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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

On Jane Austen’s 242nd birthday, a vindication of her passionate “Scarlets Letter” complaint

Had Jane Austen been a vampire from an Anne Rice novel, today would have been her 242nd birthday. I believe that she’d have enjoyed Rice as a worthy modern successor to the Gothic novels of Radcliffe et al in Austen’s lifetime; and I also believe Austen, like Rice, would’ve been right in the thick of the #metoo movement -- while also taking private but strong satisfaction in the subtle but key role her novels have played over 2 centuries in bringing about what will hopefully turn out to be a decisive shift in the history of human gender relations, in the great quest of all good people for true gender equity.

It is JASNA’s wonderful custom to publish the latest edition of Persuasions Online on Jane Austen’s birthday every year, and today is no different. I’ve begun browsing in the latest issue, and the first essay that caught my eye and I’ve quickly read is Juliette Wells’ short piece about the attribution of authorship of the 1817 “Biographical Notice” to Henry Austen, which I heartily recommend you read:
It led me to some surprising new insights and speculations which bear on Austen and gender equity.

Wells begins as follows:    “While preparing an introduction for Penguin Classics’ new 200th-anniversary edition of Persuasion, I encountered an unexpected difficulty.  Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were first published “with a biographical notice of the author,” as stated on the title page of John Murray’s 1818 edition. Although the “Biographical Notice” includes no byline, it is widely known to be the work of Jane Austen’s brother Henry.  But how exactly do we know that Henry wrote it? I expected this seemingly obvious question to be easy to answer.  To my surprise, however, I found that it was not.“

First, kudos to Wells for spotting that interesting question. Second, after reviewing the evidence, which you can read via her above-linked article, Wells concludes as follows:          “Clery, in keeping with her claims regarding Jane and Henry’s ardent mutual attachment and his equally strong desire to promote her fame, discerns in the wording of the “Biographical Notice” what she calls “the mark of more cautious influences” upon Henry.  Who among Austen’s surviving family members weighed in on this piece’s composition, who actually penned it, and who transmitted it to Murray may never be known.  It is plain, however, that considering Henry to be the sole author of this important first biography of Austen results from speculation and assumption, rather than resting on documentary evidence.”

Reading Wells’s essay has prompted in me these reactions:

First, as I’ve noted in the past, one striking aspect of the 1817 “Biographical Notice” is the way that it protests WAY too much about what Jane Austen did not do: that she did not love the “gross” and not very “moral” fiction of writers such as Fielding; that she was not particularly ambitious to be a published author; and that she did not represent real people (in a satirical light) in her fictional characters – all of which are, in my considered opinion, bald-faced and deliberate lies on the part of whoever penned them.

In strange parallel to those three negations, the satirical narrator of Northanger Abbey (of course, one of the two Austen novels for which the “Biographical Notice” served as a preface) famously went to great ironic lengths in wryly noting all the ways in which Catherine Morland, her parents, and various other characters did not do what Gothic novel conventions might’ve led us to expect them to do. However, behind that superficial appearance of gentle mockery of Catherine’s confusion of unrealistic Gothic novels with real life, which is still the mainstream interpretation of Northanger Abbey, I’ve long asserted that this pervasive negation of Gothicisms in Northanger Abbey is actually a key that unlocks the door to Jane Austen’s anti-parody hidden in plain sight. In that anti-parody, Austen actually celebrates Gothic novels as blowing an ultrasonic dog whistle on the very real, very deadly “normal” patriarchal abuse of women in England –abuse which was utterly ignored by church, state, and custom.  Austen had to do this via an ironic anti-parody, I’ve long claimed, because any overt condemnation of everyday abusive male power would never have been published – in that sense, Northanger Abbey, for all of its and Auste’s other novels’ clear-eyed realism, is exactly like the surrealistic Gothic novels which Catherine (and her creator, Jane Austen) loved, which also depicted, in code, the quotidian Gothic horror of marriage in England.

In contrast to Austen’s “ironical negations” motif in Northanger Abbey, the author of the “Biographical Notice” reveals not a trace of irony I can discern, in negating Jane Austen’s worldliness, ambition, and irreverence toward sacred cows. So I see no reason to believe that those negations were meant to point to the Jane Austen my research has revealed to me, the fearless female genius who did all of the following:

She alluded not only to Tom Jones and Shamela, but also to much more scandalous literary sources like Cleland’s Fanny Hill –and let’s not forget the 16 year old Jane Austen’s Sharade on James the First’s fondness for his male courtier ‘pets’, or Mary Crawford’s “rears and vices” pun, which I believe was meant to warn Fanny Price about the “price” William had to pay for his naval promotion;  and

She was extremely ambitious for publication, recognition, and public influence from a young age; above all, as I have argued most recently in my AGM talk a few months ago, she was in the last year of her life most focused on the “bounden duty” of those with “strong minds” to use their powers to strengthen the minds of women weakened by denial of a good education; and

She constructed every one of her novels in a manner analogous to the famous cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ....
…in that, in the crowded allusive subtext of her novels, we find Austen lampooning everyone from members of her own family, to many of her family’s friends and acquaintances, to the richest and most dangerous predator of the English “sea”, the Prince of “Whales”:

That’s just a brief sampler of the many reasons why I believe the author of the “Biographical Notice” knew very well that his sketch of Jane Austen’s angelic, acquiescent character was, like Emma’s sketch of Harriet Smith, profoundly unfaithful to the original.

With that background, I want to now riff off Wells’s provocative analysis of the pros and cons of the standard attribution of authorship of the “Biographical Notice” to Henry Austen. What she didn’t note, but I believe is a crucial clue to the identity and the motives of that very first Austen biographer, is the following passage (in the December 20, 1817 Postscript, dated exactly one week after the December 13 main body of the Biographical Notice), which supplies quotations from letters Jane Austen wrote in late May, 1817, just after she had recovered enough strength to be safely transported to Winchester:

“[Jane Austen] next touches with just and gentle animadversion [i.e., criticism] on a subject of domestic disappointment. Of this the particulars do not concern the public. Yet in justice to her characteristic sweetness and resignation, the concluding observation of our authoress thereon must not be suppressed. 'But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated.'
The following and final extract will prove the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness. 'You will find Captain ---------- a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.'

On the surface, these two quotations seem to have been selected in order to illustrate Jane Austen’s extraordinarily selfless, even saintly, capacity for letting go of “complaint”, even as she was gradually dying over the last several months of her life. What I have long detected, however, is that, as in the earlier passage which I debunked, above, regarding her writing, is that the writer of this virtual canonization  seems more concerned with exoneration of unnamed members of the Austen family from blame or guilt vis a vis the dying Jane. I.e., if Jane really was so saintly as to reframe her own complaints as moral defects for her to overcome, then those responsible for raising those complaints in the first place would be off the hook, morally speaking.

Therefore, and especially given the biographer’s attempt to whitewash Austen’s unseemly vulgarity, ambition, and malice, I suggest that open and inquiring Janeite minds ought to be suspicious of what those “particulars” which “d[id] not concern the public” regarding Jane Austen’s “domestic disappointment” actually were! What cause did she have for complaint in May 1817, which coincided with that last desperate attempt to save her life?  In my following linked 2013 blog post….  ….I argued that James Edward Austen Leigh, in his 1870 Memoir of his long-dead Aunt Jane, went to great lengths to hint that the “domestic disappointment” with respect to which Jane allegedly magnanimously blamed herself for complaining, was actually the bankruptcy of Henry Austen a year earlier, a seismic financial event which shook the foundations of the Austen family.

Therefore, while some might find, in the fact that the second of the three quoted-from Jane Austen May 1817 letters was written to Mrs. Tilson, wife of Henry Austen’s close personal friend and partner in that same bankruptcy fiasco, evidence that Henry Austen was the author of the 1817 “Biographical Notice”, I now suspect James Edward Austen (still not yet “Austen-Leigh” in late 1817) of having written the first version of the “Biographical Notice”, and I’ll explain why.

First, I believe that Austen family chronology points to another obvious candidate for that “domestic disappointment”, a seismic financial event which occurred in March 1817, i.e., only two months before that May 1817 letter, and therefore much more likely to have then been weighing on the mind and heart of Jane Austen. I refer to the death of uncle James Leigh-Perrot, followed shortly thereafter by Mrs. Austen and her two daughters having confirmed to them the horrible news that they had, as feared, been disinherited by Mrs. Austen’s rich brother. Instead, it all went into a life interest for his wife their aunt, with the remainder to Jane’s eldest brother James and his descendants. From among that latter group, it was James Edward, as James’s eldest son, who ultimately won the inheritance jackpot more than a decade later, when Mrs. Leigh-Perrot finally met her maker, and left James Edward her estate Scarlets. As I also previously note, “Scarlets” is, not coincidentally, a remarkably close synonym for “Rosings”, another great estate ruled by a grotesquely selfish and dictatorial aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh!

To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet, was this cruel disinheritance not some excuse for complaint, if Jane Austen did complain? Of course it was! As I argued in my above-linked 2014 blog post, that makes James Edward’s 1870 editorial machinations all the more despicable, because it shows that he deliberately misdirected readers to his uncle Henry’s early 1816 bankruptcy, and away from the actual April 1817 explanation for his aunt’s “complaint”.

Ironically, that explanation was left to James Edward’s own son, Richard, to correct, in his 1911 biography of Jane Austen, in which he quoted from that same letter and then wrote this brief discreet comment:  “Some allusion to the family disappointment about the will probably followed, and she added: 'But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated.'”

That Jane Austen (and her sister and mother) would have been appalled by Uncle Leigh-Perrot having disinherited them is well established. As Uncle Leigh-Perrot lay dying in March 1817, Jane Austen wrote to niece Fanny Knight:  “Indeed I shall be very glad when the event at Scarlets is over, the expectation of it keeps us in a worry, your Grandmama especially; she sits brooding over Evils which cannot be remedied, and Conduct impossible to be understood.  It requires no great imaginative leap to understand Jane Austen’s meaning, and I suspect that I am far from the first Austen scholar to note this.

So, that is why I have tossed out this theory that Wells’s article has triggered in my own admittedly active imagination --- what if the author of the 1817 “Biographical Notice”, which Henry Austen tweaked 15 years later for the 1833 Bentley editions of Austen’s novels, was not Henry himself after all, as Wells has persuasively argued is by no means certain, but instead was the young (not quite 20 year old) James Edward Austen Leigh, writing perhaps with assistance (as speculated by Wells) from his surviving aunt Cassandra?

That would not only fit with Jane Austen’s famous May 1817 letter to James Edward (which lavishes praise on him for his writing) providing the first of the three epistolary excerpts quoted in that December 20, 1817 Postscript; it also provides a compelling self-serving motive for the deception of concealing the catastrophic effect of the Leigh-Perrot disinheritance which benefited James Edward and his side of the family in a needlessly zero-sum game. While Henry did receive something when his aunt died later on, that was small change compared to Scarlets and the wealth that went along with it.

No wonder James Edward would have emphasized Jane Austen’s saintly capacity for putting complaint aside, not only in the reference to the “domestic disappointment”, but (again, protesting way too much) by his awkward segue to that third excerpt which, upon examination, is utterly trivial and is the furthest thing from proof that it was a deeply ingrained part of Jane Austen’s character to “turn from complaint to cheerfulness”:

“The following and final extract will prove the facility with which she could correct every impatient thought, and turn from complaint to cheerfulness. ‘You will find Captain ---------- a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.' “

That the author of the “Biographical Notice” chose not only to add that excerpt at all, but to make them the final prefatory words read before the witty yet significant faux-negations of Chapter 1 of Northanger Abbey, to me reflects the earliest manifestation of that same dreadful mixture of narcissism, hypocrisy, and deceitfulness which is on exhibit, for those with eyes to see, on every page of the 1870 Memoir which is the sad bookend to the “Biographical Notice”, and which has shaped misperception of the true Jane Austen for nearly 150 years.

So, on Jane Austen’s 242nd birthday, it’s not too late to begin to celebrate the life of the real Jane Austen, the fiercely free thinking feminist author who never turned from complaint to cheerfulness, but instead turned to fiction as a vehicle to convert her own personal complaints into high art that would strengthen the minds of all the English gentlewomen who had the same complaints, so that the manifest injustice they collectively suffered as women would one day, sooner or later, be remedied forever!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft hovering (benevolently) over Jane Austen’s fiction

As I posted not long ago, my JASNA AGM presentation in early October of this year in Southern California was about a theme which I see in the shadows of all of Jane Austen’s writings, over a quarter century, from her juvenilia through her very last novel fragment, letter, and poem written in 1817:

“I perceive an inspirational maternal presence hovering over these expressions of the power of the strong mind over the weak, and the accompanying duty to be useful in exercise of that power. That ghost is the female author of genius who preceded Austen in publication, in protofeminism, and in death --Mary Wollstonecraft, who throughout Austen’s career, I will argue, seemed to call to her successor to remember her advocacy for the power of the strong female mind. I believe Wollstonecraft electrified the teenaged Jane Austen in late 1791 with her revolutionary Vindication. Then I believe Mary’s death in childbirth in late 1797, and the ensuing misogynist attack on Mary’s legacy, further radicalized the 22 year old Jane.
At the 2010 JASNA AGM, I argued that the late Mrs. Tilney was the symbol of Mary Wollstonecraft and all the other victims of that uniquely female childbed epidemic. I also believe Wollstonecraft’s tragic death inspired Austen to pick up the pen dropped by her fallen idol, and to further the cause of strengthening female minds, and to strive for gender justice, in innovative fiction writing that even Wollstonecraft never dreamt of.” 

In my AGM talk, I presented a range of evidence that Wollstonecraft was a huge, continuing inspiration for all of Austen’s writing, much more central and pervasive than ever before recognized. Here is what I said regarding one strand of such evidence:

“Wollstonecraft also played a special role throughout Austen’s writing career, as a source of scene ideas----snapshots in the Vindication illustrating deplorable situations, such as the snobbish young woman who disrespects an older lady down on her luck (long recognized as being dramatized by Austen in the Box Hill scene in Emma) and the greedy couple cheating vulnerable female family members out of inheritance (of course Fanny and John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility). If you read the Wollstonecraft synopsis alongside its Austen dramatization, in each case I assure you there would be no doubt in your mind that Austen had Wollstonecraft on the brain as she wrote her novels.”

Today I’m back on that same point, because I just learned of still more echoes of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication in Austen’s writings. In an article hot off the virtual presses, “Human-Animal "Mother-Love" in Novels by Olive Schreiner” by Valerie L. Stevens in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 61/2 (2018), I just read this:

“…In Mansfield Park (1814), Jane Austen satirizes the novel's lazy and indifferent mother: "To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days … thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience." While Austen renders her critique in a playful tone, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Power Cobbe present the bad mother as no laughing matter. Wollstonecraft's AVOTROW (1792) chastises "she who takes her dogs to bed, and nurses them with a parade of sensibility, [but] when sick, will suffer her babes to grow up crooked in a nursery," highlighting the proximity of the pet as the mother's bedfellow, as well as the moral and physical deficiency (crookedness) resulting for the child with such poor upbringing. This behavior is represented as offensive, especially as it blurs the lines between human and animal: "I have been desired to observe the pretty tricks of a lap-dog, that my perverse fate forced me to travel with. Is it surprising that such a tasteless being should rather caress this dog than her children?”

That brief quotation sent me back to The Vindication to find the full excerpt which Austen had, as Stevens indicated, dramatized in Mansfield Park in her indolent ‘lady of fashion’ cum ‘lap-dog’, Lady Bertram:

“The lady who sheds tears for the bird starved in a snare, and execrates the devils in the shape of men, who goad to madness the poor ox or whip the patient ass, tottering under a burden above its strength, will nevertheless keep her coachman and horses whole hours waiting for her, when the sharp frost bites, or the rain beats against the well-closed windows which do not admit a breath of air to tell how roughly the wind blows without. And she who takes her dogs to bed, and nurses them with a parade of sensibility, when sick, will suffer her babes to grow up crooked in a nursery.
This illustration of my argument is drawn from a matter of fact. The woman whom I allude to was handsome, reckoned very handsome, by those who did not miss the mind when the face is plump and fair; but her understanding had not been led from female duties by literature, nor her innocence debauched by knowledge. No, she was quite feminine, according to the masculine acceptation of the word; and, so far from loving these spoiled brutes that filled the place which her children ought to have occupied, she only lisped out a pretty mixture of French and English nonsense to please the men who flocked round her. The wife, mother, and human creature, were all swallowed up by the factitious character which an improper education and the selfish vanity of beauty had produced.
I do not like to make a distinction without a difference, and I own that I have been as much disgusted by the fine lady who took her lap-dog to her bosom instead of her child; as by the ferocity of a man, who beating his horse, declared that he knew as well when he did wrong as a Christian. This brood of folly shows how mistaken they are who, if they allow women to leave their harems, do not cultivate their understandings in order to plant virtues in their hearts. For had they sense, they might acquire that domestic taste which would lead them to love with reasonable subordination their whole family, from their husband to the housedog; nor would they ever insult humanity in the person of the most menial servant by paying more attention to the comfort of a brute than to that of a fellow-creature.”

So, that clearly added yet another Austenian dramatization of a Wollstonecraft story idea to my list. But I also noticed, in the first paragraph of that quoted excerpt from the Vindication, the presence of two other female characters who Austen borrowed from Wollstonecraft:

“The lady…will nevertheless keep her coachman and horses whole hours waiting for her, when the sharp frost bites, or the rain beats against the well-closed windows which do not admit a breath of air to tell how roughly the wind blows without.”

Of course, in Pride & Prejudice that is the unfeeling “abominably rude” Anne de Bourgh whom we see through Elizabeth Bennet’s jaundiced, jealous eyes:

“La! my dear,” said Maria, quite shocked at the mistake, “it is not Lady Catherine. The old lady is Mrs. Jenkinson, who lives with them; the other is Miss de Bourgh. Only look at her. She is quite a little creature. Who would have thought that she could be so thin and small?”
“She is abominably rude to keep Charlotte out of doors in all this wind. Why does she not come in?”
“Oh, Charlotte says she hardly ever does. It is the greatest of favours when Miss de Bourgh comes in.”


“The woman whom I allude to was handsome, reckoned very handsome, by those who did not miss the mind when the face is PLUMP and FAIR; but her understanding had not been led from female duties by literature, nor her innocence debauched by knowledge. No, she was quite feminine, according to the masculine acceptation of the word…”

And that, in Emma, is Harriet Smith, viewed through Emma’s imaginist, uncritical, decidedly non-Wollstonecraftian rose-colored spectacles:

““She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, PLUMP, and FAIR, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging—not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk—and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces, should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connexions. The acquaintance she had already formed were unworthy of her.”

And, as I browsed the rest of that chapter in the Vindication, I realized that one more Austen novel had taken up hidden residence in its shadows. Recall that in the above quotation from my AGM talk, I asserted that Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel which most pointedly and pervasively celebrated and furthered the artistic, political, spiritual legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft. In that light, I now have a challenge for you. Can you spot, in the following passage, which appears in the Vindication right before the Anne de Bourgh/Lady Bertram/Harriet Smith excerpt, the single sentence which Jane Austen turned into not one but two of the most memorable and thematically significant lines in Northanger Abbey?:

Humanity to animals should be particularly inculcated as a part of national education, for it is not at present one of our national virtues. Tenderness for their humble dumb domestics, amongst the lower class, is oftener to be found in a savage than a civilized state. For civilization prevents that intercourse which creates affection in the rude hut, or mud hovel, and leads uncultivated minds who are only depraved by the refinements which prevail in the society, where they are trodden under foot by the rich, to domineer over them to revenge the insults that they are obliged to bear from their superiors.
This habitual cruelty is first caught at school, where it is one of the rare sports of the boys to torment the miserable brutes that fall in their way. The transition, as they grow up, from barbarity to brutes to domestic tyranny over wives, children, and servants, is very easy….”

Did you see it? It’s the last quoted sentence:  “The TRANSITION, as they grow up, from barbarity to brutes to DOMESTIC TYRANNY over wives, children, and servants, is very EASY.”

I’ll bet many of you now see or hear the two deliberate and significant echoes of that last, short sentence in Northanger Abbey, which I’ll now unpack one by one.

Here’s the first such echoing passage in Northanger Abbey:

“Delighted with [Catherine’s] progress [in understanding principles of the picturesque], and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an EASY TRANSITION from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.”

At first it may seem to you that this echoing of Wollstonecraft’s “easy transition” by Austen, even if intentional, is superficial and trivial. What is there in common, after all, between (1) Wollstonecraft’s straightforward description of the dreadful progression from the cruelty of boys toward animals to the tyranny of powerful men over the other members of their households, on the one hand, and (2) Austen’s witty description of the progression in Henry’s lecture on the picturesque, from specific landscape features up to the larger societal forces which impacted the English rural landscape, on the other?

Only everything! When we recognize the contrast between Wollstonecraft’s and Austen’s approaches – logical argument vs. no apparent argument at all --- we can see how they actually couldn’t be more congruent and interrelated. I.e., Austen and Wollstonecraft take very different rhetorical paths in order to make the same essential moral point. Wollstonecraft writes without irony about how, in a patriarchal, sexist society, the child is father to the man, with the common denominator being cruelty to those less powerful. Boys torture the nonhuman animals within their power, but men tyrannize their entire family who are within their vastly greater power. No ambiguity or unclarity there.

Whereas, in Austen, the condescending Henry, waxing eloquent, thinks he’s just opening Catherine’s eyes and mind to visual aesthetics. However, the knowing reader recognizes that in Henry’s transition from visual details of the English landscape to discussing enclosure and the role of the crown and the government in shaping that landscape, he has unwittingly leapt to a true Gothic horror -- the wholesale destruction and sealing off of the great natural commons from ordinary, powerless people by “great men” like General Tilney, who care more about the view from their mansion than for the lives of their poor neighbors and the countryside they live in, which he has taken over.

Little wonder, then, that when Henry finally transitions to politics, it is all too easy for him to cop out and go silent. At that point in the novel, Henry is still unable or unwilling to admit to Catherine that English politics, totally controlled by those same powerful men who in Wollstonecraft’s analysis oppress their families, are totally also corrupt and complicit in these society-wide evils as well. It’s just the next all-too “easy transition” from (1) animal to (2) wife, children and servants, to (3) the entire natural world and the society of powerless people who make up 99% of the population. Henry is silent about that oppression in exactly the same way as, later on at the Abbey, he cluelessly lets slip, when he castigates Catherine and drives her to humiliated tears, for her daring to suspect bad intent in the ruling national power structure which allowed husband-father-masters to tyrannize their families without compunction, restriction, or adverse consequences.

And note also that in writing this scene at Beechen Cliff in which Henry Tilney pretentiously lectures Catherine about aesthetics, while preferring to remain silent about the horrors of what was lost in the process, Jane Austen surely had in the back of her mind what she had written a quarter century earlier, at  age fifteen, in her satirical History of England; when --- not coincidentally ---soon after the publication of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, Austen tossed this savage satirical parting grenade at the quintessential male bully, Henry VIII: “…nothing can be said in his VINDICATION, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape.”

That “vindication” is, I assert, a loaded tip of the hat to Wollstonecraft, which the mature Austen revisited in greater detail in the scene at Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey.

And that brings me to the second of my fresh Northanger Abbey discoveries, which is actually the bookend to that first one – a veiled allusion to that sentence of Wollstonecraft in the following passage which literally ends her book!:

“To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.”

In referring to “parental tyranny”, Austen is, I now see, winking broadly at Wollstonecraft’s reference to “domestic tyranny” in that same sentence, and is wittily leaving it to “whomsoever it may concern” (meaning, every single woman reading the novel!) to figure out whether Austen is inciting them to rise up against the kind of everyday “parental tyranny” symbolized in every possible way by General Tilney.

Austen’s point is that the General does not represent one aberrant “bad apple” among English patriarchs; chillingly, he represents the norm, because it’s not just about an evil man, it’s about a culture that fosters wrongdoing in ordinary men. In Northanger Abbey, as in all her other novels, Austen has done her very best to further Wollstonecraft’s vision of a world with women and men having equal powers and rights,  by teaching women what was worth knowing to assist that paradise to arrive sooner. That worthwhile knowledge is that the system was rigged against women, and the only rational option was for her female readers to teach themselves, using her novels as tools toward enlightenment and spurs toward action, to vindicate their own rights, since no one else was going to do that for them; except for any male allies --- good but clueless men like Henry, who were capable of learning that in some crucial ways Catherine was far wiser than he --- who might join the struggle for equal rights for women.

And as we look at very recent events in which women around the world today are beginning to be listened to about horrid aspects of sexual oppression which, if anything, must’ve even been far worse when Wollstonecraft and Austen lived, perhaps these are real steps in a very difficult but very long overdue, transition to speaking (rather than being silenced) about all oppression of women, whether domestic or societal, which surely both Wollstonecraft and Austen would be cheering for as the vindication of their protofeminist efforts! And there’s more need than ever for good men to listen, learn, and then dive into the struggle against “domestic” and all other tyranny over women.

So now I defy the sagacity of those who continue to deny Austen’s strong, subversive feminism to read Northanger Abbey in light of all of the above, without sensing the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft benevolently hovering over the road to the Abbey, spreading enlightenment and perfume all the way.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Mrs. Malaprop’s ‘long sentences of refined nonsense’ are ‘prodigiously’ and provocatively echoed in three Austen novels

This post had its origin yesterday, while I was writing my two posts about irony in Pride and Prejudice and Emma, respectively. By serendipity I came upon a bit of Austenian wordplay I had never noticed in a passage near the beginning of Chapter 53 of Pride and Prejudice which I had read dozens of times before, but this time it leapt off the page at me and demanded to be read in a very different way than before:

“[Wickham] is as fine a fellow,” said Mr. Bennet, as soon as they were out of the house, “as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”

Can you see the wordplay that I saw? Give it a try as long as you like, but if you give up, just scroll down a bit, and I’ll reveal all, and then continue:

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The wordplay is hidden in plain sight in Mr. Bennet’s ironic claim to be “prodigiously proud” of Wickham. First, did you notice the alliteration of two consecutive words each of which begins with the diphthong “pr”? Does that remind you of anything? Perhaps my putting it that way enabled you to see why I am certain that Jane Austen meant for Mr. Bennet to unwittingly echo the title of the novel he appears in-- Pride and Prejudice, which also has that precise alliteration of two words each beginning with the diphthong “pr”.


That Pirandellian echoing of the novel title by Mr. Bennet is even more intricate than mere alliteration.  Mr. Bennet’s “proud” is a variant of “Pride” of the title; and Mr. Bennet’s “prodigiously” doesn’t just sound a lot like “prejudice”, these two words are potential malapropisms each for each other, because they sound a lot like each other, but they mean completely different things.

So what? Well, as it turns out, recognizing that malapropistic relationship between “prodigiously” and “prejudice” opens up a vast cavern of subterranean literary allusion, all pointing to an author who wrote his most famous creations around the time Jane Austen was born, but who also lived just long enough to read Pride and Prejudice and then comment admiringly to a friend that it was “one of the cleverest things he ever read”.

That author was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and it is thanks to his fertile imagination that the word “malapropism” entered the English language from the French idiom for "inappropriate" ("mal a propos"), to describe certain words misspoken by Sheridan’s most enduringly famous and fittingly named character, Mrs. Malaprop. She appears in one of Sheridan’s three comic masterpieces-- The Rivals, a play which (along with Sheridan’s other famous comedies, The Critic and The School for Scandal)  was, according to myself and some other Austen scholars, were important allusive sources for Pride and Prejudice --- for example in the name of Sheridan’s witty, uncontrollable young heroine, Lydia Languish --- who, surprisingly but revealingly, shares a first name not with Austen’s witty heroine, Eliza, but with Eliza’s uncontrollable younger sister, Lydia!

But here’s the punch line, so to speak, of Austen's word game, which I only realized as I started writing this post. It’s not just that “prodigious” could theoretically work as a malapropism for “prejudiced”; it’s that Mrs. Malaprop actually utters a strikingly similar malapropism in the following dialog in The Rivals, which is famous because it could fairly be called the Parthenon (or as she might’ve put it, the “Pentathlon”) of malapropisms. In what is basically one long speech, Mrs. Malaprop utters a staggering rapidfire succession of thirteen of these masterful comic monstrosities (which I put in ALL CAPS):

SIR ANTHONY In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece's maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

MRS. MALAPROP  Those are vile places, indeed!

SIR ANTHONY Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.

MRS. MALAPROP   Fy, fy, Sir Anthony! you surely speak LACONICALLY.

SIR ANTHONY Why, Mrs. Malaprop, in moderation now, what would you have a woman know?

MRS. MALAPROP Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a PROGENY of learning; I don't think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or SIMONY, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such INFLAMMATORY branches of learning—neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, DIABOLICAL instruments.—But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little INGENUITY and ARTIFICE. Then, sir, she should have a SUPERCILIOUS knowledge in accounts;—and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in GEOMETRY, that she might know something of the CONTAGIOUS countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of ORTHODOXY, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might REPREHEND the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know;—and I don't think there is a SUPERSTITIOUS article in it.

Notice first that one of the thirteen malapropisms, 'progeny', via the correct word it supplants, 'prodigy', is explicitly echoed by Mr. Bennet’s “prodigiously” (even though, as Emily Auerbach observed in 2004, it is his verbally incontinent wife whom we might have expected to echo Mrs. Malaprop). Second, Austen, in pairing “prodigiously” with “proud”, and thereby “prodigiously” with “prejudice”, Austen’s wordplay is more elegant than Sheridan’s, because these two alliterative words also contain a jumble of three interior consonantal sounds which Sheridan’s did not. I.e., the D, the soft G, and the S in “proDiGiouSly” produce the same sounds as the J, the D, and the soft C in “preJuDiCe”. 

Now, if the above were all that was there behind this wordplay, I hope you'll agree that this would be marvelous in itself, and would bolster the already strong claim that The Rivals was a significant source as Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. But there’s more, much more to it than that, that turns comedic wordplay into serious veiled meaning.


Second, there’s an added delicious overtone to Austen’s pointing to Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop in Pride and Prejudice, because it turns out that Austen had already pointed to Sheridan himself in the title of her previously published novel, Sense and Sensibility. As I first noted in 2010, Sheridan was a nationally renowned political orator who, during Warren Hastings's impeachment trial in 1788, gave a long speech against Hastings which received enormous national attention. That trial was of course a seismic event for the extended Austen family, due to Mr. Hastings’s being widely whispered to have been the father of Eliza Hancock, Jane Austen’s paternal first cousin. 

Sheridan uttered a memorable turn of phrase in that speech regarding Hastings’s destructive chicanery vis a vis the Indian Oudh, in his machiavellian and successful scheme to turn son against mother vis a vis inheritance. Now, doesn't that sound a lot like what Fanny Dashwood does in working on her malleable, selfish husband John, to persuade him to screw his half-sisters, Elinor, Marianne, Margaret, and their mother out of the inheritance their dying father made John promise to fulfill? Of course it does! And so there is no surprise in the Austenian ring in Sheridan’s oratorical flourish describing the nastiness of Hastings's scheming:

“Filial Piety-It is the primal bond of society. It is that instinctive principle, which, panting for its proper good, soothes, unbidden, each SENSE AND SENSIBILITY of man.”

Filial piety is precisely what is shredded by Fanny Dashwood's Ragan and Goneril-like rationalizing  away keeping more and more of her late father-in-law's estate, to selfishly benefit her and her child.


But even that is not the end of Austen’s wordplay inspired by Mrs. Malaprop’s blizzard (or should I say “buzzard”) of malapropisms. I now ask you to note the substantive content of Mrs. Malaprop’s flurry of verbal “fluxions”. What's she going on and on about? Once we decode her meaning by translating those 13 malapropisms back to their proper words, we find that she is going into minute detail to decry the young heroine, her ward Lydia Languish’s “dangerous” passion for novel reading. Does that remind you of Mr. Collins, following the anti-female prejudice of Fordyce’s sermons, and being ridiculed by LYDIA Bennet? Again, of course it does!

But this is not just comedy. Mrs. Malaprop has brought the audience right into the thick of the great debate that raged in England before, during, and even after Jane Austen’s lifetime, as to how to best educate women. That debate was at the heart of whether the powerless subjugation that most women suffered under at that time would continue, or if women would be allowed to develop strong minds (as Wollstonecraft advocated) and not useless ornamental “accomplishments”, and then assume more power over their own destinies.

But now, take a closer look at the specific malapropisms in her long speech, and notice that several of them just happen to be extremely well-suited to sexual innuendo. A "progeny of learning" hints at babies and childbirth; "meddle with Greek" suggests sodomy; diabolical instruments" sounds like one of Cleland's thousand phallic euphemisms in Fanny Hill; and finally, Sheridan's piece de resistance-- "the contagious countries": "contagious" suggests venereal disease (which of course is extremely contagious),  and "countries" recalls Hamlet's bawdy reference to "country matters".

Taken altogether, these sexual innuendoes suggest that Mrs. Malaprop, in describing circulating libraries as dens of iniquity, where girls like Lydia Languish would find novels which would corrupt their virtue, is, via her malapropisms, subliminally painting a portrait of such circulating libraries as virtual brothels. And this metaphor also fits very closely with some of the more virulent anti-novel propaganda of that era, in which fiery clergymen like Fordyce railed against the sexual degradation which awaited girls whose overactive imaginations would be overstimulated by Gothic tales of abduction, which they were exposed to via circulating libraries. In so doing, she is poetically echoing Sir Anthony's linear summary of that situation: "Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last."


Which brings me to the last and, to my mind, the most significant portion of Austen’s send-up of Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, which I believe specifically picks up on both Sheridan's malapropisms  and the sexual innuendoes which accompanied it, as I just articulated.  While writing this post, I also remembered yet another Malapropian Austenian echo which I first noticed a decade ago, pointing to Mrs. Malaprop’s above-quoted substitution of “progeny” for “prodigy”. I realized way back when that Austen had very likely written the following passage in Emma, so as to echo that very same “progeny/“prodigy” mashup, which she had previously winked at in Pride and Prejudice 3 years earlier:

“Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a SCHOOL—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, IN LONG SENTENCES OF REFINED NONSENSE, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity—but a real, honest, old-fashioned BOARDING-SCHOOL, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, WITHOUT ANY DANGER OF coming back PRODIGIES.”

Mrs. Malaprop’s “long sentences of refined nonsense” in that extraordinary comic speech quoted above, are nonsense in part because they’re chock full of words which do not mean what she intends to say, but also in part for the Mr. Collinsian nonsense of her educational priorities. And, connecting the dots to the above passage from Emma, note that Mrs. Malaprop advocates for sending girls to a “boarding school” (like Mrs. Goddard’s) at age 9 (which perhaps was the age at which Harriet Smith first arrived there as a parlor boarder).

But here’s where I really cash in on the above analysis of Mrs. Malapropism word bungles as having heavy sexual content. What happens, I ask you, when we treat Austen’s last line “without any danger of coming back PRODIGIES” as a hint inviting the Sheridan-savvy reader to reverse Mrs. Malaprop’s malapropism. I.e., what if we reread that passage as saying that “young ladies for enormous pay” are sent to Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school in Highbury  “without any danger of coming back PROGENY”? Or, taking that a little step further, “without any danger of coming back with PROGENY” --- as in, “without any danger of coming back barefoot and pregnant after getting (as Austen’s narrator conveniently expresses it) “screwed out of health”??!!

In other words, as I have suggested long ago, before I had any inkling of what I now see as Sheridan's deliberate sexual innuendoes hidden in plain sight in Mrs. Malaprop's greatest speech, perhaps Mrs. Goddard’s “boarding school” in Emma is actually the realization of Sheridan's fantasy: an actual brothel disguised (for the benefit of the truly clueless like Emma Woodhouse) as a school for girls, where “young ladies for enormous pay” are metaphorically “boarded” (the way a ship is boarded) by those "sailors" who pay that enormous pay, i.e., the Johns who do the screwing!Se

And that reading fits with my reading of the shadow Harriet Smith as a young woman who is the furthest thing from the innocent naif Emma believes Harriet to be, but who is rather a canny manipulator (rather like Lucy Steele) who knows the fine art of exerting the power of the strong mind over the weak in order to level the sexist playing field of Regency Era courtship, and give a woman a shot at actually getting the life she wants. This fits perfectly with my notion that Harriet is a kind of Lady Susan, who has enjoyed sexual fun with (in no particular order) Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and….Mr. Knightley! And perhaps, somewhere along the way while getting “boarded” with these gentlemen, Harriet wound up (like Jane Fairfax) in the precarious position of coming back with progeny—which may explain why she is introduced to Emma at the moment she is, and why she is so determined to find a husband without the lapse of too many months.

Even if you won’t go that far with me on that last interpretation, at the very least I hope you’ll agree that there can no other plausible reading of all of the above-described echoes and intricate wordplay, than that Jane Austen fully intended to point to Sheridan’s The Rivals, particularly the fraught relationship between Lydia Languish and her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, in order to invite her knowing readers to think about the allusive presence of that relationship in Sheridan’s witty, edgy play in  Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

And that, I suggest, makes Emma (may the ghost of Edmund Wilson forgive me) even more so the greatest “Pentathlon” of fiction!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Irony in Emma and in Jane Austen’s overall narrative structure

As I noted in my immediately preceding post.... I came across “Irony in Jane Austen: A Cognitive-Narratological Approach” by Wolfgang G. Muller, a chapter in a recently published book. Muller’s essay addresses what I consider to be the most central yet challenging-to-understand aspect of Jane Austen’s genius – her pervasive use of irony.

In my preceding post, I quoted two excerpts therefrom relating to Pride & Prejudice which I found most significant, and, as to each such excerpt, my reaction to it. In this post now, I will react to two other excerpts in Muller’s essay, with my comments, which pertain, respectively, to irony in Emma, and then to Austen’s overall novel structure. So, without further ado:

MULLER EXCERPT #3: [While discussing irony in Emma] As a somewhat more complex example of irony based on an assumed community between two persons, a passage from Emma will now be examined. It comes from a dialogue between the protagonist and her protegee, Harriet Smith. Emma is filling Harriet’s ears with hopes for a great match, which she is arranging for her. These plans are completely illusory and shall fail miserably, as the reader learns later in the novel:
“This is an alliance which, whoever—whatever your friends may be, must be agreeable to them, provided at least they have common sense; and we are not to be addressing our conduct to fools. […]
“Yes, very true. How nicely you talk; I love to hear you. You understand every thing. You and Mr. Elton are one as clever as the other.” 
In this passage, the irony is turned against Emma herself in her exaggerated expression of self-righteousness and arrogance. And there are two ironic aspects in Harriet’s reply, without her being aware of them, first, the idea that Emma understands everything, when she in fact understands nothing, and, second, the opinion that Emma and Mr. Elton are intellectually equal, which suggests a relationship between the two, which Elton aspires to unbeknownst to Emma. There is a double irony in this exchange of words, an irony that is directed against Emma’s intellectual pride and her match-making plans, and an irony directed against Harriet, who allows herself to be manipulated by Emma. The whole passage illustrates the effect that involuntary irony can have. The ironies in this passage show the whole intricate tangle of the three characters in a nutshell- Emma, the self-congratulatory matchmaker; Harriet, the victim of her manipulation; and Mr. Elton, the would-be social climber. The dialogue represents one of the many examples of the pleasure of cognitive processing that Austen’s novels afford the reader…..”

As will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my theories about Jane Austen, I believe another entire layer of irony has been missed by Muller, if one takes the point of view (as I do) that Harriet Smith’s character is (even more so than Mrs. Bennet, as I described in my preceding post) profoundly ambiguous, and amenable to two diametrically opposed interpretations – that of the unpretending fool, or the pretended fool –or, in Richardsonian terms, a Pamela or a Shamela.

I.e., Emma is not merely clueless about Mr. Elton’s supposed romantic interest in Harriet, she is even more profoundly clueless about Harriet’s supposed adoration of, and obedience to, Emma! That is a far more exquisite irony, because never explicitly revealed to the reader – but, as I have often pointed out, Harriet’s one major speech in the entire novel, when Harriet shocks Emma with the revelation of her romantic aspirations toward Knightley, is a speech that cannot plausibly have been spoken by the uneducated simpleton Emma believes Harriet to be.

Had Muller been able to see Harriet as Shamela, he would have then seen the hilarious ironic humor of the rest of that dialog between Emma and Harriet:

[Harriet] “…This charade!—If I had studied a twelvemonth, I could never have made any thing like it.”
[Emma] “I thought he meant to try his skill, by his manner of declining it yesterday.”
“I do think it is, without exception, the best charade I ever read.”
“I never read one more to the purpose, certainly.”
“It is as LONG again as almost all we have had before.”
“I do not consider its LENGTH as particularly in its favour. Such things in general cannot be TOO SHORT.”
Harriet was too intent on the lines to hear. The most satisfactory comparisons were RISING in her mind…”

The shadow Harriet I see, a canny manipulator of a clueless Emma, is having some fun pretending she has no clue as to the answer to Mr. Elton’s charade, even though (as Colleen Sheehan showed in her  2007 Persuasions Online article) Harriet’s ‘wrong’ answers to Mr. Elton’s “courtship” charade turn out to be spot-on in pointing to a second, satirical answer, the “Prince of Whales”, which winks broadly at Lamb’s doggerel poem and Cruikshank’s visual caricatures of the Prince Regent –and, perhaps, also of the locally powerful Mr. Knightley as a veiled fictional representation of the nationally powerful real-life Prince.

And one more related point. The above quoted passage also contains within it what I see as a broad sexual innuendo, as to which the length of Mr. Elton’s “charade” can also be read as winking at the length of Mr. Elton’s body part most relevant to his courtship of Emma. This is a close analogy, by the way, to the ideas discussed in my preceding post regarding Excerpt #1 , above, but this time with Jane Austen, the author, being the person whom we should suspect (as we suspect Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth) of enjoying saying  things she doesn’t really believe.

Now, some of you are probably thinking I’m reaching too far, in claiming that the “most satisfactory comparisons rising in Harriet’s mind” are of a sexual nature –i.e., that the word “charade” stands in (so to speak) for Mr. Elton’s phallus. Well, I have this friendly challenge for you skeptics-- please then explain to me why that interpretation fits so uncannily well with the sexual innuendo (recognized by more than one mainstream Austen scholar) in the following later dialog between Emma and Harriet, when Harriet is ready to ritually dispose of her “precious treasures” collected from Mr. Elton:

“Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil,—the part without any lead.
 “But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court-plaister?—I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court-plaister might be useful.”
“I shall be happier to burn it,” replied Harriet. “It has a disagreeable look to me. I must get rid of every thing.—There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! of Mr. Elton.”

The image of Harriet symbolically sending Mr. Elton’s private parts up in flames reminds me of voodoo, and is thus a diabolically exquisite irony which must have given Jane Austen much pleasure in creating.

MULLER EXCERPT #4: “On the basis of our analysis, it can be concluded that Austen tends to restrict her use of free indirect thought to female characters and, more specifically, to the protagonists of her novels, while free indirect speech is restricted to minor characters, regardless of whether they are male or female. It is an astonishing phenomenon—one hardly ever recognized by critics—that in her novels the speech of the (female) protagonists is usually exempted from free indirect representation. Therefore, what can be noticed is that Austen’s large-scale use of free indirect style is strongly gendered, privileging female consciousness. The article’s second result is that, as far as the emergence of irony in free indirect discourse is concerned, the ironic mode tends to be employed for the most part in passages involving free indirect speech, while the use of irony in passages involving free indirect thought is comparatively rare, with the significant exception of Emma, and perhaps, Northanger Abbey…”

Here the irony I see is on Muller himself as a scholar, because in his analysis, I believe he (a lot like Emma) brilliantly spots and highlights a key point (the dichotomous treatment of thought and reported speech between the heroine, on the one hand, and all the other characters, on the other); but then Muller explains it as Austen’s wishing to “privilege[e] female consciousness.”

It is not that I believe Muller is incorrect in that regard, because, indeed, one of Austen’s radical (for that era) and brave innovations was to have women tell the story of women, during an era when it was still the cultural norm for women not to hold the pen or tell their own side of the story. However, Muller misses an equally large significance of that ubiquitous structural pattern in all of Austen’s published novels.

It has been my central mantra the past 12 years that by focalizing 98-99% of the narrative through the mind of the central heroine, Austen has thereby (deliberately) made it possible for her to carefully craft her narration such that readers may plausibly perceive either of two parallel but distinct fictional realities – one in which the narration is largely objective (the overt story), and one in which the narration is often subjective (the shadow story).

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

Irony within irony (and love and eloquence) in Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

Today I came across “Irony in Jane Austen: A Cognitive-Narratological Approach” (by a German professor emeritus, Wolfgang G. Muller), a chapter in a recently published book on narrative theory. Muller’s essay addresses what I consider to be the most central yet challenging-to-understand aspect of Jane Austen’s genius – her pervasive use of irony. Muller’s ideas provided me with rich inspiration for some reflections of my own on that important topic.

I quote below the first two excerpts therefrom relating to irony in Pride & Prejudice, which I found most significant, and, as to each such excerpt, my reaction to it. In a second, separate post, I will react to two other excerpts in Muller’s essay, also with my comments, which pertain, respectively, to irony in Emma, and then to Austen’s narrative structure in all six of her completed novels. So, here goes.

MULLER EXCERPT #1: “It is curious that secondary criticism of JA tends to praise her irony without going more deeply into this aspect of her art…To my knowledge, there is only one comprehensive study of Austen’s irony, Kuhnel’s monograph (1969)…some passages in JA can be explained in terms of ironia verborum or litotes, for instance the following comments of Mr. Bennet in Austen’s P&P (1813) on the conceited, domineering Lady Catherine and the insolent good-for-nothing Wickham:

“She is a very fine-looking woman! and her calling here was prodigiously civil! for she only came, I suppose, to tell us the Collinses were well. She is on her road somewhere, I dare say, and so, passing through Meryton, thought she might as well call on you. I suppose she had nothing particular to say to you, Lizzy?”

“He is as fine a fellow,” said Mr. Bennet, as soon as they were out of the house, “as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”

The context of the two passages makes it obvious that Mr. Bennet intends his utterances not to be taken literally. He makes his point by stating the opposite of what he purports to convey. His comment on the two characters is a transparent misrepresentation. Using this form of verbal irony is his way of showing his wit and of passing a negative judgment on others. Mr. Bennet’s ironic statements also have the function of correcting the effusive evaluation of the same persons by his wife, which in contrast to his remarks constitute non-ironic misrepresentations of the reality of things and persons that are derived from wishful thinking….” END OF MULLER EXCERPT #1

Muller contrasts Mr. Bennet’s ironic absurd statements with Mrs. Bennet’s unironic absurd statements. However, Muller doesn’t realize that many of Mrs. Bennet’s absurd statements can also plausibly be read as ironic! To do so, the reader must entertain the possibility that Mrs. Bennet is not the consistently over-the-top fool she seems (to Eliza) to be, but actually is clever enough to feign hysteria in certain instances for strategic purposes. As you might guess, I believe JA did indeed intend Mrs. Bennet to be ambiguous in this way, plausibly viewable as either an actual or a feigned fool. Which Mrs. Bennet you see depends on whether the reader can imagine a Mrs. Bennet who has motivations very different than Elizabeth, the focal consciousness of the novel, ascribes to her.

Muller also missed the opportunity to note that Mr. Bennet is not alone in P&P in ‘mak[ing] his point by stating the opposite of what he purports to convey.” All readers of P&P would agree that Eliza’s ironic sense of humor reveal her to truly be her father’s daughter in this regard. We have no lesser authority on this point than Mr. Darcy: “…[Darcy] making with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said: “You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
“I shall not say you are mistaken,” he replied, “because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own.”
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself…”

MULLER EXCERPT #2: “…such an irony-saturated narrative [as P&P] requires a perceptive reader…A similar, yet somewhat more intricate example…is the representation of Charlotte Lucas’s consciousness as she eagerly waits for the arrival of Mr. Collins: ‘Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.”
Here, the use of the adverb ‘accidentally’ does not fit its context. Again, the reader is more than aware of the situation, namely that Charlotte Lucas, in intending to ‘catch’ Mr. Collins, is making a show of acting in an unpremeditated way. Irony is here a device of exposing and criticizing a character’s hypocrisy…the narrator inserts the adverb ‘accidentally’ in reference to the impression that Charlotte Lucas desires to create. The insertion of this word can also be seen as a glimpse of the figural character’s point of view. We can here observe that Austen is more sophisticated than run-of-the-mill ironists….”

All readers of P&P would agree that Charlotte’s meeting Mr. Collins in the lane is the furthest thing from “accidental”. However, Muller fails to extrapolate from this scene showing Charlotte’s opportunistic, proactive approach to courtship, in which she is the active pursuer of Mr. Collins, while disguising her actions so as to appear to be a traditional, passive female object of courtship. Muller (and most readers of P&P) fail to utilize that rare window into Charlotte’s character which this scene provides, and wonder whether there might be other points in the story in which Charlotte, while outside of Elizabeth’s gaze, also takes covert action in order to inobtrusively direct the behavior of other, unsuspecting characters.

Muller also fails to notice a major allusive wink in the next sentence after his quoted excerpt from P&P:
“But little had [Charlotte] dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her [in the lane].”

12 years ago, I first used Google to learn that the striking phrase “love and eloquence” was not merely one part of the mock-romantic tone of that narration, in the identical vein as Mr. Bennet’s earlier satirical mockery of Mr. Collins:

[Mr. Collins] “…I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies…These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.”
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”
“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.”

Mr. Collins displays narcissism when he rejects Mr. Bennet’s suggestion that Mr. Collins has studied the art of flattery, instead claiming to improvise his compliments. That indirect boast is actually belied by the phrase “love and eloquence”, because that is actually the title of a 17th century advice book entitled The Mysteries of Love & Eloquence  by Edward Phillips (subtitle: The arts of wooing and complementing as they are manag'd in the Spring Garden, Hide Park, the New Exchange, and other eminent places : a work in which is drawn to the life the deportments of the most accomplisht persons, the mode of their courtly entertainments, treatments of their ladies at balls, their accustom'd sports, drolls and fancies, the witchcrafts of their perswasive language in their approaches, or other more secret dispatches) 

To a reader who recognizes that title, this pulls the rug out from under Mr. Collin’s improvisation claim, and suggests instead that, as Mr. Bennet implied, the worldly wise Charlotte suspects that Mr. Collins has actually been boning up (so to speak) in Phillips’s self-help book on the art of wooing! I also assert that Austen later winks at “the witchcrafts of perswasive language” when Lady Catherine accuses Eliza:
“But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”

And finally, perhaps you noticed the coincidence of the author’s name, Phillips, with the name of Mrs. Bennet’s brother in law the lawyer, Mr. Phillips. If you are sitting down, you are now ready to read Wikipedia’s description of the far greater claim to fame of that 17th expert on wooing:

“He was the son of Edward Phillips of the crown office in chancery, and his wife Anne, only sister of JOHN MILTONEdward Phillips and his younger brother, John, were educated by Milton. Edward entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in November 1650, but left the university in 1651 to work as a bookseller's clerk in London. Although he did not share Milton's religious and political views, and seems, to judge from the free character of his Mysteries of Love and Eloquence (1658), to have undergone a certain revulsion from his Puritan upbringing, he remained on affectionate terms with his uncle to the end. He was tutor to the son of JOHN EVELYN, the diarist, from 1663 to 1672 at Sayes Court, Deptford, and in 1677–1679 in the family of Henry BENNET, 1st Earl of Arlington, a prominent Roman Catholic…”

The notion that the imbecilic Mr. Collins was taking non-PG-rated courtship advice from Milton’s nephew is droll enough. That Milton’s said nephew whose ideas Mr. Collins studied so diligently was also tutor to a real life Bennet family must have had JA and her intimate friends and family who were in on the erudite humor, ROFL (as we say these days!).

But that’s not all about Edward Phillips that relates to questions of authorial authenticity. In another of his books, Theatrum Poetarum, he argued that “poetry should not deviate from what could be considered historical truth, unless fictional invention afforded means to express some greater truth allegorically …. The subject of ‘a Heroic Poem’ must enable ‘feigning of probable circumstances, in which and in proper Allegorie, Invention ... principally consisteth, . . . for whatever is pertinently said by way of Allegorie is morally though not historically true.’   ‘... in which the Poet hath an ample feild to in large by feigning of probable circumstances, in which and in proper Allegorie, Invention ... principally consisteth, and wherein there is a kind of truth…’ “

I can only say a heartfelt “Amen!” to the notion that Jane Austen was one of the greatest masters in literary history of “feigning of probable circumstances…wherein there is a kind of truth”!

But I have still one last observation about Excerpt#1. Muller also fails to extrapolate the pattern I have long perceived in the entire Austen canon and not just in Charlotte in P&P, wherein seemingly marginalized, powerless female characters use their strong minds to inobtrusively direct the behavior of others. And that provides the perfect segue to the next excerpt, about another such strong-minded character, in Emma, which I will address in the second post I promised, which l link here:

Cheers, ARNIE

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