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

Monday, September 28, 2020

For Love, Money….and Worldly Wisdom: How to Read Jane Austen Better

Today, a good (non-Janeite) friend alerted me to the publication of yet another article about Jane Austen:

“How to Misread Jane Austen (or, For Love or Money)” by Louis Menand in The New Yorker 09/28/20

(I believe this link is now openly accessible, even without a New Yorker subscription) 

I just read with great interest this serious, comprehensive article, by a well-respected public intellectual, Louis Menand, a Harvard prof. He made a number of good points, in particular in his detailed analysis of the nuts and bolts of Regency Era dollars and cents (no, make that pounds). And he didn't shy away from  grappling with the Big Picture, trying to bring a fresh perspective on the central  mystery of Jane Austen, which is "Why she is read so differently by readers coming from varied perspectives?"

Nevertheless, every so often, Menand popped out a statement that I believe would benefit from clarification (and in a couple of cases, correction) from my admittedly non-mainstream perspective on Austen, so here goes. I quote selectively, but obviously you will want to read Menand's full article, to see the full context of his claims:

Menand: “[Jane Austen’s surviving] letters that remain are not especially “Austenian,” and they can be a little hard-hearted and judgy, which does not match very well the image of Austen in the pious biographical sketch written by her brother Henry, shortly after her death, or in the memoir by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, published more than fifty years later, which is mainly family oral remembrance, and in which she is “dear Aunt Jane.”

The problem of misrepresentation of the real Jane Austen by his nephew is far more serious. The surviving letters indeed do not match the bowdlerized portrait of Austen both literally and figuratively provided by the 1870 Memoir. This was not because her nephew wore rose-colored glasses, however, it was because, as my research has shown, her nephew deliberately distorted his Aunt Jane, both as a person and as a writer, to the world. 

This was, I further assert, a deliberate erasure of the real Jane Austen, who was a strong feminist and probably not heterosexual. But it was also personal -- it was a long-delayed revenge on behalf of his late mother, Mary Lloyd Austen, who was not kindly disposed to her sister-in-law, Jane; and, when you look at veiled portraits of Mary in Jane Austen’s fiction, most notably Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, you see that the antipathy was entirely mutual.

Menand: “Instead of asking what Austen is trying to tell us [in her fiction], we might ask what she’s trying to show us. But the answer to that seems to be: It depends on who’s looking.”

That is both accurate and highly significant, and I will explain what that means to me, further, below.

Menand: “The critical line on her, even from admirers like Sir Walter Scott, was that she was a miniaturist specializing in an exceedingly narrow sector of British society, the landed gentry. Everyone agreed that she captured that world with astonishing precision; not everyone felt that it was a world worth capturing. “A carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers,” Charlotte Brontë described P&P to a friend. “I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”

I believe it’s much more complicated, and much more interesting, than that, both as to Scott and even more so as to Charlotte Bronte:

Scott’s 1816 review of Emma shows that he actually was the first to recognize Austen’s towering genius, especially her subtle subversiveness. Check out how, e.g., in that same review, he captured, in passing, the anti-romance hidden just beneath the romantic climax of Pride and Prejudice:

Scott: " The lady [Elizabeth], on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover [Darcy] does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily."

So much for the romantic ending of Pride and Prejudice! Scott slyly suggests that the joke is actually on Elizabeth, when she unwittingly reveals her own “prudence” to the reader, as she answers her sister Jane’s question at the end of the novel:

Jane: “My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved [Darcy]?”

Eliza: “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.”

I could not agree more with Scott, and tip my hat to him for reading Austen through an Audenesque lens.

As for Charlotte Bronte, her famous comments about Austen’s fiction were not written to “a friend” – they were written to George Henry Lewes, one of the most prominent literary critics of her day, who also just happened to become, not much later, the long-time S.O. of the next great English female novelist, George Eliot. 

Oh, and I assert that C. Bronte, in complaining about the lack of passion in Austen’s novels, was pulling Lewes’s pompous leg, in just the same way that Mark Twain would do with his friend and avid Janeite, William Dean Howells, a half century later – Jane Eyre is actually crammed from one end to the other with veiled allusions to each and every one of Austen’s six published novels; and Mark Twain, I assert, lurved Austen’s writing – of course he did, because she was an inspiration to him in the Art of the Put-on.

Menand: “Still, there were readers who detected an edge. Woolf was one. “I would rather not find myself in the room alone with her,” she wrote. The British critic D. W. Harding, in 1939, proposed that Austen’s books were enjoyed “by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine.” The title of his essay was “Regulated Hatred.” Lionel Trilling, in 1955, called Austen “an agent of the Terror,” meaning that she is merciless in forcing us to confront our moral weaknesses.”

Harding, 80 years ago, was one of the first to “get” the real Jane Austen. However, it should be noted that his brilliant insight has still not become mainstream in Austen scholarly circles, even now in 2020. 

Menand: “Today, there are two Austens, with, probably, a fair amount of overlap: the recreational reader’s Austen and the English professor’s Austen… the professor thinks that the novels are about things that people like Churchill and Leslie Stephen thought they leave out: the French Revolution, slavery, the empire, patriarchy, the rights of women…”

As Menand goes on to clarify a bit later in his essay, it’s a much more complicated readerly landscape than that. There are many recreational, non-scholarly readers of Austen who “get” what Harding got, and also see that Austen was what we today would call a strong feminist; and conversely, there are still a fair number of Austen scholars who (100% wrongly, in my view) still read Austen as a pious conservative, who was not concerned with the wider world. And by they way, I am also, as I mentioned above, firmly of the small camp that sees Austen herself as non-heterosexual, and I also see that as present in every one of what I call her "shadow stories" (a central term of my way of reading Austen's fiction, as I explained in an 2016 interview which I've linked below.

Menand: “Literature professors love the notion of texts “interrogating” things; I am a literature professor, and I have certainly used that line. But, in this case, it feels like fence-straddling. It asks us to accept an Austen who is somehow simultaneously conservative as a person and subversive as a writer. Keymer says things like “The courtship plot that structures all 6 of Austen’s published novels, though sometimes held to imply her endorsement of a patriarchal status quo, is equally a means of exploring themes of female disempowerment.” It’s hard to see how the novels can be “equally” endorsements of patriarchy and criticisms of it.”

My answer is, simply, that the apparent endorsements of heterosexual white patriarchy were a necessary cover or ‘beard’ (or else Austen could never have gotten published) for her own genuine, savage, but veiled, critique of white male oppression of women and POC. Jane Austen, as I see her, was not of two minds in this regard. However, what she was perhaps most interested in, was in teaching her female readers how to read the male-dominated world they lived in.

Menand: “[Helena] Kelly’s Mr. Knightley, in short, is a heartless landowner intent on building a private fiefdom. She thinks the reason he marries Emma is that he wants to absorb her property, one of the few parcels of land around Highbury he does not already own, into his estate. Keymer would not object to this line of interpretation, presumably—“implication, not explication, was Austen’s way,” he says—but would be reluctant to conclude that it means that Austen was a revolutionary.”

Helena Kelly learned a thing or two from me, as I explained in this blog post 4 years ago:

I also believe that Austen’s primary subversive focus was eerily prescient of the culture wars raging at this very second in the U.S. – the battle for control over women’s bodies and sexuality. Her hobby horse, revealed a dozen times over in surviving letters she wrote over the entire last 20 years of her all-too-short life, was the plague which afflicted married English gentlewoman in “normal” English marriages – bearing the heavy cross of serial pregnancy, the ever-present danger of death in childbirth, and the lack of any sort of creative life for those wives lucky enough to run that gauntlet and survive physically.

That is the essence of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey that I spoke about at the 2010 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Hovering over that "lightest" of Austen's six novels is the ghost of Mrs. Tilney as the symbol of all the dead or deadened English wives “murdered” by their Bluebeard-like “normal” husbands via sex -- unwilling soldiers conscripted into a domestic war they never asked to fight in, fought to perpetuate male domination.

Menand: “…Isn’t it because Austen’s texts are so indeterminate that she is beloved by people who come to her with different prejudices and expectations? And isn’t her mythic stature produced by her writing, rather than projected by her readers? Isn’t inscrutability part of the intention? That we don’t know much about Austen from her letters (or from what we have of them) suggests that she didn’t want people to know much about her, period.”

I was with Menand in that passage till that last sentence. We can know a great deal from her fiction and her letters, if we are prepared to learn how to read what I call The Jane Austen Code, as I explained in this 2017 interview:

Anyone who enjoys solving Will Shortz’s Thursday-Saturday crossword puzzles will really love solving Jane Austen’s literary puzzles – I believe she meant them to be difficult, but not unsolvable!

Menand: “All of Austen’s novels are about misinterpretation, about people reading other people incorrectly. Catherine Morland, in NA, reads General Tilney wrong. Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr. Darcy wrong. Marianne Dashwood, in S&S, gets Willoughby wrong, and Edmund Bertram, in MP, gets Mary Crawford wrong. Emma gets everybody wrong. There might be a warning to the reader here: do not think that you are getting it right, either.”

Half-correct. I say Jane Austen’s literary game was much more complicated (and brilliant), The above only describes the essence of Austen’s overt stories. But it turns out that in her shadow stories, all of that is topsy turvy --Catherine reads the General right; Elizabeth Bennet initially reads Darcy right, but then gets conned by his imposture of a repentant narcissist; Mary Crawford is the true heroine of Mansfield Park, etc. etc. Although it never came to pass, I believe that Austen's dream was that her readers, in being able to see both of these realities in each novel, would be better equipped to deal with the ambiguity of their own lives.

Menand: “Emma, for instance, is the only mature novel Austen named for a character, and that is because the entire narrative, except for one chapter, is from Emma’s point of view.”

NO!!! That was the only truly wrong statement by Menand that initially prompted me to write this post. Although it is almost never noted by Austen scholars other than myself, all 6 of Austen’s published novels (and also her 3 fragments Catharine, or the Bower, The Watsons, and Sanditon) are written 98% from the focal heroine’s point of view. Emma is merely the one Austen novel in which Austen foregrounds that near-exclusivity of point of view – in the others, it's there, but she seems to deliberately conceal it, hoping it would eventually be detected - but that never came to pass in the 2-century history of people reading her novels.

That is the foundation upon which Austen’s entire fictional enterprise rests. The focal heroines of each novel, and not just Emma, are almost entirely the only eyes and minds through which we know their respective fictional worlds. There are therefore two completely different ways to read Austen’s famous third person narrative voice: as largely objective, and therefore largely reliable; or as largely subjective, and therefore potentially largely unreliable.

This is precisely what enabled Jane Austen to write double stories – if the reader accepts the focal heroine’s hundreds of judgments on what they see, feel, hear, etc., then we have the overt story; but if the reader makes a concerted effort to get outside that bubble, then the shadow stories – with all their pervasive subversion of the patriarchy that I have found there – become accessible. 

Best example: If Darcy actually reforms and repents, then it is a truly happy romantic ending. But if he only pretends to reform and repent, and then devotes all his energy toward conning Elizabeth into believing a fake version of his character, then it’s the ultimate cautionary tale. Both fictional worlds are contained in the same words, depending on the reader’s point of view -- an omniscient narrator or a fallible young person.

Menand: “The people who read Austen for the romance and the people who read Austen for the sociology are both reading her correctly, because Austen understands courtship as an attempt to achieve the maximum point of intersection between love and money. Characters who are in the marriage game just for love, like Marianne Dashwood, in S&S, are likely to get burned. Characters in it just for the money, like Maria Bertram, in MP, are likely to be unhappy.”

And, for all my above criticisms of Menand’s statements, I am largely in accord with the above, pithy summation, and the rest of his detailed analysis of Austen’s meticulous focus on the actual income and wealth of each of the characters. 

Menand’s final words: “Does this mean that [Austen] was pressing her nose against the glass imagining a life she was largely excluded from? Or does it mean that she could see with the clarity and unsentimentality of the outsider the fatuity of those people and the injustices and inequalities their comforts were built on? We can only guess.”

The latter. But we can do much more than guess, and I will let “Mrs. Pole”, one of the persons whose opinion of Mansfield Park Jane Austen collected in 1814, explain:

"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman --most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates.” 

[Mrs. Pole is then quoted by Austen in third person] 

Mrs. Pole also said that no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly.”

But who was this “Mrs. Pole”, and why should be trust her high praise for the accuracy of Austen's portrait of those aristocrats whom Harding (rightly) said she hated? It’s a reflection of the lack of curiosity about Jane Austen’s possible connectivity to the highest levels of English intellectual society, that it was not until 2005, when I was the first Austen scholar to ever take the time to figure out who, exactly, this “Mrs. Pole” was, who wrote such a startlingly brilliant reaction to Mansfield Park

She was born Elizabeth Colyear, the illegitimate daughter of an Earl (like a character in one of Austen’s wild juvenilia). And she then became Mrs. Pole. But, after her husband died, the world came to know her by her final married name: “Elizabeth Darwin”, the wife of Erasmus Darwin! 

She was also the inspiration for Erasmus Darwin's famous erotic poem “The Botanic Garden”, which I believe was part of the subtext of Austen’s Catharine, or the Bower. And she was also the stepgrandmama of Charles Darwin, the passionate Janeite who was a great scientist of the natural world the way Jane Austen was, as Mrs Pole implied, a great scientist of the social world.

So, as I said, we don’t have to guess – we know that Jane Austen was the ultimate social critic; and, what’s even more remarkable, she found a way to share some of her insight with her readers, for them to learn about life as she saw it, by reading these novels which function as Zen koans. 

Or as Elizabeth Bennet put it, in a line that never makes it into any of the Austen film adaptations, because nobody knows what the hell she means: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

Jane Austen ultimately was all about teaching by not teaching, what was worth knowing. And we can all agree that she not only gave us the highest quality fiction reading experience, she also taught us how to live better. 

Cheers, ARNIE 

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I checked my old files, and saw that Menand, in The NY Review of Books in February 1996, opined that Emma Thompson’s making Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon much more sexy and appealing as romantic heroes were “improvements on Austen’s original”. Menand further wrote that the chief problem of Sense and Sensibility that Thompson solved was “the stupefying dullness of the men the Dashwood sisters eventually pair off with”.

What I hope I’ve made clear in my above post is that Jane Austen fully intended to de-romanticize Edward and the Colonel, because, in the shadow story of the novel, they are neither of them good men, not by a long shot – Marianne Dashwood was right, not Elinor!

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Quiz about two famous stories, seemingly unrelated, which actually have (at least) 9 parallels between them

[Answer is given below when you scroll down]

I’m thinking of two famous stories which are parallel with each other in each of the following nine ways. In each story:

ONE: There is an unreliable narrative point of view;

TWO: The plot involves multiple interwoven, doomed extramarital affairs;

THREE: There is a death of a major character near the end of the story which occurs in water, and it may be a homicide;

FOUR: We repeatedly witness the careless arrogance of the rich toward the less well off;

FIVE: Most or all of the action takes place in a small seaside community on Long Island, and in nearby NYC;

SIX: A key plot turn involves the death of one character by hit-and-run in a car driven by a woman; but then the man who loves her in their doomed affair takes responsibility, and falsely claims to have been the driver, in order to save her from prosecution; 

SEVEN: A major male character is covertly involved in the distribution of an illegal intoxicating substance,

and, last but not least, these two word clues:

EIGHT: One of the male characters whose point of view is major in the story has a first name beginning with the letter N, and a last name ending with the syllable "way", and

NINE: The first name of the character who is killed in the hit and run in one story is the same as the first name of the famous author of the other story.

Any guesses? Rather than tease around, I will give you the answer below, but if you want to have some fun, wait to scroll down. You may well recognize one of the answers right away, but not the other. 

NOTE: Spoilers as to certain plot points in both stories





The two correct answers are The Great Gatsby and The Affair. Now for a brief unpacking of all this. First the actual parallels (and this is massive spoilers for both The Affair and The Great Gatsby)

I first got the idea for this post, when my friend Elaine Bander wrote in Facebook the other day, that she had noticed for the first time that there were structural parallels between Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. 

I was curious to try to figure out what those parallels might be, given that I had read both WH and TGG, and I always love investigating intertextuality hidden in plain sight – and it was while reading the Wikipedia synopsis of TGG, and I was reminded that there was a hit-and-run negligent homicide in it, which was a pivotal plot twist leading to the tragic climax of the novel. 

That immediately brought to my mind one of the most pivotal plot points of the recently concluded 5-season Showtime series The Affair, in which a hit-and-run negligent homicide similarly functions as a pivotal plot twist, although it occurs near the start of the series, a terrible event that shapes the arc of the entire rest of the story.

Now, as of 2 days later, I have collected the above 9 parallels between The Great Gatsby and The Affair, which, trebly over, confirm that Sarah Treem, the show creator, was being very very sly about alluding to The Great Gatsby, hiding it in plain sight, but only for those who were familiar with The Great Gatsby. I am sure there are more that I have not yet found, as I need to reread TGG to see what else rings a bell in The Affair. 

And, beyond the scavenger hunt, puzzle solving fun of the above, the more significant question is to ask what light this hidden-in-plain-sight allusion in The Affair casts on The Great Gatsby? And also, in reverse, what light does The Great Gatsby cast on how we should understand The Affair? I don’t have any developed answers yet, but I have a strong hunch that this was not just a literary parlor trick by Treem, and that both of these inquiries will enrich our understanding of both works.

In this regard, check out this answer by Treem to a question in an August 2016 interview about The Affair:
“The Affair’ Creator Answers Key Question: Is Noah Solloway Actually a Good Writer?”
By Vinnie Mancuso  08/11/16 
But the one trait we can’t confirm with absolute certainty is whether Noah Solloway–two time novelist, literary dynamo, pillar of masculinity, etc etc–is actually a talented writer. We posed that question to The Affair creator Sarah Treem, as part of a larger interview that will run closer to season 3’s November premiere date.
“Oh, you mean THE Noah Solloway? I think Noah has the potential to be a great writer,” Treem said, sitting in the lobby bar of the Beverly Hilton hotel. “I’m not sure he’s reached it yet. But I think he’s got it in him.
“I think in a lot of ways,” she continued, “Noah is writing to be known. He’s writing basically for the sake of having that reputation, of being known as a writer. But I think some people that are heavily invested in the identity of a writer are incredible writers. You go back to the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and the Ernest Hemingways, they all cared very deeply about being seen as a writer.”
Well, there you have it. Noah Solloway is basically F. Scott Fitzgerald mixed with Ernest Hemingway. Suck it, Bruce Butler." 

So Sarah Treem played fair with her fans, and couldn’t resist leaving an extra-textual Easter Egg (or should I say, East Egg?) for fans of The Affair! 

And now that I reread that quote, it also makes me wonder whether it is only my relative lack of familiarity with Hemingway’s fiction is the reason why I haven’t yet realized that Hemingway might be a spice in Treem’s literary stew as well --- “Sollo-WAY” as pointing not only to “Nick Carraway” but also… “Nick Adams” the protagonist of Hemingway’s autobiographical story collection?

But for today, I will finish with a quotation of the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby. I defy anyone who has watched The Affair to tell me that they’re not strangely reminded of it, especially of the tragic character of Allison:

On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I can almost hear the haunting strains of Fiona Apple's compelling song "Container" that is the theme music of The Affair.

Cheers, ARNIE

Monday, September 7, 2020

Austen's Persuasion & Richardson's Clarissa

It seems like the author, Christopher Fanning, of one of the articles in the latest Persuasions #41 (2019) failed to use Google in checking for prior scholarly commentary – specifically, mine -- on his topic. However, I am glad for his article, as I’ll explain below.

First, here is a link to the post I wrote in my blog (and in Janeites, while it was still at Yahoo) on January 8, 2018:
“The Faces of Griselda: Chaucer, Prior, Richardson….and Shakespeare & Austen, too!”

I began as follows:

“In this followup post to my earlier ones (responding to Ellen Moody’s initial post) about the allusion in Austen’s Persuasion to Matthew Prior’s Henry and Emma, I’m now ready, after further scholarly delving and reflection, to confidently explain the full significance of Austen’s allusion, to wit: Austen’s revised ending of Persuasion, with its memorable debate between Anne and Harville about male-dominated literature’s denial of female constancy, is part of Austen’s complex response to Prior’s famous poem; with the crucial additional insight that Austen filtered her response to Prior through Sarah Fielding’s protofeminist Remarks on (Richardson’s) Clarissa, which illuminates an intertextual matrix that includes Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale (and the Wife of Bath’s Tale), and one of Shakespeare’s great comedies as well!
Within that overview, I see Austen as having particularly engaged in a variety of subtle ways with Richardson’s complex, tragic dyad of Clarissa and Lovelace, in constructing the relationship between her own couple, Anne and Wentworth; and having left several key textual hints in Persuasion pointing in that direction. That’s a lot to unpack, so I’ll get right to it….”

In my 2018 blogpost, I then went, in detail, through SIX different parallels I saw between Persuasion and Clarissa, including one that is of particular relevance to my post today, in which I credited Jocelyn Harris’s for her 2006 spotting of a striking parallel”

“V: THE TWO “REPULSIVELY’S”: And there’s still more that unites Persuasion and Clarissa. Please now read the following excerpt from Jocelyn Harris’s A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression (2006):
“In the 1818 text [of Persuasion], Anne’s eloquence contrasts vividly with her silence in the manuscript. When Wentworth meets Anne in Union Street, it is he who ‘said nothing- only looked,’ while Anne  could command herself enough to receive that look, and not repulsively’, meaning in a repelling manner. Perhaps Austen recalled Clarissa here, for that compulsive neologist Samuel Richardson seems to have invented the word for a scene where the heroine, discomposed by abduction from her father’s house to a St. Alban’s inn, shows ‘uneasiness’ before the curious servants: ‘She cast a conscious glance, as she alighted,’ and ‘repulsively, as I may say, quitted my assisting hand, and hurried into the house.’ In a typical challenge to her mentor, Austen makes Charles Musgrove incurious and Anne glad rather than disgusted by her suitor’s advances. Those readers who were familiar with Richardson, like Cassandra Austen, would understand that Anne acts in pointed denial of Clarissa’s revulsion from Lovelace when she signals to Wentworth her willingness to walk with him and accepts the offer of his arm. Also, instead of occurring at an early stage of the relationship, as with Clarissa and Lovelace, Austen’s scene occurs in the 1818 text only after Anne speaks out to refute all the old, misogynistic arguments about woman’s inconstancy, after she offers herself implicitly as an example of a faithful woman.” END QUOTE FROM JOCELYN HARRIS
Here’s the full passage in Persuasion
“They were on Union Street, when a quicker step behind, a something of familiar sound, gave her two moments' preparation for the sight of Captain Wentworth. He joined them; but, as if irresolute whether to join or to pass on, said nothing, only looked. Anne could command herself enough to receive that look, and not REPULSIVELY. The cheeks which had been pale now glowed, and the movements which had hesitated were decided. He walked by her side.”
And here is the parallel passage in Lovelace’s letter:
“At their alighting at the inn at St. Alban's on Monday night, thus [Lovelace] writes:  ‘The people who came about us, as we alighted, seemed by their jaw-fallen faces, and goggling eyes, to wonder at beholding a charming young lady, majesty in her air and aspect, so composedly dressed, yet with features so discomposed, come off a journey which had made the cattle smoke, and the servants sweat. I read their curiosity in their faces, and my beloved's uneasiness in hers. She cast a conscious glance, as she alighted, upon her habit, which was no habit; and repulsively, as I may say, quitting my hand, hurried into the house…’
Harris’s sharp ear has alerted her to a parallel which takes on tenfold greater meaning, when it is viewed in the context of all the parallels between Clarissa and the Persuasion scene at the White Hart Inn….”

Prior to my post, the only suggestions of parallels between Clarissa and Persuasion were in passing:

(1 the “repulsively” parallel spotted, and noted in passing, by Jocelyn Harris, as quoted above, and
(2) Anthony M. Kearney, Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1975):
“When Fanny is strongly advised to marry Henry Crawford (another Lovelace figure) by her uncle, in fact, we are almost back into Clarissa. Similarly in Persuasion Anne Elliot's situation as a young girl whose own inclination to marry the man she loves is thwarted by someone who has what amounts to parental authority over her, echoes the familiar theme, and the ending where parental authority over children is endorsed, despite everything, has a Richardsonian ambivalence about it.
In both novels Jane Austen develops Richardson's way of experiencing things through the consciousness of a central character with even greater subtlety, and avoids the occasional clumsiness and prolixity of Clarissa by dropping the epistolary form…”

That means that the first scholarly claim of a comprehensive allusion by Austen in Persuasion to Richardson’s Clarissa was my January, 2018 blog post, and my followups shortly thereafter, written by me almost exactly two centuries after publication of Persuasion.

Now… with that background, take a look at the following quotation from “Austen and Richardson’s Clarissa: The Case of Persuasion” by Christopher Fanning, in that newest Persuasions #41 (2019) that we are looking at:

“…Jocelyn Harris postulates a renewal of Austen’s youthful engagement with Richardson, dating from the publication of Barbauld’s edition of the Richardson correspondence in 1804, suggesting that Barbauld’s discussion of particular scenes in Clarissa as well as questions of technique offered Austen both materials and methods for her own writing (Jane Austen’s Art of Memory). In this study Harris moves on to discuss Richardson, including sustained attention to Clarissa, with particular regard to Sense and Sensibility. Elsewhere, however, she also notes a verbal echo of Clarissa in Persuasion in the important scene in which Anne Elliot accepts Captain Wentworth (discussed below).
I wish to add to this verbal echo an additional and hitherto unnoticed use of a coinage unique to Clarissa in Persuasion, and, moving beyond Harris’s argument that the usage in the scene between Anne and Wentworth is a clue to readers of Clarissa for understanding the local passage in which it is found, I develop an understanding of Persuasion as a whole as a response to and critique of Richardson’s Clarissa.
Harris provides a convincing reading of a Richardsonian neologism in a quiet but climactic scene at the end of Persuasion, when “Anne could command herself enough to receive that look [from Captain Wentworth], and not repulsively”. Important here is the negation of “repulsively,” a word more or less unique to the scene in which the rake Lovelace completes his abduction of Clarissa and takes her to the inn at St. Albans: “She cast a conscious glance as she alighted . . . and repulsively, as I may say, quitting my assisting hand, hurried into the house as fast as she could”. Harris writes: “Those readers who were familiar with Richardson . . . would understand that Anne acts in pointed denial of Clarissa’s revulsion from Lovelace when she signals to Wentworth her willingness to walk with him and accepts the offer of his arm” (Revolution).
The Richardsonian coinage is limited to the adverb, and so Austen’s use of “repulsive” earlier in the novel seems not to interest Harris. It is noteworthy, however, that “repulsive” appears in a sentence containing another quite uniquely Richardsonian word, “unsisterly.”
In Clarissa, the term is used mainly by the heroine, describing her relationship with her cruel sister, Arabella. For example: “do not, dear Bella, give me cause to suspect, that I have found a reason for your unsisterly behaviour to me; and which till now was wholly unaccountable from sister to sister”.
Implicit in its use is a moral framework about the meaning of family, something also of concern to Anne Elliot in Persuasion, as when she makes an interior judgment while preparing to visit her sister Mary and the Musgrove family at Uppercross: “Mary was not so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth”. “Unsisterly” is found nowhere in the corpus of 18th-century literature (at least in the 180,000 titles on ECCO) other than in its 11 uses in Clarissa, and the OED’s 2nd example after Richardson is Austen’s.
Austen’s interest in Clarissa in general is thus well attested, and Harris’s “repulsively” combined with my own “unsisterly” (and other parallels noted below) would seem to place Clarissa in Austen’s hands—or on her desk—as she writes Persuasion.” END QUOTE FROM FANNING

Fanning then goes on to detail his take on the allusion to Clarissa in Persuasion.

So, what is the upshot of the above for me? I do wish that Fanning had just Googled “Persuasion Clarissa Austen” while he was researching for his article, as one of my January 2018 blog posts would have been the second “hit” – that would have earned me a paragraph in his article, right after Jocelyn Harris.

However, notwithstanding that, I tip my hat to Fanning for sleuthing out a couple of really good parallels that I did not catch (confession: I have only read parts of Clarissa, totalling less than 2% of its massive length, mostly focused on the complex relationship between Clarissa and Anna Howe) – and I was glad to see no overlap between his catches and mine – so that, when my and his arguments are read together, they synergize, and remove even the remotest trace of a doubt that JA was indeed deeply engaged with Clarissa as she wrote Persuasion (as well as all of her earlier novels, except maybe NA).

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Invitation to a small Austen-themed Zoom group during the COVID Era

[Updated June 28, 2020 to change the date of the first meeting]

As a hardcore Janeite for the past 26 years (I started late, at 42), and JASNA member since 2005, I'm always up for a lively, informed conversation about all things Jane Austen.
Since the COVID era began 3 months ago, I've enjoyed the luxury of having such conversations regularly, by phone and by Zoom, with a handful of close friends who share my Austen obsession.
I've also enjoyed the occasional regional JASNA Zoom event that has been opened up to various JASNA chapters; and I really look forward to the JASNA AGM, which, I recently learned, will be held virtually in some reduced format in early October 2020. Hurray!
Asynchronous conversation online via emails (I've been a member of the Janeites email group since 2000) is great, but it's not really the same as the spontaneous fun of speaking in voices and, via Zoom, actually seeing the faces of one's conversational partners.
Which is all prelude to saying that I would like to add one more regular Austen Zoom conversation to my schedule, to help get through the rest of 2020, and perhaps beyond.
So I extend this invitation to any serious and open-minded Janeites -- which I will now arbitrarily define as someone who meets all 5 of these criteria:
1. loves Austen's writing,
2. has actually read at least 4 of the 6 novels at least once,
3. has read at least 1 of the 6 novels at least twice,
4. has seen at least 1 film adaptation of any of the 6 novels you haven't read,
5. is NOT hostile to the idea that Jane Austen was a strong early feminist, whose writing can be read as subverting the oppressive patriarchy of her era.
As to #5, I don't mean that you have to agree with me that Austen was generally a subversive feminist, only that you are open to that possibility, and will not feel the need to argue otherwise.
I would like to find up to 8 of you to join me in participating (attending at least 50% of the sessions) in a regular Zoom that meets every OTHER week, beginning the weekend of July 4, 2020, and thereafter every other Saturday always running from 11:30 am to 1 pm Pacific Standard Time. i am setting the limit at 9 participants total, because with more than that, there wouldn't be time for everyone to really have a chance to speak enough.
My idea is for discussions and not lectures. Our topics for discussion will be selected on a fluid, rotating basis by everyone in the group, and ideally would be some particular passage or theme in one or more of the novels, that one of us thinks, and others agree, would make for a stimulating and mutually enjoyable group conversation for 60-90 minutes. This format has worked well the past 3 months in the existing group I started in March. I just want another one!
So, if you're interested, please email me at, briefly tell me why you think you'd be a good fit, and hopefully we can assemble a group in advance of the July 4 weekend!
Cheers, ARNIE

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Sally Rooney's Normal People as Midrash on Jane Austen's Emma

 The following is an online dialog between myself and my good and brilliant friend, Mary Cantwell, over the past few days, regarding my claims in my initial blog post the other day here….
   …about  Sally Rooney's complex allusion to Jane Austen’s Emma that I first noticed this past weekend while watching her TV series Normal People (but not having yet read Rooney’s novel).

I present these brainstorms as they occurred over the past couple of days, because they illustrate the synergy of two engaged and open minds tossing theories and ideas back and forth while decoding subtle, rich works of literature in “conversation” with each other (i.e., Normal People as midrash on Emma):


Mary: "Arnie, I re-watched the series including the strawberry scene. The movie is, as you suggest, similar in feeling to Call Me By My Name. The Italian sun is distinctive....As for Normal People... The hot weather, squabbling and tension among the characters were all there to match Box Hill scene, though, as were the unsettledness of the relationships. There is also the dialogue begging the youth hostel travelers to please take a shower, which can be sort of reminiscent of Frank Churchill being hot and tired when he arrived at Donwell Abbey (I get Box Hill and Donwell scenes mixed sometimes)."

Me: “Mary, it's not only the emphasis on the strawberries, and the grand rural summer vista, the hot weather, the squabbling and tension (that begins between Jane and Frank at Donwell Abbey, during the word games) and unsettledness of the relationships. That entire matrix would already be sufficient to
rise beyond the possibility of merely unconscious influence. But the final wink is the opening shot of Episode 8, when Connell and the other young man walk out and stand between the two pillars, which, I suggest, is an obvious and pointed allusion to Emma's reflections that I put in red in my blog post:
‘It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty’ “

Mary: "I don’t think this is a conscious nod to Emma, but it could very well be since Rooney WAS a recipient of an English scholarship at Trinity and Emma certainly is etched in the minds of all avid readers of English literature. (Though Rooney majored in American Lit)."

Me: “Rooney and her film-making team had to go to special trouble to find that location with the two pillars leading nowhere (or maybe even to construct two fake pillars there?) -- clearly, in context with all of the rest of that Episode, this is all about the Donwell Abbey scene in Emma. The young woman who is Marianne's 'best friend' is clearly Mrs. Elton, hence it is she would pointedly makes her comments about cutting up all the strawberries. I'd say that Marianne is really Jane F in this scene, and Connell is really Frank, but, as in Emma and in Midsummer Night's Dream, we have lovers misgraffed, etc.”

Mary: "In watching Rooney’s interviews, I don’t see Austenian irony. She’s a Marxist, which is almost by definition irony-free. I certainly don’t think she was being ironic regarding the S&M scenes. (Although this hadn’t stopped her hometown wits from referring to Normal People as “Fifty shades
of Sligo,” which she probably finds hilarious since the Irish, like the English, like to rag on one another.). The S&M scenes are very earnest. I do agree that she probably wanted to slam the horrible writing and production of 50 Shades. A good writer and for that matter, a good Marxist, would want to show the real life effects of destructive relationships."

Me: “You’ve added good value on the 50 Shades point. As for her irony, I think Rooney is much much slyer than she lets on in her interviews- as with Austen, there is a layer of meaning that Rooney never reveals explicitly, she just expects the reader/viewer to read/view between the lines (or the pillars!)”

Mary: "If the dialogue of the movie follows the dialogue of her books, the writer is earnest in adopting a good bit of Americanized social behavior. An Irish mother and son saying “love you” every time they part for an hour or two and an Irish boy showing single-mom training in sensitivity is very Gilmore Girls and very any other 90’s- and aughts-era American TV production. What it isn’t is Irish, unless this is what they mean by post-Irish. The English speaking world has capitulated to American manners - a great thing in one sense, because we Americans are nicer and we do insist on demonstrations of niceness, a parade of niceness almost. It’s good to lose English and Irish snideness and put down behavior but what’s not good is losing Anglo-Irish sense of irony. (Austen and Wilde and Swift!) We Americans are accused of being tone deaf to irony, so perhaps I am missing a lot! I will withhold my opinion until I read her books (I have two on order), but I saw no irony in the series. Jane Austen – no. English verdure – no. Great series worth watching though!"

Me: “I am giving this thought, but I think there is a shadow story, one that might become more visible to me when I get the book and read it!


I have a few more thoughts about the intentionality of the Emma allusion in Normal People. Let's not forget that Rooney did give us an explicit cue to be thinking about Emma, when, in one of the earlier episodes, a scene at an English seminar at Trinity College (a scene which is also in the novel, as I've read about it in articles and interviews), in which Connell speaks about his being unsettled after reading the scenes when Harriet first shocks Emma with her (Harriet's) interest in Knightley, and then the narration entering Knightley's point of view as he ponders Jane and Frank's mysteries.

So there is no question that Emma is a major touchstone for Rooney in this novel/series. In that context, it is simply impossible that these multiple linked allusive echoes in Episode 8 to Donwell Abbey are merely unconscious --they are intentional, and central - that scene in many ways is climactic, just as Donwell Abbey & Box Hill are climactic in Emma.

Rooney expects her Austen-aware readers to take the hints, and then do the work, by thinking about what it might mean. Rooney only gives us the subjective thoughts of characters, there is no omniscient "objective reality" narrator -- as you know, I claim that Austen has it both ways, by giving us a narrative voice that is often ambiguous as to whether it is objective or subjective. That is how an author creates a shadow story.  

Also, as I said before, I think Rooney is much more interested in Jane F than in Emma. Yes, Marianne is, like Emma, an "heiress" with a single parent who is not a true emotional parent - but in most other ways Marianne reminds of Jane Fairfax - artistic, mysterious, isolative. just occurred to me that Connell's mother is very much like Mrs. Weston – her relationship with Connell is more like two siblings than parent-child -- and recall that she tells Connell that he is her 'teenaged mistake" - who was his father? We don't know -- maybe it was a man connected to Marianne's family? After all, Mrs. Weston worked in Emma's household, just as Connell's mother works in Marianne's household.

The more I think about it, the more I see Rooney as hiding all of these Emma allusions in plain sight -- daring us to wonder if these are intentional or not, and what light they might shed on the backstory and offstage action of Normal People.

And finally --- shades of JD Salinger's writing career -- Rooney actually created the characters of Connell and Marianne in a 2016 stand-alone short story called "In the Clinic", two years before she wrote Normal People-- In that short story, Connell takes Marianne to the clinic when she gets an infected 'wisdom tooth'  removed. 

I knew from the first sentence of the story that somehow it was going to relate to a concealed pregnancy, and sure enough, 2/3 of the way through the story, we read:

"The dentist packs Marianne’s mouth with gauze and gets her to bite down. She’s feeling woozy, as though the tooth is a sick child she has given birth to. She remembers that Connell is in the waiting room and feels a tidal gratitude which drenches her in sweat..."

I was immediately reminded of Harriet's last minute infection that keeps her from attending the Randalls party, and then of this passage in Ch. 52 of Emma:

She had no difficulty in procuring Isabella's invitation; and she was fortunate in having a sufficient reason for asking it, without resorting to invention.—There was a tooth amiss. Harriet really wished, and had wished some time, to consult a dentist. Mrs. John Knightley was delighted to be of use; any thing of ill health was a recommendation to her—and though not so fond of a dentist as of a Mr. Wingfield, she was quite eager to have Harriet under her care.—When it was thus settled on her sister's side, Emma proposed it to her friend, and found her very persuadable.—Harriet was to go; she was invited for at least a fortnight; she was to be conveyed in Mr. Woodhouse's carriage.—It was all arranged, it was all completed, and Harriet was safe in Brunswick Square.
Who knows, maybe Rooney, when she was in college, heard about my June 2007 talk at Oxford, in which my topic was ......  Emma!  ;)


Mary: “Intentional allusion or not, Marianne would be Jane Fairfax in the Italian villa scene. To push the allusion further, the Mrs Elton character is strong arming Marianne/Jane to stay with her current boyfriend, who abuses her, rather than have her true love.”

Me: “Yes, brilliant! As I said, that friend (I just checked, her name is Peggy) is very Mrs. Eltonish – and, if you recall my posts here several months ago in which I suggested that Mrs. Elton visits Donwell Abbey on her own after those two group picnics, in order to find out how hard Mr. Knightley’s “strawberries” really are (so to speak) –the counterpart in NP is that Peggy very frankly suggests a menage a trois amongst them, which unnerves Connell.”

Mary: “Oh and Connell/Frank goes to the dance with someone else (the rich Emma-like girl) and not the woman he loves, just as Frank asks Emma for the first dance instead of the socially inferior Jane Fairfax. I suppose the whole Connell/Marianne secret relationship can be a nod to Emma.”

Me: “[See me hitting my head and going “DOH!!!] Of course that is the MOST IMPORTANT PART of the allusion, that had not even occurred to me!  Bravo, Mary! You are a great brainstorming partner!

Normal People is Emma from the point of view of Jane and Frank, and without an Emma (and also without a Knightley), but rather with aspects of Austen’s Emma distributed among the other characters!”

Mary:  “Rooney does invite us to read Emma. That is the best argument that the allusions were intentional. Good comparison with miss Taylor/Mrs Weston to Connell’s mother.”

Me: “Well, I think it’s all of it together. The explicit allusion is there for those who need permission to go mucking around in NP’s subtext, but the real interpretive payoff is what is left implicit.”

Mary: “As for your last comments about shadow story pregnancies, I don’t doubt that Rooney would be receptive. I’ve read and watched several interviews with Rooney. Abortion and contraceptive rights are at the forefront of her mind. She cites the date when she was born and the fact that on that date, pharmacies in Ireland were still prosecuted for illegal sales of condoms. In many ways, the Ireland she grew up in was more like Jane Austen’s time than it was modern day Europe or America. (One of the reasons Austen’s books are so popular in socially conservative countries like India and Pakistan. They really get Austen).”

Me: “YES YES YES! It does fit perfectly, and now I really do wonder whether my speaking twice in England (in 2007 and 2009) about Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy eventually caught her attention. Thank you so much for that info, it does give even deeper meaning to the allusion.”

Mary:  “I am happy if any of these allusions to Austen turn out to be intentional. Rooney is highly popular. If her agenda is to promote Austen, good on her”

Me: “Indeed!!!”


Mary: “Thanks, Arnie. Great to share ideas and great to  have a reason to re-watch Normal People. (If Peggy is indeed Mrs. E, then we can savor the “F Off, Peggy” moment) which neither Jane nor Frank would be allowed to say in Regency England.)

Me: “You’re welcome, Mary! Our brainstorming the past couple of days is a good illustration, I think, of why Austen’s (and now, we see, also Rooney’s) fiction is ideal grist for the mill of discussion – it took just the two of us two days to reach a central insight (yours) which confirmed my initial insight, i.e, that the concealed relationship of Jane and Frank in Emma, which is central to the arc of the story, is mirrored in the concealed relationship of Marianne and Connell, which is also central to the arc of the story of Normal People.
And I am sure we’re not done quite yet!

Me:  “An hour ago, I wrote the words “And I am sure we’re not done quite yet!” not having anything specific in mind to add to Mary’s and my brainstorming on the idea of Marianne and Connell in Normal People as early 21st century versions of the early 19th century secret lovers Jane and Frank in Emma.

However, as I took a brisk walk in my lovely Portland (OR) neighborhood on this mild sunny Spring day, I decided to unleash my inner imaginist again, and meditate on other ways that Rooney’s lovers might be modeled on Austen’s. In hindsight, I think I already had a subconscious notion in that regard, which required locomotion to bring it bubbling up to my conscious awareness, as you will see.

As I thought about the concealed romances which go on for most of the arc of the storyline in both Austen and Rooney, I realized that the echo was even more multilayered – in both cases, it’s also not merely that the romance is concealed from others in their social circle, but that the concealment enables the male of the two to shamelessly continue to enjoy social popularity, even as the female continues to live in the shadows – and, indeed, to go so far as to physically isolate herself from the crowd for an extended time, to get away from unfriendly eyes.

But she doesn’t only live in the social shadows, she is also the target of mockery which occurs right in front of the male. So, just as Frank joins in with Emma’s unpleasant gossipy speculations about who might be Jane’s secret Valentine gift-giver, and Jane must bite her lip and stay silent, Connell fails to stand up for Marianne.

He is silent even as he hears her dissed repeatedly in his own presence by all the mean kids, who all also seem to be jealous of her talents. And then, to cap this humiliating pattern, he goes to the prom with the “Emma” of their circle, the well-to-do, popular, pretty fair-haired Hannah (with whom he has been intimately involved, and is still enmeshed), just as Frank goes to the Crown Inn ball with the well-to-do, popular, pretty fair-haired Emma.

So, is it a little in-joke when Rooney has Marianne, in the Italy scene, compliment Connell for his writing in his recent emails to her? Are we thereby meant to recall the praise heaped on Frank at several points in Emma for his letters? I think so!”

Mary: “Researching a little more re: Rooney vs. Austen, I found this:

“Actually, something that I read just after I had finished writing the book [Conversations with Friends] was Emma. Obviously I can’t compare myself to Jane Austen [laughs], but, for me there were odd echoes there. Emma is twenty-o ne like Frances is twenty-one, they both have an extreme attachment to an older man, they both have an ailing father in the background, they both have a very intense friendship with a younger woman. So, these social structures, I don’t think are necessarily completely unique to the generation I am part of, and part of observing.”  Full interview is as follows: w

Although she contends she read Emma after writing CWF, and that CWF “has echoes” of Emma, her subsequent writing of Normal People would have been with a conscious thought to Emma."

Me: “I half-agree with you --yes, NP is, as we've been discussing, extensively related to Emma - but i think Rooney is being disingenuous when she claims not to have read Emma before writing NP -- she reminds me of Charlotte Bronte, who wrote pretty much the exact same thing to Henry Lewes, even though Jane Eyre clearly derives much inspiration from Emma, in addition to all of Austen's other novels! And I think Rooney is aware of that literary historical factoid too! 

Mary: "She brings up Emma in the interview; she brings up Emma in the college scene in Normal People. She wants us to think of Emma. So, I am sliding over to your side of things and see Emma a conscious intermingling of themes in Normal People."

I'm glad, and I look forward to your reply to my latest message further excavating the allusion to Emma in NP.

Mary: "So many reviews mention the “confidence” of Rooney’s writings, especially in so young a person (nod to Lady Catherine De Bourgh*). I would say she has quite the confidence to mention Jane Austen while disclaiming any comparison to herself!
*”Upon my word,” said her ladyship, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person.” "

Yep, Rooney has that cocky but justified confidence, a swagger that she has 100% earned. 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sally Rooney's Normal People (Episode 8) winks broadly at Jane Austen's Emma (Donwell Abbey episode)

My wife and I have watched 3/4 of Normal People, the new miniseries on Hulu, and will watch the rest by the end of this weekend. We have found it to live up to all the buzz, and then some – it is remarkable and, indeed, Austenesque, in its understated subtle power.

I posted a few years ago about Sally Rooney when I first heard about her, particularly the oft-repeated suggestion that she was a 21st century Jane Austen, in her very small scale focus on complicated romantic relationships which includes crucial family and socioeconomic context. Her characters instantly come alive through their dialog.

Rooney and a collaborator have now adapted her novel for TV, and it is brilliantly realized, and makes for compelling watching. There is a fair amount of sex, which some have objected to, but I think it is clearly the opposite of exploitative – all the sex is all tastefully portrayed with great feminism-informed sensitivity. Sex and love are inextricably interwoven in this story, as it is in in real life.

There is an explicit mention of a scene in Emma, which comes up during a discussion in a college English seminar. But also, I see a very sly wink to the hardcore Janeite, in another scene --without any spoilers, there is an evocation, which fits very well with the arc of the storyline, of the following passage in the Donwell Abbey scene in Emma:

“The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—“The best fruit in England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”
...It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds.—It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty.—The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood;—and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.” “

Here is a screenshot of that moment in Normal People, at the very beginning of Episode 8, do you see the object which is mentioned in the above passge in Emma? 

When you see Episode 8, think about how the rest of that Episode relates to the Donwell Abbey episode in Emma:

Otherwise, I have the sense that another, perhaps improbable touchstone for Normal People is the recent sexploitation series of Fifty Shades of Grey novels and films. But unlike Rooney’s clearly great admiration for Austen, I think Rooney decided to, in effect, satirize Fifty Shades of Grey through an Austenian lens, and replace E.L. James’s absurd, unrealistic, poorly acted, and poorly written characters with compelling characters closely observed. Rooney’s sex scenes are among the most powerful scenes in the miniseries, because of the way the characterizations are convincingly furthered in them, not in any way for purposes of titillation.

So, don’t miss the Normal People miniseries; and I have already placed an order for the novel, so I can read it, too – I bet you will also want to do so!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter