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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 25, 2015

Nick Hornby’s outdated view of "absurd" Jane Austen

I just read the following mention of Jane Austen in an article that ran yesterday in the online Telegraph:

…Nick Hornby, the screenwriter and author of High Fidelity, Fever Pitch and About A Boy, said readers embrace the outdated world of Pride & Prejudice because they can clearly understand the dilemmas facing Elizabeth Bennett and her family. Modern day writers, on the other hand, have no such luxury, with no set rules left to govern how the well-heeled behave. As such, Hornby suggested, modern literature is becoming harder to write than the classics of centuries past, with the simple tensions set up by firm social conventions falling by the wayside. "People love Jane Austen even though those books are absurd to us because we like the clarity of it: we can see very clearly what Elizabeth Bennett has to overcome, what she has to deal with," he said. "In this century, where actually well-heeled people can do whatever the hell they want whenever they want, it's more chaotic to extract a narrative.”

Aside from the article misspelling Eliza’s surname twice, I find Hornby’s comments unintentionally ironic, because he seems to confuse the often self-deluding, and at times absurd perceptions of Austen’s young heroines (besides Anne Elliot, none is over 21—and young adults universally think they know it all, but actually don’t know much) with the complex, morally ambiguous, and very realistic “rules” which actually govern the most significant action in JA’s novels.

I.e., in all six novels, I’ve uncovered action occurring “offstage”, just beyond the naïve heroine’s grasp, which is every bit as chaotic, disturbing, and morally complex as the action in any 21st century novel. Those shadowy goings-on drive the narrative in complex ways that the heroine (and therefore the passive reader) never “gets”.  So, to use the words “outdated” and “absurd” to describe Austen’s novels is to adopt the heroine’s cluelessness, and to be blind to Austen’s own ironic subversive subtext.

The shadows of JA’s fictional worlds concealed a great deal of exploitation of, and violence toward, women and the poor. JA did not, as is so commonly (and mistakenly) believed, avert her eyes from all that evil and suffering, and focus on a fairy tale world of everlasting love with lots of money to pay the bills. That’s Emma’s worldview, not Austen’s.

Instead, and further ironically re Hornby’s comments, the shadow stories I’ve excavated in her novels are actually all about “well-heeled people doing whatever the hell they want whenever they want”—meaning, people, mostly men of mature age, acting selfishly in ways that are harmful to other, less powerful people, mostly women. And five of those well-heeled men just happen to be named Colonel Brandon, Mr. Darcy, Sir Thomas Bertram, George Knightley, and Henry Woodhouse!

Talk about fractured fairy tales for adults!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jane Austen’s Wizardry at Fictional Theme & Variation: Brandon becomes…..Benwick?

This latest post is a further elaboration on the train of inquiry I began while exploring the parallels in 3 of JA’s novels (S&S, P&P, and Persuasion) having to do with the breaking of bad news.

Okay, now so which Austen novels am I thinking of now?:

There is a military man with a melancholy disposition in part caused by his persistent mourning of the tragic death of his beloved.

The military man strongly connects—and we aren’t sure for a while if it this connection will remain  merely Platonic---with the heroine of the novel, who winds up marrying her first choice instead.  

There is also a young woman full of Romantic passion and energy, who sustains an injury during a fall.

When the young woman’s life appears to be in danger, the news is carefully relayed to her parents.

The melancholy military men spends a great deal of time with the young woman while she recuperates.

The young woman’s exuberance is tempered by her life-threatening experience, and by her time with the military man, and they get married.

Of course, I am thinking of two Austen novels: S&S (Brandon and Marianne) and Persuasion (Benwick and Louisa). Have you ever noticed all these strong parallels between these two secondary love stories? I can’t recall that I ever did, nor can I find any indication in the group archives or elsewhere online that any other Janeite has done so either. And yet, a contemporary reader in 1818 (who had already read S&S, and therefore knew that Marianne and Brandon wind up together) who then read Persuasion, might have guessed, from these parallels alone, that Louisa would end up with Benwick.

Of course there are certain key differences---Marianne seems to be superior in intellectual and artistic accomplishment to Louisa, while Louisa brings a substantial dowry to her husband which Marianne does not. Conversely, Brandon is a rich man, while Benwick is not.  But the outcome is strikingly similar.

And let’s look more closely at one of those apparent differences. We see and hear much more of Marianne in S&S than we do of Louisa in Persuasion. That is how we know that Marianne is gifted, brilliant, and cultured—it is shown to us, not merely told to us.

But what about Louisa? I suggest that JA has given us a key clue, at the moment we first hear about Louisa, that Louisa may have much more on the ball than Anne gives her credit for:

“…Henrietta and Louisa, young ladies of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry. Their dress had every advantage, their faces were rather pretty, their spirits extremely good, their manner unembarrassed and pleasant; they were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad. Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.”

In this narration, we don’t have to be too suspicious, in order to realize that it reflects Anne’s subjective unconscious judgments on the Musgrove girls---and these judgments do not reflect well on Anne. We read not only a casual, catty dismissal  of “the usual stock of accomplishments” and “like thousands of other young ladies”, but even more so Anne’s self-deluding fantasy of her own objectivity and immunity from snobbery (“Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but…”). Anne, in her internal self-talk, is protesting way too much, it seems clear to me that she feels very threatened by, and envious of the Musgrove girls, particularly Louisa. And so we must be extremely careful in looking for extrinsic evidence to free us from the prison of Anne’s jealous thoughts, and to see Louisa more as she actually is.

For all we know, Louisa may well be much more like Marianne, in terms of intellect and culture, than we ever get to see. And here’s some key additional evidence in that very regard. I have noted previously my own shadow story interpretations…
…that (1) Louisa and Wentworth carry on a coded conversation, ostensibly about Wentworth’s naval exploits but covertly about Anne’s attractiveness, that passes right over Anne’s head, exactly as (2) Marianne and Edward carry on a coded conversation, ostensibly about the beauty of wild landscapes but covertly about Edward’s leading Elinor on, that passes right over Elinor’s head. So, while Louisa gulls Anne into seeing Louisa as a mindless coquette flattering Wentworth’s ego, Louisa is actually using her wits and savvy to talk past Anne to Wentworth about their own romantic potential. And similarly, Marianne allows herself to be seen by Elinor as going off on another of her Romantic rants, so as to be able to safely communicate with Edward about Elinor.

So, back to my main point--- now I see that Jane Austen successfully hid in plain sight these numerous significant echoes of Brandon-Marianne in Benwick-Louisa, and in part, I believe this was an exercise for her own benefit---she tested her own ability to misdirect readers’ attention from a great deal of similarity between characters and relationships in two of her novels, just by varying one or two key elements. And in this, Jane Austen (who was an accomplished musician) was like a great classical music composer, writing a theme and variations thereon, which amazes the sophisticated listener with the ease with which  enormous variation can be developed without every straying from the same theme.  

Because, when you think about it, life itself is nothing but theme and variation.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The phenomenal surprising Austenian kiss in Season 9 Episode 1 of Dr. Who

The other day, there was another rare intersection of the worlds of Dr. Who and Jane Austen, in brand new Season 9, Episode 1 of Dr. Who on BBC One. I say “another”,  because there was an episode a long time ago, in an early incarnation of the Dr. Who show, when the good doctor traveled back to 1814 and somehow Jane Austen got involved in the action. I haven’t seen that episode, because I’ve never watched Dr. Who.

But Twitter chatter the past few days nonetheless piqued my curiosity, and alerted me to the curious fact that in that brand new Season 9, Episode 1, Clara Oswin Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman for the past few seasons) who is apparently Dr. Who’s twentysomething colleague in his wild adventures, drops a risqué bon mot on her uncomprehending class of 10 year olds, at 11:13, as you can see here at

“Now, where was I? Jane Austen—amazing writer---brilliant comic observer—and strictly amongst ourselves, a phenomenal kisser….”

That 12-second interlude has triggered a number of Tweets since Episode 1 aired on BBC One, and the reaction is pretty much all positive, as the (mostly female) Tweeters find the notion of a bisexual Clara, and also of a bisexual Jane Austen, intriguing.

For those who follow my blog, you know that this fits right in with my notion that Jane Austen was herself probably lesbian or bisexual:  

So I would be curious to know if this bit found its way into the script via the series head honcho, Steven Moffat, who apparently produces, writes, and runs the show as a whole, or was written by the co-writer listed for Episode 1, Terry Nation.

My wild guess would be Moffat, because I found an online article from 2012, when he apparently took over the reins of the show, here…
…with the headline “Forget Jane Austen, says Dr. Who writer Steven Moffat, the classics ‘aren’t cool’ ”,
That headline is a little misleading, as Moffat’s point is that classics aren’t cool to preteen children, and that the key to getting them to the point of being good enough readers to be able to understand and appreciate Jane Austen when they’re older and more mature, is for them to read anything that they like enough to want to read often. So he himself thought Jane Austen’s writing WAS cool!

And…relating that provocatively worded advice back to Clara’s provocative teasing comment about Jane Austen’s osculatory prowess, I suspect that Moffat gave Clara that line so that her 10 year old students would look suitably bewildered, given that they would have no idea that her implication was that she had encountered Jane Austen during her time traveling with Dr. Who, and that female-female sparks had flown between them. In a way, he was having a private joke with a sexual twist. And I have been saying, in dozens of different ways, that there is a great deal of sex hidden in plain sight just beneath the surface of Jane Austen’s novels, which has not only been invisible to any children reading them, but also (because of the Myth of Jane Austen that says that Jane Austen did not put sex in her novels) invisible (or rather, unimaginable) to most adult Janeites as well.

So, kudos to whoever at Dr. Who HQ was responsible for that welcome bit of cross-fertilization between two of the most popular fictional worlds created by English writers, which are both still entertaining viewers throughout the world.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Jane Austen’s WESTminster Abbey secret hidden in NORTHanger Abbey

[this is a repeat of the latter part of my January 5, 2012 post about the controversy then swirling around the discovery of what might be a heretofore unidentified contemporary portrait of Jane Austen at the peak of her career]


In my talk at the JASNA AGM held in Portland, Oregon (now my home!) in October, 2009 about the late Mrs. Tilney, mother of Henry & Eleanor in Austen's Northanger Abbey, as the symbol of all the English wives who died in the childbirth "epidemic" that lasted centuries, I gave not one but three compelling reasons why Westminster Abbey would have been a perfect symbol for a portraitist of Jane Austen to include in a portrait celebrating JA's success as an author:

First, I realized early in 2009 that the name NORTHanger Abbey was a clever play on the name WESTminster Abbey, especially as I also claimed that Shakespeare's Hamlet was a very significant but totally veiled allusive source for Northanger Abbey. And as anyone familiar with Hamlet would know, JA's little word game with geographical directions ("north" and "west") in names of an Abbey (and don't forget SOTHerton in Mansfield Park in that regard as well!) is an unmistakable echo of the following rather famous speech by Hamlet, which has also served as the basis of the title of a rather famous movie by Alfred Hitchcock:

"I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

So we have north (twice) and west together in that one marvelous compound word. PLUS.....two other wonderful parts of JA's elaborate little word game:

(a) a synonym for "mad" is "angry", as in North _anger_ Abbey; and
(b) JA's famous April Fool's Day, 1809 letter to Crosby demanding the return of the manuscript of _Susan_ (later, of course, retitled Northanger Abbey!) was signed by JA under the pseudonym "Mrs. Ashton Dennis" which is abbreviated as M.A.D.----as in JA being, like a forerunner of Howard Beale, "mad as hell and not going to take it any more (!)" in terms of a publisher sitting on that manuscript for nearly a decade without publishing it!

If you think I'm being too clever by half, and projecting my own overactive paranomosiac imagination in a "direction" JA herself never intended or imagined, in claiming that Northanger Abbey stands for Westminster Abbey,. well...

...then consider next my second reason, which is that, as Terry Robinson pointed out in a 2009 article, Henry VIII and three of his six queens who had Christian names which were variants on Catherine, were very likely sources for the names of HENRY Tilney and CATHERINE Morland, and these real life regal personages were, as we all know, all rather closely associated with Westminster Abbey!

But my third reason which I disclosed in Portland is my personal favorite---I came across a remarkable factoid in 2009, which is that in Westminster Abbey there are two memorials hanging side by side on the wall in a rarely viewed nave in the Abbey, which were erected there by a grieving middle aged husband who had "murdered" not one but "two" much younger wives, via death in childbirth. And these "awful memorials".....
["...With all the chances against her of house, hall, place, park, court, and cottage, Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun...."]
.....were, I claim viewed by Jane Austen herself during a visit to Westminster Abbey. And the reason I am so certain of this is that the gentleman involved was a very famous fellow in his day (the latter part of the 17th century), and his name just happened to be Samuel MORLAND! And these memorials were intentionally echoed by JA when she described General Tilney's great grief over the death of Mrs. Tilney, whom I have argued is the symbol of all the English wives who died in childbirth. And by now you've probably figured out that the images of those memorials are what you see at the top of this post! They are in fact hanging on the wall in an apse in Westminster Abbey, towering over the modest brass plaque embedded in the floor below, dedicated to Aphra Behn, who had a complex relationship with Samuel Morland, and also was, I have long believed, a feminist icon and inspiration for Jane Austen!

And so I believe I've made a pretty good case that I am not "mad"--north by northwest, or in any other direction--but have demonstrated that a portraitist celebrating JA's career as an author would have had these three very good reasons, at the very least, to include a view of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter