Friday, August 6, 2010

Looking for Happiness: Rasselas, Jane Austen, and Cats

I read Rasselas by Samuel Johnson today, and thought about it in terms of Jane Austen, as it is a book she read and loved.  My musings about the two will best be illustrated by cats, as some people have told me I have given them short shrift lately and I am ashamed, very ashamed.

Martial, a rather Johnsonian cat

Henry Austen famously said about his sister, "Her favorite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse." And so I will go through Rasselas, commenting like Mr. Knightley reading Frank Churchill's letter, as Emma wished it; and making extracts, as Mary Bennet did, you remember:

"What say you, Mary? for you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books and make extracts."

"Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how."

 Rasselas is about an Abissinian Prince who grows tired of being confined in the Happy Valley where heirs to the king live in peace and prosperity, but are denied knowledge of the outside world. He digs an escape tunnel and goes traveling with the poet philosopher Imlac, and his sister Nekayah. They see the world, searching for the nature of happiness, and the book basically serves as the occasion for many epigrammatic wise, witty, and characteristically depressing observations by Johnson.

Rasselas was an Abyssinan Prince...

 For example, Johnson writes, in 1759, 144 years before the first flight, about what the ability of man to fly might bring: "A flight of northern savages might hover in the wind, and light at once with irresistible violence upon the capital of a fruitful region that was rolling under them."

How prescient, savages and all.

I kept finding lines that are famous and exclaiming, "So that's where that came from!" Such as:

"But I soon found that no man was ever great by imitation."

(And here I've spent my life imitating Jane Austen; for shame!)

Pindar, a rather Austenian cat

Also, "The prince cried out, "Enough! Thou hast convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet."

Well, that fixes my poet husband Peter. (You may say it is rather suspicious, how this book is speaking to us.)

"There is so much infelicity, said the poet, in the world, that scarce any man has leisure from his own distresses to estimate the comparative happiness of others."

Very true, and here is a sentence that sounds as if it could have been written by Jane Austen, yet I am not so sure that the sentiment would have been hers.  It is true she shows people wrongly estimating the happiness of others.. For example, there is Marianne's obliviousness to Elinor's unhappiness; or Julia, tired of walking with Mrs. Rushworth: "Why, child, I have but this moment escaped from his horrible mother. Such a penance as I have been enduring, while you were sitting here so composed and so happy! It might have been as well, perhaps, if you had been in my place, but you always contrive to keep out of these scrapes.”  Yet the thought is more Johnson than Austen, for I can't think of anywhere that she dwells on all the infelicity in the world.  In fact..."Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery."

"They are surely happy, said the prince, who have all these conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts."

So Johnson would have very much approved of email, though I am sure he would have drawn the line, as I do, at Twitter.

"And why should not life glide quietly away in the soft reciprocation of protection and reverence?"

Why not, indeed, if they could be had...doesn't that sound like the closing of an Austen novel. Certainly she learned something of her style of forming thoughts into sentences, from him.

Life gliding by

Johnson writes about those "whose minds have no impression but of the present moment, are either corroded by malignant passions, or sit stupid in the gloom of perpetual vacancy."

And Austen writes, "but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments."

An elegant mind

Johnson says that he does not "know not one house that is not haunted by some fury that destroys its quiet."

This is certainly true, if you have ever observed my cats for very long...

Haunted by some fury

"Thus parents and children, for the greatest part, live on to love less and less: and, if those whom nature has thus closely united are the torments of each other, where shall we look for tenderness and consolation?"

Now there is the first thing which with I do not agree. And I don't think Jane Austen did either, quite. This sentiment doesn't reflect in what she wrote about brothers and sisters:

"Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived."

Sisters three

Ah, and here is perhaps the most famous Johnson quotation of all!

"Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures."

And Jane Austen duly paid tribute to that magnificent epigram:  "Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures" really is a very Mary Crawford-like joke.

"Marriage has many pains..."

We may wonder to what extent Johnson's thoughts on the institution of marriage influenced Jane Austen, who did not marry (as nor did he). Pity they were not contemporaries, but Johnson (1709 - 1784) died just before Jane's (1775 - 1817) ninth birthday.

"What can be expected but disappointment and repentance from a choice made in the immaturity of youth, in the ardour of desire, without judgment, without forsight, without enquiry after conformity of opinions, similarity of manners, rectitude of judgment, or purity of sentiment."

If that isn't an Austenian sentiment about marriage, I don't know what is.  Here she is in Persuasion:

"Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition?"

Cats and Faun

More Johnson on marriage:

"I know not, said the princess, whether marriage be more than one of the innumerable modes of human misery. When I see and reckon the various forms of connubial infelicity, the unexpected causes of lasting discord, the diversities of temper, the oppositions of opinion, the rude collisions of contrary desire where both are urged by violent impulses, the obstinate contests of disagreeing virtues, where both are supported by consciousness of good intention, I am sometimes disposed to think with the severer casuists of most nations, that marriage is rather permitted than approved, and that none, but by the instigation of a passion too much indulged, entangle themselves with indissoluble compacts."

Perhaps here we have come to the heart of the very reasons why Jane Austen did not marry. Who, having read that passage, could say a lasting yes to Harris Bigg-Wither? But observe that Johnson's syntax is getting ever more tortured as this book reaches its heart. Thank goodness that did not happen to *her.* Perhaps she did not live long enough to become less than sublime...or to write well enough to be unintelligible.

Reflecting on mortality, Johnson unsparingly cinches the misery of it all:

"I rest against a tree, and consider, that in the same shade I once disputed upon the annual overflow of the Nile with a friend who is now silent in the grave."

I rest against a tree...

"Praise, said the sage, with a sigh, is to an old man an empty sound...Riches would now be useless, and high employment would be pain. My retrospect of life recalls to my view many opportunities of good neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness and vacancy. I leave many great designs unattempted, and many great attempts unfinished."

The dark meditations of Catullus  
(somewhat lightened by her frivolous Tail)

Jane Austen died too young to have had space for many such reflections, though possibly it would not have been in her happier nature to indulge in them. Instead she observes:

"The only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present, the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with, into a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper, made up by her friend, and ornamented with cyphers and trophies."

Rasselas has a mad astronomer character, whom I liked.  Here is a nice fancy about him, that would appeal to my night owl family, both cat and human:

"The princess and her lady retired; the madness of the astronomer hung upon their minds, and they desired Imlac to enter upon his office, and delay next morning the rising of the sun."

(I believe, however, that Jane Austen was a day person, rising early to play her piano.)

Pindar in the Morning
"The princess thought, that of all sublunary things, knowledge was the best: She desired first to learn all sciences, and then purposed to found a college of learned women, in which she would preside, that, by conversing with the old, and educating the young, she might divide her time between the acquisition and communication of wisdom, and raise up for the next age models of prudence, and patterns of piety."

A very proper feminist conclusion; we can see why Helen Burns in Jane Eyre was such a Johnsonian, she had that cast of mind, though she did not survive to exercise it.

Well, there, I've finished with Rasselas. And I am quivering with wisdom, it feels absolutely like eczema breaking out all over me! So that was very good indeed, though personally I might have preferred to have read something more amusing, like Journey to the Hebrides, or Flush. The experience reminds me suspiciously of Nancy Mitford's father who only ever read one book, White Fang, and liked it so much he never read another. I don't feel like reading anything again for some time, I can tell you. No, no. What a mercy I did not read Rasselas until now, if I am going to indulge in a Johnsonian retrospective of my life, I conclude that it is happier to have spent it in the company of Austen.

And now what - shall I go back to Abyssinia, as they do in Rasselas? I suppose New York would be my Abyssinia, the Happy Valley that I escaped as a foolish young woman. No; for I am not a prince or a princess, and could not afford the place. I could, I suppose acquire an Abyssinian cat. But I suspect Pindar, Martial, and Catullus would object.

"What should prevent us?" said Henry Crawford. "Not these countenances, I am sure.”


JaneGS said...

Thank you for this. This observation made my day.

>Ah, and here is perhaps the most famous Johnson quotation of all!

>"Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures."

>And Jane Austen duly paid tribute to that magnificent epigram: "Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures" really is a very Mary Crawford-like joke.

I agree, that is very Mary Crawford-like.

Christy Somer said...


Your Johnson and Austen combo of quotes are a delight!

And of course, your furry *familiars* holding such posed kitty courtings, add just the right amount of kitty-lishes accent~~~:-)

Linda said...

I was forced to read Rasselas as an undergraduate but never enjoyed it or appreciated the great quotes until I saw your feline photos.

Ellen said...

I remember phrases and agree Austen has lines which are redolent of Johnson. He is more overtly passionate than she, and much more grim.

There's this famous one:

Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed."

And there are cheering ones too: how about this as applied to today's internet:

"They are surely happy," said the prince, "who have all these
conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with
which separated friends interchange their thoughts."

Ellen said...

The book is remarkable, both for its general themes, vignettes and individuals lines. Austen does sound like a wistful version of Johnson. Lines are famous: Life is much to be endured and little to be enjoyed. Also though: "They are surely happy," said the prince, "who have all these
conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with
which separated friends interchange their thoughts." Apply that to the internet!


Cathy L said...

I loved your essay.
I would like to comment on your remark concerning marriage. Johnson did marry. He married Elizabeth Porter (the first cougar - she was 21 years older than the groom). The event of Samuel Johnson's wedding to Elizabeth Porter ("Tetty") at St. Werburgh's Church in Derby is re-enacted at the church every year. Regards, Cathy

Diana Birchall said...

Whoops, thank you Cathy, I *am* a dope - of course I did know about Tetty, and forgot! Just too distracted. I don't know your email address, so I hope you see this, and my thanks again!


Anonymous said...

I probably should have said Rasselas is one of the century's "wise" or "wisdom" narratives. Ethical, philosophical fables. The closest in spirit are Voltaire's Candide (yes!) and Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield. Very common is to use the pseudo-non-western setting so three other strikingly good ones are Frances Sheridan's The History of Nourjahad (the first to center on sexuality, especially women's, brilliant tale), Montesquieu, Persian Letters and Françoise de Graffigny, Peruvienne Letters (ditto with Frances Sheridan). All but Montesquiue very short. They are usually no longer than novellas -- Montesqueiu's is the exception among those I've cited.

These are not the same as the use of pseudo-non-western backgrounds to bring out the relatively of values and satirize western values, e.g., Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, or the science fiction type fables (Bergerac) or Gulliver's Travels (sui generis). The authors present themselves as having timeless ethical justice at the core of their fiction: it may show the world to be horrific, savage, crazy (Candide) but the center is not relativity.

Those by women are not as well known as those by men.


lyn said...

Lovely post & gorgeous photos Diana. All your cats are lovely but I think Pindar is the most beautiful. Very Austenian, indeed.

王辛江淑萍康 said...

Learning makes life sweet.......................................................................

Anonymous said...

Each to his own. 人各有志,加油!............................................................

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Brilliant post and remarkable illustrations! I was left rather cold by Rasselas the one and only time I attempted it. Wasn't it the book that young Helen Burns was reading in Jane Eyre?

I am so glad that you provide a marvelous Boswell for your cats.

張王雅竹欣虹 said...


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Unknown said...

I love your cats; fluffy and adorable. I have three cats and two dogs, how do you keep up with all the fur?

Unknown said...

I love this piece. Sorry I did not leave a comment last time I was here. that last photo of Pindar on window, reminds me of the pose of Lion King at the end I think. But she? looks so proud just like the species she belongs to, it is why I love cats so much. Not so neurotic. I had forgotten that you blogged about Johnson. I have his works here. I do love the 18thC but was never able to get into English lit courses. always closed out by the time I tried and of course the English majors had first choice. Boy did I choose the wrong major--history. oh well am enjoying reading that fiction etc now.

Karl said...

I enjoyed this post.

Know, however, that Samuel Johnson did marry.