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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 19, 2016

Pride & Prejudice as doubly midrashic on Paradise Lost: if Jane Austen could tell...

One of the nicer traditions of JASNA (I don’t know how far back it dates) is the publication of the latest edition of Persuasions Online on Jane Austen’s birthday. This past Friday, # 241, was no exception, and so I eagerly skimmed through the contents for articles for the few (based on my experience with past issues) I could hope would open new Austenian vistas for me – and my wish was rapidly fulfilled, when I clicked on the link for this one: 

“If Art Could Tell”: A Miltonic Reading of Pride and Prejudice  by James M. Scott

During the weekend, I spent some very enjoyable hours reading and rereading Scott’s article, which fulfilled its title’s great promise for me, because it’s not only fantastic scholarship in its own right, it also just happens to intersect and synergize with my own research to an extraordinary degree.

Specifically, I've been blogging about the Paradise Lost subtext of Austen's novels – but especially Pride and Prejudice -- for over six years now. So I really was Scott’s ideal reader, because I could appreciate, from my own personal experience as an Austen scholar, the marvelous, systematic way he gathered his  evidence, and then laid out his arguments. And even as to the arguments he presented which were close to my own (for example, his claim that Paradise Lost was subjected to protofeminist readings during Jane Austen’s lifetime), Scott’s point of view, his starting point, was very different from mine, and therefore very interesting and fresh to me.

And by the way, it is very clear to me from reading his article that Scott was completely unaware of my research (a fact which he verified when I contacted him yesterday). He’s not really an Austen specialist at all, he’s never participated in Austen virtual community or in JASNA, and he’d have had to Google pretty persistently in order to find my relevant blog posts (which I’ve never taken particular care to make more v Google-visible). And I love what he wrote in his reply to my initial email to him: “there is comfort in knowing that your own independent research tends to confirm my approach, even though you are coming at the subject from another angle and with a different lens." I feel exactly the same about his work!

You see, when I say his point of view is very different from mine, I’m not saying that I believe any of Scott’s interpretations of Austen’s allusions to Milton are wrong. Quite the contrary, I believe they’re 100% correct and brilliant; but...they only pertain to what I call the "overt story" of Pride & Prejudice. Whereas all of my posts of the past six years that bear in some way on Paradise Lost and Pride & Prejudice, relate to what I call the "shadow story" of P&P:

[For background on what I mean by these two terms, read and/or watch these: Austen’s 6 novels are all double stories (2 parallel fictional universes), undetected for 200 yrs,”  
& “First Impressions” podcast” interview re Emma’s shadow story ]

I will now zero in on the shadow story of P&P. As those who’ve read a lot of my posts know, in the overt story of Pride & Prejudice, the version of the novel that “everybody knows”, Darcy is a fundamentally good man who, after his botched first proposal to Elizabeth, repents his bad behavior and reforms. However, in the shadow story as I’ve sleuthed it out, Darcy is fundamentally a very BAD man who remains bad all the way through to the end of the novel, and only pretends to repent. Topsy turvy was the name of Austen’s fictional game, two stories for the price of one.

Now, in the shadow story of P&P viewed through a Miltonian lens, Darcy (not Wickham) is a great deal like Milton’s Satan, because Darcy manipulatively tempts Elizabeth to marry him, using Pemberley as bait (as with Satan tempting Jesus in Matthew 4); whereas Mary Bennet (yes, Mary!) is a good and wise Satan who whispers to Elizabeth to try to warn her elder sister about the grave danger Darcy poses to her, but Elizabeth isn’t listening, because she mistakenly believes Mary is a foolish pedant! And the members of Darcy's Satanic crew (think Moloch and Belial) include Mr. Gardiner and Mrs. Reynolds, who each play their crucial role in the complex charade that Darcy stages for Elizabeth at Pemberley. And finally there’s Charlotte, another master manipulator like Satan, who has her own very romantic reasons to work behind the scenes to bring her true love, Elizabeth, to Pemberley, where, as Charlotte plots from early on, Mr. Collins will be the local clergyman!

So, in an oversimplified way, that begins to explain why I see Jane Austen's engagement with Paradise Lost as even more radically feminist than the feminist point of view Scott so elegantly and persuasively ascribed to Jane Austen in her encounter with Milton. As thrilling as the character of Elizabeth Bennet is in her light, bright and sparkling wit and audacity in the overt story of P&P, so in the shadow story are Mary, Charlotte (and even Mrs. Bennet!) making the best of their “weak” feminine position in society.

For those who want some meat on these theoretical bones, and to end up with a rich understanding of Jane Austen’s engagement in Pride & Prejudice with Paradise Lost, I suggest you first read Scott’s article, and absorb its rich content. Then you can move on to the following sampling of my relevant blog posts, and see the other side of Eden in Meryton.

When you’ve done that, which may take some time, you’ll then really understand how Scott and I have, while unaware of each other, been tracking the same allusive literary scent for a while, but, as I said, viewing it all through the two different lens that Jane Austen thoughtfully provided to her readers.

So, without further ado, here are my relevant posts, in the order of salience:

Mr. Darcy, Eliza, & Lady Catherine as Satan, Eve & Raphael: the answers to my “tempting” quiz

Re-reading P&P: Mary Bennet the Good Satan of Longbourne     08/25/2010

Darcy’s stunning (& cunning) vindication of his own right…to re-educate Elizabeth!  07/05/2016

MARY Bennet & MARY Crawford as MARY Wollstonecraft, the Satan who whispered to Jane Austen: Jane, the Raffish Disciple of Wollstonecraft, abhorred Polwhele’s misogynistic Unsex’d Females

The rain falls mainly on Jane: Colin Firth as Darcy, A Single Man, ‘enry ‘iggins….& Milton’s Satan?

Jane Austen’s profoundly “light, bright & sparkling” (Biblical) subtext in Pride & Prejudice 07/25/2015

Pemberley as Elizabeth Bennet’s Fool’s Paradise (Hall) Lost & Regained  04/24/2016

The Notorious 3rd Duke of Dorset in the subtext of 3 Jane Austen novels (along with Garrick's disturbing Riddle & Joshua Reynolds's disturbing "Cupid as Link-Boy")    03/12/2014

The answer to my latest Jane Austen quiz: Darcy as Jesus and Eliza as Mary Magdalene  06/15/2015

Ill-Humour at Pemberley with Darcy’s Pens and Mrs. Hurst’s Singing     01/30/2015

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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