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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Extraordinary Debate over The Depth, Breadth, and Height of Jane Austen’s Literary Soul

Four months ago, we had a thread in the Janeites group about Devoney Looser’s exciting discovery of an April Fools Day, 1823 mock letter about Jane Austen and her writing. Devoney claimed that such letter, written under the pseudonym “Jane Fisher”, had actually been written by Mary Russell Mitford.

I supported her claim with some further analysis of that letter in the following two blog posts:

My conclusions included the following: 
“In a nutshell, Mitford sees “ghosts” of Persuasion’s heroine, Anne, and her eventual sister in law, Mrs. Croft, when Mitford walks the streets of Bath! And I, in turn, now find myself strangely haunted by the realization that Mary Russell Mitford was a much sharper elf than I ever dreamt of.”

That’s relevant background to my topic today, which is my reading the very interesting section in Katie Halsey’s Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786 to 1945 (2013), which begins as follows:

“Between July 1841 and June 1845, Mary Russell Mitford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning engaged in a long-running affectionate epistolary argument about Jane Austen…In the correspondence, both women demonstrate clearly their own allegiances through their manoeuvrings with Austen’s name. They are both, more generally, oppositional readers who choose to define themselves against cultural stereotypes of the ‘bad’ female reader; in this series of letters, they also come to define their literary selves through their opposition to each other.
In the course of their discussion we can trace two different visions of what a novel should be: Mitford’s, whose model is Jane Austen, and whose belief is that accurate pictures of conventional life may contain within them the truths of the human heart, and Barrett Browning’s, for whom ‘Conventional Life is not the Inward Life’. The clash is, in broad terms, between the novel of manners and the novel of psychological life, and between a pre-Romantic and post-Romantic literary sensibility.
While Mitford passionately admires Austen, and considers her novels models of great literature, Barrett Browning objects to Austen on the grounds of lack of ‘poetry’, ‘inner life’ or ‘ideal aspiration’. When discussing Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë poses the question ‘[can] there be a great artist without poetry?’, and finds Austen ‘without “sentiment,” without poetry’, concluding that she therefore ‘cannot be great’. Both Brontë’s and Barrett Browning’s rhetoric is strongly reminiscent of P. B. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which ‘to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression’.” END QUOTE FROM HALSEY

That was all news to me, and of great interest, particularly because of the afore-described recent uptick in my respect for Mary Russell Mitford as perhaps the most perceptive of early Janeites. I came upon Halsey’s discussion of that 180-years-past literary debate over Austen, as I was reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese for the first time. I wondered: do we have any idea what Barrett Browning thought of Austen’s fiction? Halsey’s book was my first Google result, and I found myself with a full answer to that question, as I’ll outline below.

For those with access via their library system to the Ebooks portal, you can read that entire section in Halsey’s book there. For purposes of this post, I will just provide one representative quote from that 5 year correspondence between Mitford and Barrett Browning that stood out most for me:

Barrett Browning: ‘There is more poetry, more of the inner life, more of the ideal aspiration more of a Godward tendency in [an 1842 novel by a now forgotten author] than we need seek for or than even you my beloved friend, can, I think, imagine in any book or books of Miss Austen considered in a moment of your most enthusiastic estimation.‘

Ouch! At least with Charlotte Bronte, who wrote similar sentiments to Henry Lewes several years after that, I have long had the comfort of believing, along with Jocelyn Harris and others, that Bronte was just pulling Lewes’s leg, because Jane Eyre in particular is saturated with all of Austen’s fiction from one end to the other. But I don’t get the sense from Halsey’s chapter that Barrett Browning was kidding, she was deadly serious, and really meant it when she bemoaned Austen’s (to her at least) soul-deficiency.

Part of what makes me believe this Barrett Browning wasn’t kidding when she expressed those negative judgments on Austen to Mitford, is what BB wrote when she revisited the subject of Jane Austen’s literary soulfulness more than a decade later. Note the subtle difference ten+ years made, as quoted and then explained by Halsey:

“Barrett Browning stuck tenaciously to her opinion of Austen, writing in 1855 to John Ruskin that her argument with Mitford had not caused her to admire Austen’s works:

‘She [Mitford] never taught me anything but a very limited admiration of Miss Austen, whose people struck me as wanting souls, even more than is necessary for men and women of the world. The novels are perfect as far as they go – that’s certain. Only they don’t go far, I think. It may be my fault.’

Although this extract reiterates some of the points she made to Mitford (lack of soul, focus on the conventional life, the novels’ perfection in their sphere and Austen’s limitation of aspiration), there is a note of hesitancy (‘I think’), even apology (‘it may be my fault’). She here dismisses the effects of her correspondence with Mitford, but it seems that Barrett Browning’s confidence in her opinion has been paradoxically both shaken and strengthened by Mitford’s opposition. “  END QUOTE FROM HALSEY

While I agree with Halsey that Barrett Browning’s hesitancies are good evidence that Mitford’s arguments had to some extent undermined BB’s certainty about Austen’s deficiencies, I’d also speculate that it was also the quiet subversion wrought on BB by Austen’s fiction itself, perhaps upon later rereadings. Austen, like Milton’s Satan, knew how to worm her way into her reader’s subconscious, relying on repeated rereadings to work their magic over time.

In other words, in spite of herself, Barrrett Browning seemed to have learned, perhaps by 1850 when she published her famous Sonnet 43, that she loved Austen’s fiction in more ways than she could count, or even consciously grasp --- and maybe, just maybe, Barrett Browning came to question whether she did not love Austen better, because the depth and breadth and height of her own soul was not sufficient to love Austen’s deeper, broader, and higher soul, and not the reverse!

Wouldn’t it be something, in other words, if, at least in part, Sonnet 43 was inspired by Barrett Browning’s growing doubts about her own love of Jane Austen’s fiction?  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Trump & Co's Immodest (barbaric) Proposal to Rid our Country of "useless eaters"

Today, literature touches real life again. My brilliant old friend Chris has just chillingly summed up one particularly horrific aspect of our general nightmare:

"So it has come to this. Earlier this month, the Lt Gov of Texas declared the country’s elderly—all 46 million citizens over 65–should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of “the economy.” A few days ago Fox put on a panel to promote this idea. It included Bill O’Reilly, who said the elderly who have died so far of Covid 19 “were on their last legs anyway.” And now a GOP Indiana congressman just told CNN that the government’s obligation is to choose the “American way of life” over the lives of senior citizens.
Think about this very, very carefully. Before the Nazis arrived at their “Final Solution,” they first had to promote a culture of devaluing human life. They started with the infirm, the mentally ill, and the socially marginalized—the vulnerable and “non-productive” parts of the economy. Eventually, when Jews were herded to the camps, the first thing the SS did was separate the elderly for immediate gassing. They were deemed “useless eaters.”
This is the gate to the horrors of hell. If such notions are not ruthlessly exposed and destroyed now, think about who will be next to die for the good of “the economy.” Immigrants, inmates, the disabled, diabetics who cost “too much” to treat, the homeless, the mentally ill, addicts, and so it goes.
We already have in place the “ethic” that if you lose your job, you lose your health care. Those discarded by “the economy” at this hour become even more vulnerable. And as far as “the economy” is concerned, according to Fox and the GOP, the vulnerable are expendable; they become a net drag on “the economy.” They become useless eaters." 

To which I can only add these helpful suggestion for catchy Republican slogans to match Trump & Co's "Immodest Proposal":

Lower Medicare age to 60? No! Lower the age of Death? Yes!

250 years ago, even Jonathan Swift could not have foreseen a level of casual barbarism like this - and he satirized the calculated oppression of starving Ireland by their British "friends"!

And since my friend Chris wrote the above, and I made the association to Swift's Modest Proposal, real life became even more surreal when I watched this video segment of Dr. Oz on Fox News referring to a very "appetizing opportunity" for reopening the economy that only results in a few percent additional mortality:

Cheers, ARNIE