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

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

No comments: