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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 23, 2015

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s TWENTY Clever (and clever TWENTY) Hints at Shakespeare & Pride & Prejudice

In 2013, I noted the many clever ways Jane Austen, in Pride & Prejudice, alluded to Shakespeare’s hyperbolic motif on the number “twenty” in As You Like It:
Today, catalyzed by Diane Reynolds, with her usual sharp eye for veiled allusions, pointing out in Janeites & AustenL that Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had Pride & Prejudice on her radar screen, I was able to extend my earlier discovery, by recognizing that Jane Austen, in P&P,  was also picking up on Shakespeare’s hyperbolic use of “twenty” in The Merchant of Venice. And, what’s even cooler, I recognized this because Harriet Beecher Stowe “told” me so in Chapter 16 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin! Here’s what I mean by that.

First, in her post last night, Diane wrote the following:  “Austen in P&P whitewashes and softens the reality of English aristocratic landowners like Mr. Darcy. In UTCAND YOU COULD ALMOST THINK STOWE HAS READ P&P--Mr. St. Clare, a "good" slave owner caught up in a system he despises, likens all aristocrats to each other, particularly naming English aristocrats (and others) as similar to slave owners. He says, "“Now an aristocrat, you know, the world over, has no human sympathies, beyond a certain line in society. … What would be hardship and distress and injustice in his own class, is a cool matter of course in another. … Among his equals, never was a man more just and generous …” This correlates with our understanding of Darcy as we have it from Lizzie's experience and Wickham's not altogether untruthful portrait: if you are in Darcy's circle, he is kindness itself but  is very chilly otherwise….”

I knew immediately from the above that Diane was onto something great, and so I decided to delve into the text of UTC and see what other Austenian echoes I might detect, particularly in the character of Mr. St. Clare. It didn’t take me long to discover that not only does Stowe’s plantocrat Augustine St. Clare indeed have more than a whiff of Mr. Darcy in him, he has a blazing fire’s worth of MR. BENNET in him as well—complete with his own hypochondriac wife!

The only proof any Janeite will need of this assertion is to simply read Chapter 16 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its (short) entirety, the text of which is conveniently available here:

If you don’t see a dozen or more obvious winks, in that chapter, at the memorable dialogs between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (with a liberal additional dollop or three of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer from S&S), then you’re just not paying attention—it’s THAT obvious! Here’s a brief sampler of the most obvious Austen allusions in the one-sided banter between the droll, cynical, teasing Mr. St. Clare and his not-very-clever histrionic wife Marie:

"O, certainly, she will discover that, and a world of wholesome truths besides, no doubt," said St. Clare.
"Talk about our keeping slaves, as if we did it for our convenience," said Marie. "I'm sure, if we consulted that, we might let them all go at once."
Evangeline fixed her large, serious eyes on her mother's face, with an earnest and perplexed expression, and said, simply, "What do you keep them for, mamma?"
"I don't know, I'm sure, except for a plague; they are the plague of my life. I believe that more of my ill health is caused by them than by any one thing; and ours, I know, are the very worst that ever anybody was plagued with."
"O, come, Marie, you've got the blues, this morning," said St. Clare. "You know 't isn't so. There's Mammy, the best creature living,—what could you do without her?"
"Mammy is the best I ever knew," said Marie; "and yet Mammy, now, is selfish—dreadfully selfish; it's the fault of the whole race."
"Selfishness is a dreadful fault," said St. Clare, gravely.
“…sulkiness about this. She won't marry anybody else; and I do believe, now, though she knows how necessary she is to me, and how feeble my health is, she would go back to her husband tomorrow, if she only could. I do, indeed," said Marie; "they are just so selfish, now, the best of them."
"It's distressing to reflect upon," said St. Clare, dryly.
Miss Ophelia looked keenly at him, and saw the flush of mortification and repressed vexation, and THE SARCASTIC CURL OF THE LIP, as he spoke.
"Now, Mammy has always been a pet with me," said Marie. "I wish some of your northern servants could look at her closets of dresses,—silks and muslins, and one real linen cambric, she has hanging there. I've worked sometimes whole afternoons, trimming her caps, and getting her ready to go to a party. As to abuse, she don't know what it is. She never was whipped more than once or twice in her whole life. She has her strong coffee or her tea every day, with white sugar in it. It's abominable, to be sure; but St. Clare will have high life below-stairs, and they every one of them live just as they please. The fact is, our servants are over-indulged. I suppose it is partly our fault that they are selfish, and act like spoiled children; but I've talked to St. Clare till I am tired."
"And I, too," said St. Clare, taking up the morning paper.
[Marie] ”…If you encourage servants in giving way to every little disagreeable feeling, and complaining of every little ailment, you'll have your hands full. I never complain myself—nobody knows what I endure. I feel it a duty to bear it quietly, and I do."
Miss Ophelia's round eyes expressed an undisguised amazement at this peroration, which struck St. Clare as so supremely ludicrous, that he burst into a loud laugh.
"St. Clare always laughs when I make the least allusion to my ill health," said Marie, with the voice of a suffering martyr. "I only hope the day won't come when he'll remember it!" and Marie put her handkerchief to her eyes.
Of course, there was rather a foolish silence. Finally, St. Clare got up, looked at his watch, and said he had an engagement down street. Eva tripped away after him, and Miss Ophelia and Marie remained at the table alone.
"Now, that's just like St. Clare!" said the latter, withdrawing her handkerchief with somewhat of a spirited flourish when the criminal to be affected by it was no longer in sight. "He never realizes, never can, never will, what I suffer, and have, for years. If I was one of the complaining sort, or ever made any fuss about my ailments, there would be some reason for it. Men do get tired, naturally, of a complaining wife. But I've kept things to myself, and borne, and borne, till St. Clare has got in the way of thinking I can bear anything."
[Marie] "You see, I brought my own property and servants into the connection, when I married St. Clare, and I am legally entitled to manage them my own way. St. Clare had his fortune and his servants, and I'm well enough content he should manage them his way; but St. Clare will be interfering. He has wild, extravagant notions about things, particularly about the treatment of servants. He really does act as if he set his servants before me, and before himself, too; for he lets them make him all sorts of trouble, and never lifts a finger. Now, about some things, St. Clare is really frightful—he frightens me—good-natured as he looks, in general.…..You don't know, and you can't, the daily, hourly trials that beset a housekeeper from them, everywhere and every way. But it's no use to complain to St. Clare. He talks the strangest stuff. He says we have made them what they are, and ought to bear with them. He says their faults are all owing to us, and that it would be cruel to make the fault and punish it too. He says we shouldn't do any better, in their place; just as if one could reason from them to us, you know."
"The old tune," said St. Clare, sauntering in. "What an awful account these wicked creatures will have to settle, at last, especially for being lazy! You see, cousin," said he, as he stretched himself at full length on a lounge opposite to Marie, "it's wholly inexcusable in them, in the light of the example that Marie and I set them,—this laziness."
"Come, now, St. Clare, you are too bad!" said Marie.
"Am I, now? Why, I thought I was talking good, quite remarkably for me. I try to enforce your remarks, Marie, always."
"You know you meant no such thing, St. Clare," said Marie.
"O, I must have been mistaken, then. Thank you, my dear, for setting me right."
"You do really try to be provoking," said Marie.
"St. Clare, I wish you wouldn't whistle," said Marie; "it makes my head worse."
"I won't," said St. Clare. "Is there anything else you wouldn't wish me to do?"
"I wish you would have some kind of sympathy for my trials; you never have any feeling for me."
"My dear accusing angel!" said St. Clare.
"It's provoking to be talked to in that way."
"Then, how will you be talked to? I'll talk to order,—any way you'll mention,—only to give satisfaction."

And those excerpts would be noteworthy enough, if that were all the Jane Austen there was to harvest from Chapter 16 of UTC. But….here’s the proof of this literary pudding, in the following giant hint which Stowe hides in the plainest sight possible there:

"It's strange, cousin," said Miss Ophelia, "one might almost think you were a professor, to hear you talk."
"A professor?" said St. Clare.
"Yes; a professor of religion."
"Not at all; not a professor, as your town-folks have it; and, what is worse, I'm afraid, not a practiser, either."
"What makes you talk so, then?"
"Nothing is easier than talking," said St. Clare. "I believe Shakespeare makes somebody say, 'I could sooner show TWENTY what were good to be done, than be one of the TWENTY to follow my own showing.' Nothing like division of labor. My forte lies in talking, and yours, cousin, lies in doing."

As I will now show you, this is actually Harriet Beecher Stowe herself slyly playing the literature professor, as her fictional creature Mr. St. Clare speaks words which demonstrate an awareness that Jane Austen caused her Mr. Bennet to channel Portia from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Let’s walk through Stowe’s learned, veiled double allusion to Shakespeare AND Jane Austen.

To begin, St. Clare misquotes Shakespeare, but in so doing, he demonstrates that he has recognized Shakespeare’s hyperbolic play on the number “twenty”, which occurs several times in Merchant, first and foremost in 1.2, when Portia complains to Nerissa about her dreary dealings with the suitors who keep coming out of the woodwork to try to choose wisely among the caskets and pass the test set by her late father’s will:

PORTIA …..if I should marry him, I SHOULD MARRY TWENTY HUSBANDS. If he would despise me I would forgive him, for if he love me to madness, I shall never requite him.

And there are several more hyperbolic “twenty” usages in Merchant: to 20 searchers, 20 merchants, 20 miles, 20 times, etc.  But the one that Stowe chose to (mis)quote was the above one pertaining to Portia and her suitors, which just happens to be the one Jane Austen tagged so memorably in P&P when Mr. Bennet mocks Mrs. Bennet’s yearning for a deluge of suitors for her five unmarried daughters! I.e., we have Mr. Bennet using “twenty” repeatedly, as I noted in my earlier post about P&P and As You Like It:

Chapter 1 of P&P:
"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last TWENTY years at least."
"Ah, you do not know what I suffer."
"But I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood."
"It will be no use to us, if TWENTY such should come, since you will not visit them."
"Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are TWENTY, I will visit them all."

So, in short, Stowe recognized that Elizabeth Bennet and her father were both channeling Merchant, and Stowe also recognized that “twenty” was the magic word that opened that door of subtle allusion.

And there’s more of Stowe’s subtle erudition in her sharp irony, via her several references to African American slaves (and English workers) STARVING, which recall Nerissa’s metaphor on starving in 1.2, and also recall the following sarcastic reply by Elizabeth (which, it turns out, is not only a wink at Twelfth Night and Sonnet 75, as I’ve previously noted):

"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will STARVE it entirely away."

And Stowe’s showing me another side of Portia hidden in Elizabeth Bennet also made me realize that  Portia’s being “aweary of the great world” was on Elizabeth’s mind when she sighed to her aunt:  The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it”

But let’s take a closer look at Stowe’s St. Clare and his rhetorical spin on that “twenty”  motif. He is saying, in effect, that it’s easier to find twenty people to learn the right thing to do, than to find a single person who’ll actually DO the right thing! And there you have Mr. St. Clare’s character in a nutshell.  He cynically acknowledges his own inner Mr. Bennet—he knows that endlessly reiterated raillery on a stupid wife is a lazy moral path for a man of intellect and moral insight---but St. Clare continues to own slaves, and to glide aimlessly through life (his fingers gliding over piano keys as do Elizabeth’s during her telling repartee about performing ot strangers at Rosings), never doing what his conscience tells him is right.

His cynicism about the wide gulf between knowing and doing, with regard to morality, is also deeply resonant with Elizabeth’s Zen aphorism to Jane near the end of P&P:

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

In summary, then, what is crystal clear from all of the above is that Jane Austen was a Shakespeare savant—which is not news to anyone who’s been reading my posts the past decade—and, what IS news, which is that Harriet Beecher Stowe was well aware of Austen’s insights into Shakespeare, and brilliantly but covertly extended those insights to her own fiction. Which fits with my long held notion that Jane Austen, in her literary immortality, has repeatedly changed the world by inspiring countless later, great writers to channel Jane’s genius in their own writing.

So, thanks again, Diane—your intuition was spot-on!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: In addition to the Wentworthian “sarcastic curl of the lip” I capitalized, above, in my quotation from Chapter 16 of UTC, there is also another Wentworth wink in Chapter 3 of UTC:

"Yes, but who knows?—he may die—and then he may be sold to nobody knows who. What pleasure is it that he is handsome, and smart, and bright? I tell you, Eliza, that a sword will PIERCE THROUGH YOUR SOUL for every good and pleasant thing your child is or has; it will make him worth too much for you to keep."

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