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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lot and his NINE literary “daughters” in the subtext of Jane Austen’s Emma

Two weeks ago, I posted two consecutive essays setting forth what I see as several strands of Biblical subtext which I believe Jane Austen wove into the seemingly simple-minded scriptural misquotation by Miss Bates: “Our lot is cast in a goodly heritage”:


Today, I return to provide full context to those two earlier posts.

First, I will add what is the deepest, most significant, and most disturbing source for Miss Bates’s folksy aphorism of apparent gratitude:

The various Genesis stories about Abraham’s nephew, Lot—when he and Abraham first part ways; when Lot is visited by the angels in Sodom; when God destroys Sodom & Gomorrah , and Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt because she looked back; and finally, the incestuous sex between Lot and his two daughters in the cave outside Zoar.

I am saying that if you read Emma as if Mr. Woodhouse is Lot, and Emma and Isabella (and maybe also Jane and Harriet) are his daughters, and you put on your imaginist’s cap just a bit, you will be shocked at what will leap out at you at various points in the novel, but most of all in that particular the scene when Miss Bates gets Biblical over the gift of the porker.

Beyond the above, I will be doing one other thing in this post, which is to further point out that the allusion to the Biblical Lot in Emma does not stand in isolation. Rather, it is the base of a dizzyingly high layer cake of literary allusion that Jane Austen cooked up---and for me, recognizing it is the culmination of a half dozen strands of prior discoveries I have made over the past decade. I see that the Biblical Lot is the ultimate source that informs every single one of the following later allusive subtexts of Emma.

They each involve a patriarchal figure having some form of abusive sex (whether incestuous with unmarried daughters,  or with another unrelated virgin), sometimes in a twisted attempt to cure syphilis--and in the oldest of these allusions after Lot, as well as Emma, there is a thematically central riddle pointing to father-daughter incest.

I’ve previously blogged about most of them separately, but the resonance among all of them is what I hope to make you see. And so, without further ado, here they are, in order from oldest to most recent in literary history:

Lot & his daughters in the Book of Genesis (800 BCE);

The anonymous Exeter Book, Riddle 46 (approx. 1000 CE);

John Gower’s Confessio Amantis  (1390 CE);

Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606);

Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1609);

Shakespeare’s final two Sonnets, #’s 153 & 154 (1609);

Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through Great Britain, (1724-7), with its account of the destruction of the notorious pleasure cave at Box Hill;

David Garrick’s Riddle (partially recalled by Mr. Woodhouse) (1760);

John Thelwall’s Daughter of Adoption (1801), with a character named Mr. Woodhouse who torments the West Indies-plantation-owning patriarch with an ultimate incestuous nightmare;

Jane Austen’s miniplaylet The Mystery (1788); and finally

Jane Austen’s Emma (1816)!

I estimate it will ultimately take me over 50 pages to present all the textual evidence I have gathered for all of these 10 “layers”, while properly explaining the dense allusive connectivity between the 10 layers. And then, I will show how the icing on top of this incestuous, riddling, mysterious, literary cake (or, as Emma puts it vis a vis the “courtship” charade, “the cream”), is Emma. And that’s obviously 48 pages beyond the scope of this post!

My goal today was to finally get them all out in public, showing the allusive structure in stark simplicity, and to show that my claims as to each of the ten sources being so alluded to in Emma do not stand alone. The skeptic who would wish to rebut my claims by asserting that Jane Austen could not have possibly intended to allude to incestuous diseased abusive sex in Emma, must now jump through 10 hoops to do so effectively! I.e., that skeptic must explain why it is that all of these 10 sources (which are themselves mostly allusive to those among the nine which precede them) all point like arrows right at the heart of Emma, which is the complex, disturbing relationship between Emma and her father, Mr. Woodhouse.

So, when Miss Bates (aka Jane Austen) refers to her “lot” being “cast in a goodly heritage”, she knows whereof she speaks! But I wish to conclude with a shout-out of applause to Prof. Robert Polhemus, whose pioneering 2005 book Lot’s Daughters was a worthy bolt from the litcrit blue, in terms of (unprecedentedly) identifying the giant shadow cast by the Biblical Lot over Western literature. However, because Polhemus was unaware of the Austenian shadow stories I’ve spent the last decade excavating, especially in Emma, he could not have imagined how much huger and wider that shadow actually is---or that Jane Austen was already “there”, two centuries ago, seeing the entirety of that shadow, and, like a literary alchemist, somehow weaving those cloud droplets deep into the fabric of Emma, and designating Miss Bates as the Cassandra of the piece, doomed to be ignored and misunderstood by those who hear her pregnant speeches.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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