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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"wheel within wheel.” Sanditon‘s “unaccountable” Diana Parker as the dying Jane Austen’s thinly veiled lesbian self portrait

Last summer, I wrote about the word “unaccountable” as JA’s code for “lesbian” in her novels, most saliently in Elizabeth Bennet’s deeply upset reaction to Charlotte Lucas’s marrying Mr. Collins:

“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.”   

What I didn’t mention in that post last summer was the specific, key literary source I believe lay behind  both JA and Richardson: “The Unaccountable Wife”, one of several inset tales in Jane Barker’s 1723 novel A Patch-work Screen for the Ladies. In it, Barker tells, in “screened” code, a brief but moving tale of unmentionable romantic love between a wife and her maidservant, a relationship which survives despite enormous obstacles thrown in their path. The wife’s husband and the rest of the straight world repeatedly try to separate them, but the “unaccountable” wife – unaccountably in the mind of the straight world --- shows constant love and devotion to her “only friend”---another woman, and a woman from a lower social class to boot!

Earlier today, when I reread my above 2015 post, I couldn’t recall whether I had searched for “unaccountable” in JA’s peripheral fiction, as well as in her published novels. It turned out that I hadn’t, and when I did that search this morning, what a treasure I found! As you’ll see below, I retrieved not one but two jewels from the Austenian deep; and, fittingly, one was from a very early stage in JA’s writing career, and one was from the very very end, as she (literally) lay dying, in almost the last words of fiction she composed.


In the madcap juvenilia Love & Freindship (written—and misspelled--by JA when not yet 15!), JA at one point creates a particular matrix of relationship, which she would revisit in a much more sophisticated and complex manner in Northanger Abbey.  In the passage I quote below, we find the 55-year old epistolary protagonist Laura, recalling and summarizing, for the purpose of educating her young female correspondent Marianne in the ways of the world, one episode from among Laura’s several wild and crazy youthful adventures. As you read it, just think of Laura and her close friend Sophia as a composite model for Catherine Morland; Janetta as a source for Eleanor Tilney, Mr. MacDonald as General Tilney, and MacDonald Hall as a proto-Northanger Abbey:

“I related…every other misfortune which had befallen me since we parted. …of our [meaning, Laura and Sophia] visit to Macdonald-Hall—of the singular service we there performed towards Janetta [Laura and Sophia, like Friar Laurence and the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, have just aided and abetted Janetta’s elopement with a suitor she loves, rather than marry her father’s choice] —of her Father’s ingratitude for it ... of his inhuman Behaviour, UNACCOUNTABLE SUSPICIONS, and barbarous treatment of us, in obliging us to leave the House ... of our lamentations on the loss of Edward and Augustus and finally of the melancholy Death of my beloved Companion.”

I believe that, even at 15 (and in this regard, please recall the 16-year old JA’s X-Rated Sharade on James I’s “pet” Robert Carr), JA meant to hint, in code, that Mr. MacDonald suspects Laura and Sophia not just of thwarting his matrimonial schemes for his daughter, or even of attempting to rob him (as Laura comically describes), but of something far more “unaccountable” to a homophobic man of that society than either elopement or theft—i.e., of Laura and Sophia being women in love with each other, instead of with men!

And, by the way, it’s that same “unaccountable suspicion” of lesbianism, that I believe Val McDermid was spot-on about, in her recent novel adaptation of Northanger Abbey, as I also wrote last year:  “McDermid suggested that General Tilney abruptly boots Catherine out of the Abbey because he wishes to put the kibosh on a budding lesbian romance between Eleanor and Catherine. While this plot twist has elicited snorts of scorn from many Janeites who’ve read McDermid’s retelling, I have long believed that Jane Austen very intentionally created a very strong erotic subtext in the relationship between Eleanor and Catherine. So I say that McDermid was spot-on in inferring the banishment of Catherine from the Abbey as a probable consequence of Colonel Tilney’s discovery of same.”

So, now that we’ve seen JA writing about “unaccountable” lesbian relationships at 15 in Love & Freindship and then again at age 37 in Pride & Prejudice, it should come as no surprise that this code also pops up one more time, at the end of JA’s life four years later, as she started writing the seventh novel that she did not live to complete.


The other passage I was led to by my word search this morning was the following torrent of words spoken by Diana Parker to young heroine Charlotte Heywood when they first meet, in the next to last chapter of the Sanditon fragment:

“…Miss Heywood, I astonish you. You hardly know what to make of me. I see by your looks that you are not used to such quick measures."
The words "UNACCOUNTABLE officiousness!—Activity run mad!" had just passed through Charlotte's mind, but a civil answer was easy.
"I dare say I do look surprised," said [Charlotte], "because these are very great exertions, and I know what invalids both you and your sister are.
"Invalids indeed. I trust there are not three people in England who have so sad a right to that appellation! But my dear Miss Heywood, we are sent into this world to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of strength of mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse us or incline us to excuse ourselves. The world is pretty much divided between the weak of mind and the strong; between those who can act and those who cannot; and it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them. My sister's complaints and mine are happily not often of a nature to threaten existence immediately. And as long as we can exert ourselves to be of use to others, I am convinced that the body is the better for the refreshment the mind receives in doing its duty. While I have been travelling with this object in view, I have been perfectly well."
The entrance of the children ended this little panegyric on her own disposition…”

So, following the logic of my posts about the “unaccountable” Charlotte Lucas and Anna Howe, I asked myself, was Charlotte’s thinking of Diana as “unaccountable” a sly suggestion by Jane Austen, writing in March 1817 (or more than a quarter century after she wrote Love and Friendship) that Diana Parker---whom we as readers barely get to meet before Austen’s fragment breaks off less than a quarter of the way through the novel---was a closet lesbian?

As soon as I read the above passage (not for the first time, but for the first time with a possible lesbian subtext in mind), I immediately realized that it was, and how….because I suddenly connected the dots between Diana Parker’s “panegyric” on the great power, but also the great responsibility, of the strong of mind vis a vis the weak of mind, on the one hand, and the following passage that I practically know by heart from my prior analysis of it:

 “Beleive me, I was interested in all you wrote, though with all the Egotism of an Invalid I write only of myself.-Your Charity to the poor Woman I trust fails no more in effect, than I am sure it does in exertion. What an interest it must be to you all! & how gladly sh. I contribute more than my good wishes, were it possible!-But how you are worried! Wherever Distress falls, you are expected to supply Comfort.  Lady P. writing to you even from Paris for advice!-It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed.-GALIGAI DE CONCINI FOR EVER & EVER.-Adeiu.- “

That excerpt is from Letter 159, written by Jane Austen on May 22, 1817 (less than 3 months before her death) to her dear friend (and, as I’ve long claimed, a woman JA loved much more than a friend), Ann Sharpe. A decade earlier, Jane met Ann, while the latter was the governess at Edward Austen Knight’s Kentish estate Godmersham, and Ann was the donee of one of the dozen precious first editions of Emma only a year before. So she was very special to Jane.  I wrote several posts two years ago here…  …. on the theme of Jane Austen dying a proud lesbian, in which I explained how that reference to “Galigai de Concini for ever & ever” was most of all a coded allusion, which Ann understood, to the woman who was burnt at the stake almost exactly four centuries earlier, purportedly for financial abuse of her fiduciary relationship to her Medici patroness, but with the unspoken subtext of their female friendship having been too close for public comfort – and if that sounds like the reason why Laura and Sophia were banished from MacDonald Hall in Love & Freindship, it’s not a coincidence! And while we’re looking at allusions, it’s also no coincidence that Jane and Ann were in the same class mismatch as we saw in Jane Barker’s “The Unaccountable Wife.”


So, what is the takeaway of all this? There is much more than I can cover in this post today, but I want to hit three points:

First, it tells me that Jane Austen really was a few steps further down the brave path toward bringing her non-heterosexual subtext closer to the surface of her fiction, and I believe Diana Parker was going to be the key character carrying the load of that subtext, along with the other character who is subversive of male power in the Sanditon fragment, Lady Denham – who I believe is going to be played by the lesbian cinema icon, Charlotte Rampling, in the film adaptation of Sanditon in production.

Second, it is a particularly good (and therefore egregious) example of how superficial and/or misguided has been the general scholarly analysis of the relationship between Jane Austen’s life and Jane Austen’s fiction – here we have an unmistakable and obvious parallel between a passage in her final fiction—some of the last words she every wrote down as an author---and one of her last letters—and yet, as far as I can discern after diligent online search, no other Austen scholar has ever noticed it.

Third and last, and perhaps most significant to Janeites who love her novels but are not that interested in her biography, it sheds very intriguing light on how Jane Austen would have finished Sanditon had she lived long enough. I suggest that we can infer from the above that Diana Parker would have continued to play a role somewhat analogous to that played by Miss Bates in Emma—i.e., right there in the thick of the action of the story, but….because misunderstood and harshly judged by Charlotte, the young naïve heroine, we would have had, as with Miss Bates, to piece out the deep intrigue that really brought Diana Parker to Sanditon, under cover or disguise of her parade of philanthropy.

Since JA’s death, there have been several continuations of Sanditon, including most intriguingly the one by Jane Austen’s writing niece (and psychological daughter), Anna Austen Lefroy. I will during the coming weeks bring myself up to speed on how each of those continuations saw the character of Diana Parker. And I am particularly curious to see how the Sanditon film will present Diana Parker’s character. That is the interpretation that potentially will be seen by a million eyeballs worldwide during the bicentennial of 1817, the year when JA started, then stopped, writing Sanditon, then wrote that love letter to Anne Sharpe, and then left this world with so many questions unanswered.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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