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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Austen, Isherwood, Bowles, & Fosse: A literary chain of ambiguous sexualities

In Austen-L, Elaine Pigeon responded this morning to Diane Reynolds and myself:  "Fascinating thread on Austen, Shakespeare, and Girard."

And you just made it even more so, Elaine!  :)

Elaine: "I thought I'd point out that Jane Bowles (the wife of Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky) was also a writer and penned a novel entitled Two Serious Ladies, described in Wikipedia as following "two upper-class women, Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield, as they descend into debauchery." "


Elaine: “So Isherwood's fictional character Sally Bowles is thinly disguised. Isherwood "first met Paul Bowles in Berlin in the early 1930s and later visited Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier in 1955." ( Isherwood's allusion is quite transparent, so I assume he wanted his readers to recognize Sally, which is not always the case. Anyway, just a tidbit I thought would be of interest, esp from the perspective of biographical readings.”

That is so interesting on multiple levels! What it suggests to me first, is that when Fosse and his  collaborators created Cabaret in the Sixties, they really did their homework, and they were well aware of both (1) Isherwood’s Sally Bowles in Goodbye Berlin (1939) as a nod to Jane Bowles,  and (2) Jane Bowles’s later (1943) novel, which I suspect may have been a nod back by Jane Bowles to the fluid sexuality in Isherwood, acknowledging her “starring role” in his earlier novel. And so that number “Two Ladies” in Cabaret, explicitly pointing to the bisexual triad of the Count, Brian and Sally, was their way of pretty explicitly winking at that entire ball of allusion!

As to my passing question about whether Isherwood had any interest in Austen, I dug the following up from my files in Christopher Isherwood as a novelist by Ranjita Coondoo Anupam (1978) at p. 132, regarding Isherwood’s 1954 novel, The World in the Evening:   “War seems to be so important to Isherwood that Stephen has to present an excuse to Gerda for Elizabeth's omission of any direct reference to war in her novels. While portraying the character of Elizabeth, Isherwood had Jane Austen as his model. Just like Stephen defending Elizabeth, Robert Liddell defends Jane Austen by saying that she did well in remembering her own range as a novelist: Jane Austen voluntarily rejected the Napoleonic Wars as unworthy to enter into her picture of contemporary life. She has often, and very foolishly, been condemned for this.”

When I found that last year, I did not pursue it, but this time I did, spurred by your wonderful reaction. First, I noted that Anupam (who I can’t locate via the Internet) must’ve had some pretty good reason to make this assertion that JA was a model for the character Elizabeth Rydal in The World in the Evening, beyond the parallel she notes in Isherwood and Austen not directly bringing the larger war picture into their stories. But what? I quickly located the text of Isherwood’s novel online, searched “Austen” and was led to the following very interesting passage, when Elizabeth Rydal invites one of her snooty, phony friends over, who has previously made Stephen feel gauche and uncomfortable:

“So Strines was invited to the flat, to tea. He arrived with flowers, a wedding present, and an obviously prepared speech….The wedding present was a china inkwell, ‘almost certainly used by Jane Austen while she was living at Chawton.’ I felt sure Strines had hastily selected it as being one of the least wanted items in his own collection. The speech began with a quotation from Doctor Johnson: ‘You remember what he once said to a Newly-Married Lady?’ I forget what Doctor Johnson said, but it was something unpleasant and dogmatic, which Strines then proceeded to twist into a long-winded compliment. There was no warmth anywhere in the whole proceedings. And I felt that Strines regarded our marriage as a sophisticated kind of joke, of which Elizabeth would soon get tired.  ‘My dear Rydal,’ he told her, ‘you’ve always been so full of surprises.’ Then, looking at me with his joyless smile, he added, ‘I hope I have your permission to continue to call your wife by the name she has made illustrious? It’s a mark of respect, really, for your private rights in her, on which we wouldn’t dream of infringing. Elizabeth Monk is entirely yours. Rydal belongs to all of us.’ ‘Really, Strines,’ Elizabeth interrupted, laughing but a little nervous, I could see, that I might take offense at his tone, ‘you talk about me as if I were Hyde Park! Do I look as if the public had trampled me flat?’ Strines didn’t succeed in making me angry: I could afford to tolerate him now, though I still didn’t like him…”

I’d call that a pretty good start at a reason! Although Austen is only mentioned in one line of dialogue, it reveals to a knowledgeable Janeite that Isherwood was aware of both small and large details in Jane Austen’s biography, and, after browsing some more through the novel, I formed the hypothesis that the marriage of the protagonist Stephen Monk to Elizabeth Rydal was a metaphorical representation of how Isherwood responded and related to Austen’s fiction and biography. I sense that he saw JA as a key influence and guide, both artistically as a writer, and also in terms of his coming to terms with his being gay, which I gather from what I’ve read about him was a lifelong process. That fits so perfectly with my own sense of JA as being attracted to women (and probably men as well) – Isherwood must’ve gotten that. And so, getting back to my speculation about Cabaret’s “Two Ladies” as having some of its roots in the ambiguous sexualities of Mansfield Park, in particular the scene with Fanny and William Diane first drew our attention to, I believe it did, albeit via a series of artistic transmissions.

I also tried to dig the quote from Samuel Johnson which Strines alluded to, and found it was not Samuel Johnson who wrote “Advice to the Newly-Married Lady”, but Samuel K. Jennings, Methodist preacher, doctor, educator and contemporary of Jane Austen …   …who gave extremely sexist advice to the new wife –basically, to do what will please her husband, and consider how lucky she is not to be alone!

But Samuel Johnson did give advice to men as to the choice of a wife, which has a strong resonance to Jennings’s advice, when Johnson warns of the fate of the gigolo (which is what Stephen believes is how Strines and that crowd all see him vis a vis Elizabeth):  
“But of the various states and conditions of humanity, [Johnson] despised none more than the man who marries for a maintenance: and of a friend who made his alliance on no higher principles, he said once, "Now has that fellow (it was a nobleman of whom they were speaking) at length obtained a certainty of three meals a day, and for that certainty, like his brother dog in the fable, he will get his neck galled for life with a collar."…”

For those who want more detail about the marriage of Stephen and Elizabeth (i.e., the supposed JA stand-in), I also mined excerpts from a synopsis of World in the Evening in the Christopher Isherwood Encyclopedia by David Garrett Izzo, at ppg. 176-7: “…begins in 1941 at a Hollywood party. Stephen Monk is 37 and rich. At the party, he discovers the infidelity of his second wife, Jane. This motivates Stephen to leave the false glitter of Hollywood. He retreats to the Monk family estate in Pennsylvania and to his Aunt Sarah, who raised him from childhood after he lost his parents. She is a Quaker who raised Stephen to be one although he has long lapsed…. Monk.. reconsiders his life, the catalyst being the reading of his first wife’s letters. 34-year old Elizabeth Rydal was a novelist and 12 years older than Stephen when they met. She was fragile physically from a weak heart. While he reads the letters, Stephen is nursed [he was injured in a car accident] by Gerda Mannheim, a young German refugee. Gerda is another ‘manageress’ dispensing wisdom. She suggests to Stephen that he should be more sensitive to the inner awareness that is latent within him. …Elizabeth’s letters prompt Monk’s retrospective evaluation of his past. He recalls his wife’s miscarriage, her failing health, his brief tryst with a homosexual friend who loved Stephen one-sidedly, an affair with Jane during Elizabeth’s last illness, Elizabeth’s death, and his second marriage.
In the last section…Monk comes to terms with himself, his past, and Elizabeth’s memory… Monk’s internal journey is Isherwood’s. Monk represents Isherwood himself in different stages of the author’s life…. Stephen…has a vision of Elizabeth: ‘Elizabeth, tell me I was crazy to come here? What I am getting into?’ She answers: ‘Don’t worry, Darling. Just be patient. You’ll find out.’ And he will—slowly ---as a Vedantic unfolding of inner truth. When Monk tells Elizabeth he is unhappy, she responds: ‘You needn’t be…Nobody need be.’…
…He begins to read Elizabeth’s letters that were written to him and to others, particularly Mary Scriven. Stephen says to Elizabeth’s aura, ‘now you’ve got me…I’ll listen to you now. I’ll try and face up to whatever you want me to know. Just tell me what I am to do next.’ Monk, through Elizabeth’s letters (and Isherwood’s diaries) reconstructs his life for examination.
Stephen recalls how he had been insecure around Elizabeth’s intellectual friends…He imagined slights and finally blew up over one. Elizabeth patiently comforted him. After this, Elizabeth and Stephen realized they were in love, and this temporarily assuaged his insecurity.
…For Stephen the vision of Elizabeth is the center of his life around which his circular path is connected continuously and contiguously….Even when Gerda and Sarah are present, Stephen feels that when he is in this morning mood of total awareness, Elizabeth is also present as his ‘manageress’, directing his re-education.
…During Elizabeth’s last illness, Stephen secretly began his affair with Jane. The guilt of his betrayal while Elizabeth was dying would follow him to the present. In the past, Elizabeth had told him that even though she was sometimes afraid, fear is unnecessary for those who live in the moment… On the same night, just after saying this, Elizabeth died. Stephen was not ready to understand her last message to him at the time she said it. Now, he is….” END QUOTE FROM IZZO

And finally, Isherwood also wrote A Single Man in 1964, as to which Colin Firth earned awards and nominations in the 2009 film version. As I first noted when I first heard that title and learned that it was based on an Isherwood novel, I suspected strongly that Isherwood chose that title as a deliberate wink at that most famous of opening lines:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man….”. After now learning what I have about Isherwood’s other fiction, I now believe more than before that Isherwood by that title was showing, subtly, that he recognized that Darcy was meant by JA to be interpretable as a bisexual man in need of a beard!

Cheers, ARNIE

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