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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Damon & Defenestration: the 12 year old Jane Austen’s shocking, savvy Biblical & classical allusions

Earlier today, I posted a link to an article about Enchantments (a new modernized film version of Emma with a Wiccan lesbian twist, which I’m eager to see), which prompted me to search for Jane Austen’ usages of the word “enchantment” in her writing. I was curious as to whether JA, arch punster, might’ve used “enchant” punningly, too, so as to covertly allude to the dreadfully serious subject of “witches” (i.e., powerful women) burnt at the stake in early modern times. I already knew this to be a subject in which Jane took an eager interest—from Joan La Pucelle (in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1), to poor English women subjected to witch trials, to Maria de Medici’s “particular friend” Eleanor de Galigai.

It was only after noticing, two months ago, the veiled allusion in P&P to the Bard’s brash, spirit-conjuring Joan, that I also grasped for the first time the deep emotion hidden just beneath the surface of the 16 year old Jane’s “casual” take on Joan in Jane’s History of England:   “It was in [Henry VI’s] reign that Joan of Arc lived & made such a row among the English. They should not have burnt her — but they did.”

But they did---three words carrying three tons of anger (so much for the nonsense about Jane the English patriot mistrusting everything French—her allegiance was to her fellow women). And I had also noticed that Shakespeare made much of Joan’s “enchantment”: she is tagged with this witchy pun twice in Henry VI, Part 1, both of them tellingly focused on the power Joan exerts through words:

It’s so easy to see how Jane Austen, among the most powerful female wielders of words in history, would identify with Shakespeare’s Joan, who was so famously and fatally “condemned” by men. So I had high expectations of finding the mature published author Jane using “enchantment” similarly; but, to my disappointment, I found only three usages in her published novels---one in NA, two in Emma---and not a one of the three was punny.  A swing and a big miss.

Little did I suspect that vindication of my hunch was in the on-deck circle. The next search in my queue was, as always, in her Juvenilia (separate search engine), and there I found a handful. And all of them were also insignificant….except the one that turned out to be the mother lode—and in the most unlikely place---in “Frederic & Elfrida” (“F&E” for short), written by Jane Austen when she was ONLY TWELVE YEARS OLD! In other words, the very earliest surviving writing of JA!

Specifically, I am talking about the passage in “Chapter the Second” of F&E, where we read about the welcome of the young hero & heroine into the home of their new neighbors, the Fitzroys: 

“On being shewn into an elegant dressing room, ornamented with festoons of artificial flowers, they were struck with the engaging Exterior & beautifull outside of Jezalinda the eldest of the young Ladies; but e'er they had been many minutes seated, the Wit & Charms which shone resplendant in the conversation of the amiable Rebecca, ENCHANTED them so much that they all with one accord jumped up & exclaimed. Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding squint, your greasy tresses & your swelling back, which are more frightfull than imagination can paint or pen describe, I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the HORROR, with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor."
"Your sentiments so nobly expressed on the different excellencies of Indian & English Muslins, & the judicious preference you give the former, have excited in me an admiration of which I can alone give an adequate idea, by assuring you it is nearly equal to what I feel for myself."
Then making a profound Curtesy to the amiable & abashed Rebecca, they left the room & hurried home.
From this period, the intimacy between the Families of Fitzroy, Drummond, and Falknor, daily encreased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation…”

I hope it is obvious that what confirms the punning meaning of “enchantment” as referring to witches is…..practically everything in that passage! (but I’ll spell it all out anyway). We have an unusually  detailed  description of “the amiable Rebecca”, the new girlfriend who “ENCHANTED” them, was “too CHARMING”, had a “forbidding SQUINT”, “GREASY tresses”, and a “SWELLING back”, all of which are “FRIGHTFULL” and inspire “HORROR” in “the unwary visitor”.  In a half dozen ways, that passage screams a caricature of a “witch”—like the portrait of Queen Elizabeth that Cassandra drew for Jane’s History four years later---without ever having to write the word “witch” itself!

And that would have been enough----but I soon discovered that those vivid descriptors were only the periphera of the allusion to witchcraft that the extraordinary genius12 year old Jane Austen hid behind that short passage. And my next clue that led me to that further discovery turned out to be the name of Rebecca’s elder sister-----Jezalinda. Did it catch your eye too?

At first, I thought I was reminded of the name of one of those witches from Wicked, but Google promptly disabused me of that suspicion: they were Elphaba, Glinda, and Nessarose—not a Jezalinda in sight. But then I thought—might Jane have had the Biblical JEZebel in mind? That sounded promising, as I knew enough about Kings to know that Jezebel was an arch villainess in the eyes of the Israelite priestly writers, because she had in some way led her husband, Ahab, King of Israel, down the road to corruption—sorta like a witch, right?

I was ready to go to the Bible to find out more about Jezebel, but first I took a quick segue to Google, and searched “Jezebel Austen Jezalinda”, thinking that perhaps some Austen scholar had already seen the Jezebel connection to Jezalinda, and had beaten me to the punch. And a few hits did pop up. Margaret Doody, in her new book Jane Austen’s Names, wrote:
“ ‘Jezalinda’ is pure invention, in affectionate mockery of Mrs. Smith’s ‘Ethelinde’ combined with ‘Jessica’ and ‘Jezebel’”, and then Doody cited Peter Sabor.  
I then saw that Peter Sabor had previously written pretty much the same thing a few years earlier:  
“Jezalinda: a nonce name, combining the biblical Jezebel with ‘Ethelinde’, the name of the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Smith’s novel…”

But no others worth noting. Sure, there had been several prior scholarly notings of the name “Jezalinda”--by Mudrick, Castellanos, Small, Lynch, and Poplawski, among others— but each was only in passing. No Austen scholar had apparently ever thought of Jezebel as a name chosen by JA for a reason besides Sabor and Doody. So it seemed like virgin scholarly acreage waiting to be tilled.

So my next stop was the Bible, to quickly get up to speed on the story of Jezebel, and see if anything popped out at me that might somehow connect to that “witchy” passage about Jezalinda and Rebecca. Are you ready for a lightning quick tour of Jezebel in the Bible?:

1 Kings 16:31 Ahab marries princess Jezebel and worships her father’s god, Baal.

1Kings 18  When Jezebel cuts off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah takes 100 prophets, and hides them in a cave, and feeds them. Elijah then confronts Ahab, challenges Baal’s prophets (who eat at Jezebel’s table) with God’s, and---no big surprise!-- things go badly for the Baalim.

1 Kings 19: 1-4: And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there [where God sends angels to feed and encourage Elijah].

1 Kings 21: Jezebel incites Ahab to glom Naboth’s desirable vineyard writes letters and hires two sons of Belial to bear false witness against Naboth for blasphemy, whereupon Naboth is stoned to death and Ahab gets his vineyard. Whereupon, God sends Elijah with his version of a horse’s head in bed:
“Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine.”
And of JEZEBEL also spake the Lord, saying, The dogs shall eat JEZEBEL by the wall of Jezreel.”
Ahab repents whereupon God shows mercy:
Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son's days will I bring the evil upon his house.”

Then a gap till the right point in the reign of Ahab’s son, Joram:

2 Kings 9: Elisha sends a message to Jehu that he is the future king of Israel, plus:
”And thou shalt smite the house of Ahab thy master, that I may avenge the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel.”
Jehu eventually heads out to fulfill his destiny. Joram spots him, sends messengers twice to ask if Jehu comes in peace, gets no answer. Then:
21-23: And Joram said, Make ready. And his chariot was made ready. And Joram king of Israel and Ahaziah king of Judah went out, each in his chariot, and they went out against Jehu, and met him in the portion of Naboth the Jezreelite. And it came to pass, when Joram saw Jehu, that he said, Is it peace, Jehu? And he answered, What peace, so long as the whoredoms of THY MOTHER JEZEBEL AND HER WITCHCRAFTS are so many?”
Jehu slaughters Joram in Naboth’s vineyard—Biblical poetic justice.

And all of that was just prelude to the part that Jane Austen must have read with ESPECIALLY eager interest. So I suggest that you do the same, and look for the part that Jane hid in plain sight in F&A:

30-37: And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, JEZEBEL heard of it; and she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window. And as Jehu entered in at the gate, she said, Had Zimri peace, who slew his master? And he lifted up his face to the window, and said, Who is on my side? who? And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs. And he said, THROW HER DOWN. So THEY THREW HER DOWN: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot.
34 And when he was come in, he did eat and drink, and said, Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king's daughter. And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands. Wherefore they came again, and told him. And he said, This is the word of the Lord, which he spake by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, In the portion of Jezreel shall dogs eat the flesh of JEZEBEL: And the carcase of JEZEBEL shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the portion of Jezreel; so that they shall not say, This is JEZEBEL.

So NOW you know why the 12 year old Jane Austen wrote “they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation”. It wasn’t that she was a silly preteen giving vent to her overactive Gothic imagination. She was confirming to her learned readers that “witch-like” Rebecca (another Hebrew Biblical female name) and her sister Jezalinda were supposed to remind us in some way of the most evil witch of the Bible---Jezebel, who infamously had the unique Biblical status of being thrown out of a window—or, as they said it in JA’s day—defenestrated—hence my Subject Line.

 By the way, as a Christian P.S. to the above Hebrew narrative, we do hear about Jezebel one last time in Revelation 2:20-23:

“Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”

The unrepentant Jezebel we hear about there sounds a LOT like Joan La Pucelle at the end of Henry VI, Part 1, and Eleanor de Galigai, too---all thumbing their female noses at overwhelming male brute force, even in the face of an imminent tortured death. And so I leave off my interpretation there, I am sure those who are interested will want to reflect on all of the above, and come up with your own explanation of the meaning of Jane Austen’s veiled allusion to Jezebel.

But before I close, think about how it comes to be that I am the first Austen scholar to ever take note of any of the above. What it shows you, yet again, I suggest, is the extraordinary passivity and lack of imagination in interpreting Jane Austen’s writing---from her juvenilia to her surviving letters to her published novels----that seems to still be the universal default mode for Austen scholarship, as it has been for two centuries.

What’s most ironic in that, I think, in this particular instance, is that even Peter Leithart (who has made a cottage industry in recent years out of generating exegeses of safe, unthreatening—and, in my view, totally invalid---Christian Biblical allusions in JA’s writing) actually quoted the passage in F&A about intimate friends tossing each other out of windows, without recognizing that this was the 12 year old Jane Austen’s massive wink at the fate of Jezebel in the Bible. How strong is the blindness that arises from the unshakable belief that Jane Austen could not write something like that—it is a blindness which no spectacles, even those of Mrs. Bates, can correct.

And that, my fellow Janeites, is only the Biblical part of the allusions in “Frederic & Elfrida”. Stand by tomorrow for my followup post, in which I will lay out the classical allusions, which are almost as amazing.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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