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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Jane Austen & Restoration Comedy

Looking back at my posts of the past two months, I want to pause and take stock, and summarize what leaps out at me most strongly--- Jane Austen’s laser focus, particularly in Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice, on Restoration Comedy—a term which, for those unfamiliar with it, is summarized nicely here:

Had you asked me as recently as two months ago, I’d have told you that while the depth of Jane Austen’s engagement with the entire range of two millennia of Western literature was extraordinary, reflecting her general encyclopedic literary knowledge and insight, her special focus was on three paramount literary domains: 

ONE: Shakespeare, of course a universe unto himself;

TWO: 18th century English literature, primarily novels (in particular Richardson, Fielding, Cleland, Smollett, Sheridan, Burney, Radcliffe, Sophia Lee, de Genlis, and Charlotte Smith), and

THREE: The Bible, also a universe unto itself.

However, what I’ve found during the past two months now prompts me to add a fourth area of special focus to that short list:

FOUR: Restoration-Era plays, particularly Restoration Comedy—including the following great names of that era---Wycherley, Etherege, Aphra Behn, Congreve, Centlivre, and most shockingly of all, the single personage who was the “Beatles” (i.e., the face) of the Restoration era---John Wilmot, the notorious 2nd Earl of Rochester.

Here are links to the posts I’ve written so far on various aspects of Jane Austen’s engagement with domain FOUR, and I still have several more to add to this list during the coming month:

Sacred cows & secret poets ramble in Netherfield & St James Parks

Jane Austen’s dark humor about “the way of the world”… marriagewise for women

Jane Austen the cunning connoisseur of “so much beauty” in Rochesterian Restoration sex farces

A Ramble in St. James’s Park, Bronte’s Rochester, & Austen’s Darcy, the Man of Mode (and Rover)

Lizzy’s next ball & Darcy’s savage dancing: Austen’s dazzling dialog in Pride&Prejudice

Jane’s ramble in St. James’s Park: X-rated allusion dancing in plain sight in Pride&Prejudice!

Wycherleyan sexual innuendo in Jane Austen’s letters

Fanny Price's autoerotic Wycherleyan "Trip into China"

For those with the time and curiosity to read all or most of the above links, you will by the end of that process understand why I am so certain that Jane Austen was deeply engaged with Restoration comedy, including in particular its sexual innuendoes—and that’s based on my recent findings about the shadowy presence of the 2nd Earl of Rochester and his band of sexual adventurers in S&S and P&P.

And that last point about Jane Austen’s engagement with the sexual side of Restoration Comedy is not as big a leap as it might seem, given that it is already a casually accepted conventional wisdom among Austen scholars that Jane Austen drew inspiration for her universally loved merry war of words between Darcy and Elizabeth, not only from Shakespeare’s most famous dueling lovers (most notably, Kate & Petruchio and Beatrice & Benedick) but also from Behn’s Hellena &Willmore, Congreve’s Mirabell & Millamant, and Etherege’s Dorimant & Harriet, among others.  What I am saying is that the brilliant, witty war of words was not all that Jane Austen drew upon in those Restoration comedies, but also the sexual content that undergirded the sparkling dialogue.

And I conclude with a quotation from a post that Ellen Moody wrote in Janeites way back in April 2000, which goes beyond that conventional wisdom and provides other data that provides a great deal of excellent historical background for my claims, which I make based on textual evidence in JA’s writings that Ellen did not detect, that Jane Austen loved Restoration comedy:

“Someone has asked if there is any evidence that Jane Austen read Restoration comedy. I don't remember any passages in her letters; however, we have always to remember the majority were destroyed and what we have left is bowdlerized. They are thus almost worthless as evidence for saying anything for certain about Austen. Nor can I at this moment think of any allusions or references to specific plays. Are any such listed by Chapman in the back of one of the volumes of his edition reprinted by Oxford? Nonetheless, it is even improbable that she didn't know many many Restoration comedies and tragedies and farces as well as 18th century ones, and know them rather well. This because they were very popular reading. What publishers did in the 18th century was bind up whole groups of these plays and sell them as sets. This was regularly done on the cheap and many of these books have survived in one or two copies -- they were literally read to pieces. I have read some mid-18th century plays in such books (in rare book rooms) because I couldn't find a copy any other way.
Also the plays were the standard repertoire of the theatre well into the 19th century. It is only in the early Victorian period that they are finally replaced by bourgeois sentimental comedy, domestic realism, translations of plays from the continent. The Victorian audience was out of sympathy with the harshness of the comedies, found the tragedies absurd (except of course when the type formed the basis of librettos for operas). Some mid-to later 18th century comedies survived into the 1890s when again there was a sea
change with people like Pinero, Shaw, and Wilde. Ibsen too began to enter the repertoire. I have been reading books on Bath and have come across lists of what was performed in Bath and Bristol during the time Austen was there: the standard repertoire of comedy and tragedy going way back to 1660. Dryden is a favorite, Etheredge, Otway, some more minor people of the 1690s (one of whom wrote a play based on Aphra Behn's Oroonoko; his name was Thomas Southerne); very popular were Steele (Conscious Lovers), Cibber (Love's Last Shift), Vanbrugh (The Provok'd Husband, The Provok'd Wife). These titles recur; also titles from the mid-and later 18th century -- like Lovers Vows and the whole set of plays the Bertrams and Crawfords have laying about the house to choose from. I have left out Shakespeare. His name is constant -- though his texts were rearranged and rewritten in parts.
The literature of the period also constantly shows us readers reading plays. The Rivals suggests they were seen as salacious and rebellious. Plays and novels were lumped together as the reading people did when no one was looking. The circulating libraries were making lots of money by the close of the century printing scads of such books. Other autobiographical documents and records of all sorts show that wealthier genteel families loved to put them on -- probably because they were risque and dealt daringly with issues of moment. …Austen uses the motif of reform in the plot of P&P: Darcy in effect reforms. What has changed in the drama is partly that it is influenced by the new kind of books called novels. There -- in Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa spectacularly is the grave serious melancholy (a new element by the mid-18th century) heroine refuses the rake at first or altogether or marries him and is made miserable. Or any other of a large number of variants. Until the later 18th century people liked to read plays aloud, then novels replaced them. …So yes Austen knew and probably relished Restoration and 18th century comedy….”

And I would rewrite that final sentence as:

“So yes Austen knew and definitely relished Restoration and 18th century comedy….”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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