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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The astonishing Gothic/Shakespearean/politically satirical answers to my latest literary quiz

The other day, I presented another literary quiz… follows:

“The passage which I have quoted is from the short Jane Austen epistolary story, “Love and Freindship” (her misspelling!), which Jane wrote before she was 15 years old, in 1790. It is taken from a letter written by Laura, one of the young heroines of the story, who has a rather pronounced tendency toward hyperbole and “sensibility”—i.e., she is a drama queen in the extreme!
As to the quoted passage from Love and Freindship (sometimes referred to by me below as L&F):
What very famous work of literature did Jane Austen covertly allude to?  &
What very famous real life historical figure did Jane Austen covertly allude to?

At the end of this post, I’ve requoted that full passage from Laura’s letter in L&F for ready reference. And now, here are MY ANSWERS: 
The famous work of literature is Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare, and the famous real life historical figure is The Prince of W(h)ales, the future King George IV!  Below, I will give you the highlights from the evidence I’ve gathered in support of my claims as to these two covert allusions:

It was the following excerpts within that passage in L&F, and especially the verbiage in ALL CAPS , which first tipped me off that Jane Austen, at the tender age of 14, was already zeroed in on serious literature and contemporary events to an astonishing degree, as I will explain below:

[Laura in L&F] “…’What a beautifull sky! (said I) How charmingly is the azure varied by those DELICATE STREAKS OF WHITE!’…an accident truly apropos; it was the LUCKY OVERTURNING OF A GENTLEMAN’S PHAETON, on the road which ran murmuring behind us.  It was a most fortunate accident as it diverted the attention of Sophia from the melancholy reflections which she had been before indulging.  We instantly quitted our seats and ran to the rescue of those who but a few moments before had been in so elevated a situation as a fashionably high PHAETON, but who were now laid low and sprawling in the Dust.  "What an ample subject for reflection on the uncertain Enjoyments of this World, would not that PHAETON and the LIFE OF CARDINAL WOLSEY afford a thinking Mind!" said I to Sophia as we were hastening to the field of Action…."Oh!  tell me Edward (said I) tell me I beseech you before you die, what has befallen you since that unhappy Day in which Augustus was arrested and we were separated--" "I will" (said he) and instantly fetching a deep sigh, expired. Sophia immediately sank again into a swoon.  My greif was more audible.  My Voice faltered, My Eyes assumed a vacant stare, my face became as pale as Death, and my senses were considerably impaired. "Talk not to me of PHAETONS (said I, raving in a frantic, incoherent manner) --Give me a violin.  I'll play to him and sooth him in his melancholy Hours--Beware ye gentle Nymphs of CUPID'S THUNDERBOLTS, avoid the PIERCING SHAFTS OF JUPITER—Look at that grove of Firs--I see A LEG OF MUTTON--They told me Edward was not Dead; but they deceived me--they took him for a cucumber--" Thus I continued wildly exclaiming on my Edward's Death--. For two Hours did I rave thus MADLY…”

I suggest to you that the precocious genius Jane Austen is playing some very sophisticated literary games with her readers, when she has Laura refer to herself as “raving in a frantic, incoherent manner” . As is the case with all her numerous put-ons large and small (e.g., in her 1809 April Fool’s  M.A.D. “Ashton Dennis” letter to the publisher Crosby; even more so in her 1816 April Fool’s letters to James Stanier Clarke; and most of all in the “nonsensical” long speeches of Miss Bates in Emma), Laura’s seeming schizoid word salad of bizarre, clanging mythological imagery, when properly decoded, is actually seen to be a clever mélange of literary and satirical political allusions with very coherent and significant meaning, ultimately directed at the Prince of W(h)ales the future George IV of England!

JANE AUSTEN’s 2 GOTHIC ALLUSIONS TO ROMEO & JULIET:  12 days ago, I made the case…   ……for JA having covertly alluded to Romeo & Juliet in various ways in her sophisticated, mature Gothic parody Northanger Abbey, which includes revisions she made as late as 1816 shortly before her death. Today, I extend that discovery backwards in time, and show that Jane Austen already had Romeo & Juliet on her Gothic parodic radar screen at age 14, when she wrote Love and Freindship, more than a quarter century earlier!

It is still surprising to me that most literary scholars fail to recognize that Shakespeare’s early tragedy Romeo & Juliet was a major source of inspiration for Gothic novelists (and also for the greatest Gothic parodist Jane Austen).  I went searching and so far found only one scholar who recognized Shakespeare’s Gothicality -- Natalie A. Hewitt, whose 2013 dissertation entitled “ ‘Something old and dark has got its way’: Shakespeare's Influence in the Gothic Literary Tradition”, began with this excellent summary:

“This dissertation examines Shakespeare’s role as the most significant precursor to the Gothic author in Britain, suggesting that Shakespeare used the same literary conventions that Gothic writers embraced as they struggled to create a new subgenre of the novel. By borrowing from Shakespeare’s canon, these novelists aimed to persuade readers and critics that rather than undermining the novel’s emergent, still unassured status as an acceptable literary genre, the nontraditional aspects of their works paid homage to Shakespeare’s imaginative vision. Gothic novelists thereby legitimized their attempts at literary expression. Despite these efforts, Gothic writers did not instantly achieve the type of acceptance or admiration that they sought. The Gothic novel has consistently been viewed as a monstrous, immature literary form—either a poor experiment in the history of the novel or a guilty pleasure for those who might choose to read or to write works that fit within this mode. Writers of Gothic fictions often claim that their works emulate Shakespeare’s dramatic pathos, but they do not acknowledge that the playwright also had to navigate similar opposition to his own creative expression.
While early Gothic novelists had to contend with skeptical readers and reviewers, Shakespeare had to negotiate the religious, political, and ideological limitations that members of the court, the church, and the patronage system imposed upon his craft. Interestingly, Shakespeare often succeeded in circumventing these limitations by employing the literary techniques and topoi that we recognize today as trademarks of Gothic fiction—spectacle, sublime, sepulcher, and the supernatural. Each of these concepts expresses subversive intentions toward authoritative power. For Shakespeare and the Gothic novelists, the dramatic potential of these elements corresponds directly to their ability to target the sociocultural fears and anxieties of their audience; the results are works that frighten as well as amuse. As my dissertation will show, these authors use similar imagery to surreptitiously challenge the authority figures and institutions that sought to prescribe what makes a work of fiction socially acceptable or worthy of critical acclaim.”

While Hewitt gave an excellent unpacking of the veiled allusion to Romeo & Juliet she sees in Horace Walpole’s 1762 Castle of Otranto (widely considered the first Gothic novel), Hewitt apparently had no idea about Jane Austen’s engagement (at both the beginning and the end of her writing career) with the Gothicality of Romeo & Juliet. My twin discoveries fit perfectly with Hewitt’s analysis, and also make me wonder whether the youthful JA found inspiration in Walpole’s famous Otranto’s thinly veiled Shakespearean subtext.

As for JA’s allusion to Romeo & Juliet in L&F, the following are the speeches in R&J which Jane Austen specifically tagged in her characteristic way (just note the striking parallels between the ALL CAPS verbiage in the above excerpt from L&F, and the ALL CAPS language in the following speeches in R&J):

Romeo in Act 2 Scene 2 [but only in the First Quarto, not the First Folio, version of R&J]:
Would I were sleep and peace so sweet to rest.
The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,     
Check’ring the eastern clouds with STREAKS OF LIGHT,   [“delicate streaks of white” in L&F]
and darkness fleckled like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s pathway, made by TITAN’S WHEELS   [Phaet(h)on, who “crashed” his “carriage”!].  
Hence will I to my ghostly Friar’s close cell,
His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.

Friar Laurence in Act 2 Scene 3:
The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with STREAKS OF LIGHT,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path and TITAN’S FIERY WHEELS:
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye,

The day to cheer and night's dank dew to dry,

Juliet in Act 3 Scene 2:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging: such a wagoner
As PHAETHON would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway's eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen.

If you missed it, in the myth of Phaeton' wild ride, it is Jupiters thunderbolt that destroys Phaeton and his carriage . So, again, Laura's ravings (“Beware ye gentle Nymphs of Cupid's Thunderbolts, avoid the piercing shafts of Jupiter”) mean much more than they seem to. And, as an additional wrinkle, Laura’s off the wall reference to  “a leg of mutton” fits with yet another strand of Austenian sensitivity to current caricature raised at the latest AGM which I blogged about here:

And, what’s more, the same covert allusions to Romeo & Juliet and the fall of the mythological Phaeton appear in two novels which Austen scholar emeritus (and my friend) Juliet McMaster, two decades ago, identified as sources for Love and Freindship:  Laura and Augustus by Eliza Nugent Bromley (1784) and  The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke (1769). This only adds to the complexity of JA’s allusion, because the young JA demonstrated in this way her own realization of the Romeo & Juliet and Phaeton subtext in those two novels, and layered these allusions one on top of the other!

[And by the way, let me now add one more item to my list of allusions to Romeo & Juliet in Northanger Abbey in my earlier post: when Catherine Morland impatiently watches the clock and the weather waiting for the Tilneys to call and take her out on a stroll in Bath, she is unwittingly echoing the impatient Juliet watching the progress of the sun the sky while waiting for night to fall, when Romeo will visit her.]

And now, briefly, on to the Prince of W(h)ales, the real life personage covertly satirized in Love & Friendship:

THE PRINCE OF W(H)ALES & HIS PHAETON FALL: 2 1/2 weeks ago, I wrote…..   ….about the complex allusion Jane Austen hid in Northanger Abbey to Gillray’s widely circulated satirical caricature of the Prince of W(h)ales’s embarrassing fall in early July 1788 from his fancy phaeton (carriage) with his “wife” Mrs. Fitzherbert.  Now, exactly as with Romeo & Juliet, we see from the incident of the phaeton accident in Love & Friendship, that Jane Austen was satirizing the Prince in her early work (written by her less than 2 years after the Prince’s actual accident!) just as much as she did so in NA much later in her career!

In fact, I take this one step further—I think that Jane Austen was equating the Prince to Romeo, the quintessential tragic, passionate suitor.  There was, after all, famous precedent for this Shakespearean take on the Prince. When only 17 years old, in 1779, he very publically courted the Drury Lane leading lady Mary Robinson, while she was playing the female lead in Perdita and Florizel, David Garrick’s adaptation of the last two acts of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. King George III commanded a royal performance, and George made audible flattering comments to her while she was performing, and then followed up with passionate Romeo-esque letters, using the pseudonym Florizel, while the older and wiser Mary Robinson tactfully deflected his amorous suit, which shortly burned out.

WOLSEY’S “FALL”:  And finally, did you notice how JA slipped yet another subtle Shakespearean allusion into L&F for good measure, when Laura abruptly turns philosophical after witnessing the phaeton accident which carries off her lover?:    "What an ample subject for reflection on the uncertain Enjoyments of this World, would not THAT PHAETON and THE LIFE OF CARDINAL WOLSEY afford a thinking Mind!" said I to Sophia”

I suggest that Jane Austen wrote those words for Laura for the benefit of the “thinking mind” of her erudite readers, who might recognize that her burlesque of a hero’s fatal phaeton fall was a witty reference not only to the real life Prince of W(h)ales, as I discussed in the preceding section, but also to Cardinal Wolsey who gives the following famous tragic speech in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII about his own “fall” from political grace….

…which I and some other Austen scholars believe was one of the speeches with which Henry mesmerized Fanny in the following scene from Mansfield Park:

“Crawford took the volume. "Let me have the pleasure of finishing that speech to your ladyship," said he. "I shall find it immediately." And by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves, he did find it, or within a page or two, quite near enough to satisfy Lady Bertram, who assured him, as soon as he mentioned the name of CARDINAL WOLSEY, that he had got the very speech. Not a look or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against. All her attention was for her work. She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes: she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford's reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, WOLSEY, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on the best scene, or the best speeches of each…”

So, I leave you to contemplate the staggering level of accomplishment and erudition evidenced by the 14 year old Jane Austen, as she economically and subtly wove together allusions to Shakespeare’s Romeo, to Shakespeare’s Wolsey, and to Gillray’s sharp satire of the not-so-tragic fall of the Phaeton-like Prince George. After all, the Prince was doomed by fate to wait more than two decades to assume power from his father the seriously disabled King George III---and in the interim the Prince repeatedly seemed to be headed for a politically fatal fall resulting from his own hubris, irresponsibility, womanizing, and general narcissism.

Things didn’t end well for the mythological Phaeton, or for Shakespeare’s Romeo --- but the real life George aka Romeo aka Florizel eventually became King George IV—an illustration, as Jane Austen might have put it, of how poetic justice is not always meted out to the “whales” who are the “monarchs of the sea”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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