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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 15, 2018

"In vain have I struggled…for self-controul?”: Darcy’s “tender” offer, & Austen tempting bugle-band

This afternoon, I had the special semi-annual pleasure of beginning to browse in a brand new issue of an issue of a JASNA Persuasions –because it’s June, that means the print Persuasion (although it's not yet available to JASNA members in ebook form at the JASNA website, that should happen soon). 

On the fifth page of the second article (written by Peter Sabor about Jane Austen's and the books in the Godmersham library), I read Sabor’s discussion of one of those Godmersham library books:

"In her next extant letter to Cassandra, of 11-12 October 1813, Austen makes a well-known observation about rereading Mary Brunton's three-volume novel Self-Control (1811):  
‘I am looking over Self Control again & my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.‘
….Intriguingly, Austen had also written to Cassandra about Self Control on April, 1811, when Cassandra was staying at Godmersham Park:
‘We have tried to get Self-controul, but in vain—I should like to know what [Mrs. Knight’s] Estimate is but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever --- & of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled.’
The remark suggests, with mock-concern, that Brunton, three years younger and also publishing her first novel, might have scooped Austen, whose S&S would not appear until the end of October. In a missing letter of April 1811 to which Austen is replying, Cassandra had evidently mentioned that Catherine Knight was reading Self Control at Godmersham. Now, over two years later, Jane Austen had found the novel in a third edition on the shelves of the Godmersham library, where she could relish its absurdities alone, mistress of all she surveyed.”  END QUOTE FROM SABOR ARTICLE

Peter Sabor is a thorough and knowledgeable Austen scholar, who, however, rarely ventures far from the safe confines of Austen scholarly orthodoxy. In this instance, I believe Sabor did take a small but laudable leap, in asserting that Austen wrote with “mock concern” about novelistic competition from Brunton. You might be surprised to know that most Austen scholars have missed the “mock” part. However, I find other, deeper absurdities hidden by JA beneath the lines in the above-quoted passage from her April 1811 letter, than were dreamt of in Peter’s essentially mainstream philosophy of Austenian writing.

After reading Sabor’s comments, I was about to explain what else I saw in JA’s April 1811 letter, when I checked to see whether I had already done so in the past --- and sure enough, here’s what I wrote 6+ years ago in Janeites, which I had forgotten entirely in the interim:

“The above statement clearly refers to Brunton's novel, Self-Control, which was published not long before JA wrote Letter 72. However, I can't help smiling as I read JA writing "We have tried to get SelfControul,
 but in vain", because I think JA, who wrote so many deliberately ambiguous sentences during her life, was not only reporting on her difficulty (which may or may not have actually occurred) in obtaining a copy of Brunton's new novel.

No, I believe that as JA wrote ostensibly about Brunton's novel, she also seized the satirical moment, and decided to have a bit of fun as well in this sentence, playfully suggesting a strong but ultimately unsuccessful struggle on the part of JA and (her famously and fearlessly transgressive) sister-in-law Eliza, to gain control over themselves. In other words, Jane is subjecting country-mouse Cassandra to some gentle teasing, conjuring up the notion of JA herself, writing from the ‘vortex of dissipation and vice’ while in the dangerously disinhibiting company of the temptress Eliza, going a little crazy with all the freedom and temptations of the big city…which could be what Cassandra is a little worried about.
And....I further suggest that this was a turn of phrase JA might already, in 1811, have written in her manuscript of P&P, about another struggle to keep self control in the face of overpowering temptation:
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

But then, after that bit of fun, JA immediately reverts back to the subject of Brunton's novel, but only, I believe, in order to have some more satirical fun:
"I should like to know what her Estimate is-but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever-& of finding my own story and my own people all forestalled."

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that "Estimate" is used by JA in a meaning which is today archaic, such that I think what JA is saying, in 21st century words, is "I want to read some reviews of Brunton's novel, to see if they are positive". That would fit with the rest of JA's paragraph, which is about worrying that Brunton's novel will be too good. And so I completely disagree with any interpretation of the above which takes JA as expressing genuine sincere insecurity about some other writer stealing JA's fictional thunder. Stuff and nonsense! She no more was worried about Brunton (or any other novelist, such as Scott, about whom JA made a similar mock-concerned comment in another letter) beating JA to the fictional punch than she was that she was (supposedly) not up to the task of writing manly sketches like her nephew, or writing great historical romances like Clarke asked her to write…When it came to writing, JA did not struggle in vain to control any tendencies toward bad writing. On the contrary, her novels, like Mozart's mature music, are the epitome of a controlled and synergistic balance of imagination and realism.”  END QUOTE FROM MY 2012 POST

As I revisit my 2012 point today, I find, as often occurs in revisiting old posts, that there is even more ore to be mined from comparing Austen’s “in vain” line in her April 1811 letter to her “in vain” line in P&P.

Specifically, I missed the mark slightly, when I wrote the following snippet:

“Jane is subjecting country-mouse Cassandra to some gentle teasing, conjuring up the notion of JA herself, writing from the ‘vortex of dissipation and vice’ while in the dangerously disinhibiting company of the temptress Eliza, going a little crazy with all the freedom and temptations of the big city…which could be what Cassandra is a little worried about…”

This time around, in 2018, I thought to look at what JA wrote in Letter 72 right before she wrote about Mrs. Knight, and found a very specific reason for her trying for “self-controul”:

“…I do not mean to provide another trimming for my pelisse, for I am determined to spend no more money; so I shall wear it as it is, longer than I ought, and then—I do not know. My head-dress was a bugle-band like the border to my gown, and a flower of Mrs. Tilson’s. I depended upon hearing something of the evening from Mr. W. K., and am very well satisfied with his notice of me—‘ A pleasing-looking young woman’—that must do; one cannot pretend to anything better now; thankful to have it continued a few years longer!”

Note these telling phrases:
“I do not mean….I am determined to spend no more money…and then—I do not know…” 

Is it not perfectly clear from this context, that the “self-controul” Jane Austen, seemingly playfully, claimed to “try to get” “in vain” was not to refrain from unladylike London revels, but, more mundanely,  to stop spending money on fine clothes in London shops!

With that more specific interpretation in hand, does that tell us anything different about why Jane Austen might have written so similar a description of Darcy’s struggles, desperately searching for self-control in the face of the overwhelming temptation that Elizabeth, however inadvertently, presents to him?:

“He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began:
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

It might seem at first that JA used such similar language in these dissimilar situations, because the line in Letter 72 would then represent the kind of expectation-deflating irony, of which she was a great mistress: like her own Eliza Bennet, JA dearly loved a laugh; and this would’ve been a joke improvised by JA as she wrote the letter --- inspired to make a zany, Monty Python-esque connection between her London clothes shopping, on the one hand, and Mrs. Knight having expressed an opinion about Brunton’s popular novel, on the other. Peals of laughter, perhaps, then on to the next paragraph of news from London.

That would’ve been an injoke for Cassandra’s enjoyment, in a very similar vein as the humor behind Mrs. Allen’s deadpan fashionista reaction to Catherine Morland’s frantic pleas to substantiate Catherine’s excuses for not being around when Henry and Eleanor had called for her as planned:
“Oh! Mr. Tilney, I have been quite wild to speak to you, and make my apologies. You must have thought me so rude; but indeed it was not my own fault, was it, Mrs. Allen? Did not they tell me that Mr. Tilney and his sister were gone out in a phaeton together? And then what could I do? But I had ten thousand times rather have been with you; now had not I, Mrs. Allen?”
“My dear, you tumble my gown,” was Mrs. Allen's reply.

But, today, viewing all of the above through the lens of what I’ve figured out about the shadows of P&P in the past 6+ years, I now see a very serious and compelling explanation for why Jane Austen would have consciously written these echoes between two of her writings which on the surface might seem wholly unconnected. The key lies in a pun on “in vain” and “in vanity” which I first wrote about in 2015:

[Most relevant excerpt] “ is a devastatingly revealing Freudian slip for Darcy to use the phrase "In vain" when "In VANITY" is what his unconscious mind is confessing in the same breath! I.e., from the immediately following narration summarizing Darcy’s statements in support of his outburst, we learn, as Elizabeth does, that Darcy's struggles have very much been the product of his own vanity, in that he assumes that Elizabeth will just say yes to his proposal. So this wonderfully apt but totally unintentional pun on his part, provokes an ironic smile from the reader, as we read that “he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority--of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit…. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther…”
As Ecclesiastes 1 tells us: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
And Elizabeth, with her quickness on her feet, immediately takes advantage of Darcy’s unintentional revelation of his arrogant vanity, when she rejects him, and then adds, “The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation." 
In other words, she takes his unintentional revelation of his own vain certainty that she would accept him, and twists it to her own rhetorical advantage, by in effect saying, “You’re so vain in your feelings of superiority toward lowly me, that you can’t possibly be upset by a lowly nobody like me saying no.” “

So, behind the superficial appearance of a joke, I see two serious, related veiled meanings:

First, women being interested in clothes in JA’s era was not a joking matter in many instances. For every Mrs. Allen, who lived to shop, and the wannabe Lydia Bennet, Jane Austen knew well that clothing was a serious concern of any gentlewoman of that era, and not merely a matter of female vanity, of the kind criticized by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication. Rather, to be “pleasing looking” was an economic necessity for any single woman in want of a husband; and yet, the Catch-22 for single women like Jane Austen, was that they often had little or no money to spend on achieving that pleasing appearance!

Now, as those who follow my blogging know, I believe that Jane Austen, as she wrote Letter 72, was not in the slightest bit interested in getting a husband --- but she still wanted to look fine – perhaps to female eyes which might observe her  -- and so, behind the surface of a joke, I see a serious averral by JA of her normal desire to look good – and in particular –and this is true of men as much as of women -- to look young as long as possible –not out of “vanity” so much as a healthy desire to have a pleasing appearance.

So far so good, but the even more serious meaning I see in the echoing of P&P in Letter 72 is that we may fruitfully view Darcy’s botched first proposal as a reflection of his having, since childhood, viewed women as having no more personal autonomy than inanimate articles of clothing -- commodities which could be purchased by men of financial means in the “meat market” of Regency Era courtship culture!

And, as I recently posted in my demonstration of Hamlet-Ophelia subtext behind Darcy-Eliza, the notion of Darcy believing that Elizabeth has been coming on to him sexually from the start, fits like a glove (so to speak) with his also seeing her as woman “clothing” to be bought. In effect, Darcy is as astonished at being rebuffed by Elizabeth, as he would have been had a shopkeeper in a fancy London store refused to sell him a cravat which was advertised with a big sign in the window as being on special sale!

No wonder, then, that Darcy struggled to exert “self-controul” “in vain” and “in vanity”! And no wonder that Austen’s sly narrator, as she describes Darcy’s proposal, writes “he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride.”  “Tenderness”, get it? That’s a pun on “tender”, as in legal tender, i.e., the coin of the realm that Darcy laid down to buy commodities he wanted.

So, Darcy, in effect, believed he was being cheated in a business transaction – which will come as no surprise at all to those suspicious readers of Austen’s “romances” who agree with W.H. Auden:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

In closing, this is just one more example of why I find revisiting these little “puzzles”, which Jane Austen left us in both her novels and in her letters, is so rarely “in vain”. Rather, it is while revisiting that these deeper connections emerge to my eyes for the first time from the shadows, and provide more and more validation of the integrity and consistency of feminism and social justice in every word she wrote.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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