(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 13, 2017

The "cannon's roar" that Jane Austen didn't hear...or did she?

As the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell on England, Virginia Woolf wrote the following in 1940, in  support of her claim that neither Jane Austen herself, nor JA’s “vision of human life” was “disturbed or agitated or changed by war”:

“In 1815 England was at war, as England is now. And it is natural to ask, how did their war—the Napoleonic war—affect them? Was that one of the influences that formed them. . . ? The answer is a very strange one. The Napoleonic wars did not affect a great majority of those writers at all. The proof of that is to be found in the work of two great novelists—Jane
Austen and Walter Scott. Each lived through the Napoleonic wars, each wrote through them. But, though novelists live very close to the life of their time, neither of them in all their novels mentioned the Napoleonic wars. *This shows that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves.* . . . . Wars were then remote, wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by private
people. The rumours of battle took a long time to reach England. . . .Compare that with our state today. Today we hear the gunfire in the Channel. We turn on the wireless; we hear an airman telling us how this very afternoon he shot down a raider; his machine caught fire; he plunged into the sea; the light turned green and then black; he rose to the top and
was rescued by a trawler. Scott never saw sailors drowning at Trafalgar. Jane Austen never heard the cannon roar at Waterloo.* Neither of them heard Napoleon's voice as we hear Hitler's voice as we sit at home in the evening.”

Jane Austen never heard the cannon roar at Waterloo. When I read that line, I was distinctly reminded of the following well-known passage in Letter 63 to CEA dated Dec. 27-28, 1808:

"…Mr. Fitzhugh…is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that *they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read Corinna…."

It might at first appear that Woolf (who, by 1940, had surely long since closely read Austen's published surviving letters, including Letter 63) had, whether intentionally or unconsciously, chosen a metaphor (for JA’s seeming indifference or “deafness” to the Napoleonic wars) which echoed JA’s own words about the actual deafness of the gentlemanlike Mr.Fitzhugh. Woolf seems to be suggesting that Jane Austen could not have kept her domestic fictional worlds so insulated from the shocks of war had she, like Woolf, been forced to listen to the bombs dropping during the Blitz.

And that’s what I thought till I did some more Googling and found the following 1918 poem by Jesse Edgar Middleton, in which he, a Canadian, sang the praises of England, as the defender of the Commonwealth, in the aftermath of World War I. I am sure will agree with me that, whether or not Woolf had Austen’s witty reference to Mr. Fitzhugh in mind, she clearly also had Middleton’s poem in mind:

The Canadian

I never saw the cliffs of snow,
The Channel billows tipped with cream,
The restless, eddying tides that flow

About the Island of my dream.
I never saw the English downs

Upon an April day,
The quiet, old Cathedral towns,
The hedgerows white with may.

And still the name of England
Which tyrants laugh to scorn

Can thrill my soul. It is to me
A very bugle-horn.

A thousand leagues from Plymouth shore,
In broader lands I saw the light.
I never heard the cannon roar
Or saw a mark of England's might;
Save that my people lived in peace,

Bronzed in the harvest sun,
And thought that tyranny would cease,

That battle-days were done.

And still the flag of England
Streamed on a friendly breeze,

And twice two hundred ships of war
Went surging through the seas.

I heard Polonius declaim
About the new, the golden age,

When Force would be the mark of shame

And men would curb their murderous rage.
'Beat out your swords to pruning hooks,'

He shouted to the folk.
But I—I read my history books

And marvelled as he spoke.

For it was glorious England,

The Mother of the Free,
Who loosed that foolish tongue, but sent

Her Admirals to sea.

And liberty and love were ours,

Home, and a brood of lusty sons,
The long, North sunlight and the flow'rs.

How could we think about the guns,
The searchlights on a wintry cloud,

The seamen, stern and bold,
Since we were hurrying with the crowd

To rake the hills for gold?

But it was glorious England

Who scanned the threatening morn—

To me the very name of her
Is like a bugle-horn.

So, the very name of England is, to Middleton, very like a bugle-horn, a sound which proclaims England’s role as wartime defender of freedom around the world. And Woolf’s comments about JA, viewed through the lens of Middleton’s poem, suggest that she regrets that Jane Austen did not hear that bugle-horn.

Whereas it is my belief that the Napoleonic wars are very much woven deep into the fabric of all her novels, but only audible via a subliminal high pitched tone that the reader must work hard to detect. That doesn't mean that I believe Jane Austen saw the English Empire through rose-colored spectacles -- I believe quite the opposite, she saw the oppression that the English patriarchy imposed on its less powerful inhabitants, most notably the slaves in the Americas and the women everywhere!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: