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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 21, 2016

ELI-nor & ELI: drunkenness (real or imagined) in Sense & Sensibility and the Bible

[As I was getting ready to put finishing touches on this post, after working on it and then pausing for an outing and then dinner, I was pleasantly surprised upon my return to read Jane Fox’s intervening response in Janeites, which began as follows:  “In Kings, Eli, the high priest, is presented as thinking Hannah is drunk. This is a common enough scene in literature.”  Jane, you’ll see as you read below, that sometimes great minds DO think alike…although, as you’ll also see, I believe the parallels between S&S and the Biblical tale of Eli and Hannah are anything but common!  ;)]

Yesterday, Nancy Mayer wrote the following in Janeites, in response to my posts about the dramatic night-time encounter between Willoughby and Elinor at Cleveland late in S&S: "The one certainty I have of this scene [with Willoughby and Elinor at Cleveland] is that there is no sarcasm involved. Men have appeared drunk when in the grip of strong emotions. I think Shakespeare even has someone say something like that. It is even in the Book of Acts in the Bible where on Pentecost the apostles filled with the Holy Spirit start preaching and all understood in their own language and some one says "the men are drunk." "

Excellent association, Nancy! You reminded me of Jane Austen's two most significant literary sources-- the Bible and Shakespeare. And so you prompted me to investigation further, to see whether either of those two sources might’ve been in JA’s mind when she depicted Willoughby’s possible drunkenness. I hope you’ll agree, as you read the rest of this post, that your suggestion and my delving were not in vain.

There is, of course, drunkenness all over the place in Shakespeare’s plays. Falstaff's love of alcohol is a running motif that pervades the plays which barely contain his larger than life body and character; Hamlet famously broods bitterly about Claudius's drunken revels; Stephano, Trinculo & Caliban make a spectacle of their collective drunkenness; Iago tricks Cassio into getting drunk, and then getting into deep doodoo with Othello; and there’s much more throughout the canon. But no scene leaps off the page to remind me of that scene between Willoughby and Elinor. Can any of you think of other Shakespearean drunkenness which I’ve overlooked, which in some way does remind you of Willoughby’s possible drunkenness?

As for the Bible, I checked out your tip, Nancy, re drunkenness in the Book of Acts, but I detected no parallelism to Austen’s scene. So I went back to the Hebrew bible to look some more. What first came to mind was the scene in Genesis when Lot's daughters get him drunk and sleep with him --- but that also seems to have nothing in common, other than drunkenness, with Willoughby and Elinor.

However, when I did a Biblical word search on ‘drunk’, I was led to a passage I was unfamiliar with---the poignant tale of Hannah in 1 Samuel (Jane, it’s not in Kings). Hannah is the second, yet more beloved, wife of Elkanah, and Hannah is in anguish over her own long barrenness. Her anguish arises in no small part, because she is being tormented by Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife and a jealous rival for their shared husband’s affections. Peninnah has lots of offspring, and has neglected no opportunity, over a long period of time, to rub this in with Hannah.

Eventually, in 1 Samuel 10-19, we read Hannah’s encounter with Eli, the high priest at Shiloh whose lack of control over his two dissolute sons will in later chapters of 1 Samuel will prompt God to deprive Eli and his family of priestly influence. But in this scene, Hannah’s emotional angst is front and center:

“And [Hannah] was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but will give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall be no razor come upon his head.
And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the Lord, Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, “How long wilt thou be drunken? Put away thy wine from thee.” And Hannah answered and said, “No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto. Then Eli answered and said, “Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.” And she said, “Let thine handmaid find grace in thine sight.”
So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad. And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the Lord, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and  Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her. Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, “Because I have asked him of the Lord.”

Jane Fox suggested that this was “a common enough theme in literature”. Jane, here is where we part ways, because a closer look reveals otherwise. Some other readers might also suggest that the tale of Hannah and Eli is too different from the encounter between Willoughby and Elinor to be of interest to Janeites. I disagree with them as well, and here’s why.

When you examine both passages in tandem, you realize there are actually nine consecutive points of specific parallelism between the two stories. I’ll now illustrate this in bullet point fashion; as you read, keep in mind that Person A is either Willoughby or Hannah; Person B is either Elinor or (as my Subject Line hints) Elinor’s partial namesake, Eli; Person C is either Marianne or the as-yet unborn Samuel; and Person D is either Willoughby’s wife or Peninnah, Hannah’s sister-wife:

ONE: Person A is in great emotional distress;
TWO: That distress arises from the absence of his/her beloved Person C;
THREE: Person A’s distress has been aggravated by the malicious jibes of close relative Person D, who is jealous of Person A’s love for Person C; 
FOUR: Person A refers to God (the Lord) more than once during an encounter with Person B;
FIVE: Person A’s agitated manner of speaking leads Person B to believe Person A is drunk;
SIX: Person A denies being drunk;
SEVEN: Person B immediately accepts Person A’s alternative explanation, and thereafter attributes Person A’s behavior solely to emotional distress;
EIGHT: Person B wishes Person A well; and
NINE: Person A takes leave of Person B in better spirits than upon arrival.

Now, despite these nine parallels, of course I also recognize that there are a couple of major differences between these two stories: first, the gender of Person A is reversed; and second and more significantly, after her encounter with Eli, Hannah’s anguish is eased by God’s allowing her to conceive, whereas Willoughby’s yearning for Marianne will, for reasons largely within his power rather than God’s, never be satisfied.

And yet, I suggest that the nine parallels far outweigh these two differences, on the following train of logic. We know that Jane Austen knew her Bible intimately, on both a religious and literary level, and that she was especially concerned with the woes of women in the Bible. So I think it fair to assume that JA was familiar with the story of Hannah and her miracle child, Samuel. And, JA also knew that she was far from alone among early 19th century readers in being so familiar with Bible stories –many of her contemporary, potential readers, both male and female, would also have known the story of Hannah and Eli, of which Hannah’s apparent drunkenness was a memorable detail.

And so, it follows that JA could very well have hoped, even expected, that a number of her readers would be reminded of Hannah’s seeming drunkenness by Willoughby’s. And that also makes me ask whether some early readers, having reached Chapter 44 unaware how the novel was going to end, might imagine, or even hope, when Willoughby shows up unexpectedly at Cleveland, that he came not only to learn how sick Marianne was, but also to declare to her that he was going to divorce the wife whom he did not love, and marry his true love Marianne instead!

Sounds farfetched? It’s hard for Janeites today who’ve read S&S or at least have seen a film adaptation thereof, to see S&S through the eyes of a first-time reader in 1811. My guess would be that a not a few of them would’ve been rooting for Willoughby and Marianne to reunite --- just as many readers of MP over the centuries, including some of JA’s own family and friends, have rooted for Edmund to choose Mary!

And so, landing the plane, in that context, if any of those readers made the connection to the Biblical Hannah’s happy ending, they might well have seen that veiled Biblical allusion as a foreshadowing of Willoughby also getting his heart’s desire –and would then have been disappointed at what for many Janeites, even to this day, is a less than romantic ending with Marianne marrying Brandon.

But I’ll go one final step further, and suggest that there’s still more reason for thinking that JA had the Biblical Hannah in mind as she wrote all of S&S. Even though it’s Willoughby who’s explicitly suspected of drunkenness in S&S, those first four parallels between 1 Samuel 1:10-19 and S&S Chapter 44 become even more powerful and interesting in regard to both of the following scenarios, which juggles the characters in my literary algebraic equation:

FIRST: Person A is Marianne, who complains to Person B, Elinor, about her yearning for Person C , Willoughby, but Person A is tormented from a distance by Person D, Willoughby’s wife;  AND

SECOND: Person A is Elinor, who eventually complains to Person B, Marianne, about her feeling of loss vis a vis Person C, Edward, and Person A is tormented, in the most passive aggressive way imaginable, by Person D, Lucy!

As to both of these scenarios, bullet points ONE through FOUR, in particular the jealous, sadistic infliction of emotional pain by Peninnah on Hannah, are a veritable bulls-eye for Mrs. Willoughby doing this to Marianne, and for Lucy doing this to Elinor.

And, last but not least, as to the drunkenness part, it is perhaps not a coincidence that we have the scene 15 chapters earlier in S&S, when Mrs. Jennings prepares that potent glass of Constantia wine, which cures all ills, for Marianne, only to have Elinor drink it instead because Marianne is already asleep.  Maybe that scene not only points to the Eve of St. Agnes, it may also point to the drunkenness in1 Samuel as well!

So, one way or another, I hope I’ve at least made you wonder whether JA might have had the story of Hannah and Eli in mind when she wrote that dramatic scene at Cleveland.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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