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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, April 3, 2015

Jane Austen's 6 novels are all ambiguous figure-ground double stories (i.e., they all have 2 parallel fictional universes)

A recent post by my good friend Diana Birchall in Janeites and Austen-L responding with rational and amicable disagreement to my suggestion yesterday that the Coles might be the proprietors of a brothel conducted in the downstairs portion of the house in which the Bates women occupy the upstairs drawing-room apartment, led me to respond as follows:


My recent posts, and your reply to me (for which I thank you, as usual, for your compliment of rational opposition), show that even though we both have enjoyed many instances where we have an excellent meeting of the minds about JA’s writing (where there are many points of correspondence between our respective ways of reading Jane Austen), there is, and always has been, one fundamental difference which leads from time to time to huge variance between us in interpretation. At the risk of repetition from past posts of mine, I beg your indulgence to summarize exactly what I mean by that, as I believe it is extremely relevant to our disagreement about the mysterious occupant(s), if any, of the downstairs of the Bates house.

My fundamental premise is that each Austen novel, but above all Emma, is told from (pretty much) the exclusive point of view of the heroine for a crucial reason—which is that, by means of her infinitely clever narrative technique, I have found that Jane Austen became increasingly expert in telling two completely different stories using the identical words for each—just like the proverbial figure ground image:    Is it two faces looking at each other, or a candle-stick holder? It’s both, depending on the observer’s point of view. Both are plausible, and therefore neither is exclusively correct. The image itself never alters, only our perception of it. And it’s still pretty mysterious how our brains can switch back and forth between the two images, both with and without our conscious control.

The same applies, I claim, with JA’s novels. On the one hand, if we read the narrative as mostly objective, and therefore both accurate and complete as presenting “all we need to know” in order to comprehend the story told, then we get the novels as they have been pretty universally read for 2 centuries—what I call the “overt stories”. And it is the understatement of the millennium to state that each of JA’s six completed overt stories are miraculous works of sublime genius.

But… if we read the narrative as mostly subjective ( and therefore extremely incomplete in terms of presenting the story from the heroine’s often fallible point of view), then we get the novels as they have never been coherently read for 2 centuries prior to my discoveries of the past decade. Many other readers before me have seen pieces of the proverbial elephant in Austen’s novels, but I am the first to assert that each novel contains a second entire “elephant” we need to work very hard. over a long period of time, in order to glimpse it in its full splendor.glory—and you know I call that the “shadow story”.

And one last crucial aspect to this—the reading of JA’s narrative as fundamentally objective is the opposite of real-life experience of the real world, whereas the reading of her narrative as subjective is an exact replication of real life experience of the real world. I.e., in real life, none of us has an omniscient narrator perched on our shoulder reliably telling us what is “really” happening in our lives—we each must struggle to overcome our own often flawed individual judgments, to make the best sense we can of what happens, particularly in terms of understanding both our own personalities and actions, and also those of other people. Our real lives are a perpetual struggle to discern what is happening in the shadows around (and inside) us, and to not be prone to either faulty “first impressions” or to hard-wired prejudices.

It was over 10 years ago that I had my final major epiphany about those six coherent shadow stories. And it was Emma which gave me this flash of insight, because when I began to look at the novel through the lens of Frank as possible murderer of his aunt in order to end his “servitude” to her, I was shocked to find that the entire novel (and not just Frank’s character and actions) lit up for me like a Christmas tree of offstage shadowy threads, with a thousand textual hints about all of the characters, all suggesting something beyond the apparent surface meaning. All the holes (like the curious lack of mention of anyone in the downstairs at the Bates residence) are, to me, wormholes, which lead somewhere. And most of all, we have the oracle of Emma, Miss Bates, whose torrent of words sounds to Emma (and most readers) like trivial drivel to be ignored, or at most, enjoyed as comedy, but who actually is constantly speaking in code about what is happening in the shadows, especially the most serious matters unknown to Emma.

So as I read your last post, your approach to the question of why we don’t hear anything about the downstairs at the Bates house seems completely different from mine. You ask good questions, your sharp eye picks up many important leads, you are logical, and you in effect walk up to a number of wormholes. But in every instance you seem to stop at the edge, you do not jump into the holes to investigate where they lead, you stand at the edge and peer in a short way, and comment on what you see from the edge, but then stop, as if there could not possibly be anything of interest way down below worth looking for.

Whereas I have been identifying those wormholes for 12 ½ years and have developed an increasingly sophisticated technique and theoretical analytical structure, for systematically searching through them to get to the treasure that lies at the end of each of them.

With that introduction, I now want to briefly mention something major I realized about Mr. & Mrs. Cole yesterday, which relates to one thing you wrote:
“…So I conclude that it is not a social snobbishness (since Austen does show "lower" people in the book), but that the business people are actually not there. Perhaps they are rising people like the Coles, and have moved to a better house, though they still rent the drawing room floor of the old house (which decidedly needs improvements) to the Bateses…”

In the course of my posts the past two days, I shifted from my initial suggestion that the local magnate Mr. Knightley might be landlord to the Bateses, and proprietor of the brothel in the downstairs section, to thinking it might instead be Mr. Cole—an idea which, I soon learned from my files, had actually occurred to me 7 years ago, in passing, only to be promptly forgotten. And so I realized in a flash this time around that the Coles were indeed meant by JA to be recognized as the owners of the brothel that I believe was located on the ground floor of the Bates house. Here’s my brief chain of inference.

The key step in that process was for me to take seriously the extraordinary fact that Jane Austen gave them the surname “Cole”, which, as I have repeatedly demonstrated, is the surname of both the relatively benevolent madam in Fanny Hill, and also is the name of the “milliner” who employed Phila Austen in Covent Garden in London (at that time, known as a red light, as well as theatrical, district) at the same time as Cleland was writing Fanny Hill. How much more powerful is that allusion by JA if the Coles were themselves the owners and managers of a brothel—it is then no longer random, but extremely thematic!

So yesterday I quickly collected every word in Emma that pertains to the Coles (not that much overall), and at a future point will bring forward a thorough analysis of the many textual hints I see in those passages which fit perfectly with reading the Coles as brothel-owners. But for today, I will bring only one passage--one which, ironically, you yourself actually mentioned:

“…that the business people are actually not there. Perhaps they are rising people like the Coles, and have moved to a better house, though they still rent the drawing room floor…”

Here’s the full passage:

“The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people—friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. On their first coming into the country, they had lived in proportion to their income, quietly, keeping little company, and that little unexpensively; but the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means—the house in town had yielded greater profits, and fortune in general had smiled on them.
With their wealth, their views increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company. They added to their house, to their number of servants, to their expenses of every sort; and by this time were, in fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfield.”

I.e., the possibility you didn’t entertain, Diana—if you will, the “wormhole” you did not enter----is that it might be the Coles themselves who did live, as recently as a year or two earlier, in that very house that is occupied by the Bateses, but then the Coles moved out to their present much bigger home! Nothing we read anywhere else in the novel tells us that the Bateses have lived where they are living for a very long period of time, we all just tend to assume it, because we don’t hear otherwise.

And…there are other hints in the novel that something occurred, also about two years earlier, which resulted in Mr. Woodhouse not having been at Donwell Abbey for two years, and something else that Emma did not do, that Mr. Knightley does not want Mrs. Weston to remind him of. It is not overly fanciful to take these hints, and wonder whether there might be some common linkage among these seemingly unconnected details—some “big bang” in the common lives of the small band of friends and family circling around Hartfield which occurred a year or two earlier, and we (like modern day literary  cosmologists) can only see the aftermath of that explosion, and must extrapolate back in time to figure out what happened before.

And finally, I am not just pulling this out of my hat without any substance behind my specific guess re a brothel---it is because Jane Austen’s notoriously cryptic narrator actually raises this possibility when she tells us that “the HOUSE in town had yielded greater profits”.

Note that she doesn’t refer to a “shop”, “factory”, “business’, or “trade” in town (i.e., London) owned by Mr. Cole, but to a “house”.  Now, what sort of “house” in a city would “yield profits”? Was it an ordinary house rented out to a residential tenant, which, due to a recent spike in the real estate rental market in 1813, commanded a greater rental income? Plausible, I grant you—and I would not be surprised, given JA’s meticulous attention to detail, if Nancy or someone else were to dig up evidence that such a spike did actually occur in residential rents in London during the Regency Era.

But…it could also plausibly one of the very few sorts of “houses” which were providing profits to their owners way beyond mere rentals---i.e., a house of ill repute (or, as Polonius calls it in Hamlet, a “house of sale”)—and that is at least as plausible as an ordinary real estate rental.

And, it would also make perfect sense in that latter scenario that when the Coles outgrew their old Highbury digs, they would turn it to the same business that was already making their fortune in London – the sex trade. I could go on at length about all the other textual hints in this direction, but I will leave that for another post. I’ve given enough, I think, to make my point clear.
So……two faces (rental) or candlestick holder (brothel)? Or both?  I say, “BOTH!”  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Anonymous said...

I think it is highly unlikely that Emma would pay a visit on the Coles if they were brothel keepers.

I think the obvious answer to the Coles' trade is that it is an obvious pun and that they were coal merchants. The town of Leatherhead, on which Highbury is based, has an advert painted on the wall of one house for a coal merchants which was founded at around this time.

This would explain the huge wealth of the Coles who are able to buy a grand piano just for show even though no one in the family plays it.

Eve Richardson said...

I agree with Anonymous. I have no problem in general with the idea of JA writing about prostitution, but the idea that the Coles ran houses of prostitution is off the mark. They are described as "very good sort of people", which is hardly how genteel people such as Emma and the Bates would describe the owners of bawdy houses. "They were of low origin, in trade." Pretty clear, that. We don't know what trade quite possibly because it's irrelevant to the story; all we need know is that it was in trade. Offhand, I can't recall what trades may have been operated out of a 'house', but people in trade - especially the poorer ones - lived above their shops, and 'house' could refer to the lower level out of which they ran their business (as many of my ancestors did till they moved up to the middle class and had homes separate from their business premises). Furthermore, I can't see Highbury having a population large enough to support a "house of ill-repute". There'd have been an inn and some pubs, and that's where you might find women who were in the sex trade (or men knew where they lived and knocked on their doors). The name Cole would have been pretty common, I think, (my doctor when I was a child was Dr. Cole) and does, as Anonymous points out, point more directly to a (common, in both senses) trade.