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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The surprising answers to my Austen quiz (including Rocky Raccoon and Rocky Rococo!)

The following was the Austen quiz I posed the other day:

In a well known (although, I would imagine, not widely read) novel by an author as famous as Jane Austen, there is a single long chapter which contains every single one of the following:

ONE: The chapter title refers to a character whose first name is Jane.
TWO: A paragraph of narration containing multiple references to both “wood(s)” and a “house”.
THREE: In that same paragraph, as well as in a later paragraph in that same long chapter, the young heroine enjoys “views” of those “woods”, as well as the “gardens”, which comprise that same estate, and those “views” are described repeatedly as “sweet” and “English”; and that narration includes usages of all of the following words: “shade/shadow”, “view” “beauty”, and “charming”.
FOUR: One reference to those views also comments on whether the situation is “oppressive” to the young heroine.
FIVE: There’s a reference to a young female character being waylaid while walking in that forest.
SIX: A young female character confesses to having kept “relics” as “treasure” wrapped in “paper”, the specific color of which paper is described.
SEVEN: There are references to a woman who had nursed one of the characters, and also to an old maid.
EIGHT:  There are multiple pointed references to “apples”.
NINE: There are multiple references to a “governess”.
TEN: 6 or 7 years after writing that later novel, that other famous author expressed opinions about Austen’s fiction, opinions which, when viewed through the lens of the above nine echoes, are at a minimum disingenuous, and may well have been deliberately (but covertly) ironic.

Who is that later author, and what is that title of that later novel? For bonus points, in which chapter of that later novel do all those allusions occur?

That was my quiz, and I’d guess that most Janeites, upon reading it, realized pretty quickly that those first nine textual points all point unmistakably to Austen’s masterpiece, Emma, and, in particular, to the mysterious shadow heroine of the novel, Jane Fairfax. And so the deeper point of my quiz was that if a post-Austen novel by a famous author met all ten of those criteria, it meant that such later author wished to remind well-read readers of Emma in 9 distinct ways, and so we ought to ponder what that complex allusion might mean.

I received only one answer, but it was a really great one, from my good friend Diane Reynolds:         
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

What made Diane’s answer so great in my eyes was that Jane Eyre was NOT the answer I was expecting!! But I then realized, with 20:20 hindsight, that Diane’s guess was shockingly accurate – not just for the references to “Jane” and a “governess”, but also for those other, less prominent echoes.

But, you then ask, what answer was I expecting? And my answer is: The Awkward Age by Henry James—and, zeroing in further, Book 5 of James’s novel, entitled “The Duchess”. If anyone wants to read The Awkward Age, here is the Project Gutenberg link:

This is the point at which I give credit to another Austen scholar, Deidre Lynch, for writing the following in her chapter in the 2010 book Henry James in Context:

“[Henry James’s] heroines, in particular, can come across, therefore, as having been designed as test cases [for] how unserviceable the traditional novel’s marriage plot has become. Thus the allusions to Austen’s Emma made twice in the opening of Book 5 of The Awkward Age underscore how, in contrast to Austen’s day, also the day of Nanda Brookenham’s grandmother, the contemporary moment has become inept at managing the timing of girlhood…”

It is a tale for another day to explain what led me to find Lynch’s passing observation about James alluding twice to Emma in the opening of Book 5. For today, what matters is that when I read Lynch’s catch, and went through Book 5 (less than 24,000 words long), I soon realized that it wasn’t just two allusions in the opening of Book 5; it was Book 5 in its entirety that was saturated with all nine of the allusions to Emma I itemized in my quiz. And so now, thanks to Diane, I also realize that James made those same nine allusions to Jane Eyre as well!

As soon as I verified that Jane Eyre was indeed also a match for my quiz bullet points, that led me to my next extrapolation – i.e., that Henry James, in writing The Awkward Age just before the end of the 19th century, was for some reason(s) pointing his allusively-sensitive readers back not only to Austen’s Emma but also to Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

So, first and foremost, a major bravo to Diane for her sharp literary intuition, and major thanks to her for thereby alerting me to even greater implications than I had discerned when I posed this quiz the other night – with Diane’s help, I now see Henry James’s three-layer literary cake in its fuller glory.

It would take a much longer post than I was originally prepared to write today, in order to present all of the textual significance I see in James’s 3-layer “confection”, including, most significantly, my strong sense that Henry James, for all of his well-known condescending opinion of Austen’s fiction,  was an extraordinarily attentive and insightful reader of what I’ve long called Austen’s “shadow stories”.

More specifically still, I believe that James’s heroine Nanda Brookenham owes no small portion of her origin to the resourceful, manipulative Harriet Smith I have described in my analyses of the shadow story of Emma. But it’s not just the shadow Harriet Smith whom I believe James saw with clear insight – more amazingly still, it was also the scheming, lesbian Charlotte Lucas of the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice, as I will explain in a future post!

But, for today, I will leave you with one short passage in The Awkward Age which contains not one but two extraordinary tidbits –see if you can identify them both, before I identify them for you:

“…Vanderbank shook his head sadly and kindly. “So he had. And you remember Nancy, who was handsome and who was usually with them?” he went on.
Mr. Longdon looked so uncertain that he explained he meant his other sister; on which his companion said: “Oh her? Yes, she was charming—she evidently had a future too.”
“Well, she’s in the midst of her future now. She’s married.”
“And whom did she marry?”
“A fellow called Toovey. A man in the City.”
“Oh!” said Mr. Longdon a little blankly. Then as if to retrieve his blankness: “But why do you call her Nancy? Wasn’t her name Blanche?”
“Exactly—Blanche Bertha Vanderbank.”
Mr. Longdon looked half-mystified and half-distressed. “And now she’s Nancy Toovey?”
Vanderbank broke into laughter at his dismay. “That’s what every one calls her.”
“But why?”
“Nobody knows. You see you were right about her future.”

So, did you see the two significant pieces?

The first is for anyone who might doubt that Jane Eyre was on Henry James’s radar screen as he wrote The Awkward Age  ---- the name “BLANCHE BERTHA Vanderbank” points like a laser beam at Jane Eyre, because “Blanche” is the first name of the socialite whom Mr. Rochester courts at Thornfield; and “Bertha” is the first name of the madwoman in the attic, i.e., his insane West Indian wife – in other words, the two most significant women in Rochester’s life during his stormy courtship of the heroine Jane Eyre!!

The second is one which I hinted at in my Subject Line – Rocky Raccoon and Rocky Rococo – let me explain. As a child of the Sixties, imagine my surprise and delight when I read that “everyone” knew Blanche Bertha Vanderbank as Nancy. That of course points to the famous lyrics from Paul McCartney’s Beatles song, “Rocky Raccoon”, of course on The White Album from 1968:

Her name was McGill,
And she called herself Lil,

And, for those Boomers like myself whose Sixties experiences included listening to the absurdist, literate, postmodern comedy group The Firesign Theatre, we also have their memorable parody of McCartney’s song in their absurdist classic comedy album The Adventures of Nick Danger:

The villain Rocky Rococo, who owes his name to Rocky Raccoon, is a sendup of Peter Lorre’s Cairo from The Maltese Falcon. One of the album’s most memorable lines occurs in two exchanges:

ROCKY ROCOCO: …Worthless? Not to Melanie Haber.
NICK: Melanie Haber?
ROCKY: You may remember her as Audrey Farber.
NICK: Audrey Farber?
ROCKY: Susan Underhill?
NICK: Susan Underhill?
ROCKY: (quickly) How about Betty Jo Bialosky!!
NICK: (interior monologue) Betty Jo Bialosky. I hadn’t heard that name since college. EVERYONE KNEW HER AS NANCY…

That exchange is echoed in reverse a few minutes later between Nick and the inscrutable and decidedly English butler Catherwood, in which we hear Nick channel Rocky:

NICK: …I’ve come to see Nanc—ah, Mrs. Haber.
NICK: Audrey Farber?
CATHERWOOD: Audrey Farber?
NICK: (quickly) How about Betty Jo Bialosky?
CATHERWOOD: OH, YOU MEAN NANCY! She’s in the aviary stuffing trees….

It’s now over 47 years since I first laughed at those lines, but it never occurred to me till a few days ago, when I first read about Henry James’s Blanche Bertha Vanderbank, whom everyone called Nancy, that I realized that the Firesign Theatre was not only winking in an obvious way at the Beatles’s Rocky Raccoon, but they were also winking in the most esoteric literary way at Henry James’s The Awkward Age, a story in which their ancient old butler Catherwood would have been right at home.

What’s all this brouhaha??????? 😉

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Vickisesque said...

I thought of Jane Eyre too but it didn't fit the stated criteria.

I really liked your comment on Dr. Marston. Great book by Jill Lepore, The True History of Wonder Woman (or similarly.)

Thought provoking!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks, Vicki!