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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Austen enjoys a bite of Milton, Newton & Franklin: How do you like THESE apples?

I awoke this morning and reread my last two blog posts  “Newton Priors, Dawlish & Jane Austen’s poignant bequest to literary niece Anna”   AND “Austen’s Letter 107, Ben Franklin’s twelvemonth, & the People’s (and Milton’s) eyes”  as I sometimes do upon rising, and it once more proved a very fortunate decision, as I've often found that I wake up with the answer to a question I fell asleep pondering.

What I’d been pondering was Austen's very interesting, veiled juxtaposition of three great polymath geniuses (Isaac Newton, John Milton and Ben Franklin), hidden in plain sight in her epistolary praise for niece Anna's choice of the name "Newton Priors" for her first-novel-in-progress:

"The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!--I never met with anything superior to it.—It is delightful.—One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelvemonth...Newton Priors is really a Nonpareil.-Milton would have given his eyes to have thought of it.”

I had finished those posts with the vague sense that I hadn’t gotten to the core (so to speak) of Austen's supersubtle joke about Newtonian Nonpareil Apples and Miltonian Eyes. And what occurred to me as I awoke and reread Jane's effusive praises to Anna, was that there was a REALLY obvious additional connection between Newton and Milton which I hadn't noticed before -- i.e., just as Newton is proverbially known for having discovered the Law of Gravity when an apple supposedly fell on his head, so too is Milton universally acknowledged for having written THE most famous post-Biblical version of the story of Eve's fateful bite of the apple (although technically "fruit") from the Forbidden Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden! 

That's what's so gorgeous and satisfying about JA's sly pairing of Milton and Newton: it's about more than just apples- it's about apples which bring knowledge—one via a proverbial bonk on the head, the other via a proverbial bite! So…clearly, Jane Austen --- she who constructed charades with multiple answers, and novels with double stories --- could not resist even this small opportunity, in a letter never intended to be published, to create a small nugget of double meaning. And JA did exactly that in her praise to Anna: a private performance for a discerning audience of one, someone who would get all the layers of the joke – Anna!

But that's only 2/3 of the fruitful story in this instance. I immediately wondered about the wink at Ben Franklin's invitation to his potential contributing writers to provide enough "sence" in essays to be submitted by them to him, to sustain his readership "for a twelvemonth"- so, was there any famous proverbial connection of Ben Franklin to apples? It would be so wonderful if there were. But even as I asked myself that question, I immediately knew the answer—YES!!:   "As well as saying that 'An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away', Franklin consistently asked his wife Deborah to ship him barrels of apples while he lived abroad: 'Goodeys I now and then get a few; but roasting Apples seldom, I wish you had sent me some; and I wonder how you, that used to think of everything, came to forget it.  Newton Pippins would have been the most acceptable.' (letter from Benjamin Franklin in London, to Deborah in Philadelphia)"

I had remembered Franklin’s famous medicinal quotidian apples, but I was stunned by “Newton Pippins”. Really? As John McEnroe might say at this moment, you can't be serious! Because it’s just too good to be true – except it is true! At that instant, I knew I had bitten the apple of Austenian wit and sly erudition down to its core; because now I understood that Anna Austen Lefroy herself had a deeper meaning in mind in the first place, when she altered the name of the real Devonshire town “Newton Abbot” to “Newton Priors”.

So, yes, as Doody cleverly deduced, “Newton Priors” was an ecclesiastical joke, and a sly one indeed. But now I knew that it was also a wink by Anna at the name of the most coveted variety of apple in early 19th century England, the American-bred Newton (or Newtown) Pippin—Ben Franklin apparently had very good taste in coveting them, as we read here:   “The Newtown Pippin, also known as Albemarle Pippin, is an American apple originated in the late 17th or early 18th century and still cultivated on a small scale…. t was widely grown and praised in colonial America. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote from Paris that "they have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin”... It came to the fore in 1838 when…the American minister to Great Britain, presented Queen Victoria with a gift basket of the apples from his wife's Albemarle County orchard.”

But back to niece Anna, who, as she wrote her novel, must have also picked up on the serendipity of the name “Newton” appearing in the name of a variety of apple, given the famous story of how Newton discovered the Law of Universal Gravitation with the help of an apple.

And then JA clearly grasped Anna’s multilayered fruitaceous “Newton Priors” pun, and communicated back to Anna that she got the pun, not by some boring explicit response, but by returning the favor in kind, via a pun on yet another variety of apple, Nonpareil – and then laying it on even thicker by bringing Milton (and, covertly, also Franklin) into their jointly prepared literary apple pie. As I said, uber-nerdosity of the literary persuasion!

And now I also wonder about all those apples in Emma, which I've long suggested was part of the code that points to Jane Fairfax having a "bun in the oven" --- since I've often suggested that niece Anna Austen was one of the real sources for Jane Fairfax, while Fanny Knight was one of the sources for Emma Woodhouse. Were those apples an extension of this same "apple-onian" conversation between Aunt Jane and Anna?  

And so I say, once and for all, to all Janeites who think I have been exaggerating Jane Austen's secret subtexts these past 14 years- how do you like THESE apples?  If what I’ve outlined in this post is not incontrovertible evidence of the obsessive love of a hidden story that fueled Jane Austen’s imagination and literary life, I don’t know what is!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode in Twitter

P.S.: For background on the story of how Newton discovered the Law of Gravity:

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