Friday, September 11, 2009

Jane Austen and the Jackals

Ellen Moody has written a blog about The Sexing Up of Jane Austen, in which she discusses John Sutherland's review of Jane Harman's book Jane's Fame, and postulates that there's "more sex in Austen than is admitted because of the Victorian-sentimentalization way she has been read." Ellen gives examples of the offstage sex in Austen:

She then takes on the new school of what for lack of a better word I'll call Subtexters, whom she says have been "concocting wildly anachronistic stories from this text." I will not add to her attack on those individuals who approach Jane Austen as a crossword puzzle, and trawl her works for secret meanings and allusions that they hope will create a connected enough picture to justify the assumption that she really intended to insert "shadow stories" within her layered and complex works, that are only being excavated 200 years later. The Austen lists have been taken up with this school of thought, heatedly debating for and against it, for some time now. Not being like Emma, who told Frank Churchill, "If I had been there, I think I should have made some discoveries," I have remained neutral on the subject. I am allergic to puzzles, and while occasionally amused and edified by the ingenious discoveries of others, I allow the delving elves to do all the work themselves. I do think Jane Austen was wickeder than the world has heretofore given her credit for being; I have no doubt that where Jill Heydt-Stevenson discovered smoke in Austen's "great slit in my worked muslin gown" and "rears and vices" remarks, there was indeed a surprising amount of fire. I have not been able to buy into a sweeping view of alternate universe shadow novels, wherein Jane Fairfax is pregnant by John Knightley and baby Anna Weston is somebody very different from what she seems; but as Mr. Bennet said, "I leave it to yourself to determine," and I leave it for posterity.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cockfight by Zoffany, 1784. Which age was more decadent?

The only thought that I will advance about subtext theories is that I suspect they have a direct connection with the hideous proliferation of vampire and zombie retellings of poor Jane's tales. I believe that what these new phenomena have in common is that they are all part of the hydra-headed, decadent response to Jane Austen that seems to be increasingly becoming our generation's shatteringly enthusiastic response to her, like that of a sloppy big dog, or rather, salivating hell-hound. (Readers, if I have any, will recollect that I am a cat person.) Jane's Fame traces previous generations' responses, from family members' sugary presentation of Aunt Jane in the first biographical works, through unpeelings of the onion that is Austen by successive generations of literary critics and antiquarians, chiseling away at her from different angles, until soon there may be nothing left but a well parsed puddle. Each generation has had its own "take" on this author who is the most compellingly re-readable of any because of her formidably winning combination of qualities: perfect resonant language; adored love stories; and the sliding scale of meanings and mysteries she infuses into her work. As she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, "People themselves alter so much that there is something new to be observed in them for ever," and new meanings - and best of all, new jokes - can indeed be observed in Jane Austen for ever.

Like Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, who said, "I do not pretend to set people right, but I do see that they are often wrong,” I will not pretend to set myself up as a keeper of any particular theory. It would take greater, younger, more dissertation-hungry minds than mine to trace the degeneration of the Janeites, at the very moment that Jane Austen has reached warp speed and universal dissemination in popularity. I will confine myself to doing something closer to what Tom Bertram said in that same conversation: “Those who are showing the world what female manners should be,” [he said] gallantly, “are doing a great deal to set them right.” And so, in a more sanguine spirit, I will review for you three books of Jane Austen studies that I have recently read, that have everything right about them, and are worthy of the attention of the lover of Jane, without a single vampire or secret pregnancy anywhere in sight.

James Austen

The first of these is The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen's Eldest Brother (ed. with intro and notes by David Selwyn). It's excellent, and essential for anyone seriously interested in the Austen family. Deirdre Le Faye suggested I get it, and I'm so glad I did. I'd say I couldn't understand why this book seems to be so overlooked and seldom mentioned, except I can see why - it's practically unobtainable! Not available on Amazon UK or any of the usual sources. I got it from the Jane Austen Society in England but it took considerable ingenuity, as they don't take credit cards, PayPal or, of course, American checks! I finally suggested putting a 20 pound note into an envelope, the remains of my English money from my trip, and that did the trick. (The book costs half that, but they sent it air mail, so it wasn't that far off.) The book is available at some American university libraries - UCLA has it - but I knew I wanted to own it. Among other things, it is chock full of biographical poems and riddles and charades, which should delight the crossword puzzlers and Subtexters.

Now for the cream (a particularly appropriate Emma quote, in this context). Ellen mentioned online the poem about Elinor and Marianne both being Jane Austen, and I made note of it myself:

Fair Elinor's Self in that mind exprest,
And the Feelings of Marianne live in that Breast.

I particularly love the poems on Selbourne Hangar, which I visited on a rainy day in July, and therefore I was amused to read:

Would you view Selbourne Hangar aright
You must go when Autumn's sun shines bright

A good reason to go back! And I was delighted by the mention of the Zigzag:

Next as we trace the Zigzag walk
Cut out upon th' indented chalk

You may remember I blogged earlier about the wonder of climbing up the Zigzag that Gilbert White carved himself 250 years ago. Also, I'd long wondered what the Austens might have known of Selbourne and Gilbert White, and was pleased to find James writing on the subject:

Who talks of rational delight
When Selbourne's hill appears in sight
And does not think of Gilbert White?

James goes on quite a bit about Gilbert White's natural studies, so that the book makes a delightful adjunct to reading White's wonderful book, The Natural History of Selbourne, ideally in the beautiful new illustrated edition that I brought back from thence. I was also pleased to encounter many mentions of Kintbury in James Austen's writings, having visited Kintbury church in July.

A rainy day at Selborne in July, 2009

I had the strongest possible feeling that Jane Austen may have actually helped write the poem Epilogue to the Sultan (A Farce, acted at Steventon Jan. 1, 1790, spoken by Miss Cooper in the character of Roxalana). Never read any hint of this, but I just feel that I detect her humorous touch.

I loved the Tiger poems to Caroline, which I'd read elsewhere (they're included in the much smaller volume, Jane Austen: Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family, also edited by David Selwyn; I was surprised that the James book is twice the size!), but my favorite may be To Edward on the Death of His First Pony. That one encapsulates everything about 18th century attitudes that you may want to know!

Well, I had fun, and I recommend this to anyone who likes this sort of thing.

The second book I shall discuss is Phyllis Bottomer's book, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice. On first hearing of this book, I initially had a negative impression of the subject matter, and thought it sounded like an instance of academic absurdity. Then I heard Bottomer speak; we were on the same panel at the New Directions in JA Studies conference at Chawton House Library. She's a highly engaging and convincing speaker, who brought up interesting ideas without being either jargonny or overbearing. I liked her very much, and from meeting her, hearing her, and now reading her book, whatever one may decide about her subject matter, I am sure that comments on the Janeites list about the "importantitis" of such theorizing, are unfair. Bottomer presents her novel ideas thoughtfully and very interestingly.

I do think the book suffers slightly at the outset from the necessity of having to explain Austen to those interested in the subject of autism, and autism to the Austenians. The book therefore starts out being rather too simplistic on both sides. However, it gathers force as she explains specifically why she thinks various P & P characters display traits on the autism spectrum. Before I describe what she says, I'll state the obvious caveat, that no modern mental health care professional can possibly diagnose somebody they haven't met, much less someone from another century. To try to diagnose fictional characters is of course patently absurd! But what Bottomer is basically saying is that Austen was so brilliant at subtly depicting characters, she described characteristics and traits to which we today might name by a diagnosis. It's like saying that Mr. Woodhouse suffers from agoraphobia or John Thorpe has Tourettes, or...why, it's only just struck me, has anybody noticed that Jane Austen does not make any of her characters really seriously mentally ill? They're all what Walter Scott or somebody would call "probable." This is surprising to me because everywhere I go in Santa Monica, where I live, the mentally ill homeless are all around. I see dozens of severely mentally ill people every day. There was certainly a similar situation in Jane Austen's London...but Austen doesn't "see" them, rather like Anne Elliot when she opens the door to Nurse Rooke, and doesn't see her. But I digress.

Mr. Collins - on the spectrum?

Even Austen's monsters aren't mad. General Tilney and Mrs. Norris and Lucy Steele are all actually highly functional and do very well for themselves. What Phyllis Bottomer is doing is observing Austen's characters and identifying traits on the autism spectrum in them. Is this a serious diagnosis? No. Is she right in every instance? No, I don't think so. Is she onto anything? Well, she's trying a new way of looking at the characters and the books. In doing so, I think she gains, and gives us, some new gleams of insight. I never thought of the characters in this way before. I don't know if I ever will again, but her thoughts and observations are valid and illuminating.

That such hypothesizing and analysis may be frivolous, disrespectful and hurtful to readers who are autistic, have Aspergers, or are friends and family members of either, has been sensitively protested on the Janeites list. I would respect their feelings, however I don't think what Bottomer has done is any different really from examining Austen's characters in other specialist terms, such as queer theory or the like. It would be unacceptable if she were deprecating or dismissive or insensitive to the suffering of people with these ailments, but she certainly is not remotely any of those things.

Here is a slight precis of the terms by which she categorizes the P & P characters. Mr. Collins she says exhibits certain traits on the Asperger's spectrum because he doesn't hear irony, shows limited emotional depth, is socially awkward, and then there's his quick switch of wife choice. Mary Bennett seems unaware of the impact she has on people, can't read facial expressions, and has little idea of the appropriate response. Lydia can't focus, is oblivous of the feelings of others, doesn't feel a pang at leaving her mother, seems to have ADD. Mr. Bennet seems to have a good many traits from the Asperger's spectrum, with socializing stressful to him, his unawareness of his family's plight, his inability to picture Lydia's vulnerability in Brighton, and the way he doesn't remember or consider feelings of others. Mrs. Bennet has symptoms of having to live with a person with Asperger's traits, as it's true her husband takes no notice of her nerves, doesn't know what she suffers...but she has some traits too, such as inappropriate manners and social obliviousness.

I could go on but it's not my intention to summarize the book. Suffice it to say I find some of the author's interpretations clever and intriguing, and some wide of the mark - for instance, she does not succeed in convincing me that Darcy has anything like Aspergers or autism. In Austen's own life, Bottomer points out that her brother George may have been mentally ill, and that descriptions of Francis as a rigid naval disciplinarian, might indicate something on the spectrum. She quotes Carol Shields as supposing that Mrs. Austen, Jane's mother, was "demanding, self-absorbed, careless of her daughter's comfort, insensitive to illness," which might sound symptomatic. About Jane Austen having Asperger's symptoms herself, she declines to say, only suggests that there might be a family history there. But we'll never know.

Jane Austen at 16, as Mary Queen of Scots

The third book on my list is the new Juvenilia Press edition of Jane Austen's The History of England & Cassandra's Portraits, edited by Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander. The editors' thesis is that the charming miniature portraits of royalty by Cassandra, are actually simultaneously portraits of various members of her family. They present this argument so simply and convincingly, that my reaction, at any rate, was to say at once, "Of course! Why hasn't anyone seen that before?" The History of England and the illustrations are reproduced with the illustrations also set beside existing portraits and images of the family members they are supposed to represent. This means we can see the similarities with our own eyes, and from there it is an easy step to see that nothing is more likely than that Jane and Cassandra, at age 16 and 18, should have conspired to produce this piece of wit together.

Once this has been seen, the delights continue to unfold; as Upfal truly says, this "opens up a whole new field of interpretation of this text, [with] wider implications for Austen research...that may involve a major re-assessment of Jane Austen's life and work." To begin with, it is fascinating to contemplate Cassandra in one of the only acts of wickedness and wit in which she has ever been seen by posterity. What can she mean by portraying the girls' mother, Mrs. Austen, as a witchlike Queen Elizabeth, while Jane Austen's teenage self smiles serenely opposite in the guise of Mary Queen of Scots? It provides the key to a long-suspected theory that Mrs. Austen and her daughter Jane did not have the easiest of relationships. A quote that Upfal might have used in her introduction is one from Mansfield Park, where it is said of Mrs. Price, "Her daughters never had been much to her. She was fond of her sons, especially of William..." Might not something like that have been said of Mrs. Austen?

But it is not only the mother whose attitudes, and how they are perceived by the daughters, are revealed by this new look at the portraits. We see the brothers as various kings, good humoredly presented in text and image, and there are glimpses of how such Austen family members and associates as Rev. Edward Cooper, Mary Austen, and Cassandra's own fiance Tom Fowle, are seen through this penetrating little periscope-view through the eyes of a young, laughing (and that not always kindly) Jane and Cassandra. As the knowledge of their style of youthful satire takes hold, we may see them as they were, and better understand the reasons why Cassandra destroyed most of their letters. How deliciously wicked they must have been! I enjoyed a very happy, illuminating and lively time with this book, my copy of which was autographed by both editors at the recent New Directions in Jane Austen Studies conference at Chawton House Library. Much more to my personal taste than reading about zombies or constructing subtextual airy edifices; but it goes without saying (to paraphrase Mr. Darcy) that I would by no means suspend any one else's pleasure.