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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lesbian Anna Howe loves clueless Clarissa just as lesbian Charlotte loves clueless Elizabeth

In my post several days ago…    … I wrote about some disturbing and surprising parallels I recently discovered between, on the one hand, the hardened rake/villain Lovelace and the object of his desire, Clarissa Harlowe, in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and, on the other hand, the hero Darcy and the object of his desire, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride & Prejudice. What I found most disturbing in this startling parallel was that Jane Austen had intentionally and unmistakably, but covertly, tagged Darcy to Lovelace via hidden-in-plain-sight allusions in two salient scenes in P&P (the discussion of handwriting at Netherfield, and Eliza’s piano-playing at Rosings) to the following sexually saturated passage in a letter that best friend Anna Howe writes to Clarissa about Lovelace early (Volume 1, Letter 12) in Richardson’s novel (the ALL CAPS are, again, the sexual puns that also appear in similar context in those two P&P scenes):

“[Lovelace] DELIGHTS in WRITING. Whether at Lord M.'s, or at Lady Betty's, or Lady Sarah's, he has always a PEN in his FINGERS when he retires. One of HIS COMPANIONS (confirming his love of WRITING) has told [Mrs. Fortescue], that his thoughts FLOW RAPIDLY to his PEN: And you and I, my dear, have observed, on more occasions than one, that though he WRITES EVEN a fine HAND, he is one of the readiest and quickest of writers.”
[Lovelace] must indeed have had early a very docile genius; since a person of his pleasurable turn and active spirit, could never have submitted TO TAKE LONG OR GREAT PAINS in attaining the qualifications he is MASTER of; qualifications so seldom attained by youth of quality and fortune; by such especially of those of either, who, like him, have never known what it was to be controuled.”

Yesterday, it occurred to me to check in JA’s letters, to see if she ever indulged in this sexual punning there, and I found a very curious passage in her Jan. 24, 1809 letter to Cassandra--the moment in Jane’s life when she was exhilarated at the prospect of the imminent move to Chawton Cottage, where, as we all know, her writing career came back to life with a vengeance. The topic in this letter is, as you will readily discern, Jane’s mock concern about the critical reaction of moralistic, clueless 16 year old niece Fanny Austen to reading some of JA’s writing:

“I am gratified by [Fanny] having pleasure in what I write, but I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning criticism may not hurt my style, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my IDEAS FLOW AS FAST as the rain in the Store closet it would be CHARMING.”

This is exactly the satirical tone of JA’s much later “concern” about matching pretentious, narcissistic nephew JEAL’s “manly sketches”.  So, which of Aunt Jane’s writings is she referring to in January 1809 vis a vis Fanny’s “discerning” criticism? I believe that Jane has recently loaned Fanny the first volume of First Impressions (remember, this is about 4 years before JA famously “lopt and cropt” P&P—which all knowledgeable Janeites know was in its original epistolary form called First Impressions), and Jane was winking to Cassandra about the very same sexual puns (“metaphors”) lurking “in every corner of” the exchange between Mr. Bingley and his sister Caroline, which, I suggest, was already there in First Impressions by Jan. 1809:

"Oh!" cried Miss Bingley, "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest."
"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."
"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."

As I reflected further yesterday on the three disturbing parallelisms I had found (Lovelace/Darcy, Elizabeth/Clarissa, and Collins/ Solmes), and on that remarkably eroticized passage written by Anna to Clarissa about Lovelace, it made me pause, step back, and take a closer look at the relationship between Clarissa and Anna.

And as soon as I did that, the thought popped into my head that JA’s veiled allusion to Clarissa extended even further --i.e., the character of Charlotte Lucas in P&P surely was patterned after that of Anna Howe as well—meaning, most significantly, that Austen’s shadowy depiction of Charlotte’s lesbian love for Eliza (which I’ve long been writing about---see my latest post on that topic:  ) has ALSO been sparked by a comparable subliminal lesbian love story in Clarissa!  It didn’t take very long to verify that my hunch was correct, as I’ll now explain!

First, my search in scholarly databases revealed that a handful of Richardson scholars have identified and described a strong lesbian vibe between Anna and Clarissa that lasts from the very beginning to the very end of Clarissa (when the dying Clarissa bequeaths a large portrait of herself to Anna, which the latter can privately enjoy the rest of her married life to Mr. Hickman, whom she has finally relented to marry—just like Charlotte marrying Mr. Collins). If anyone is interested, I can give you citations to those scholars who’ve  collectively already made that case pretty strongly. I.e., this is no modernist anachronist reading of Clarissa, it’s clear that Richardson was pursuing an ironic authorial strategy, subliminally depicting Anna as a third tempting “Satan” whispering in Clarissa’s ear (besides the toad-like Solmes, and the alluring Lovelace).

As another unexpected bonus in terms of my own interpretation of Charlotte as lesbian, as I was reading one of those scholarly takes on Anna Howe as lesbian, I read, in passing, the assertion (which I then verified to my satisfaction) that the word “unaccountable” was 18th century punning code for “lesbian” . I immediately recalled Elizabeth’s grumbling world-weary comments to sister Jane about Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins:

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately, one I will not mention; the other is Charlotte's marriage. It is UNACCOUNTABLE! In every view it is UNACCOUNTABLE!...were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who married him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness."

It’s now obvious to me that this speech, which I already interpreted as Eliza venting her unconscious jealousy of Charlotte---who not only married an absurd husband, but also moved far away from Eliza--- also reflects that JA, from her extensive readings of 18th century novels, understood that code of “unaccountable” as “lesbian” very well indeed, and that’s why she has Eliza exclaim that word not once but twice about Charlotte!  And I think JA also picked up on the following passage in Vol 1, Letter 25, when Clarissa, writing to Anna, quotes from her mother’s (i.e., Mrs. Harlowe’s) letter: 
“I charge you, let not this letter be found. Burn it. There is too much of the mother in it, to A DAUGHTER SO UNACCOUNTABLY OBSTINATE.”
The sexual pun works perfectly here, as it is Clarissa’s “unaccountable” and “obstinate”  lesbian love for Anna which, in part, motivates Clarissa to reject both the loathsome Solmes AND the attractive Lovelace.

And, thinking a little further outside the box….all knowledgeable Janeites are aware that First Impressions, was epistolary, and so, I ask, who were Elizabeth Bennet’s principal correspondents?  Two candidates top the list: Eliza’s aunt Mrs. Gardiner and…Eliza’s BFF Charlotte! Of course, that would only be during the second half of the novel, after Charlotte’s relocation to Hunsford after marrying Mr. Collins. And those letters passing between Eliza and Charlotte would have been the very ones that Jane Austen cut out, since none survive in P&P as published—and I suggest that they’re still “there”, but now only in the shadow  story of P&P.

Thinking of JA’s love of wordplay, I then wondered, might the title of First Impressions been inspired by a passage in Clarissa? Acting on that hunch, I searched in Clarissa, and—BINGO!--I found a discussion of first impressions, as well as a great deal of obvious resonance to Eliza’s feeling torn between Darcy and Wickham, in Letter 40 of Volume 1, when Clarissa writes to Anna:

“…I resume, to give you my opinion of the force which figure or person ought to have upon our sex: and this I shall do both generally as to the other sex, and particularly as to this man; whence you will be able to collect how far my friends are in the right, or in the wrong, when they attribute a good deal of PREJUDICE in favour of one man, and in disfavour of the other, on the score of figure. But, first, let me observe, that they see abundant reason, on comparing Mr. Lovelace and Mr. Solmes together, to believe that this may be a consideration with me; and therefore they believe it is. There is certainly something very plausible and attractive, as well as creditable to a woman’s choice, in figure. It gives a favourable IMPRESSION AT FIRST SIGHT, in which we wish to be confirmed: and if, upon further acquaintance, we find reason to be so, we are pleased with our judgment, and like the person the better, for having given us cause to compliment our own sagacity, in our FIRST-SIGHTED IMPRESSIONS…..”

And that might have been the end of this particular sleuthing trail….but as I reflected on the lesbian subtext of Clarissa, my analysis still felt incomplete. I’d been disappointed at one aspect of the prior scholarly sightings of Clarissa‘s lesbian subtext, which was that the earlier scholars brought forward no specific passages from Richardson’s gargantuan tome in which either Clarissa or Anna had indulged in the same sort of sexual innuendo as Anna had indulged in in Volume 1, Letter 12, about Lovelace’s sexualized penmanship and letter writing. And I felt strongly that it had to be there somewhere, so I went looking for it.

Using word searches for the same sorts of sexually suggestive words and imagery, it took me a very short time to find a couple more, as follows:

First, this short excerpt in Letter 11 of Volume 1, from Clarissa to Anna (being the letter immediately preceding the one I quoted initially):    “I do so; and cannot own any of the glow, any of the THROBS you mention. — Upon my word I will repeat, I cannot. And yet the passages in my letter, upon which you are so humourously severe, LAY ME FAIRLY OPEN TO YOUR AGREEABLE raillery. I own they do. And I cannot tell what turn my mind had taken to dictate SO ODDLY TO MY PEN…

And then, this passage, actually earlier in that same Letter 12 containing that sexualized passage I originally found: “But were he DEEP, and ever so DEEP, you would soon PENETRATE him, if they would leave you to yourself..”

And then I found this cluster of phallic puns about Lovelace in Volume 1, Letter 2, from Clarissa to Anna (i.e., the second letter in the entire novel!):    “…But my sister it seems had not considered the matter well. This was not the way, as it proved, to be taken for matters of mere OMISSION, with a man of Mr. Lovelace’s PENETRATION. Nor with any man; since if love has not taken root DEEP ENOUGH to cause it to SHOOT OUT into declaration, if an opportunity be fairly given for it, there is LITTLE ROOM to expect, that the blighting winds of anger or resentment will bring it forward.”

So Volume 1 seemed to be teeming with all sorts of male-female sexual innuendoes between Clarissa and Anna—but nothing quite prepared me for the passage I then found in Letter 25 in Volume 2, by Clarissa to Anna, when Clarissa veers into the charged subject of Clarissa’s own feelings for Anna. It begins with Clarissa responding to Anna’s breaking her epistolary silence which had worried Clarissa, with the excuse of Anna’s angst about being pressured by her mother to marry Mr. Hickman:

[Clarissa] “You have very kindly accounted for your silence. People in misfortune are always in doubt. They are too apt to turn even unavoidable accidents into slights and neglects; especially in those whose favourable opinion they wish to preserve. I am sure I ought evermore to exempt my Anna Howe from the supposed possibility of her becoming one of those who bask only in the sun-shine of a friend: but nevertheless her friendship is too precious to me, not to doubt my own merits on the one hand, and not to be anxious for the preservation of it, on the other. You so generously gave me liberty to chide you, that I am afraid of taking it, because I could sooner mistrust my own judgment, than that of a beloved friend, whose ingenuousness in acknowledging an imputed error seems to set her above the commission of a wilful one. This makes me half-afraid to ask you, if you think you are not too cruel, too ungenerous shall I say? in your behaviour to a man who loves you so dearly, and is so worthy and so sincere a man?”

So far, nothing but very straightforward G-rated expression of loving sentiments of one dear female friend for another. But now observe the dramatic escalation---from 0 to 60 in two seconds, as it were---of subliminal female-centric erotic imagery in the continuation of that passage:

“Only it is by YOU, or I should be ashamed to be outdone in that true magnanimity, which makes one thankful for THE WOUNDS GIVEN by a true friend. I believe I was guilty of a petulance, which nothing but my uneasy situation can excuse; if that can. I am but almost afraid to beg of you, and yet I repeatedly do, to give way to that CHARMING SPIRIT, whenever IT RISES TO YOUR PEN, which smiles, yet goes TO THE QUICK OF MY FAULT. What patient shall be AFRAID OF A PROBE IN SO DELICATE A HAND? — I say, I am almost afraid to pray you to give way to it, for fear you should, for that very reason, restrain it. For the edge may be taken off, if it does not make the subject of its raillery WINCE A LITTLE. Permitted or desired satire may be apt, in a generous satirist, MENDING as it rallies, to turn too soon into panegyric. Yours is intended to instruct; and though IT BITES, it pleases at the same time: NO FEAR OF A WOUND’S RANKLING or festering by SO DELICATE A POINT as you carry; not envenomed by personality, not intending to expose, or ridicule, or exasperate. The most admired of our moderns know nothing of this art: Why? Because it must be founded in good nature, and directed by a right heart. The man, NOT THE FAULT, is generally THE SUBJECT OF THEIR SATIRE: and were it to be just, how should it be useful; how should it answer any good purpose; when EVERY GASH (for their WEAPON is a BROAD SWORD, not a LANCET) LETS IN THE AIR OF PUBLIC ridicule, and exasperates where it should HEAL? SPARE me not therefore because I am your friend. For that very reason spare me not. I may FEEL THE EDGE, FINE AS IT IS. I MAY BE PAINED: you would LOSE YOUR END if I were not: but after THE FIRST SENSIBILITY (as I have said more than once before) I will LOVE YOU THE BETTER, and MY AMENDED HEART shall be all yours; and it will then be more worthy to be yours.”

I leave it to you to count up the numerous lesbian innuendoes in that passage, and leave it at that.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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