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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Jane Austen the Prose Shakespeare (and Age & Gender Equity in the Arts then and now)

Tomorrow night, my wife and I are very much looking forward to attending a launch celebration at the Portland Center Stage at 6:30 pm for a worthy new local tax-exempt organization here in Portland which we just became aware of, Age & Gender Equity in the Arts, founded by our new friend, Jane Vogel….
… which has as its stated mission “to empower and promote the visibility of women across the life span in the performing arts, affecting a paradigm shift in the culture”.

One of AGE’s promising initiatives, beginning in 2016, will be to recognize and provide support to theater entities in the Portland metropolitan area “which promote and exhibit age and gender equity in their programming” —and that latter goal is epitomized by a quote at the website, “A theater that is missing the work of women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time." (Marsha Norman, author, inter alia, of the critically acclaimed play which Jackie and I saw many years ago,“ ‘Night, Mother”).

Of course, like any Janeite worth his or her salt, I immediately connected that Marsha Norman quotation to Anne Elliot’s famous and inspiring feminist rebuttal to Captain Harville’s sexist take on literature in Jane Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion:

[Harville]: “…If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."
[Anne] "Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."

If AGE is successful, many more pens (and stages) will eventually wind up in the hands of women of all colors and sexual orientations, a worthy goal that I am certain Jane Austen wished to promote in her own extraordinary way, and would be glad to know that her name was being used to help AGE accomplish its mission.

One of the parts of tomorrow night’s AGE program I am especially looking forward to, for personal reasons, is the presentation by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, English Prof. at Linfield College, on the subject of strong female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. I was sorry to have missed his talk to the local JASNA chapter here in Portland last May (because my wife and I only moved out here six months ago), when he presented his 2013 article (in SEL, 1500-1900 53.4, ppg. 763-92) entitled “Jane Austen, the Prose Shakespeare”.

I read his article a while ago when it was first published, and I highly recommend it, in its entirety, to all  studious Janeites, as it represents high quality mainstream Austen scholarship – by which I mean that while he (unlike myself) does not venture that far outside the box theoretically, he provides a great deal of excellent and meaty close textual reading and imaginative inference therefrom, and coats it all in a relatively modest amount of litcrit jargon (and that’s most welcome and rare in much scholarly criticism these days). In other words, he writes in mostly plain English, and he writes for the lay reader as well as the academic, and he has something original and important to say about Jane Austen.

An excellent example of how he integrates his expertise in both Jane Austen and Shakespeare is when he sleuths out the particular passage in Persuasion which acoustically echoes Viola’s famous “Patience on a Monument” speech in Twelfth Night, thereby providing subliminal evidence accounting for the more than century-old critical tradition of connecting Anne Elliot’s speech about female constancy (which I quoted above) to Viola’s said speech, even though it is not explicitly alluded to. Pollack-Pelzner thereby shows me he understands Jane Austen’s subtle allusive mastery, which was first really shown in its glory by Jocelyn Harris in her influential 1986 Jane Austen’s Art of Memory.

And by the way, a couple of years ago, I also read an excellent series of articles he wrote for the general public at that time, when Oregon had the luxury of not one but two quality stagings of The Taming of the Shrew (my wife and I really loved the one we saw at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival). So I know Pollack-Pelzner will have some very interesting things to say about those strong Shakespearean women at the AGE event tomorrow night.

For the remainder of this post, I will focus on a few specifics in his article on Jane Austen as the Prose Shakespeare---here is Pollack-Pelzner’s abstract:
“This essay explores the connection between Shakespearean drama and the novel’s representation of interiority. Jane Austen’s celebrated use of free indirect discourse, I argue, is linked to Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which turned dramatic soliloquies into prose narration, rendering a character’s thought and idiom in a third-person voice. Heralded as a “prose Shakespeare” by 19th-century critics, Austen also developed an inverse free indirect discourse, the infusion of the narrative voice into characters’ dialogue. Scenes from Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion offer mini-Shakespearean plays of attention, for Shakespearean technique and quotation script Austen’s dramas of reading.”

Those who read along in this blog know that I gave a talk at both the JASNA AGM and to the local Portland JASNA chapter last Fall on the topic of “The Five Shakespeare Plays Hidden in Plain Sight in Mansfield Park”, so it’s obvious that Pollack-Pelzner and I have very congruent interests. My purpose below is to add a couple of points from my own research which intersect and synergize in interesting and unexpected ways with his arguments.

First, while discussing Emma, he writes: “A less restrained Austen heroine, however, opposes prose to drama. Emma Woodhouse interprets Mr. Elton’s puzzling charade, with its seductive solution, “Courtship,” as a veiled marriage proposal to her friend Harriet, and assures her that “It is a sort of prologue to the play, a motto to the chapter; and will soon be followed by matter-of-fact prose”…”

What Pollack-Pelzner was apparently unaware of regarding his reference to the “courtship” charade in Emma is that it is that very same charade which provides the strongest possible evidence in support of his claim that Jane Austen drew significant inspiration from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare in blazing the trail of free indirect discourse in her novels. Why? Because, if you read the following-linked pair of 2007 articles in Persuasions Online by Colleen Sheehan….
about the “Prince of Whales” alternative answer to the “courtship” charade in Emma that Colleen was the first reader of Emma in 190 years to spot, you will see that one of the two sources for Jane Austen’s savage satire on the corpulent, debauched Prince Regent (and future King George IV) was a satirical poem written not long before Emma (and published anonymously, not surprisingly) by none other than Charles Lamb, entitled “The Triumph of the Whale”!

Suffice to say that Lamb in that parodic poem is as unkind to the Prince as the other principal source for that secret answer, which I discovered right after Colleen first revealed that alternative answer to me. It was the well known caricature drawn by Cruikshank which I use as the masthead image at my blog, showing the Prince as a giant spouting whale, like Milton’s Satan, beached in the surf, with his various cronies and toadies circling around him like so many lesser fallen angels.

And…there’s even more to the Charles Lamb-Jane Austen connection than that, which further supports Pollack-Pelzner’s central thesis about Lamb’s influence on Jane Austen’s free indirect discourse form of narration. He points out in his article that Lamb was an outspoken and high profile advocate for reading Shakespeare’s plays in order to fully appreciate them:   “During the period Austen was writing, …Charles Lamb…offered the most famous argument that Shakespeare’s texts could only be realized fully by reading them, not by seeing them acted. The inner thoughts and feelings that Shakespeare excelled in depicting, he contended, could not be represented by a histrionic actor strutting and fretting on the stage.”

I am pretty sure that Lamb, in making his arguments in favor of reading Shakespeare, did not mention something that I have been saying for a number of years now, which is that there are a surprisingly large number of thematically significant acrostics (including anagram-acrostics as well) scattered through all 38 plays, which can only be detected while reading the play texts, and are utterly inaccessible to a theater audience which (obviously) cannot see and identify the capitalized first letters of the words at the beginning of every line of blank verse Shakespeare put on the page.

Most recently, I disclosed what I consider one of the two or three most interesting and significant Shakespearean acrostics in the entire canon, the “SATAN” which appears right in the heart of Friar Laurence’s famous speech to Juliet when he quells her fears about drinking the potion and going to sleep in the family tomb:
As I revealed there, Shakespeare clearly got the idea for that SATAN acrostic from Arthur Brooke, whose earlier Romeus & Juliet contains two SATAN acrostics at almost the identical point in the action, and, in turn, John Milton got the idea for his SATAN acrostic in Book 8 of Paradise Lost from Romeo & Juliet. And, as I outlined in those posts, those linked acrostics open the door to a whole new layer of hidden allusive meaning in both Romeo & Juliet and Paradise Lost.

But what does all of this have to do with Charles Lamb? Only that, in addition to his having alluded to Paradise Lost in “Triumph of the Whale” (making me wonder if Lamb recognized the Satan acrostic there, too?),  he was well known in Jane Austen’s lifetime as the author of a number of more mundane, published acrostic poems---which is why, as Colleen Sheehan also pointed out in her brilliant article that I linked above, there are not only concealed alternative answers to the charade, there are also actually not one but two anagram acrostics hidden in plain sight in the two stanzas of the “Prince of Whales” charade in Emma, ---and here’s the best part----they BOTH have as their solution the name “LAMB”!

So, I believe that Jane Austen was, among many other purposes in creating these anagram-acrostics, intending to pay veiled homage to Lamb’s, Milton’s, and Shakespeare’s acrostics. And, I’d suggest in light of Pollack-Pilzner’s article, she was also tipping her hat to Lamb’s argument in favor of reading Shakespeare’s plays, which, again, contained so many acrostics which would have never been detected except on the printed page. In other words, I believe Jane Austen was the very sort of outside-the-box reader of Shakespeare whom Lamb had in mind!

But I’ve left my biggest point for last—what is most significant of all for my own theory of Jane Austen’s shadow stories… the significance of JA’s revolutionary advances in free indirect discourse in narration, far surpassing Lamb’s model. What I’ve been saying for over a decade now is that all of Jane Austen’s novels are double stories, with the overt stories being what you get when you read the narrative as if it were mostly objective (and therefore highly reliable) description of “what really happens”, but the shadow stories are what you get when you read the narrative as if it were mostly subjective (and therefore highly unreliable) description of what the heroine of each novel, in all her pride, prejudice, sensibility, and persuadability, thinks she sees.

In that latter case, Jane Austen provides hundreds of subtle clues which eventually allow a determined reader (like myself) to excavate and eventually piece together the alternative coherent narrative I call the shadow story.

And don’t you see how this all fits with the “courtship/Prince of Whales” charade, with its anagram acrostics? It is a symbol of Jane Austen’s novels themselves, with their double stories, and at the same time a giant tip of the hat to Shakespeare, whom Jane Austen emulated in a dozen important ways, as she translated and transmuted his genius into her own prose, including that double-story anamorphic structure--- with a nod to Charles Lamb as well.

But more about that last paragraph in the future….meanwhile, see those of you in Portland at the AGE event tomorrow!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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