(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, November 18, 2016

ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)

In Janeites, Ellen Moody wrote: “Brief comment for those thinking of buying or going out of their way to obtain [Helena Kelly’s new book Jane Austen the Secret Radical]:  I suggest it's mistitled. It opens with a novelistic recreation of Jane Austen's consciousness (goes into this kind of thing far more than Nokes) and briefly retells her early coming into the world in a way that is pure Janeism. It does things like slide by Eliza's parentage. The tone is complacent.  OTOH, it is not jargon ridden at all: it seems aimed at a large general audience. The attitude towards the replacement picture of JA in the 1870s is a case in point: the earlier one is "amateurish," and before you know it, this new one is made somehow just as or more accurate. In comparison (thus far) Maggie Lane is hard stuff, has grit. Arnie need not worry.”

Nancy Mayer wrote in reply to Ellen: “According to a review of the book I saw, she is presenting some of the theories we have been hearing from Arnie for the last decade, if not longer. I'd rather read Jane Austen and the law.”

Thank you both, ladies, very much, for the above shout-outs!  It gives me great pleasure that we three have found a way, over time, to agree to disagree strenuously with each other, yet with courtesy and mutual personal respect. Ellen, I really sincerely appreciate your final sentence-- we’ve sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed in our interpretations of Austen, but what we’ve both recognized all along is that there is something very similar about us both—we’re both obsessive scholars who’ve devoted countless hours to close reading of serious literature that we love, albeit each in our own way.

And Nancy, I always smile when I tell people that there’s a person I’ve engaged with online for 15 years, who disagrees with 99% of my ideas about Jane Austen, and says so in no uncertain terms every chance she gets, and yet she defends my right to express my ideas in the online Austen group she moderates, and we get along very well personally, so much so that we often joke about the chasm that separates us in our shared love of Jane Austen!  ;)

As for Kelly’s book, I’ve deliberately avoided saying anything about it publicly since I first became aware of it three months ago, before it was actually published. As some who follow me in these groups might have guessed, my right eyebrow first involuntarily raised itself about 3 inches when I saw the title, and then saw the name of the author, for a number of reasons, some of which I will outline below, reserving the right to raise some others if and when the time feels right to me to do so. I will present only facts, and leave it to you, the reader, to infer what they all point to.

First, I refer you to the following paragraph in the chapter about me (entitled ‘The Jane Austen Code’) in Deborah Yaffe’s 2013 book  Among the Janeites, a chapter in which Deborah (who is another Janeite friend with whom I amicably but strongly disagree about Jane Austen) expressed many of the same, not terribly positive critiques of my ideas that Nancy has expressed in terser terms over the years. In the passage quoted below, Deborah described her skeptical reaction to hearing me speak publicly at the 2010 JASNA AGM in Portland, Oregon (where I did not live then, but moved here two years ago) on the topic set forth in the following link (still on display at the JASNA website---just scroll down to Breakout Session C2):

“The talk was vintage Arnie, a semi-convincing, semi-outlandish tapestry woven from the puns he detected in Austen’s use of words like ‘constitutional’ and ‘confinement’, the allusions he perceived to works by other writers, the evidence of feminist anger he found in her letters, and the biographical information he had unearthed about long forgotten contemporaries who, he was convinced, had provided models for her characters. Curiously, Arnie’s central thesis--that Austen meant her readers to understand that the mother of Northanger Abbey’s hero, Henry Tilney, had died in childbirth, not from the “bilious fever” Henry describes, and that this detail revealed Austen’s outrage at the dangerous serial pregnancies that married women of her time often endured—seemed to have little bearing on his controversial theory of shadow stories….In the months after the Portland meeting, it looked as if some of Arnie’s fantasies might be coming true. JASNA chapters in Florida, California, and Oregon invited him to speak. A joint presentation with a local college professor drew two hundred Janeites to a kickoff event for a new south Florida chapter of JASNA, which Arnie planned to organize. The Miami Herald previewed the meeting, and mentioned Arnie’s book, which now had the working title The Shadow Stories of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical Feminist….”

Before I went back and reread Deborah’s last sentence, I had nearly forgotten that working title for my first Austen book. And as I read The Shadow Stories of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical Feminist….”, for some odd reason my eyebrow started twitching again…

But let me move on to the following 2012 online review, also still visible at the JASNA website, written by Jana Bickel, about the talk I gave in late 2011 to the Southern California JASNA chapter:     
“Now for the heart of the presentation, the concealed pregnancies. At first I was willing to concede there might be a few concealed pregnancies like Lydia Bennett, Maria Bertram, possibly Jane Fairfax. Well, having been secretly married to Frank Churchill it is possible that Jane Fairfax might have been pregnant and that might explain her illness and nervousness about Churchill’s interest in other women. But no, that isn’t what Perlstein means. He means that Jane is truly a fallen woman (a so much nicer phrase than the word that initially came to mind), with Colonel Campbell, Mr. Elton, and John Knightly and, to top it off, who leaves a baby for Mrs. Weston to raise. Perlstein is on a roll now. More concealed pregnancies….like Marianne’s illness and poor Mrs. Tilney “murdered by childbirth.” More shameful secrets. Harriet a little schemer in bed with Frank Churchill and Mr Elton among others. But the worst is yet to come. What was the real reason Jane moved to close to Pemberley? Give up. So Jane could be close to Mr. Darcy….” 

With that introduction, I now turn your attention to Kelly’s book, a good deal of which can actually be accessed online at Google Books. That’s where I first scanned through it about 6 weeks ago. Imagine my surprise when I saw that her chapter about Northanger Abbey focused on the same death in childbirth subtext I spoke about at length at the 2010 JASNA AGM. But, what’s more, pretty much all of Kelly’s specific bullet points on that argument were also the same as my own! To be specific, here is a list that is not complete, but will still give you the idea of how uncannily close her 2016 argument is to my 2010 argument:

ONE: the death of Mrs. Tilney as death in childbirth;
TWO: that Mrs. Tilney was thereby metaphorically "poisoned" by her husband’s semen;
THREE: that the General was therefore literally a latter day "Bluebeard", who, by impregnating her, thereby "murdered" her;
FOUR: that Mrs. Tilney’s "bilious fever" was really "puerperal fever";
FIVE: Austen’s comic contrast of the wifely survivor of double digit pregnancies, Mrs. Morland, to Mrs. Tilney, as a key clue to the above subtextual theme;
SIX: Giving examples of Jane Austen's persistent negative attitude toward real life serial pregnancy in her social circle; and, last and most significantly, because it is a global point: 
SEVEN: that the above subtext was part of Austen's global, significant, but covert concern about the ownership of women's bodies by men, which was sanctioned by every major English societal institution, a truly Gothic horror implicit in everyday English marriage.

Now, as to Point Seven, those of you reading this in Janeites or Austen-L, I ask you----how many times have I quoted Henry Tilney’s rant (“Remember the country and age in which we live…We are Christians ….voluntary spies…”)  and called it an anti-parody, an illustration of Austen’s actual outrage at how all the powers that be in England did absolutely nothing to protect women? I’d guess it must be about 100 or more by now (and that is also probably the number of times Nancy has politely advised me I was wrong!)

Now read the following excerpt from Caroline Criado-Perez’s glowing Guardian review, six weeks ago of Kelly’s “sublime literary detective work”:

“Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband – her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law.” And that is before we even get on to the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth that were implicit in any marriage plot at a time where “almost every family had a tale of maternal death to tell”. Through a combination of beautifully precise close readings alongside Austen’s biographical, literary and historical context, Kelly shows us that the novels were about nothing more or less than the burning political questions of the day..."

So, out of Kelly’s entire book, which includes interpretations of all six Austen novels, Criado-Perez was most impressed by…….Kelly’s argument about Northanger Abbey …..which just happens to track my own in every detail!

But, some of you might say, this could all be coincidence, something in the realm of “great (or crazy) minds think alike”, the result of 21st century changes which have made these radical themes visible in Austen for the first time. Well, be aware also of the following additional facts:

First, Kelly was a grad student at Oxford in June 2007 when she attended my talk there at the Romantic Realignments Seminar (at which I had been invited to speak by Senior Professor Fiona Stafford and her two (then) grad students, Georgina Green (now Perry) and Olivia Murphy), on the topic of the puzzles and “shadow story” of Emma. Kelly even met me in person, in company, the next evening after my talk before I left Oxford! So from then onward, for the next 9 ½ years till her book came out, she knew very well who I was and what sort of subversive interpretations I made about Jane Austen. 

Second, in 2010, when Kelly’s (excellent) article about enclosure appeared in Persuasions Online, I emailed her at that time to praise her insights in that article, and identified her as a kindred spirit in looking at the darker side of Austen’s novels. Although Kelly did not reply to me then, she did acknowledge to me in a Tweets six weeks ago that she had indeed previously looked at my blog posts about her article. So, again, she had a refresher about my “heretical” stance about Jane Austen .

Third, what I didn’t recall till last month was that Kelly ALSO attended the same July 2009 Chawton House conference (Title: “New Directions re Jane Austen”) that I did, at which I gave an updated version of my 2007 Emma talk. It was a massive event, with 70 speakers over 4 days, and most of the leading Austen scholars in the world were there, in addition to unknowns like her and me. Here is the Persuasions Online article by Gillian Dow at Chawton House Library & U. of Southampton… ...   ...which mentions Kelly specifically as  having been one of the presenters, about her (excellent) enclosure research that she wrote an article for in the 2010 Persuasions Online, for which I emailed Kelly praise back then.

On a hunch, I retrieved from my computer hard drive my Word file for my final script for my 20-minute July 2009 talk at that Chawton House conference. That’s when I was reminded of what I wrote and said near the end of it, after I had gone through my argument for Jane Fairfax being pregnant in Emma, and when I was extrapolating my points (about women's bodies in jeopardy) to other Austen novels besides Emma. Here's what I said to my audience (which included Deirdre Le Faye and the late Brian Southam):

"In Northanger Abbey, Austen wanted us to ignore Henry Tilney and recognize that Catherine Morland’s Gothic fantasies of General “Tyranny” as the wife-murdering Bluebeard of Northanger Abbey were all too valid in a world where husbands, including several of Austen’s own brothers, routinely “murdered” their wives with a little too much “love and eloquence”! While in London this coming week, I intend to visit the memorial erected in the 17th century by Samuel Morland in honor of his two wives who died in childbirth, a memorial I strongly suspect was visited by the young Jane Austen over two centuries ago. But that “disorder” also includes the sexual awakening of a girl (the hyacinth that Catherine learns to love, the sexual architecture of she explores that dark and stormy night in Northanger Abbey). As with all other issues raised by her novels, Austen offers elusive complexity and ambiguity."

Did you notice my claim at the end of that quote about Catherine’s sexual awakening at the Abbey, which is not so closely related to my argument about death-in-childbirth? For some reason, it also causes my eyebrow to quiver. Maybe that’s because of the odd similarity of that last part in my 2009 talk about Catherine Morland’s sexual awakening, to the following passage in Kelly’s chapter on NA:

“As Catherine explores the Abbey, with all its faults, storms, drawers, divisions, cavities, crevices, folds, etc., Austen takes the reader on a merry subliminal tour through Gothic sexual suggestiveness, upping the ante on Austen’s literary sources such as Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Lee’s The Recess, and even Cleland’s Fanny Hill, among others. The morning after Catherine’s phantasmagorical experiences that dark and stormy night in the Abbey, Henry’s approval of her floral appreciation is a perfect double entendre  for her nocturnal romp in a carnal garden:  “At any rate, however, I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing; and a teachableness of disposition in a young lady is a great blessing. Has my sister a pleasant mode of instruction?”   END QUOTE FROM KELLY          

Learning to love a hyacinth, dark and stormy night at the Abbey, hmmm………. One last time, my right eyebrow has now started twitching again. And you know what that means – the upturned knows.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 


Larry Hogue said...

Hi Arnie,

Very interesting. Have you checked the American edition of Kelly's book? It doesn't include the passage about hyacinths. I wonder what other changes were made? Perhaps they were made as a result of your post? More sleuthing to do!

Also, have you read any Pynchon? The minute you start seeing secret patterns, you're in the position of some of his characters (Oedipa Maas, Tyrone Slothrop). Is this pattern real? Why can't other people see it? Your ideas are intriguing, but at first glance they just seem way out there. I look forward to considering them further.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks for your open-minded reply to my post! Sorry for the delay in reply, I don't seem to receive notifications of commments on old posts, and so I only just sawy your comment today!

I have not tried to read Pynchon since I was in college, but maybe I will take another peek sometime, with my new perspective on literary puzzles.

Thanks again, ARNIE