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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 29, 2017

7 famous Austen haters (some of who really weren’t)

This morning I happened upon the following article that first ran over 4 years ago:
“7 People Who Hated Pride & Prejudice” by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

In the article, after some introductory comments on the enduring worldwide popularity and fame of Pride & Prejudice, McRobbie turned to her main topic:  
“…Despite how beloved Pride and Prejudice is, there have been plenty of people who hated it. Here are seven of them….”

I missed that article when it was first published on the bicentennial of the first publication of Pride & Prejudice on January 28, 1813, but its popping up again online gives me the perfect opportunity, in one blog post, to debunk the myth of several of those supposed haters of P&P, the two most famous of whom I am certain were actually closet Janeites –read on to find out which ones!

“CHARLOTTE BRONTË: In 1848, 41 years after Austen’s death, Charlotte Brontë picked up Pride and Prejudice on the recommendation of friend and literary critic George Henry Lewes. Brontë, author of the grim “romance” Jane Eyre, wasn’t backwards about coming forward with her criticism: “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point,” she wrote, explaining that she got the book after Lewes talked it up. “And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fenced, high-cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” Two years later, Brontë took up the theme again, in a letter to another friend: “[A]nything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well ... [But] She no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman.”

Now, here are links to three of my prior blog posts, which collectively give a range of evidence for why I am certain that Charlotte Bronte was actually a closet Janeite who emulated several of Austen’s novels:

Rest assured, my claim is not based solely on the intriguing fact that, in Jane Eyre, the first name of the heroine (Jane) followed by the middle name of the hero (Fairfax), combine to give us “Jane Fairfax”. That, of course, is the name of the shadow heroine of Austen’s Emma, who speaks the following poignant words, with great passion, to her false friend Mrs. Elton, about needing to take on the undesirable position of a governess---I’m sure you’ll agree that these are words we’d have expected to hear from Bronte’s fiercely honest, outspoken, protofeminist Jane Eyre herself:
“…When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”
“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies….” 

That and numerous other hints scattered in the text of Jane Eyre by “Currer Bell” have long since shown  me that Charlotte Bronte, flush with the success of her first published novel, got a big kick out of totally punking Lewes ---who, while a diehard Janeite, and presumably a worthy life partner to George Eliot, was however a little too serious and way too gullible for his own good, and so had a tin ear for a clever put-on –sorta like Mr. Collins not realizing that Mr. Bennet is putting him on:
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

So, Charlotte Bronte, closet Janeite – check. Now let’s go on to the next supposed P&P hater….

“WINSTON CHURCHILL: It's a little too strong to say that Winston Churchill hated Pride and Prejudice, as Britain’s beloved Prime Minister seems to have found some comfort in the book as the Second World War ground on. But he did have some mild complaint about it: “What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion as far as they could, together with cultural explanations of any mischances.” “

I checked, and saw that the full context of the Churchill quote makes it less negative, since it sounds like only a part of P&P was read to him while he was feverish, and so not in the best frame of mind to recognize the presence of the real world of the Napoleonic Wars at the center of P&P with Wickham and his fellow militiamen in Meryton and Brighton:
“The days passed in much discomfort. Fever flickered in and out. I lived on my theme of the war, and it was like being transported out of oneself. The doctors tried to keep the work away from my bedside, but I defied them. They all kept on saying, “Don’t work, don’t worry,” to such an extent that I decided to read a novel.  I had long ago read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and now I thought I would have Pride and Prejudice. Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. I had always thought it would be better than its rival. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”  

Also, had the great English mid-20th century leader read Emma, he might’ve realized that Austen gave Frank Churchill in Emma that famous surname, so as to wink at the complex romantic entanglements of Sir Winston’s equally famous war hero ancestor, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, who saved his country’s skin in the early 18th century!

In all events, Prime Minster Winston Churchill was surely no Austen hater, based on all the evidence.

And that now brings us to #3 in our literary murderer’s row:

McRobbie: “RALPH WALDO EMERSON: Ralph Waldo Emerson, having read both Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, bemoaned the fact that all anyone in the books seemed to care about was money and marriage: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow ... Suicide is more respectable.””

I hadn’t previously been aware of Emerson’s benighted point of view on Austen’s writing – alas, I can find no saving grace or trace of irony in his bitter invective toward Austen’s fiction --- suffice to say that when the worthy Transcendentalist savages her alleged Jane’s tone, invention, wit, and genius, he only smears himself with his own deeply misguided brush, since we all know her to be the apex of all those writerly gifts. Emerson doth protest too much, and my speculation is that, although the above quote is found in one of his private journals, perhaps Emerson was also pushing back against the gentle Janeite urgings I imagine he received from the assertive daughter of his great friend Bronson Alcott. Of course I refer to Louisa May Alcott, whose March family of girls in Little Women et al clearly draws major inspiration from Austen’s Bennet family of girls. And so, I must agree that Emerson was, by all appearances, indeed an Austen hater, whose pride perhaps “transcended” his understanding.

So a common theme begins to emerge among these famous Austen haters, real and imagined—that of being provoked into discomfort by a passionate Janeite close to them, bugging them to read and love Jane Austen! Now, I ask you, my fellow Janeites reading this, how many times has this scenario played out in your own life?? ‘Fess us: if you’re like me, at least once or twice, before you learned your lesson, which is that we Janeites can at times take on the appearance of a zealous cult, to those on the outside.

And with that caveat, let’s move on to the next supposed hater:

McRobbie: “VIRGINIA WOOLF: The Mrs. Dalloway writer, in a 1932 letter to a friend, had faint praise for Austen: “Whatever ‘Bloomsbury’ may think of Jane Austen, she is not by any means one of my favourites. I’d give all she ever wrote for half what the Brontës wrote—if my reason did not compel me to see that she is a magnificent artist.” “

First, to read the above quotation as indicating Woolf hated Austen’s writing is to grossly misread Woolf’s cleverly phrased irony – “magnificent artist” doesn’t sound like the words of a hater! But, beyond that, it’s well known that Woolf was an ardent Austen admirer, as most memorably summed up in Woolf’s bon mot about Austen being “of all great writers…the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness…”  Just read A Room of One’s Own for a lot more where that quote came from! So, Woolf, most assuredly NOT an Austen hater!

But…now we come to the other true Austen hater among the seven, a man without the slightest apparent self-awareness of his own grotesquely virulent misogyny:

McRobbie: “D.H. LAWRENCE: D.H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (published in 1928), intensely disliked the England Jane Austen represented both in her novels and personally. In 1930, he wrote, “This again, is the tragedy of social life today. In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying and unjust, yet in some ways, they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream. We feel it in Defoe or Fielding. And then, in the mean Jane Austen, it is gone. Already this old maid typifies 'personality' instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness instead of togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense.” “

I don’t know which is worse, Lawrence’s unwitting misogyny or his utter failure to grasp Austen’s sharp satire of the snobbishness of the English self-styled elite – Lady Catherine de Burgh being Exhibit A.

I will move quickly past Madame de Stael, as my small acquaintance with her writing enables me to say only that I infinitely prefer Jane Austen’s subtle erudition to de Stael’s seemingly overblown rhetorical blasts, which appear to me to be the kind of writing that Sir Edward Denham, the fulsome poetry-mad fool of Sanditon, would have loved.

“This French-speaking Swiss writer, a great patron of the literary salon who lived contemporaneously with Jane Austen (they even died in the same year), pronounced Pride and Prejudice "vulgaire." “

What de Stael meant by calling P&P vulgar is especially mysterious, given that P&P is so obviously the opposite of vulgar in every fair sense of the word.

And now we come to the last, and perhaps the most famous, supposed Austen hater of all:

McRobbie: “MARK TWAIN: It was that great American man of letters, Mark Twain, who had the meanest thing to say about poor, dead Jane Austen and her books: “I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”  “

As with Charlotte Bronte, I’ve known for over a decade that Mark Twain was a closet Janeite, and that his hatred of Austen was a put-on! Here are my two prior posts that make a detailed case in this regard:

As I explained therein, once again, we have a clever put-on, designed to prank an earnest Janeite with a tin ear for irony – in this case, Twain’s longtime friend, William Dean Howells! And how hard is it to recognize the irony of “Every time I read P&P”---- what sort of Austen hater reads P&P over and over!!??

And so there you have the tale of the famous Austen haters who weren’t.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAusten on Twitter

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Jane Austen’s Regency Era Handmaid’s Tale

My wife and I have it on our shortlist to binge-watch the Hulu miniseries of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at some point this summer. Of course, that is the highly acclaimed new film adaptation (starring Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, and Alexis Bledel, among others) of Atwood’s prescient novel, as neatly encapsulized by Wikipedia:
“…a 1985 dystopian novel set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the United States government, the novel explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain individualism and independence.”

In light of events unfolding in the U.S., in which the prospect of a totalitarian theocracy, cynically imposed on America by a pack of “mad men” led by the maddest grabber of them all, is no longer merely the stuff of speculative fiction, Atwood’s cautionary tale harking back to once upon a dark time in Salem when women were murdered as “witches”, is all too timely.

In that context, yesterday, my eyes widened when I read the following Atwood tidbit in an article in the Guardian about various modern authors’s personal takes on Jane Austen’s fiction:  
Pride & Prejudice ‘set a bad example’ to the 12-year-old Margaret Atwood, she has scribbled, by exposing the young girl to ‘a hero who was unpleasant to the heroine, but later turned out to be not only admirable and devotedly in love with her, but royally rich…Were underage readers of this book, such as myself, doomed to a series of initially hopeful liaisons in which unpleasant men turned out to be simply unpleasant?’ “

My eye was caught immediately by Atwood’s skeptical take on P&P, because I’ve been aware since 2009 of Atwood’s likely interest in the subversive feminist aspects of Northanger Abbey. That idea first occurred to me after I read the following in “The Bluebeard Syndrome in Atwood's Lady Oracle: Fear and Femininity” (2005) by Shuli Barzilai:  
“When asked by Joyce Carol Oates in a 1978 interview about what inspired Lady Oracle, Atwood replied: ‘the central character is a writer of gothic romances partly because I've always wondered what it was about these books that appealed—do so many women think of themselves as menaced on all sides, and of their husbands as potential murderers? And what about that 'Mad Wife' left over from Jane Eyre? Are these our secret plots?’  "

I connected Atwood to Northanger Abbey because, in a nutshell, my 2010 presentation at the JASNA AGM was about Mrs. Tilney in NA as the ghostly symbol of English wives “murdered” by their husbands via pregnancy and childbirth. In my talk, I argued that Austen was, inter alia, drawing upon the same rich Gothic tradition of the Bluebeard archetype as Atwood did much later in Lady Oracle. I also wondered at the time whether Atwood had, whether consciously or not, been inspired by Austen’s earlier take on that same dark theme (and, by the way, this subject of the death-in-childbirth theme of NA is the identical subject matter which Helena Kelly “borrowed” from me, without even so much as a by-your-leave, in the best section of her new Austen book –you’re welcome, Ms. Kelly, if you’re reading this!:  
ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)”

In any event, because I have long known about Atwood’s seeming responsiveness to Austen’s subversive Gothic anti-parody in NA, with its subtext of wives in dire peril from their husbands in “ordinary” English marriage, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn of the preteen Atwood’s acute insight into the darker side of Mr. Darcy, a topic which I’ve been writing about for nearly a decade in regard to what I call the “shadow story” of Pride & Prejudice.

The youthful Atwood’s suspicion of Austen’s seeming endorsement of wish fulfilment thinking for young single women vicariously thrilling to Elizabeth’s courtship jackpot, resonates very strongly with my claim that P&P is a double story: i.e., even though, in the overt story of P&P, the Darcy every Janeite knows does indeed, in Atwood’s words, luckily turn out to be ‘not only admirable and devotedly in love with her, but royally rich’; whereas in the shadow story of P&P, the other Darcy, the evil twin in the shadow story, turns out to be not simply unpleasant, but downright Machiavellian and dangerous!

How so? The shadow Darcy I’ve discovered hidden in the text of Austen’s most famous and popular novel is the kind of ‘royally rich’ powerful, entitled man who will not take ‘No!’ for an answer from a woman he desires; and so, when he exercises his “option” to claim Elizabeth as a wife as a matter of right, and Elizabeth politely tells him (basically) to sod off, he does not simply slink off in ignominy and lick his wounds. Instead, turning the famous first sentence of P&P topsy turvy, the shadow Darcy, who considers any single woman he selects to be in want of him as a husband, wastes no time in adopting the self-help remedy of making her want him—starting with his famous letter, which, viewed through the shadow story lens, is filled with clever lies from one end to the other!

I.e., the shadow Darcy out-Wickhams Wickham! He is a toxic narcissist who, contrary to his “confession” at the end of the novel, has not been ‘properly humbled’ at all, but merely pretends to be. When thwarted by Elizabeth’s courageous rejection of his first marriage proposal, what he does, in an abhorrently deceitful way, is to coldly and methodically stage-manage a series of experiences for her, all carefully designed so as to humble her. He destroys her resistance to the allure of his wealth and power, and eventually reduces her to a miserable state of craven gratitude and desperate yearning for him to propose again.

So the joke is on Elizabeth when she playfully “confesses” to Jane how she fell in love with Darcy: "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." As to which the shadow Darcy, if he could have heard her words, no doubt would have joked in private triumph to Colonel Fitzwilliam, like Prospero crowing to Ariel:  “It turns out exactly as I planned. Her resistance is no more.”

And speaking of female resistance to patriarchal power, that’s what came up for me when I read the young Margaret Atwood’s sharp intuitive take on P&P.  Jane Austen creates two extremes – the ultimate female fantasy fulfilled, and that same fantasy revealed to be the ultimate female paranoid nightmare—that latter being, in Atwoodian terms, a Regency Era handmaid’s tale, in which ordinary English marriage is actually a nightmare for the wife.

Henry Tilney unwittingly summarizes this nightmare thusly:
"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

What most Janeites still don’t understand, is that Jane Austen meant for her readers, especially the females, to recognize that Henry Tilney ought to have congratulated, rather than castigated, Catherine Morland, for her sharp intuition into how the “election” of spouses in the Regency Era was totally rigged against the interest of the female.

And so now I hope you see that quote written by the young Margaret Atwood is in this same insightful vein, and this kind of insight is surely what motivated her to write her iconic tales of subversive female resistance to marital subjugation. Both Austen and Atwood wished to provide female readers with useful guides so as to find realistic love attained via a pragmatic, clear-eyed, patient approach to the choice of a partner in love—but at all times to be vigilant to the persistence of state- and religious-based male oppression of women.

Although things have changed enough in the Western world for Atwood not to have to conceal her sharp feminist message in her fiction, it is high time we all recognized that Jane Austen was already on that same page two centuries ago, but could only tell her Regency Era handmaid’s tale in a whisper spoken from behind a veil.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sir Thomas Bertram’s disturbingly “injudicious” particularity…toward his nubile female relations!

It’s been nearly eight years since I first began writing about both Sir Thomas Bertram and his all too compliant son Edmund, of course in Austen’s Mansfield Park, as both bearing a disturbing resemblance to Pandarus from Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida, with the 18 year old Fanny forced to play the role of Cressida. First she is ogled by her uncle upon his return from Antigua, and then, shortly thereafter, he attempts in effect to sell her to Henry Crawford, until she haltingly but bravely objects to being treated as a inanimate commodity without a say in the matter of her entire future life.

For example, in this post…  …I wrote the following:

“In Mansfield Park, Chapter 21, we read Edmund Bertram (or as this speech to Fanny marks him, a Pandar-in-Training) pushing cousin Fanny Price to accept unacceptable ogling by her uncle:

"... But when did you, or anybody, ever get a compliment from me, Fanny? Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will satisfy you. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time."
Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.
"Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle's admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman."
"Oh! don't talk so, don't talk so," cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of..."

It occurred to me this morning to compare the above passage to the following passage in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 13, describing the end of Catherine Morland’s visit to the Tilney residence in Bath:

"The general attended her himself to the street-door, saying everything gallant as they went downstairs, admiring the elasticity of her walk, which corresponded exactly with the spirit of her dancing, and making her one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld, when they parted. Catherine, delighted by all that had passed, proceeded gaily to Pulteney Street, walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before...."

Now, how to account for the extreme difference in reaction in two parallel situations, i.e., in both we have an 18 year old girl receiving compliments on her beauty from a much older man? I.e., why does Fanny freak out inside while Catherine gets an extra skip in her stride? I suggest to you that the explanation is simple and powerful--- Catherine has no history of being sexually abused, but Fanny does….”

However, it was not until this morning that I realized that Sir Thomas’s ogling of Fanny could have been predicted by a close reader of the following passage in Chapter 2 of MP, in which we are introduced to Bertram family dynamics when Fanny first arrives at Mansfield Park:

“The young people were all at home, and sustained their share in the introduction very well, with much good humour, and no embarrassment, at least on the part of the sons, who, at seventeen and sixteen, and tall of their age, had all the grandeur of men in the eyes of their little cousin. The two girls were more at a loss from being younger and in greater awe of their father, who addressed them on the occasion with RATHER AN INJUDICIOUS PARTICULARITY. But they were too much used to company and praise to have anything like natural shyness; and their confidence increasing from their cousin’s total want of it, they were soon able to take a full survey of her face and her frock in easy indifference.
They were a remarkably fine family, the sons very well-looking, the daughters decidedly handsome, and all of them well-grown and forward of their age, which produced as striking a difference between the cousins in person, as education had given to their address; and no one would have supposed the girls so nearly of an age as they really were. There were in fact but two years between the youngest and Fanny. Julia Bertram was only twelve, and Maria but a year older.”

While relatively innocuous interpretations of what is meant by Sir Thomas’s “injudicious particularity” are not implausible (e.g., Deidre Lynch’s 2016 annotation: “[It] suggests that he has discomfited his daughters by singling them out for attention or has spoken with excessive minuteness (another sense of particularity) about how he expects them to behave toward their little cousin…”), it is clear to me that Jane Austen also meant for her careful rereaders to notice the disturbing resonance of that ambiguous passage in Chapter 2 ---- in which Sir Thomas can all-too-plausibly be understood to be making very pointed comments about his 12- and 13-year old daughters’ early-blossoming figures --- with Sir Thomas’s explicit ogling of the 18-year old Fanny’s late-developing female body which, as I’ve argued many times, Edmund appallingly tries to blame on the victim, Fanny, in Chapter 21. That we hear of Maria’s and Julia’s lack of “natural shyness”, that they compare themselves to Fanny in physical appearance, and that we then immediately hear that they are “decidedly handsome”, all point to Sir Thomas’s injudiciousness being that of having no proper sexual boundaries with his own nubile young daughters (reminding us of yet another disturbing parallel between Sir Thomas and a powerful man in the news today, besides those I have pointed out previously).

As always seems to be the case with Jane Austen’s fiction, it took perhaps my twentieth reading of that passage over twenty years to notice what had slipped right past me the first nineteen times. That is partly my bad, but it’s also the result of Mansfield Park’s drily ironic narrator being especially delicate and discreet when describing the most disturbing matters. It’s as if it really was Jane Austen herself speaking: a worldly wise and mature woman, who, as Mitford famously observed, quietly observed everything around her, was too polite --- or careful as to deniability--- to be explicit, but made sure she gave just enough data so that a sharp-eyed reader could fill in the blanks of what was deliberately left implicit.

I never realized till this moment how much Jane Austen meant it when she famously wrote, at the end of MP:  “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”   Now I see that this oft-quoted line is not just about leaving out almost all of the details of what happens in the rushed, unromantic ending of the novel; it’s reminding us, looking ahead to the next rereading, that it has been that way from the very first page, so keep an eye out for the guilt and misery which has not been dwelt on, but which has nonetheless been given just enough emphasis not to be ignored.

Still skeptical? Then, before I close, let me show you a few other passages in MP, in which the word “particularity” has that same subtly suggestive connotation of sexuality:
Chapter 12: “I dare say he did, ma’am. Mr. Rushworth is never remiss. But dear Maria has such a strict sense of propriety, so much of that true delicacy which one seldom meets with nowadays, Mrs. Rushworth—that wish of avoiding PARTICULARITY!...”

Chapter 32: “You must have been aware,” continued Sir Thomas presently, “you must have been some time aware of a PARTICULARITY in Mr. Crawford’s manners to you. This cannot have taken you by surprise. You must have observed his attentions; and though you always received them very properly (I have no accusation to make on that head), I never perceived them to be unpleasant to you. I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings.”
“Oh yes, sir! indeed I do. His attentions were always—what I did not like.”

Chapter 36: [Fanny to Mary] “…As to your brother’s [i.e., Henry’s] behaviour, certainly I was sensible of a PARTICULARITY: I had been sensible of it some little time, perhaps two or three weeks; but then I considered it as meaning nothing: I put it down as simply being his way, and was as far from supposing as from wishing him to have any serious thoughts of me….”

And so, when I think of Sir Thomas’s little smile when he is getting ready to exile Fanny to Portsmouth, to teach her to renounce her “disgusting” “independence of spirit”, and now think about how Fanny is only Sir Thomas’s latest family victim, it makes me “quite hate him” even more than before.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

“Long live! Hail, Austen!”: The Julius Seize-Her at the heart of Mansfield Park

In Austen-L and Janeites today, Diane Reynolds wrote: "I love to see art having relevance: Terrific article on a NY staging of Julius Caesar with a Trump-like Caesar...I am reminded of what I used to read in graduate school of the dangerous political ground "Roman" plays used to tread on in the early 17th century. This is apropos to Austen as she loved Shakespeare..."

Diane, as I know you know, Austen’s love of Shakespeare is universally acknowledged by mainstream Austen scholars, because the explicit references to Shakespeare in Mansfield Park are so strong that even those diehards who otherwise remain skeptical of the breadth and depth of JA’s literary knowledge cannot avoid the fair import of this exchange:

“It will be a favourite, I believe, from this hour,” replied Crawford; “but I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”
“No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent.”

As perhaps you don’t recall, Diane, in October 2014 I gave a talk about the "Shakespeare in Mansfield Park"  at the JASNA AGM in Montreal, and then repeated it for the Portland JASNA chapter later in 2014. In that talk, I spoke about a great deal of previously unrecognized evidence I found in MP, of JA’s knowing, and alluding to, many Shakespeare plays “pretty thoroughly” indeed; including, notably among the heretofore unrecognized allusions in MP, several thinly veiled winks at Julius Caesar. Of course, the explicit allusion to Shakespeare’s most famous Roman play in MP has been noted, but always in passing, on the way to other, supposedly more significant allusions. I.e., “How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement!” has always been read as a bit of background, evidence of how Shakespeare was read aloud in family salons as  practice in elocution. But what if that was actually a clue to a web of implicit allusions as well?

Those latter allusions include what I find to be the most audaciously groanworthy pun in all of JA’s writing, which I found several years ago hiding in plain sight in this passage in Chapter 40 of MP:

“Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself. In this occupation she hoped, moreover, TO BURY some of the recollections of Mansfield, which were too apt to SEIZE HER mind if her fingers only were busy; and, especially at this time, hoped it might be useful in diverting her thoughts from pursuing Edmund to London, whither, on the authority of her aunt's last letter, she knew he was gone.”

The clue I’ve given is in the words I capitalized (or, to borrow Shakespeare’s pun, Capitol-ized):


The Shakespeareans amongst you will recognize the source of my pun in this pun-drenched exchange:

LORD POLONIUS That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.
HAMLET  What did you enact?
LORD POLONIUS  I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i' the CAPITOL; Brutus killed me.
HAMLET  It was a brute part of him to kill so CAPITAL a calf there. Be the players ready?

But back to Jane Austen’s “TO BURY…CAESAR”. That of course points unmistakably to the universally famous opening of Mark Antony’s eulogy for his fallen leader who aspired to godhood:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears (or, as Mary Crawford would say, your rears)  
I come TO BURY CAESAR, not to praise him.

So, have I already convinced some of you that this “to bury Caesar” I see in MP is one of the passages that the description of the Bertrams’ elocution practice was pointing to? Even if so, surely some others among you will think I’m out too far on a limb with this one. But blessed are the skeptics, because they require more evidence --- and fortunately, I’ve got lots more!

First, I assure you that this is the single, solitary usage of that exact Caesar-homophone “seize her” in all six Austen novels, as well as in her juvenilia, fragments, and letters. And so, given the uniqueness of that phrase in the Austen canon, don’t you find it suspicious that it just happens to have Antony’s “to bury” (a usage which appears four times in MP, but only once in any of JA’s other novels, hence is also nearly unique to MP) right before it in the same sentence?! What are the odds of that happening randomly in the Austen novel which openly celebrates Shakespeare repeatedly, and which even refers explicitly to mourning over the body of Julius Caesar? Vanishingly small!

But where, the punctilious amongst you might then ask, is the “I come…not to…” part of Antony’s great line? It seems untidy of Jane Austen to fail to cover that base. Well, we need only look a bit more than a single chapter later, at the very start of Chapter 42, to find the verbiage which perfectly brackets Chapter 40’s “TO BURY…SEIZE HER”:

“The Prices were just setting off for church the next day when Mr. Crawford appeared again. HE CAME, NOT to stop, but TO join them; he was asked to go with them to the Garrison chapel, which was exactly what he had intended, and they all walked thither together.”

Now, when we reassemble those jigsaw pieces which JA has ever so slightly jumbled in this way, we have “HE CAME…TO BURY…SEIZE HER,…NOT TO” in all its Roman splendor!

That alone is, I think, proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Jane Austen, that known inveterate punster and wordplayer (an obsession she happily shared with Shakespeare), was winking at Julius Caesar in that single, innocuous sentence about Fanny and Susan, which seems the furthest thing from Shakespearean tragedy. But that’s only the outer layer of the onion, it’s time to peel off the next layer to see what else lies in the next one.

Recall that Julius Caesar is not only a tragedy heavily based on an actual biography (by Plutarch) of Caesar’s life and death, but it is also a play, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, written in poetry. So we can readily imagine that Fanny chose Julius Caesar as the “biography and poetry” reading she chose to share with Susan, which narration, filtered through Fanny’s mind, would organically incorporate “bits and scraps” of Shakespeare’s poetic verbiage!

So Jane Austen has indeed touched even more Shakespearean bases as well in that short, seemingly trivial passage. But there’s still one more large Shakespearean base which Jane Austen touched in that allusion, which we find when we reach the third and richest layer of JA’s literary onion. These passages in MP are not just a punning, erudite, literary word game, in which Austen idly shows off her literary knowledge for a tiny coterie of cognoscenti.

Recognizing this allusion turns out to provide a key to interpreting the inner life of one of literature’s most enigmatic protagonists, Fanny Price; who, as I went on to explain in my talk, is at that very instant in the gravest danger of falling head over heels in love with Henry Crawford--i.e., of having a hole made in her heart as Henry brashly predicted he would do two dozen chapters earlier.

It would be tragic indeed, albeit on the small scale of Jane Austen’s two inches of ivory instead of the Roman Empire, if Henry somehow managed to seduce Fanny while she is most vulnerable and trusting (just like Caesar among his seemingly devoted followers, most of all, Brutus). Et tu, Henry, anybody?
So, it is also surely no coincidence that we find the following speech in Act 4, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, this one spoken by Antony to Brutus:

To paraphrase Darcy, had Henry managed to complete his seduction, and make a hole in Fanny’s nether “heart” as well, and then, having satisfied his perverse freak, chose, Willoughby-like, to run off with Maria, then his degenerate triumph would indeed have been complete, and irreversibly tragic for Fanny. We might even find ourselves, at the end of the novel, also mourning over her body. And doesn’t that go to the essence of why Mansfield Park has always been seen by Janeites in the same light as Bardolaters see Troilus & Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (which also each take a bow in the subtext of MP)?

And so, the onion is now fully peeled (at least, I think that I’ve gotten them all, although I’ve learned that you can’t ever be certain of a complete solution of the literary riddles posed by the Sphinx of Chawton Cottage). But before I close, I will point out one final textual wink, in Antony’s above-quoted reference to Brutus’s “bad strokes”.

Keep that in mind as I now show you the narration at the start of Chapter 19 of MP in which the narrator describes the shock of the return of Sir Thomas to Mansfield Park from Antigua to be confronted by Lovers Vows in rehearsal. That is an episode which I’ve repeatedly claimed was designed by Jane Austen to track, in various ways, the shock experienced by Claudius when confronted with the Mousetrap in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Hamlet.

And so I am certain that this Shakespearean tragic context is the reason why we find that same unusual word “stroke” also used, as Antony used it, with a very negative connotation:

“How is the consternation of the party to be described? To the greater number it was a moment of absolute horror. Sir Thomas in the house! All felt the instantaneous conviction. Not a hope of imposition or mistake was harboured anywhere. Julia’s looks were an evidence of the fact that made it indisputable; and after the first starts and exclamations, not a word was spoken for half a minute: each with an altered countenance was looking at some other, and ALMOST EACH WAS FEELING IT A STROKE THE MOST UNWELCOME, MOST ILL-TIMED, MOST APPALLING!”

And there, I’ll stop, hoping you have found my musings welcome, well-timed, and thrilling; and allow me to also cry “Long live! Hail, Austen!”, in honor of Mansfield Park, the fourth of her six great strokes of Shakespeare-drenched genius, in which she took on the Donald Trumps of her era, not only in her masterful portrayal of the rich, narcissistic seducer Henry Crawford, but also, on a cloaked level, of that hypocritical, greedy, heartless master of the universe (seen so clearly by Patricia Rozema in her 1999 film), Sir Thomas Bertram.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, June 12, 2017

Liking Elaine Bander’s Clueful “ ‘Liking’ Emma Woodhouse” a great deal

From my first JASNA AGM in 2005, when I heard Elaine Bander present a breakout session (about parallels among three 1814 novels: Austen’s Mansfield Park, Burney’s The Wanderer, and Edgeworth’s Patronage), I’ve been a major fan of Elaine. She and Juliet McMaster have long epitomized for me the very best of mainstream Austen scholarship. Elaine unfailingly writes with great insight, clarity, and tact about aspects of Jane Austen’s fiction and biography which go to the heart of what makes Austen great,  helping to illuminate the unending delights of reading JA two centuries after her death. Best of all, never does even a hint of litcrit jargon creep into Elaine’s lucid, witty prose.

So, even though Elaine and I approach Austen from very different points of view (she invariably focuses on what I call Jane Austen’s “overt stories”, whereas I am almost always delving into JA’s “shadow stories”), I always learn a great deal from, and find my critical imagination sharply stimulated by, pretty much everything Elaine writes about JA. That is partly because Elaine has a nose for what matters most in the fictional worlds of the novels; but it’s also what I realized in 2005—i.e., that Jane Austen intended both Elaine’s and my (seemingly irreconcilable) interpretations to be valid! The remainder of this post will be my attempt to transcend that apparent paradox, by articulating how closely linked Elaine’s deep interpretation of the overt story of Emma is to my interpretation of its shadow story.

But I will keep Emma cooling its heels another moment at the “door” of this post, and first present the most notable example to date of how Elaine’s mainstream interpretations inform my shadowy ones. It was her talk at the 2012 JASNA AGM about the allusive presence of Burney’s Cecilia (Elaine is as much a Burney, as an Austen, expert) beneath the light, bright, and sparkling surface of Pride & Prejudice.  Through her close reading of numerous significant parallels between Burney’s novel and Austen’s (as the latter is normatively read), Elaine enabled me to see a crucial new strand of the shadow story of P&P (that which involves Elizabeth Bennet as the unwitting heiress of Pemberley, and which I posted about here in 2013: through that same Burney prism. Jane Austen is great (in both senses) enough to comfortably encompass both of our seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints, because Jane Austen never meant for them to be reconciled, only to be separately appreciated for their very different, yet related, beauties and insights.

And that finally brings me to my main subject today, which is Elaine’s latest Austenian scholarly production: her article entitled “ ‘Liking’ Emma Woodhouse” in the recently published 2016 print Persuasions (it fittingly takes pride of place as the first article in the volume). In it, Elaine takes on two main subjects, and the one I will respond to in this post is her extended explanation of  “why Austen would deliberately create a disagreeable heroine” like Emma. My modus operandi will be to cherry pick three specific statements made by Elaine, and then respond to each from my alternative perspective, and to show how they each function as a funhouse mirror for the other. However, I urge you to read her article in full when you get a chance, because it is Elaine at the top of her game, and only a complete reading by itself will do her own thesis justice.

Elaine: “[Emma] treats most of the people around her (although never her father nor Mr. Knightley) as though they were characters in a novel that she is writing. Granted, it’s a bad novel, full of the very novel clichés that Austen set about to undermine, but, nevertheless, Emma’s creative temperament appears akin in many ways to Austen’s own.”

I’ve long argued that the supreme genius of JA’s dual construction of Emma is that, in the shadow story, Emma is not completely clueless in the sense of having no idea of what is really happening, most of all with respect to the shadow heroine, Jane Fairfax (as to whom the key questions which absorb Emma are about why Jane returns to Highbury in the first place, who is wooing Jane, to whom does Jane return her affections (in particular who might be the engaged man Emma is convinced Jane loves).  Rather, Emma is often almost correct in her guesses. It’s as if the aim of Emma’s intuitive bow is initially perfect, and she identifies the key points that really do matter; but then, when her arrow of insight is only inches from the bulls-eye, suddenly a gust of fairy dust (sent by Puck aka Jane Austen) blows the arrow sideways at the last instant. And so, what seem like novel clichés to Elaine become, in the shadow story, poignant twists torn from the often tragically realistic life of  a woman like Jane in the Regency Era – a gifted, good young woman, who endures an unwed pregnancy, genteel but desperate poverty in the home of her aunt, to the point of actual hunger, and the fickleness of John Knightley, the married man I say Jane was actually involved with in London (i.e., not Mr. Dixon). Jane suffers these and other ills at the hands of the hypocritical, patriarchal power structure, led by the Great Whale of Highbury, the Machiavellian Mr. George Knightley.

And so Elaine’s point that Emma’s creative temperament appears akin to Austen’s own is very much spot-on from my alternative point of view as well. I claim that JA deliberately hid the poignant, all-too-realistic, radically feminist shadow story of Jane Fairfax behind the smokescreen of Emma’s comically self absorbed “novel clichés”. But unlike her unlikable heroine Emma, the aim of Jane Austen’s storytelling archery never misses. I.e., creatively speaking, she has the sure hand of a literary Ulysses: just as he shot his arrow through 12 axe heads in a row, JA achieved the comparably miraculous feat of shooting two different arrows (stories), in two opposite directions, with a single pull of her bow (i.e., with the identical words contained in a single text)!

Elaine also wrote: “Early reviewer Walter Scott shrewdly observed that in Emma, despite the absence of romance elements associated with older novels, ’there are cross purposes enough for cutting half the men’s throats and breaking all the women’s hearts’. Janet Todd notes that both publisher John Murray and novelist Maria Edgeworth found the novel lacking in ‘incident’, even though, as Todd says, ‘The lack of story is in part the subject of Emma.

Once again, I find that Elaine’s valid point from a mainstream perspective on Emma takes on a startling, opposite meaning when filtered through my own heretical lens. I.e., there is a great deal of incident (as I see it) in the shadow story of Emma, which is narrated, however, obliquely, by Miss Bates’s torrent of words, which Emma consistently zones out on, but which (I am not the first to point out) is a fertile source of clues to what is happening offstage, which Emma subconsciously absorbs, but then unwittingly misinterprets.

And, again, there is the metafictional parallel (as Adena Rosmarin wrote about in her pioneering 1986 article “Misreading Emma”) to the reader of Emma who, like Emma, tunes out the “nothing” that is recounted in the many words of JA’s longest novel, and thereby never correctly understands what happens in its shadow story. And just as Emma never fully understands, neither does the reader whose focus is only on the overt story, and who therefore, like Emma, accepts Frank Churchill’s lengthy explanation of his relationship with Jane as truth, rather than a carefully manufactured cover story dictated to Frank by George Knightley (the same way the latter dictated Robert Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet 45 chapters earlier) in order to provide a coherent, but false, explanation for all that transpired during the novel.

Elaine: “Unlike the other flawed Good Girls, [Emma] is deliberately endowed with unpleasant character traits like snobbery and smugness…she does not earn sympathy for being snubbed, oppressed, or neglected. Instead, her unattractive qualities are compounded by her affluence and social status…As Emma says of Robert Martin, she can need none of our help.”

In the overt story, Elaine’s above analysis is once again spot-on. But I read Emma in the shadow story as being perhaps the biggest unwitting victim of all, because she trusts the wrong people. How so? Because I see Knightley as setting his sights, from the very beginning of the novel, on Emma not as the object of a sincere love, but as a target to bail him out of his desperate financial straits, which he has meticulously concealed from Emma. And so, very much as I have frequently articulated how Darcy does the same to Elizabeth in the second half of P&P, I see Knightley as systematically destroying Emma’s complacent, comfortable life at Highbury with her father, in order to make her so desperate that Emma will, when Harriet shocks Emma by taking off her mask of pretended silliness and claims Knightley for herself, “suddenly discover” that she loved Knightley all along.

And that is a good place for me to stop, and to remind you to read Elaine’s article when you get a chance—and when you do, perhaps you will keep in the back of your mind what you read in this post, so that you will then be ready, in your next rereading of Emma, to hold Elaine’s and my opposing viewpoints in mind at the same time, as if we were each providing one lens to a very special pair of spectacles for understanding the doubleness of both Emma and Emma.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

“Vanity…..definitely my favorite sin” & “Pride is a very common failing, I believe”

Yesterday, Diana Birchall wrote this in Janeites & Austen-L
"Here's an excellent panel discussion, recorded by the BBC in Oxford, on the subject of Jane Austen and religion. “Ernie Rea considers the religious world of Jane Austen and how it is reflected in her novels. Ernie is joined by novelist and priest Marie-Elsa Bragg, the social and architectural historian William Whyte, Oxford University lecturer Freya Johnston and Rev Paula Hollingsworth, author of The Spirituality of Jane Austen.”

Diana, thanks very much for posting the link to that show, it was surprisingly good. The intelligence of the knowledgeable Janeite was not insulted, as is so often the case with the typical dumbed-down radio talking heads show about JA. It managed the neat trick of being informative and provocative both to Janeites and non-Janeites alike. Aside from that general praise, I have four specific reactions:

First, Rev. Hollingsworth credited Paula Byrne with the discovery that the real life Chief Justice Lord Mansfield (author of the hugely important 1772 Mansfield decision banning slavery on English soil) was behind the title of the novel and its great estate. I don’t believe Byrne actually claimed that credit, which belongs to Margaret Kirkham, who made that argument first in 1982 in her groundbreaking, influential Jane Austen, Feminism & Fiction.

Second, I was very glad that the moderator’s (Ernie Rea) suggestion that JA was at heart a conservative Tory was politely but quickly shot down by the other talking heads. That such a suggestion was even presented at all shows how the Myth of Jane Austen perpetrated by James Edward Austen Leigh still lives on a century and a half later, not merely in the minds of the uninformed general public and casual Janeites, but even in the mind of a very knowledgeable Janeite like Rea.

Third, the best comment moment in the show for me was reminiscent of DW Harding. If you listen from 14:15 to 14:55 in the 30-minute audio, you’ll hear Marie-Elsa Bragg (the novelist/priest) shrewdly speculate as follows about Jane Austen’s modus operandi and moral agenda as an author, within the context of the religious meaning of her novels:

Bragg:  “I see [Austen’s] work as very clever polemic, because in truth if we are going to try to change things, we have to do it in ways that we know, and she writes about what she knows; but she very cleverly writes in such a way as people would want to read it; it’s too easy to be rebellious and have a message that those who we’re trying to persuade won’t even want to listen to. What she’s doing is something much more clever; she’s actually inviting people into understanding a world, in a way that she’d like to help them.”

I agree 100% with Bragg, as I understand her point. I’ve been saying something very similar for over a decade, my version being that I see Austen’s novels as Jesus-esque parables in disguise, which “bait” with pleasurable romance, but then “switch” to a subtle psychological, and epistemological lesson, that creeps up on those who reread her novels for pleasure.  For example, I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that the most memorable aphorisms in P&P (pride and prejudice, a truth universally acknowledged, poetry as the food of love, every savage can dance, we do not perform to strangers, the shades of Pemberley thus polluted, etc.) all carry the greatest allusive meanings; showing me that JA hoped that her well-read readers would eventually recognize the connections of those favorite (even memorized) turns of phrase to the thematically significant literary and historical sources lurking beneath.

And what do I think was the deepest spiritual, religious, moral purpose of Jane Austen’s irresistibly rereadable novels? I say that at its base, it was not so simple as correctly judging one character good and another one bad. It was to sensitize her readers to be suspicious of all apparent revelations as to who seems good and who seems bad. Yes, paradoxically, I have found that JA seemed to me to be warning that it is when we manage to correct an error of judgment caused by our pride or vanity, that we are most vulnerable!

I’ll unpack further. Jane Austen, whose morality was inseparable from her psychology, wished her readers (especially the female readers, who were disadvantaged by their strongly patriarchal society) to somehow reach a deeper level of wisdom, and remain ever vigilant, lest pride or vanity sneak right back into their hearts and minds by the back door, and lead them straight into a fresh, new error of moral judgment. Even the otherwise worthy act of confession and contrition for misjudgment can carry within it the seeds of pride. We tend to relax, and close our inner eye while we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for our virtuous humility. Now that is a sophisticated moral theology, which has little to do with God, and everything to do with helping ourselves, so as to truly merit God’s help.

And that’s exactly what I see happening, in particular, in the shadow story of P&P. When Elizabeth’s eyes are opened to Wickham’s true character, she falls right into the trap (laid for her by Darcy’s letter) of believing that moral judgment is a zero-sum game. I.e., after overcoming her initial pride and prejudice against Darcy and for Wickham, she assumes that she must therefore be correct in simply reversing herself: Wickham bad, Darcy good after all.

But pride is not simple. Note that by the end of the novel, Elizabeth is positively cocky about it all, going so far as to joke that a good memory is a bad thing to have, when it comes to marriage. Oh, Eliza, you ought to have listened to sister Mary –yes, the younger sister whom you’ve cavalierly judged to be a foolish pedant---when she spoke to you about vanity and pride, and later still, when Mary whispered that “the men shan’t come and part us…We want none of them; do we?”. What if Elizabeth’s pride at being a great “studier of character” has blinded her to Mary’s wisdom? Because her pride was not properly humbled, Elizabeth is a sitting duck for the skillful manipulation of Darcy –yeah, the same guy who said that “disguise of every kind was [his] abhorrence”—beginning with The Letter, and then continuing throughout the remainder of the second half of the novel.

Now, THAT’S a powerful moral theology, as Crocodile Dundee might’ve put it, and that’s what I would have said had I been on that BBC panel!

But I’m not quite done. This is a good moment to point out that I believe pretty much the same authorial game was skillfully played by the writer of the 1998 film The Devil’s Advocate (MASSIVE SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT!!!), with the protagonist Kevin being led to unwittingly jump through the same double set of hoops as Elizabeth Bennet in the shadow story of P&P.

Kevin, the ambitious young criminal defense lawyer (played by Keanu Reeves) is skillfully manipulated by John Milton (aka the Devil, played by Al Pacino) into gradually and voluntarily sacrificing all that he loves (his idealism and his marriage) in Kevin’s rising lust for success, power, and fame. At just the right moment, Milton reveals how Kevin bears full moral responsibility for how his own vanity and narcissism has propelled to the very precipice of hell, and it is a crushing moment of self-knowledge for Kevin:

MILTON Come on. You're not listening. Blaming me for Mary Ann? I hope you're kidding. You could've saved her any time you liked. She only wanted love. But you knew it wouldn't really work out, didn't you? Mary Ann in New York? Face it, you started looking to better-deal her the minute you got here.
KEVIN That's a lie.
MILTON Hey, it's not that you didn't care for her, it's just you were a little bit more involved with someone else. Yourself.
KEVIN What the hell do you know about love?
MILTON Biochemically no different than eating large quantities of chocolate. (sharply now) Don't be such a f--king chump. There's only one real sickness in all of creation and that is self-delusion. I told you to take care of your wife -- that the world would understand. And you made a choice. 'You know what scares me, John? I leave the case, she gets better and I hate her for it...' Remember?
KEVIN You set me up. It's entrapment.
MILTON Who told you to pull out the stops for Mr. Gettys? And Moyez -- the direction you took -- Snake handlers, Popes and swamis all feeding at the same trough -- whose ideas were those? And then Cullen -- knowing he's guilty -- seeing those pictures -- putting that lying bitch on the stand... What did I say, Kevin? Maybe it was time to lose, right? You didn't think so.
KEVIN That's my job. That's what I do!
MILTON Exactly! (gotcha) VANITY IS DEFINITELY MY FAVORITE SIN. Self love. It's so basic. What a drug. Cheap, all-natural, and right at your fingertips. Pride. That's where you're strongest. And believe me, I understand. Work for someone else? -- Hey, I couldn't hack it. 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.'….

The author of Ecclesiastes would be nodding in agreement with Satan on that one. But then, a shocking apparent reversal ---it appears that Kevin gets the better of the Devil. Feeling the full weight of his sins, Kevin seems to redeem himself by committing suicide, and the Devil appears genuinely shocked, screaming “NO!!”. We believe that the Devil has been foiled, and that Kevin has saved his own soul.

But, it seems, the Devil (who of course is nothing more than a metaphor for human nature) is no quitter.  Kevin somehow gets to go back in time to the crucial moment at the start of the film when his corruption first began, and this time Kevin is determined to do the right thing, which he did not do the first time around:

REPORTER (behind him) It was a nice run. Kev. Had to close out someday. Nobody wins 'em all.
MARY ANN Honey, what are you doing? (quietly) Are you okay?
Kevin nods. Smiles. Backs away. Into his seat. Gettys there beside him. Kevin will not look at him.
BAILIFF All rise for the honorable Justice Garson Deeds.
The Judge enters. Takes his seat.
JUDGE (to Barbara) You're still under oath, young lady.
(to Kevin) Your witness, Mr. Lomax.
KEVIN Your Honor, I'm terribly sorry, but I can no longer represent my client. I need to be replaced as counsel.

It seems clear that Kevin has succeeded, just as it seemed that Elizabeth had it made by marrying Darcy. He’s alive again, so is his wife, and this time he’s on the straight and narrow and won’t be fooled again. But then, what’s this?:

REPORTER Kevin! -- Hey! (catching up) Listen, this story -- this is the one, pal -- this is the one you dream about –
KEVIN There is no story.
REPORTER Bullshit. A lawyer with a crisis of conscience? You gotta be kidding. It's huge!
KEVIN They're gonna disbar me, Larry. You can cover that.
MARY ANN Can they do that?
REPORTER Not when I get through with the story. (still walking) You gotta talk, Kevin. You gotta gimme an exclusive…This is wire service. This is 'Sixty Minutes'. This is a story that needs to be told. It's you! You're a star!
KEVIN Call me tomorrow.
REPORTER You got it. First thing.
Kevin nods. Holding Mary Ann's hand as they escape.

And now, as Mr. Bennet would say, we come to the point, as you can watch here:

Here’s how the screenplay set it up: “The Reporter watching them go for a moment. Then turning back. And as he does, his features change, transforming - - like that -- into Milton. It's Milton. Always there. And he smiles. And we hear him say:  “Vanity…..definitely my favorite sin.”

So what does that have to do with Elizabeth Bennet? Only everything! I’m suggesting that Elizabeth’s epiphany that Wickham is not a good man, followed by her rapid reversal into believing Darcy is and always has been a good man, is the exact moral equivalent of Kevin’s belief that he has defeated the Devil by refusing to represent a man he knows is guilty. In the flush of pride over doing the right thing and beating the Devil at his own game, Kevin is seduced by the whispers in his ear of his own pride, and he starts the first chapter of a new life story, in which he is again the hero, this time not as a latter day Perry Mason, but of a laudatory (and probably lucrative) newspaper profile. From the Devil’s point of view, there are as many ways to steal a soul as there are ways for a human being to feel improper pride.

And, getting back one last time to Pride & Prejudice, vanity was definitely Jane Austen’s favorite sin; not because she was a devil who wished to tempt her readers to the dark side, but because she was a devil’s advocate, who wished to teach us how to avoid the moral pitfalls which come with our being human, as the Buddha taught 2500 years ago. Jane understood that message very well, but….(and here we get back to Bragg’s point) JA also recognized that it was not a message which could be effectively taught by lecture, the way Hannah More tried, in her heavy handedly didactic novels which JA playfully mocked.

How curious that it is Elizabeth Bennet who, out of nowhere, mouths the words “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.” When we see P&P as the double story that it is,  we realize that Elizabeth does not take her own wisdom to heart—a sharp irony indeed. But her creator, Jane Austen, sure did. Jane knew that self-knowledge of narcissism (aka vanity and pride) could only be taught by the back door –using the Devil’s tactics, if you will -- via the reading and rereading of a complex story in a novel. Let the reader discover this painful truth on her own, and maybe it will really be learned well.

To which parable, or sermon, I can only conclude with, “Amen, sister Jane.”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter