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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Gilpinesque cows & unplucked Periclean Rose of Jane Austen’s erudite juvenilia Evelyn

Jane wrote: "The discussion of Austen and Gilpin came just when I was reading Evelyn. Can anyone find a reference that would have led Austen to have four white Cows which were disposed at equal distances from each other as part of a picturesque scene?"

Jane, it’s that same passage in Gilpin which I referred to last week, regarding Elizabeth Bennet's sly joke about Darcy and the Bingley sisters arranged in the Netherfield shrubbery as if they were cows arranged in a painting. Here is the full quote that JA riffed on in both P&P and in Evelyn:

Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque BEAUTY, Made in the Year 1772  by Gilpin
"…to explain the doctrine of grouping larger cattle. Two will hardly combine. There is indeed no way of forming two into a group, but by them, as they are represented in the former of these prints. If they stand apart, whatever their attitudes, or situation may be, there will be a deficiency. But with three, you are almost sure of a good group, except indeed they all stand in the same attitude, and at equal distances.
They generally however combine the most beautifully, when two are united, and the third a little 
removed. Four introduce a new difficulty in grouping. Separate they would have a bad effect. Two, and two together would be equally bad. The only way, in which they will group well, is to unite three, as represented in the second of these prints, and to remove the fourth."

So that passage in Evelyn is yet more evidence, on top of the Gilpin satire in her satirical History of England, that the 16 year old Jane Austen read Gilpin very closely indeed, and took Gilpin’s ideas in literary directions he never dreamt of. And this also fits with my longstanding impression that Evelyn was one of her juvenilia which JA remembered, and wove into the fabric of P&P 20 years later.

But P&P was not the only Austen novel to revisit the learned subtext of Evelyn. Last spring, I wrote the following comment about the allusion in Evelyn to Shakespeare's late romance Pericles (in which father-daughter incest is the primary theme, Shakespeare’s primary source for Pericles having been the incest-drenched Confessio Amantis by John Gower, Chaucer’s most famous literary contemporary, and therefore, fittingly, the narrator of Shakespeare’s dark, fantastical play):

"the strange character Mr. Gower in JA’s juvenilia Evelyn, who shows up at the home of a young heiress, and is promptly (and absurdly) given both her hand in marriage, and also her parents’ family estate---just like Pericles when he marries Thaisa."

What I realized today upon revisiting this allusion is that Evelyn also tracks Pericles in three other, even more significant ways:

They both involve shipwrecks; and

They both involve a young woman relative of the hero (Marina, Pericles’s daughter, and Rose, Gower’s sister), from whom he is separated, and then is told she is dead, only to find out at a later time that he was deliberately deceived (Pericles by the evil Dionyza, Gower at the direction of Rose herself) and that she did not die when he thought she did; and….

….most telling of all is that, in Evelyn, Gower’s sister’s name “Rose” was surely chosen by the young Jane Austen, because of the following rose imagery which is cynically used by the panderer Boult and the Bawd in the latter part of Pericles, to describe Marina (whom I’ve also claimed is a model for Jane Fairfax in Emma) after she has been captured and forced to work in a brothel in Mytilene.

First we hear Marina compared to an unplucked rose by the panderer Boult, to ignite the jaded Lysimachus’s lechery, so that he will wish to become the unwilling Marina’s first customer:

LYSIMACHUS How now! How a dozen of virginities?
BAWD  Now, the gods to-bless your honour!
BOULT  I am glad to see your honour in good health.
LYSIMACHUS  You may so; 'tis the better for you that your resorters stand upon sound legs. How now! wholesome iniquity have you that a man may deal withal, and defy the surgeon?
BAWD We have here one, sir, if she would--but there never came her like in Mytilene.
LYSIMACHUS  If she'ld do the deed of darkness, thou wouldst say.
BAWD   Your honour knows what 'tis to say well enough.
LYSIMACHUS  Well, call forth, call forth.
BOULT   For flesh and blood, sir, white and red, you shall see a ROSE; and she were a ROSE indeed, if she had but—
LYSIMACHUS  What, prithee?
BOULT  O, sir, I can be modest.
LYSIMACHUS  That dignifies the renown of a bawd, no less than it gives a good report to a number to be chaste.
BAWD  Here comes that which grows to the stalk; never plucked yet, I can assure you.
Re-enter BOULT with MARINA
'Faith, she would serve after a long voyage at sea.
Well, there's for you: leave us.

And then, after Marina uses her extraordinary moral and persuasive powers to provoke an epiphany in Lysimachus, that induces him to repent his lechery and leave her be, we hear that same metaphor used by Gower (again, Shakespeare’s narrator, based on the actual John Gower) to describe Marina’s artistic gifts in distinctly rosy terms:

So, what did the 16 year old Jane Austen mean by such very specific but veiled allusions to incest and prostitution in Evelyn? Whatever it meant, it continued to have a similar meaning for her 23 years later, when she wrote the character of Jane Fairfax in Emma –where, probably because she was 40 years old, and more adept at hiding disturbing subtext in plain sight, she made it possible for a reader like myself to realize that Mrs. Elton is the “bawd” who (unsuccessfully) tries to force the talented (and secretly pregnant) Jane Fairfax into prostitution. And now I understand for the first time why Jane Austen put the following specific (mis)quotation of the couplet in Gray’s famous Elegy about a flower in Mrs. Elton’s mouth, at the very moment in the story when she’s exerting maximum pressure on Jane:

“We must bring her forward. Such talent as hers must not be suffered to remain unknown.—I dare say you have heard those charming lines of the poet,
        'Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
          'And waste its fragrance on the desert air.'
We must not allow them to be verified in sweet Jane Fairfax."
"I cannot think there is any danger of it," was Emma's calm answer—"and when you are better acquainted with Miss Fairfax's situation and understand what her home has been, with Colonel and Mrs. Campbell, I have no idea that you will suppose her talents can be unknown."
"Oh! but dear Miss Woodhouse, she is now in such retirement, such obscurity, so thrown away.—Whatever advantages she may have enjoyed with the Campbells are so palpably at an end! And I think she feels it. I am sure she does. She is very timid and silent. One can see that she feels the want of encouragement. I like her the better for it. I must confess it is a recommendation to me. I am a great advocate for timidity—and I am sure one does not often meet with it.—But in those who are at all inferior, it is extremely prepossessing. Oh! I assure you, Jane Fairfax is a very delightful character, and interests me more than I can express."

And I also just realized that it’s no accident that Mrs. Elton mentions the Campbells at that very moment, because they are Jane Austen’s version of Dionyza and Cleon, the couple who take Marina in, but then Dionyza tries to have Marina murdered out of jealousy for her own, less attractive & talented daughter.

So, what does this all tell us about Evelyn? I am not sure about the details, which are murky at best in this short, absurdist teenager’s production, but I do now know 100% for sure that Jane Austen intended a very dark subtext about a young woman in sexual danger.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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