage. And the word “check”, in the chess-like sense of stopping some action, appears much more frequently in Emma than in all the other novels than MP, as you can see in these excerpts:
1: She often says, when the letter is first opened, 'Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that CHECKER-work'—don't you, ma'am? …”
21: As the blow was given, Emma felt that she could not now shew greater kindness than in listening; and Harriet, UNCHECKED, ran eagerly through what she had to tell.
22: Had it been allowable entertainment, had there been no pain to her friend, or reproach to herself, in the waverings of Harriet's mind, Emma would have been amused by its variations. Sometimes Mr. Elton predominated, sometimes the Martins; and each was occasionally useful as a CHECK to the other.
"There appeared such a perfectly good understanding among them all—" [Frank] began rather quickly, but CHECKING himself, added, "however, it is impossible for me to say on what terms they really were—how it might all be behind the scenes.
24: Their first pause was at the Crown Inn, an inconsiderable house, though the principal one of the sort, where a couple of PAIR OF POST-HORSES were kept, more for the convenience of the neighbourhood than from any run on the road;
26: And, in short, from knowing his usual ways, I am very much inclined to think that it was for their accommodation the carriage was used at all. I do suspect he would not have had A PAIR OF HORSES for himself, and that it was only as an excuse for assisting them."
28: Shortly afterwards Miss Bates, passing near the window, descried MR. KNIGHTLEY ON HORSE-BACK not far off.
40: Consider what you are about. Perhaps it will be wisest in you to CHECK your feelings while you can: at any rate do not let them carry you far, unless you are persuaded of his liking you. Be observant of him. Let his behaviour be the guide of your sensations. I give you this caution now, because I shall never speak to you again on the subject. I am determined against all interference.
41: "Oh! you amuse me excessively. I am delighted to find that you can vouchsafe to let your imagination wander—but it will not do—very sorry to CHECK you in your first essay—but indeed it will not do.
42: There was only Harriet, who seemed not in spirits herself, fagged, and very willing to be silent; and Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to CHECK them, extraordinary as they were.
45: In the hope of diverting her father's thoughts from the disagreeableness of MR. KNIGHTLEY’S going to London; and going so suddenly; and GOING ON HORSEBACK, which she knew would be all very bad; Emma communicated her news of Jane Fairfax, and her dependence on the effect was justified; it supplied A VERY USEFUL CHECK,—interested, without disturbing him. He had long made up his mind to Jane Fairfax's going out as governess, and could talk of it cheerfully, but Mr. Knightley's going to London had been AN UNEXPECTED BLOW.
48: Mrs. Weston, if there were an account drawn up of the evil and the good I have done Miss Fairfax!—Well (CHECKING herself, and trying to be more lively), this is all to be forgotten.
49: "Emma!" cried [Knightley], looking eagerly at her, "are you, indeed?"—but CHECKING himself—"No, no, I understand you—forgive me—I am pleased that you can say even so much.—He is no object of regret, indeed!
52: Now Emma could, indeed, enjoy Mr. Knightley's visits; now she could talk, and she could listen with true happiness, UNCHECKED by that sense of injustice, of guilt, of something most painful, which had haunted her when remembering how disappointed a heart was near her, how much might at that moment, and at a little distance, be enduring by the feelings which she had led astray herself.
…Emma was gratified, and would soon have shewn no want of words, if the sound of Mrs. Elton's voice from the sitting-room had not CHECKED her, and made it expedient to compress all her friendly and all her congratulatory sensations into a very, very earnest shake of the hand.
53: It was the answer to the communication of his intended marriage. Emma accepted it with a very eager hand, with an impatience all alive to know what he would say about it, and not at all CHECKED by hearing that her friend was unmentioned.
54: "Me!" cried Emma, shaking her head.—"Ah! poor Harriet!"
She CHECKED herself, however, and submitted quietly to a little more praise than she deserved.
And the well recognized subtext about the English royal family in Emma, of which the tale of the “wiggle” in the London street is only one part, also fits with the chess motif with its royal family of pieces (kings, queens, bishops, knights, and castles).
But my favorite connection of Knightley to a chess Knight (or Horse) is this pun, which, based on all of the above, I believe was entirely intentional on JA’s part:
"That fellow," said he, indignantly, "thinks of nothing but shewing off his own voice. This must not be." And touching Miss Bates, who at that moment PASSED NEAR—"Miss Bates, are you mad, to let your niece sing herself HOARSE in this manner? Go, and interfere. They have no mercy on her."

Not only do I love the pun that JA puts in Knightley’s mouth on “horse/hoarse”, I also just noticed that Miss Bates “passed near”, which refers, I believe, to the familiar chess move known as “en passant”, which refers to “a special pawn capture, that can only occur immediately after a pawn moves two ranks forward from its starting position, and an enemy pawn could have captured it had the pawn moved only one square forward. The opponent captures the just-moved pawn "as it passes" through the first square. The resulting position is the same as if the pawn had moved only one square forward and the enemy pawn had captured it normally.”

I diverge from all prior commentators who see Emma as the chess player who directs other characters (like Harriet) as if they were her pawns, is that JA gives that as one option—with Emma behaving as if she were the White Queen, competing with her adversary the upstart Black Queen Mrs. Elton (recall that Miss Bates calls Mrs. Elton Queen of the Night).
I think the chess metaphor reaches its full significance in the shadow story, in which we see Emma as  Pawn (in the sense that others, like Harriet, manipulate Emma for their own purposes) and we see Mr. Woodhouse as the vulnerable King (with Hartfield the prize to be captured, a prize which cannot  be defended from the machinations and zigzags of the Knight- Mr. Knightley, whose abhorrence of trick and scheming is a sham for his own monstrously Machiavellian manipulations. I.e., I see Knightley as having moved Harriet to Brunswick SQUARE, and as having moved Emma to a vulnerable point during the entire arc of the story, so that he can CHECK MATE her in Chapter 49!---as the culmination of his own intricate, ab initio chess strategy for running and owning everything of value in Highbury by the end of the novel.
And surely there’s even more…
Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: I meant to add, that I believe Jane Austen got the idea for the chess theme in Emma from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
“The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other
principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same
direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
And I also believe George Eliot, in Felix Holt, had read her Adam Smith, and perhaps also her Emma, too?:  
“Fancy what a game at chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning: if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a. little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, in disgust at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden. You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. 
Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with the game a man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow men for his instruments.”

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