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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Even more of the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)

After a long gap, the past few days have been busy in the review department for Helena Kelly’s 2016 book Jane Austen - the Secret Radical, to which (some may recall) I wrote a strong first reaction a few months ago here… [“ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)”  ]. In that earlier post, I laid out, one by one, several very very VERY curious and suspicious points of correspondence between the detailed section of her book discussing Northanger Abbey --- and even the title of her book --- on one hand, and my own previously published ideas (online, in live presentations at Austen conferences in both England--where she was present—and the US, as well as in Deborah Yaffe’s detailed chapter about my Austen heresies in Among the Janeites), on the other.

The more high profile recent review is by JASNA headliner Devoney Looser (who’s been writing insightfully about Jane Austen’s feminism for over three decades) in The Times Literary Supplement, in which Looser (much like John Mullan in his Guardian review of Kelly’s book a month ago) mostly damned Kelly’s book with faint and mocking half-praise. As I may not have mentioned in my earlier post, I personally experience a pang of sharp Austenian irony as I read the mostly negative reviews of Kelly’s book, because she is in many ways writing the kind of book I might’ve written in 2009, had I not continued my research the last 8 years, and fleshed out countless additional connections, a process Kelly clearly did not follow, as her reviewers have noted that in much of the book she essentially shot from the hip with only a few bullets in her weapon.

The recent review that prompted me to speak my mind again today about Kelly’s book is not Looser’s, however, it is this one:
January 18, 2017 “Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly” - a review  Rachel Knowles
Knowles’s review made me painfully aware for the first time of yet another bit of “borrowing” (from my publicly expressed ideas about Jane Austen) on Kelly’s part, this time regarding Sense & Sensibility:
“The irresponsibility of men?: In the chapter on Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that Jane was indirectly criticising the men in her family for failing to provide adequately for the women who were dependent on them – Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother. I already knew how hard Jane had found it when her father suddenly decided to give up the living at Steventon and uproot his family from the only home they had ever known and settle them in Bath, but I had never really considered the alternative. Kelly writes that Jane’s father need not have given up the majority of his income to his eldest son – who, by the way, already had the means to support himself – but could have hired a curate to help him and retained most of the income to support his wife and daughters. Another question that I had never asked was why, after the death of Jane’s father, it took Jane's rich brother Edward Knight four years to offer his mother and sisters a permanent home.” 

That sent me right back to find the referenced passage in Kelly’s chapter about Sense & Sensibility:
“There are one or two other elements in S&S which may perhaps point to revision taking place after 1805, and even as late as 1809-10…it was in the summer of 1809 that Jane, her sister Cassandra, their mother, and their old friend Martha Lloyd set up home together in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, in a cottage made available to them by Edward Austen. Edward owned a large house and estate at Chawton in addition to his Kentish property. Chawton Cottage resembles, in almost every particular, even name, Barton Cottage, the small house to which the Dashwood women—all four of them—are obliged to remove…This could almost be a description of Chawton Cottage, which is now open to visitors at the Jane Austen House Museum. Both the real and the fictional cottages are part of the estate of a rich male relation.  Edward’s generosity was welcome, but it was a trifle tardy. The Reverend Austen had died in January 1805, meaning that it took Edward four and a half years to get around to providing his widowed mother and his sisters with a home, four and a half years in which the Austen women had moved from Green Park Buildings to other sets of rooms in Bath, first on Gay Street, then on Trim Street; had paid lengthy visits to Kent, to Bristol, to Gloucestershire, to Staffordshire, before moving to Southampton, to the house in Castle Square where we encountered Jane at the beginning of Chapter 1. So far as we can tell, the offer of the cottage at Chawton arose almost immediately after the death of Edward’s wife Elizabeth-an intriguing coincidence, though one about which we can do no more than speculate.
This isn’t the only apparent autobiographical echo in S&S. The annual income of the Dashwood women, after Mr. Dashwood has died, is L500. The Austen women had around 450L per annum to keep themselves on, plus Martha Lloyd’s contribution…Whether it was intended or not, the most painful echo surely lies in the open pages of S&S, where the security of the Dashwood girls, and their mother, is sacrificed to the future of a toddling little boy; where a home, and almost everything in it, is lost, taken over by a sister in law who is seen as a usurper. This- as we know from Jane’s letters of January 18010- is very much what happened, what she felt had happened, in her own family. The family home given up; financial possibilities sacrificed, and all for a small boy who was unlikely to want for much, all for a dream of carrying on the family name, of shoring up the family legacy. Was James Austen’s wife Mary, who brought friends to look around the Steventon vicarage while her inlaws were still living there, a real-life version of S&S’s acquisitive Fanny Dashwood, with her eye for ‘china’ and ‘any handsome article of furniture’? Well, perhaps. It’s tempting to believe so. At any rate, Jane specifically states that the Dashwood women take both the ‘books’ and Marianne’s ‘handsome pianoforte’ away with them, which is more than she had been allowed to do herself.”

I am now going to walk you through exactly the same sort of specific point-by-point comparison I did in my earlier above-linked post about Kelly’s borrowing of my argument about Mrs. Tilney in NA, and show you that Kelly did pretty much the same thing with my argument about S&S as well!

So, from the above excerpt, I first want you to note the following six bullet points in Kelly’s argument:

ONE: Edward Knight’s “generous” grant of possession of Chawton Cottage to mother and sisters was “a trifle tardy”, Kelly emphasizes repeatedly that it took him “four and a half years” to do this;
TWO: The intriguing coincidence that Edward’s “generosity” was acted on “almost immediately after the death of Edward’s wife Elizabeth”;
THREE: The sacrifice of financial security for “the future of a toddling little boy”;
FOUR: Mary Lloyd Austen is referred to as a “usurper” in Jane Austen’s eyes;
FIVE: Mary Lloyd Austen is seen as a real life Fanny Dashwood glomming onto personal belongings; &
SIX: The loss of Jane Austen’s books and piano.

Now, I will provide you with brief excerpts of my earlier versions of each of these six bullet points in several blog posts of mine all written within a few months of each other nearly 5 years ago (and double posted by me to the Austen-L and Janeites groups) --- obviously long before Kelly wrote her book, and long after (as I explained in my previous post about her book) she heard me speak, and knew that I called Austen a radical feminist. If anyone wants more detail, just follow the URLs I provide, below, and read my points in full context, so you can verify my claims that Kelly, with S&S as with NA, borrowed my points one by one. And please be sure to read to the end of this post, to read one important caveat.

ONE: Edward Austen Knight waited 4 ½ years to be generous:
“I also start from the opinion I have sincerely held for some time, based on all the facts we know about the Austen family history, which is that after the 1805 death of Revd. Austen, the Austen women were condemned to live in a kind of limbo of totally inadequate housing--and the one person who was in the best position to take them from limbo to paradise was Edward Austen Knight-yet he failed to provide them with the keys to Chawton Cottage for FOUR LONG YEARS…”

TWO: Coincidence that Edward acted “almost immediately after the death of Edward’s wife Elizabeth”. And expressing that coincidence repeatedly in various ways:
[in literally the next paragraph in the same post in which I wrote the verbiage re Point ONE, above!];
“Think about it. Edward Austen Knight woke up every day for 1,461 days, and thought, "I am NOT going to provide adequate housing to my mother and sisters today". At least John Dashwood's decision to stiff his mother and sisters out of his father's precatory deathbed request was made during ten minutes of conversation with his wife, and then what was done was done. Edward had to re-make this decision every day for all that long time period. The example of Fanny and John Dashwood's "King Lear" conversation makes you wonder whether JA thought that Edward, perhaps, had not made this decision entirely on his own, and, indeed, did not require repeated reminders from his wife as to why they really could not afford to be too generous to his mother and sisters. All we know for sure is that when Edward Austen Knight's wife dies, within ELEVEN DAYS thereafter, BOOM!----apparently out of nowhere, EAK makes the decision to provide the Austen women with Chawton Cottage. Look at Letter 60, dated 10/24-25/08, if you don't believe me. It's astoundingly obvious when you connect the dates AND the dots. And that is why I am far, far from being the only scholar to reject the claim of coincidence. I am among the many who believe that it was precisely the death of the sister in law who carried such an animus toward JA which was the salvation of the Austen women.

THREE: The sacrifice of financial security for “the future of a toddling little boy”; (March 2012) "Dear Norland" & "Poor Little Harry”: JA's Exile from Steventon: Part Sixty Seven
In the aftermath of the 2011 JASNA AGM a few months ago...I wrote a post which laid out the multigenerational Austen family history underlying the multifaceted allusion by Jane Austen in Sense & Sensibility to the real life dispossession of JA (and her parents and sister, too, of course) from Steventon Rectory by JA's brother James and his wife Mary in 1801. 
That was part and parcel with my previous repeated echoing and extending of several earlier Austen scholars who had pointed out the obvious allusion to James and Mary Austen's 1801 "home invasion" in Chapter 2 of S&S, the famous "King Lear" allusion in which John & Fanny Dashwood sliced and diced the senior Mr. Dashwood's dying bequest to his wife and three daughters (John's half sisters), Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret.
However, it was only yesterday that I connected the dots between that veiled but nonetheless well-recognized allusion to James & Mary Austen in Chapter 2 of S&S (with the backdrop of the Austen family history detailed in my above linked post), on the one hand, and the veiled allusion to JANE Austen's own(and famous) reaction to being dispossessed from Steventon in Chapter 5 of S&S, on the other…
in closing, I just realized that even James Edward Austen Leigh himself gets skewered in S&S, in the character of the spoiled "poor Harry" Dashwood:  "It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?.....He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child...Consider ...that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy...." etc etc.

FOUR: Mary Lloyd Austen is referred to as a “usurper” in Jane Austen’s eyes
“And we know from Letter 35 that Jane Austen left Steventon for Bath during the first week of May, 1801, which means that the time span from the moment JA first learns of the move to Bath, until she finds herself living in Bath, is between just over five months. Hmm......So yes…surely by May, 1801, after an eternity lasting nearly six months (it would be very much the exaggerating mindset of a grasping, greedy USURPER to refer to a time period of five months and four days as "nearly six months") that would try anyone's patience, Mary Austen was indeed quite anxious to have her tiresome in-laws gone from Steventon already. After all, who knew what sort of horrid, malicious rumors these overstaying-their-welcome ingrate in-laws might spread about Mary's attempts to feather her new nest properly, if they continued to be so inconveniently impolite as to remain physically present in Steventon to bear accurate witness to the details of the Massacre,

FIVE: Mary Lloyd Austen is seen as a real life Fanny Dashwood glomming onto personal belongings;
"half a year's residence in her family afforded": The Six-Month Massacre of Steventon
..the following passage in Letter 36 dated May 13, 1801:  "....James I dare say has been over to Ibthrop by this time to enquire particularly after Mrs. Lloyd's health, & forestall whatever intelligence of the sale I might attempt to give.-Sixty-one guineas & a half for the three cows gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables. Eight for my Pianoforte, is about what I really expected to get; I am more anxious to know the amount of my books, especially as they are said to have sold well." 
So you say, "almost reasonable"? I think JA's Letters 29-36, as well as Chapter 2 of S&S, tell us pretty clearly what JA thought and felt about the Massacre of Steventon---a massacre based firmly on the following principle enunciated by JA in Letter 37 dated May 22, 1801:  "The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another.” 
And it is quite interesting to read the characterization of all of the above that was written 70 years later by the real-life model for Fanny Dashwood's "poor little Harry": 
"The loss of their first home is generally a great grief to young persons of strong feeling and lively imagination; and Jane was exceedingly unhappy when she was told that her father, now seventy years of age, had determined to resign his duties to his eldest son, who was to be his successor in the Rectory of Steventon, and to remove with his wife and daughters to Bath. Jane had been absent from home when this resolution was taken; and, as her father was always rapid both in forming his resolutions and in acting on them, she had little time to reconcile herself to the change." 
Tell me, was Jane Austen prescient or not, when she put the following words in Fanny and John Dashwood's mouths in Chapter 2 of S&S: 
"....why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?.... Consider...that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy—" 
"Why, to be sure," said her husband, very gravely, "that would make great difference. THE TIME MAY COME when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition." 
That time _did_ come for the elderly James Edward Austen Leigh when he wrote the above passage in the Memoir, and tried to whitewash over JA's obvious bitter resentment against James & Mary (i.e., against his own parents!) by reframing JA's unhappiness as a response to her father's overhasty decision making predilections, and utterly omitting any reference to James or Mary in that regard! 

 & SIX: The loss of Jane Austen’s books and piano.
[See the references to JA’s books and piano in the above quoted passage in Bullet Point FIVE]

Note in particular that the order of the points made by Kelly is exactly the same as the chronological order of my blog posts which I believe were her primary source therefor. Another coincidence? Of course not! So there you have it, Part Two of my (perhaps, alas, still incomplete) documentation of the borrowings of my ideas by Helena Kelly in her book, without any attribution to me. And now for my promised caveat. Part One was my first post about Kelly’s borrowing of my argument that Mrs. Tilney was Jane Austen’s death-in-childbirth symbol, as to which I continue to assert that I am the first Austen scholar to ever make that claim. Therefore, borrowing of same is a far more serious misdeed, since mine was a totally original interpretation, with a list of bullet points comprising it.

In today’s post, I do NOT claim to be the first Austen scholar to generally point out disturbing parallels between (i) the real life moves of the Austen family from Steventon to Bath in May 1801, and then of the Austen women from Southampton to Chawton Cottage in January 1809, and (ii) the fictional move of the Dashwood women from Norland to Barton Cottage during the first few chapters of S&S, which conflates key aspects of those two real life moves.  I am, and always have been, a stickler for giving credit to pioneers of original thinking, about Jane Austen or any of the other authors I write about, and so I want you all to know that there have been at least two other scholars who paved the way, long before I ever suspected there was anything hidden in Austen’s novels.

Most significantly in this regard, on several occasions, I’ve applauded the late Allison Sulloway for her rarely noticed 1976 (and therefore far-ahead-of-its-time), frankly feminist take on Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood --- in particular the following excellent analysis of painful Austen family history hidden in plain sight in S&S, at 102-3:    
“Austen’s open contempt for her brother James and his wife, Mary, at least in her letters, does not make pleasant reading, but the sources of her grief and anger against them are even more unpleasant. Their worst offense to this affectionate aunt was that they treated their daughters with all the varieties of hostility and contempt that Fanny Price’s two families inflicted on her. And their indifference to the plight of James’s mother and sisters is contemptible. They flaunted their new carriage and pair, their trips, and their plentiful servants, while the little band of women who were now classified with ‘the genteel poor’ scrimped and hoped for tips and presents from wealthy relatives. Mary complained of everybody’s housekeeping except her own, and James infuriated his fiction-writing sister by visiting the three women whenever he became bored with his wife, and by behaving in a boorish fashion, slamming doors, and demanding instant service as a male right. James must have been a rather unpleasant man even as a young curate. When Mr. Austen relinquished his ecclesiastical living in favor of James and then retired to Bath, James coolly bargained for all the household goods at Steventon, for the books, pictures, and silverware, in exactly the same cheap and contemptuous way as did the John Dashwoods in S&S. The cruelest ‘melancholy disproportion’ of all was that Austen’s precious piano and her equally precious books, which she had been able to purchase out of her annual allowance of L20, all had to be sold, not only to finance her father’s retirement in the city of Bath, which she hated, but even more bitter, to help James’s acquisition of the Steventon living from which she was now being expelled….”

Then David Nokes, in his excellent 1998 bio, Jane Austen: A Life, struck a similar chord at p. 237:  
‘Mr. Bent [the auctioneer] seems bent upon being very detestable, ‘she wrote, ‘for he values the books at only L70.’ When she thought of Edward, with all the wealth of Godmersham at his disposal, and James and Mary benefiting from their move to the rectory, she was disposed to be bitter. ‘Mary is more minute’ she noted sourly. Away in London, Eliza was soon hearing rumours of the grand style that was now being affected by the new curate of Steventon. ‘He has made such alterations and embellishments’ she told Phylly, ‘that it is almost a pretty place.’ Austen wrote Cassandra with understandable rancor that even Mr. Austen’s tractable and sweet going little mare had now deserted him, to trot over and pay permanent court to the crown prince of the Steventon rectory, before Mr. Austen and his family of women had even removed to Bath. Yet James had but recently ‘bought a new horse; & Mary [had] got a new maid.’  The pictures, the flatware, and other household goods went to James, while Mr. Austen was frantically ‘doing all in his power to increase his Income by raising his Tythes.’..When Austen remarked, ‘The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another.’ She was expressing the very economic underpinnings of S&S…”  

So let me be very clear --- I’ve never pretended that my argument that JA depicted her own nuclear family’s relocation history in S&S was original--what I do claim is that I’ve developed multiple lines of fresh supportive evidence for the general claims originally made by Sulloway, Nokes, et al. And that matters, because Kelly decided to replicate those very same fresh lines of evidence that I bundled together in a more persuasive argument than merely general assertions, however correct.

What raises my blood pressure is not simply that Kelly is writing about these same themes as if she were the first Austen scholar to think them up (as far as I can see in the online version of her book at Google Books, she does not cite Sulloway, Nokes, or myself, for any of these ideas). That’s bad enough, but it’s not uncommon. No, just as I described in my previous, above-cited post, the devil’s in the details, and the numerous, specific details of Kelly’s argument about S&S demonstrate (exactly as they do in her borrowing of my Northanger Abbey argument) that her primary source for these ideas was almost certainly me. She is a careless borrower, and does not work particularly hard to disguise it. That’s what she did in NA, and now I know, that’s what she also did vis a vis S&S --- and look at how reviewers, like Criado-Perez in her glowing Guardian review of several months ago, and now Knowles in her less than glowing review of the other day, just happen to notice and mention the very points that Kelly borrowed from me. This is not an accident, and it’s not okay.

I conclude by making clear what I did not in my first post--- I did those extra years of research and waited till now to finally land the plane and get my book done this year, precisely because I understand how high the bar is on showing that what I call the Myth of Jane Austen as a conservative is in its totality just that, a fraud perpetrated on the world for two centuries. It’s a very tall order, and now I believe I can successfully meet that challenge. So stay tuned the rest of 2017, but in the meanwhile don’t let negative reactions to Kelly’s book make you think her title (or should I say, my title that she borrowed) is wrong – the argument that Jane Austen was a secret radical feminist just needs to be made much more carefully and completely.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

In Austen-L, I received a lovely response from Elaine Pigeon:

Elaine: "Arnie, I read your post with interest. It is hard to pinpoint the plagiarism as Ms Kelly has been crafty by drawing on facts that are within the public domain, but for you, it must be glaringly evident since she follows the same developmental order and even uses a few words that you do, like usurp — how telling! The fact that she has met you and even attended one of your talks says a lot."

Elaine, first I truly am grateful to you (and all others who have responded similarly in the past few months) for your careful reading of my later post about Kelly's book, it means a great deal to me to receive such careful and well-considered support. I am not sure from what you wrote whether you read my first post a few months ago about Kelly's "borrowing" from me -- it is much more obvious and significant-- and so (as you suggested later in your reply) the combination of what I describe in the two posts is ten times more telling than when each is taken separately. 

Just as the quadruple coincidence in P&P (Wickham, Darcy, Collins & Mrs. Gardiner "independently" zero in on Elizabeth Bennet at nearly the same time) is exponentially less likely to be random than a single coincidence, so too is the quadruple "borrowing" from me by Kelly exponentially less likely to be "great minds think alike". As I wrote in my first post, even I was amazed when I realized the full extent of what she took from me, and also the many ways she would easily have become closely acquainted with my work, after those two close encounters at Chawton House (2009) and Oxford (2007). 

Elaine: "Had she acknowledged you (and the others) it would show the thinness of her contribution."

Exactly so! In a way, I should be flattered, because she clearly found my arguments and evidence convincing enough to give them such a full repetition in her book.

"Although the chapter on S&S may not be enough to go on, I would say that cumulatively it does add up. I wonder how the woman imagines she can every present at an Austen conference or be accepted by Austen scholars? I encourage you to pursue this."

I will continue this measured approach for now, making sure that people who know about her book, especially reviewers, also know about how much it took from my work. In the end, I now believe, after reading the reactions she has gotten, that she will have helped pave the way for my own book to come -- I will aspire to show skeptics the right combination of evidence to convince them, in ways that Kelly was just not up to the task of doing. As I wrote yesterday, she even took from me stuff I was saying ten years ago that I no longer say (like "Everything you think you know about Jane Austen is wrong"), because I received such useful feedback in these groups that such statements are not going to be received well-and I also arrived at a much more nuanced understanding of the shadow stories I had discovered. Kelly just skimmed the cream off the top, and that will not cut it.


Just Jane 1813 said...

I look forward to reading your book. Thank you for sharing this comprehensive post!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks, Claudine!