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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, November 4, 2016

SHADOW ALERT: “Labours not her own”: Jane Austen’s Concealed Pregnancy in Emma

Nancy wrote: “Any one go to the [JASNA] AGM [about Emma in Wash. DC a few weeks ago]? I would love to hear about the workshops and breakout sessions you attended. Please share.

Nancy, I did go, and had not realized that I forgot to post about it afterwards, as I had intended, so thanks for the jog to do it now! I have three separate posts to write, and this is the first.

I was happy to see Ellen there, and am grateful to her for the following generous anecdote about me that she included in her last blog post:

“A small snapshot for now: Arnie Perlstein was there and responded to the lecturer of the key note address. This lecturer (semi-famous with a book written from a post-colonial stance on Austen) asserted rather incoherently about there being so much that is invisible in Emma, but he did not go on to tell us what this was: the lecturer did take a page where servants were mentioned but he did not try to prove 18th century readers seriously read the book to find out about the Woodhouse servants. He seemed to try to make jokes, to have a jocular stance: when he would quote something the audience found funny, they did laugh, and he looked relieved. I sometimes wonder if the speakers are told to try to “lighten” it up; they tend to ride over the nebulous. Arnie got up so gratified and began to talk of Jane Fairfax’s pregnancy and some other of his favorite theories. The lecturer looked embarrassed. But it fit his thesis. Arnie was stopped. Since the academic was too cowardly or careful to say what these invisible depths were (perhaps sexual?), his lecture was to my mind exposed as having nothing in it (invisible?).”

Let me provide some important, additional context for Ellen’s kind comments about me. The lecturer was U. of East Anglia Professor Bharat Tandon, the editor of a high profile 2012 edition of Emma, and his Introduction to that edition includes the following suspicious passage: 

"the historic ambience surrounding Austen's words came to reveal, not some secret text that ran completely against the grain of what I thought I knew--The Jane Austen Code, as it were--but resonances that only deepened my appreciation of those words, the care with which Austen's relatively few details were chosen and pitched to be suggestive to readers less distant from them then we are now."

Of course that is a major passive-aggressive, almost sarcastic swipe at me and my “shadow story” theory, in which Tandon didn’t even show me the minimal respect of naming me. Now that I think about that,  maybe that’s because then he’d have had to also provide a footnote citing my blog, and he wanted me to remain “invisible” to the wider reading world, especially that part which takes its literary wisdom only from literary academics, and who don’t read Austen blogs, or even read the posts in these groups!  Anyway, despite not naming me explicitly, Tandon unmistakably tags three key elements of my Austen scholarly persona and stump speech: “The Jane Austen Code”; “ran completely against the grain”; and “some secret text”.

Not very nice of Tandon; kinda mean, if I really think about it. But I prefer instead to reframe it as unwitting flattery. Clearly my claims about Austen’s shadow stories -- backed up by my obsessive documentation of so many textual details of the Jane Austen Code that provide substance to those shadows --- have really gotten under his skin. My ideas are like grains of sand which have gotten under the hard shell of his orthodox reading of Emma, such that he can’t put them out of his mind. They form “pearls” of inconvenient, uncomfortable wisdom, as it were. And yet, he doesn’t have a clue how to give an alternative explanation of all of Emma’s shadows that is anywhere close to mine in power. Such a quandary—or, more apt to Emma --- Poor Professor Tandon!

So, now if you reread what Ellen wrote, above, in light of that context, you’ll be ready to see the poetic justice of my comment to him as the first responder in his Q&A, which I’ll now recount. Tandon’s plenary talk….    …was entitled ““Labours Not Her Own”: Emma and the Invisible World”. That quote is not from Austen, but it is from a work that Jane knew very well, so much so that she alluded to it very saliently in S&S: the “infallible” Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. I don’t believe he ever actually made the sort of noteworthy allusive connection between Pope’s poem and Emma, which one might have expected from his title, nor in fact did he give one single original interpretation of text in Emma during the entire hour he spoke.

Speaking of Tandon’s title, I hadn’t paid attention to it before I sat down in the large ballroom audience to hear his talk, but as soon as I did focus on it, and heard him begin to speak about what is invisible in Emma, I knew in a flash what my Q&A comment would be. This is more or less what I said right after the polite applause died down:

“Professor Tandon, I agree that there is much that is invisible hidden in the shadows of Emma, but if I may pick up on your quotation from Pope, I’d suggest that the most dazzling jewel hidden just beneath the text of Emma, waiting to be fetched to the surface by the alert reader, is the “labour” endured by the shadow heroine of the novel, Jane Fairfax, about whom Emma and therefore also the reader obsesses. In other words, I am suggesting that the “labour” is Jane’s concealed pregnancy.”

Ellen is correct, I enjoyed the mixed wave of laughter and gasps that greeted my punch line, which (as Ellen also pointed out) left Tandon nearly speechless. I wish I could remember his reply, but it was not responsive. I wonder if he realized in that moment, or perhaps later, that I was that very same purveyor of “The Jane Austen Code” whom he had taken that unprovoked swipe at 4 years ago. In any event, while he was replying, the moderator made sure to snatch the mike out of my hand, no doubt out of fear I might say something else scandalous. But I had a dozen people tell me later in the conference how much they enjoyed that moment, and that was reward enough!

So thanks again, Ellen –who herself asked a couple of intelligent questions in other Q&A’s at sessions I also attended – do you recall what you asked, Ellen? Your comments about Tandon have provided me with an independent validation of my own reaction to Tandon’s talk, which I found to be 95% vague theorizing often veering away from Emma, and less than 5% actual words from Emma – and of that 5%, pretty near to 0% original insight into the shadows of Emma.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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