Sunday, May 29, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Austen and why we still read her: V

In this series of guest posts, a meta-diary of sorts, Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. This post is by Tom Flynn, emeritus professor of English at Ohio University Eastern, who wrote his dissertation on none other than Jane Austen. 

My path to Jane Austen was long and circuitous and roughly follows my growth as a reader. The journey took approximately 15 years and was aided by the advice of concerned mentors.  Let me illustrate.

Auburndale Public Library

My journey began at the Auburndale, Massachusetts Public Library 466 feet from my home, where my love of reading was nurtured and provided constant sustenance.  After graduating from the children’s section, I began to explore typical adolescent male genres: historical novels  (Thomas B. Costain), and bodice rippers (Anne Golon),  except for an intensely emotional summer hammock encounter with the close of Little Women. The influence of Sister St. Joseph, who introduced me to serious literature, specifically John Dos Passos (U.S.A. Trilogy) helped to clarify my course and set my bearings.
The seduction of science fiction (Issac Asimov, whose laws of robotics seemed like a foundation for human interactions) and sociology (David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd) caused me to detour away from my path toward Austen when I became an undergraduate sociology major at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  In addition to the naive belief that human affairs could be rationally managed and that sociology held the key to principles governing that process, the field appealed to me because of the rich narratives presented in the more anthropological works like William Foote Whyte’s description of the life of the Italian community of the North End of Boston (Street Corner Society) and St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton’s study of Chicago, Black Metropolis. Unfortunately, once I delved deeper into the field beyond these works into theory processes, and nomenclature, my interest waned. I realized that sociologists would not rule the world, and I found myself consistently falling asleep in class.  In contrast, my Modern and Irish Literature courses with Mary Doyle Curran.

Mary Doyle Curran 

  (The Parish and the Hill) sparked my interest and invigorated me, prompting my future wife, Shirley Nottage, to encourage me to switch my major from enervating sociology to the energizing field of English Literature. Professor Curran brought literature to life and sharpened my appreciation of plot and character.
That decision led me to graduate school in English literature at Ohio University and a first term course in the eighteenth-century British novel with Barry Roth, who in 1979 became a founding patron of the Jane Austen Society of  North America and who, in time, published three bibliographies of Jane Austen studies. 

Barry Roth

 Roth had studied with Ian Watt, and Roth’s introduction to the early English novel was exhilarating, progressing through Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett and Burney, before culminating in Austen.  Prior to this course I had read nothing by Austen and discovering her after a review of her predecessors was an eye-opener.  Like each of the earlier authors she drew on previous works and also like them she brought a unique element to the novel.  Like Richardson, Austen focuses on the tension between women and men; unlike him she eschews melodrama and decreases her use of epistles to advance that action.  Like Fielding, Austen brings wit and charm to her characters; unlike Fielding’s Tom Jones, Austen’s female protagonists live much more constrained lives, and unlike Fielding, Austen diminishes her voice in the novel and relies more on direct discourse to reveal the character’s actions and mood.
 At this point I could appreciate that Austen possessed  what I had been looking for in literature.  As impressed as I was with the earlier writers, Austen’s subtle control of her characters and plots, as well as the sense of purpose with which each of her novels is imbued made her stand out.  Above all, her command of character and dialogue heightened my appreciation. 
In Roth’s course we read Pride and Prejudice.  As I have been working on this piece I have tried to identify exactly what about this novel so appealed to me.  I believe it was the discourse between the characters, the skill with which Austen presented them through their words, and the skill with which some of them stated their positions, read the other characters’ motives and took their stand.  Though for my dissertation topic I finally chose the role of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price in identifying, absorbing, and affirming the values of integrity and loyalty that stand at the heart of the Bertram family and Mansfield Park, initially I was drawn to the topic of Jane Austen’s metadiscourse, which I perceived to be the subtle interplay, the verbal dance and jousting between characters that for me gives the greatest pleasure in the novel.  As much as this topic still intrigues me, its complexity led me down a rabbit hole where I stayed till the prospect of ABD forced me to abandon it for a more readily definable task. 
Though I have set aside the study of Austen’s discourse, this aspect of her skills still seems to me to be central to her contribution to the English novel. Therefore, I returned to Austen’s discourse for this blog. When I reviewed Pride and Prejudice to identify a passage that best exemplified Austen’s verbal pas de deux, I focused on the end of the novel when the characters have worked through their difficulties, matured and established themselves.  Austen closes the work with three strong set pieces: 1. Elizabeth and Wickham, 2. Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and 3. Elizabeth and Darcy.  Upon review,  scene two though important to the plot of the novel as it provides Elizabeth an opportunity to declare her justifiable pride in her status as a gentleman’s daughter and, therefore, Darcy’s social equal and to demonstrate her integrity by refusing to be cowed by a social superior, does not reveal Austen’s highest level of skill because Lady Catherine is a woman of limited intelligence who cannot grasp Elizabeth’s strength of character and who also has a limited set of skills to manipulate or persuade her skilled opponent.  Scene three between Elizabeth and Darcy also did not demonstrate the qualities I was looking for, not because Darcy lacked the intelligence and acuity to engage fully with Elizabeth but because at this point in the novel, the sole task of this scene is for them both to reveal their hands, apologize for their prides and prejudices and lay the foundation for their harmonious life together.  There is no challenge or threat to be resolved here. Dare Elizabeth reveal that she knows of the role Darcy played in saving Lydia and the honor of the Bennet family? Yes. Should Darcy reveal that he acted not for the sake of Lydia and the Bennet family, but out of his love for Elizabeth?  Yes.  No, neither of these two scenes, appealing and important as they are, made me aware of Austen’s skill and the contribution she was making to the novel. 
The scene that for me represents Austen and Elizabeth Bennet at their best and that clinched my appreciation of her is that between Elizabeth and Wickham after Darcy has bribed him into doing right by marrying Lydia Bennet.  Austen thoroughly sets the ground for this scene: first, she employs the conventional technique of filling in plot events with an epistle: she has Mrs. Gardiner send Elizabeth a letter detailing Wickham’s villainy, his plan to abandon Lydia and seek his fortune abroad, his refusal to marry her unless his debts are paid off by Darcy, and he receives a thousand pounds and a commission in his regiment.  Next, she provides Elizabeth with an interlude for reflection on Darcy’s principled generosity, occasioned solely by Wickham’s despicable, unprincipled behavior.  This scene plays an important role in the novel because Wickham had enticed Elizabeth into adopting a prejudiced view of Darcy and won her favor by presenting himself as a victim of Darcy’s cold pride.  Before Elizabeth can be united with Darcy, Wickham must be disposed of.  Austen facilitates this action by having Wickham seek Elizabeth out when he visits the Bennets after he marries Lydia.
While the scene unfolds it becomes clear that Wickham has an agenda: he hopes to discover what Elizabeth knows about his current situation and if possible secure her as a future ally against Darcy.  In contrast, Elizabeth’s two-fold challenge is to protect her sources and to let Wickham know as subtly as possible that she is fully aware of his mercenary motives and his unprincipled actions while simultaneously avoiding a rupture that would cause a rift within the family. 
Although blinded by his self-esteem, Wickham is a more worthy opponent for Elizabeth than Lady Catherine in that he has greater knowledge of and appreciation for Elizabeth, a broader array of social skills, and an ability, though limited, to assess and respond to her reactions. 
Their brief conversation, which is related entirely in direct discourse, falls into three distinct sections.  In each, Wickham initiates, attempting to present himself positively only to have Elizabeth say just enough to bring him up short.
First, after greeting her with the ingratiating “my dear sister,” he probes to find out what she knows of his past by referencing her visit to Darcy’s estate at Pemberley and her meeting with the housekeeper.  This indirect inquiry is adroit because by merely mentioning the visit, he avoids asking a direct question and permits Elizabeth to frame her response as she sees fit.
When he finds out that the housekeeper had spoken of him, he then directly asks what she said. 
Elizabeth’s economical and layered response both condemns him and also permits him to save face, should he choose to do so. She reports that the housekeeper said “That you [Wickham] had gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well.  At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented.”
Austen reports that Elizabeth intends this information to silence Wickham, and he does bite his lip. Yet Wickham emerges from this first encounter relatively unscathed.  He has not been so wounded that he considers retreating; rather, he adopts the dangerous strategy of returning to one of his earlier misrepresentations.  This lack of judgment further establishes his lack of discretion.  But then he persists in directly inquiring after Darcy’s sister, an early conquest of his, who was saved from Lydia’s fate by her good sense and Darcy’s intervention.  Wickham’s reference to his earlier transgression reveals no remorse for his ill treatment of the daughter of his benefactor, Darcy’s father. Rather, he caddishly states “When I last saw her, she was not very promising. . . . I hope she will turn out well.”
In response to Wickham’s second probe, Elizabeth again holds back, allowing Wickham to establish, if he chooses, to establish a polite truce between them. Although she knows fully that Wickham had attempted to seduce Georgiana Darcy and betray the trust and honor of the Darcy family, Elizabeth holds her fire and states ambivalently “I dare say she will; she has got over a most trying age.”
The third section of this scene reveals Wickham’s limitations and Elizabeth’s strengths.  Thus far, Austen has permitted Wickham to dominate the scene, and though Elizabeth’s responses to Wickham’s probes have been clear, they have been too subtle to alter Wickham’s behavior.  To penetrate his amour propre, she must be more direct. Wickham begins this third section seemingly satisfied with Elizabeth’s neutral response to his conduct at Pemberley, and attempts to win Elizabeth over and to alienate her from Darcy by reminding her of one of what he perceives to be Darcy’s most serious wrongs against him, the denial of the position of parson at the village of Kympton.
He asks if she had visited the village when she toured Pemberley.  She states that she had not; he reflects, “I mention it, because it is the living which I ought to have had. A most delightful place!—Excellent Parsonage House! It would have suited me in every respect. “
Elizabeth’s response here is perhaps my favorite line in the novel, revealing her wit, her knowledge of her opponent and her condemnation of his behavior.
“How should you have liked making sermons?” 
Had he any self-knowledge or integrity, Wickham could not make an honest affirmative answer to this question. Austen, through Elizabeth, has put him in checkmate. Wickham’s attempt to ruin Georgiana Darcy, his success in poisoning Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy, his willingness to ruin Lydia, his greed in marrying Lydia solely for the money that Darcy offers him, all demonstrate that all his sermons would be grounded in hypocrisy. 
Wickham’s response is a wonderful comic stroke of character illustration, exemplifying his thorough lack of self -knowledge.
He declares that he would have liked making sermons “Exceedingly well.  I should have considered it part of my duty, and the exertion would soon have been nothing.  One ought not to repine; ---but, to be sure, it would have been such a thing for me! The quiet, the retirement of such a life would have answered all my ideas of happiness!”
Then he pushes Elizabeth further.  Thus far she has only revealed what she knows of his ill behavior when he has directly questioned her.  Again he does so and allows Elizabeth to put him in his proper place and to establish that she sides with Darcy. 
Wickham asks directly what she knows from Darcy about the circumstances that caused him to be denied the position of parson.  At this point Elizabeth refuses to hold her fire any longer and lets Wickham know that she has heard directly from Darcy that Wickham had refused the position in favor of a cash buyout, which puts the lie to Wickham’s earlier claim that Darcy had unfairly refused to honor his father’s wish that Wickham be given the living at Kympton.
“I have heard from authority that it was left you conditionally only and at the will of the present patron. . . . I did hear, too that there was a time when sermon-making was no so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly.”
Elizabeth’s reference that she has her information from “authority,” should let Wickham know that Elizabeth has learned this fact from Darcy, the only other person than Wickham who would know of this arrangement and that she believes Darcy.  With these comments Elizabeth has completely cast Wickham aside, and if he has the wit to comprehend what has taken place he should gracefully withdraw.  Wickham makes a feeble attempt to save face, which Elizabeth ignores, choosing instead to speed up their walk and leave him at the door of her house.
In another novel by another novelist Wickham could have been a more melodramatic, dangerous threat to the order and honor of the Bennet family and had not Austen countered his malign force with Darcy’s benign efforts, he would have been.  Darcy’s efforts make it possible for Elizabeth to graciously dismiss Wickham at the end of this scene.
“Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past.  In future, I hope we shall always be of one mind.”
This seemingly innocuous closing in which Elizabeth might be appearing to paper over the differences between her and Wickham and to suggest that they will not disagree cannot be taken at face value. In this scene Wickham continued his efforts to ingratiate, manipulate, and deceive; however, unlike with his earlier efforts, this time Elizabeth has refused to be drawn in and politely insisted that the truth of his behavior must be recognized. 

The more I reflect on dialogue in this scene, the skill with which Austen shows how Elizabeth parries Wickham’s probes and the limits Elizabeth observes in revealing to him her knowledge of his unethical conduct until he begins to malign Darcy,  at which point she feels she must take a stand and convince Wickham that she will not be trifled with and that he can no longer manipulate her, the more I appreciate Austen’s skill. The level of excellence, the skills Austen displays in her evocation of character in this scene have become the standard by which I judge an author's expertise.

Thomas Flynn, Ph.D., is Associate Professor Emeritus of English, Ohio University. Since 1978, he has taught a variety of literature and composition courses at Ohio University Eastern. His experience of reading, studying, and writing about Austen has played a vital role in his appreciation of literature and in the goals he has set for himself and his students. From 1980 to 2007 Flynn chaired the James Wright Poetry Festival and in 1993 co-edited with Mary King The Dynamics of the Writing Conference for the National Council of Teachers of English.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Room

A few days ago I saw the 2015 film The Room. It's based on a true story I remember vividly from 2008: an Austrian man, Josef Fritzl, built an underground bunker with plumbing and electricity, then kidnapped his 18-year-old daughter and kept her there for 24 years as his sex slave. She had seven children by him while in the bunker: one died. Three of the children lived in the small bunker while three were raised by Fritzl and his wife. When Elisabeth's oldest bunker child, a 19-year-old daughter, became seriously ill, Josef agreed to drop the young woman at a hospital, where her pallor, malnutrition, rotten teeth and the strange note in her pocket made the television news. 

Josef, remarkably, let Elisabeth, the mother, go to the hospital, expecting her to stick to a cover story he had concocted, but she, not surprisingly, used this as a chance to gain her freedom.

In Emma Donoghue's 2010 novel and the screenplay she scripted, the abducted family has been reduced to two: Joy and her five-year-old son Jack, visited every few days by their captor, Old Nick. The scene is now Ohio, and Donoghue mutes some of the horror of the original story by making Old Nick a random sociopath, not Joy's father. Further, the shed they live in, while small and very shabby, is above ground and has a skylight, and Joy's abduction lasts "only" seven years.

In the Room, jack and Joy string together egg shells into a snake to pass the time. Nothing is wasted.

The film is emotionally powerful. I read afterwards that Brie Larson, who plays Joy, won the best actress Academy Award along with a Golden Globe and a slew of other prizes for her role. She was excellent, as was the boy, Jacob Tremblay, who played Jack. As I watched this film, which at the time I knew nothing about, I recognized a woman must have had a major hand in it, so was not surprised to find out the screenplay was by a woman.

While being locked for years in a small shed by a sociopathic rapist is inherently horrible, what struck me most about the film was the way, after they are saved, the boy, and me, as an audience member, had a longing to return to the simplicity of the Room. Life in the Room was stark, down to basics. Everything, from teeth brushing to exercise to baking a cake, took on a heightened importance. No detail, no matter how tiny, was insignificant. In addition, the bond between the mother and child was, unsurprisingly, extraordinarily tight. Although the product of horror, I felt the room contained a truth about life, the truth that concentrating on the essentials, that pushing away all the distractions, can lead, paradoxically, to a more intensely and minutely experienced sense of being than being spread diaphanously thin, as perhaps most are in the modern world. 

Less, in other words, is more.

Joy looks up at the skylight in the Room. You can see the edge of the pink bathroom sink to the right, that doubles as a kitchen sink. The 11 by 11 room contains an open pink toilet and a pink tub. It's not a pleasant place. 

I wondered if I were strange in my reaction of finding the Room itself compelling but in her Atlantic review, Sophie Gilbert captures a similar reaction:

It’s hard to imagine that such a bleak scenario could be made so beautiful, but Abrahamson finds poetry in the small details of Room, captured through grey filters to emphasize the lack of light. More, though, the film captivates because of its central duo, who are each other’s whole world. As much as the audience empathizes with Jack, and feels his agony at losing what he interprets as a safe and familiar environment, so too they feel Ma’s pain in having to disrupt it.

Manholha Dargis's New York Times review likewise records:

The constricted narrative and Jack’s point of view flow together. He doesn’t live in the same inhumane prison that Ma suffers in, but in a wide-open universe trembling with possibilities, with dancing lights, hand-shadow puppetry and amusements made with cardboard and eggshells. At moments, as the screen floods with close-ups, you share in Jack’s wonderment, in the granular, sensual splendor of this child’s cosmos in a few inches of sink, a shimmer of light, a mote of dust. “How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?” the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage once asked. Jack is as much an inmate as Ma, but because he’s unaware of what lies outside the room – and not wholly aware of its inside horrors – his vision remains untutored, his soul free. Jack’s unboundedness, the joy he expresses with Ma, the room and their meager possessions — his laughter and delight and kidness — are visceral and pleasurable. Crucially, he doesn’t live in a room or the room, but in Room, which he refers to as if it were another living being.

To prepare for this blog, I revisited the Fritzl case and realized that, perhaps necessarily, the film mutes the horror of the reality. Yet even there in Austria, in the dim basement light, with the barely more than five foot ceilings, the sociopathic Fritz must have thought he was behaving humanely: he brought toys for the children, set up a television, VCR and a cassette player: or, do I project and was it just to keep the children pacified and to force the daughter to watch porn films with him--to keep himself amused and as a little annoyed as possible during his visits--that he provided these amenities? 

I wonder if the film shouldn't have shown more of the horror of the situation: but then it would have been a different film. It has left me with much to ponder: much as I found it compelling, it was a conservative political film, and its message that beauty can be found anywhere is one to interrogate. Dorothy Day, a journalist for the communist paper The Call before the first World War, chafed at having to depict life in the New York tenements as relentlessly bleak and horrible, when, in fact, she experienced the deep joy of, say, an immigrant family coming together over a home-cooked meal. Life doesn't rhyme, and she longed to show the reality of good and bad mixed. This film seems to arise out of a similar impulse, and yet we must be careful, when showing that good can come out of evil, not to use that to justify or domesticate the evil. We don't have to have the evil to have the good. I keep in my mind Day's oft-repeated desire to help build a world in which it would be "easier for people to be good." In our case, the goal may be to create a world where it is easier for people to live simpler lives-- but without having to be held captive. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Jane Austen and Why we still Read her: Part IV

In this series of guest post, a meta-diary of sorts, Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and why they keep returning. The following is by Arnie Perlstein.

The Jane Austen Code: the shadow stories of Jane Austen’s novels by Arnie Perlstein

My thanks to Diane for inviting me to tell the story of how I came to Jane Austen, and why I still read her fiction. Diane’s account of her own Austen path had me nodding in agreement with every thing she loves that always brings her back to reading Austen. And I laughed when she quoted Henry’s teasing incitement of Catherine’s Gothic expectations approaching Northanger Abbey, because I always quote another passage from NA in my cover letters for my proposals to speak to JASNA and other Janeite audiences:

Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies. To suppose that a manuscript of many generations back could have remained undiscovered in a room such as that, so modern, so habitable! — Or that she should be the first to possess the skill of unlocking a cabinet, the key of which was open to all!...Why the locks should have been so difficult to open, however, was still something remarkable, for she could now manage them with perfect ease. In this there was surely something mysterious…” 

I always quote it, because that passage not only depicts Catherine’s Gothic imaginings, it also predicts that it would take about two centuries for someone…..

…. to detect the deepest layer of mystery in Austen’s novels (yes, that’s the real me 12 years ago in the British Library, but of course that’s not the real Rosetta Stone, just a perfect replica!)  And Austen, who was right about pretty much everything, was prescient on that point as well. It did take many generations for someone to think so far outside the box as to see all of her novels as double stories, each with two parallel fictional universes!

That provides the perfect segue into the story of how I came to Jane Austen, and wound up as the improbable discoverer of her “shadow stories”. Improbable, because I came to Austen, and to the Janeite world, in 1995 as the ultimate outsider. I was at the (relatively) advanced age of 43, a man surrounded by Janeite women; a Yank among Janeite Brits; a psych major among lit majors; and a lawyer among academics. So, unlike most Janeites I know---and most have always been women (because most men are clueless about Austen, alas)----before my forties I had zero prior acquaintance with Austen, and therefore no experience, at my younger stages of life, of her writing.

However, my path was a common one in one aspect, for those who’ve become Janeites during the past two decades. My first experiences of Austen were via film adaptations of her novels – first Thompson/ Lee’s Sense & Sensibility, then the Paltrow Emma, then the Root Persuasion, and then—BOOM!—the Davies Pride & Prejudice. It was actually my wife Jackie, who’d been a lit minor who read Austen in college, who first brought me to those films, and we both were among the millions who thrilled to watch and rewatch the sophisticated romance of Elizabeth and Darcy brought to vivid life by Ehle and Firth.

That’s when I was prompted to start reading Austen’s novels themselves, and it didn’t take me long –less than two years--to read all of them except Northanger Abbey, which I didn’t read till a few years later, because I had picked up somewhere online the (very mistaken) idea that it wasn’t in the same league as the other five.

It wasn’t till mid-2000 that I took the leap of joining the Janeites email group, because reading (and rereading) her novels, combined with saturation in pretty much all the films, had induced a craving to actually talk about her novels with other obsessive Janeites (which is what I definitely was by then). But even I didn’t anticipate how powerfully my participation in a very active virtual Jane Austen book club with so many other knowledgeable Janeites would electrify and jumpstart my understanding of and passion for her writing, and also for her biography, which are inseparable subjects. I understood that, as with millennia of Torah scholars (including one of my grandfathers, as a young man, according to family lore), group reading and rereading of six sacred books was the glue that held a worldwide community together. And the rest, as they say (but Jane would avoid cliché in saying it) is history.

Why I keep coming back to Austen would require a short book to fully explain, but the central point, which is very congruent with Diane’s reasons, is because of what I first detected in 2002 --- my first sighting of an Austen shadow story element—Willoughby “accidentally” stalking Marianne in Sense & Sensibility, and therefore in the perfect position to “accidentally” rescue her so romantically, and steal her heart:

By 2004, several other discoveries about similar subtextual clueing in other Austen novels led me to see this as Austen’s universal strategy. No doubt my lifelong crossword puzzle hobby helped me to spot complex patterns based on fragmentary data, and to interpret cryptic word clues. It happened that reading the “crazy” idea that Frank Churchill murdered his aunt Mrs. Churchill in early 2005 was my moment of epiphany, the moment when I realized that all six Austen novels were coherent double stories.

Since 2004, using online and library resources, and never stopping talking to other Janeites online and in person, I’ve spent an unaccountably large number of intensely pleasurable hours reading and rereading countless articles and books. I have read (and reread a thousand times) bits and pieces of all of Austen’s fiction and letters, and have generated a steady flow of discoveries fleshing out what I call the “shadow stories” of all her fiction…and also of some of the shadows of her real life. My intellectual journey has had so many twists and turns, such as, e.g., my realization, in 2012, that Marianne Dashwood had actually noticed Willoughby stalking her, and had deliberately fallen so as to be rescued by him! (as to why she did this, well….that’s a long story for another time…..)

I’ve given many public talks in both the US and in England since 2007, the highlight of which was my talk at the 3-day July, 2009 Chawton House conference, which brought over 70 leading scholars together for a 3-day Austen “Woodstock”. My session about Jane Fairfax as secretly pregnant…

…was attended by the two most prominent Austen scholarly emeriti, Deirdre Le Faye and the late Brian Southam. He told me later he loved my presentation, whereas she said to me, in her Julia-Childs-like voice, “I didn’t believe a WORD of it!”. It was a blast!

I’ve been an active member of JASNA since 2006, I’ve attended 9 Annual General Meetings, and have Janeite friends around the world, as well as locally here in Portland, Oregon—so the social benefits of Austen obsession are endless for me. And I hope 2016-2017 will be the year I finally fulfill the promise/threat  I’ve been making since 2007, to suspend blogging long enough to actually write my book about Austen’s shadow stories (and other great authors who’ve also “gone there”).

So I’m drawn back to Austen every day to finish that task I’ve set for myself: to definitively map the hidden terrain of her shadow stories, which have been coming into clearer focus for me—like Elizabeth’s love for Darcy….    (I have an unforgivable weakness for this computer generated reading of Jane Austen’s writing—I bet it would make Jane Austen laugh, too!)

….for a looooooooong time. In a nutshell, I claim these shadow stories reflect Austen’s covert radical proto-feminism, a fictional encyclopedia of the wrongs done to women in her world, such as serial conjugal pregnancy, the double standard re sexual propriety, and what I see as Austen’s shockingly modern sympathy/affinity for same-sex love.

I conclude by pointing out the obvious – I’m very well aware of how very controversial my ideas about  Austen’s shadow stories are, and how arrogant I can sound in making these extremely bold claims as facts. At the very least, I hope to bring a lot of new eyeballs—including not only all those clueless male readers, but also those LGBT readers who’ve never seen themselves in the apparently exclusively heterosexual romance of her novels---to the magical words of Jane Austen.

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Arnie is a retired commercial real estate lawyer originally from NYC and recently transplanted from steamy South Florida to (wonderfully) weird Portland. His long promised book about Austen's & Shakespeare's shadow stories will be coming before too many more eons elapse.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Jane Austen and why we still read her: Part III

In this series of guest post, a meta-diary of sorts, Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and why they keep returning. The following is by Elaine Pigeon.

Although I’d certainly heard of Jane Austen, I didn’t read her when I was growing up. I was turned-off by the prim and proper female novels my British grandmother tried to get me to read, which is what I thought Austen was about. I preferred the adventures of Nancy Drew. Later, when I was in my twenties, I read the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin for insight and inspiration. Having attended art school sporadically in my late teens, I was enthralled by the Bloomsbury group.

My attitude toward Austen changed when her novels started showing up as costume dramas on Masterpiece Theatre in the mid-1990s. I remember nearly falling off my seat while watching Pride and Prejudice. As Elizabeth Bennet drives by the Pemberley estate, her eyes suddenly light up and her attitude toward Darcy undergoes an instant transformation. I thought this must have been the filmmaker’s interpretation, but low and behold, I soon learned that Austen does this in the novel. My interest was piqued, but not enough to start reading her; I opted for the films.


As a graduate student, I had lots of other books to read. In fact, I don’t recall seeing Austen listed on any grad courses! Hopefully, that has changed. In any case, I began studying Henry James and spent about two years reading his writings and then wrote my dissertation on a few of his major novels. Eventually, I came to see how much he drew on Austen. In The Portrait of a Lady, when Isabel Archer arrives at Gardencourt, she declares, “It’s just like a book!” This is an allusion to Northanger Abbey, echoing Catherine Morland’s words when Henry Tilney describes the Abbey to her: “Oh! Mr Tilney, how frightful! – This is just like a book!” Following Austen’s example, James illustrates how his idealistic Isabel must come to terms with reality.

Northanger Abbey has become one of my favourite Austen novels, possibly because it’s the one I know best. I have had the pleasure of teaching it in a course on eighteenth and nineteenth century writing by women a number of times, and it never disappoints: every time I read it I find more and more to admire. On my syllabus, it follows after our reading of Francis Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina and the first few chapters of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Northanger Abbey makes a wonderful contrast to Evelina; Austen’s prose is so clear and concise -- in a word, so modern. I also have the students consider Catherine’s friend Isabella Thorpe and her pursuit of Captain Tilney as an illustration of the analogy Wollstonecraft makes between fashionable young women and men in the military. Both are excessively vain and superficial in their values. I also present the novel as an example of metafiction, in that Austen incorporates a critique of the novel, especially Gothic novels, into her text. Finally, I make sure to draw attention to that fact that Catherine was not entirely wrong in her impression of Henry’s father, General Tilney. He does prove to be a villain when he discovers that Catherine is not rich and orders her to leave the Abbey. In terms of the actual text, I prefer the Broadview edition of the novel, edited by Claire Grogan. She provides an excellent introduction and very informative footnotes.

Of course, James learned other things from Austen besides her realism. I am now convinced that reading Austen provided him with much insight into the efficacy of irony and ambiguity, and how craftily they can be deployed. As a queer male, James could not write about his sexual preference directly. Just think of what they did to Oscar Wilde! Instead, James learned how to create a very subtle queer subtext, not necessarily perceptible to all readers. Moreover, one could not actually prove that the subtext was there, that would have been too risky. As a reader, one could, however, draw it out through the allusions and thereby produce an alternate text.

I've since read Mansfield Park and Emma, but much preferred the former. While I identified intensely with the much maligned Fanny Price, I still dislike the haughty and narrow-minded Emma, especially as incarnated by Gwyneth Paltrow. As I live in Montreal, I was fortunate in that I was able to attend the Austen AGM conference here in 2014 and listen to some excellent presentations on Mansfield Park in relation to the slave trade, which informs the background of the novel. Patricia Rozema drew on this for her excellent 1999 film adaptation.

Fanny Price (Francis O’Connor)

Next month, I will finally be reading Persuasion with a small group. There is also a new Austen film that has just come out, Love and Friendship, based on her early work, so I can now start at the beginning and work my way through her novels one more time. Austen is a writer who clearly merits rereading. I also think there is still much than can be said about Austen’s influence on James. Now that would be another interesting project!

Elaine Pigeon has a BFA in Film Studies and for her MA focused on the construction of gender in 18th-century literature. She received her Ph.D. in English Studies from the Université de Montréal. Her dissertation, Queer Impressions: Henry James’s Art of Fiction, was published by Routledge in 2005; the paperback edition in 2011. She currently teaches courses on 18th & 19th Century Writing by Women, Modern Fiction, and the American Novel as well as Children’s Literature in the English Department of Concordia University. Her interests include women’s writing, the gothic, modernism, cultural studies and film. She also blogs at

Saturday, May 7, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Jane Austen and why we still read her: Part II

In this series of guest posts, a meta diary of sorts,  Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. The following is by Ellen Moody. 

On first encountering Jane Austen and reading her again and again even now

The 1926 edition of Sense and Sensibility edited by Chapman, bought for me by my husband on my first birthday after we were married

      I first encountered Jane Austen as two books in one of my father's sets of “classic English” novels when I was around 12 to 13. These were books published (he told me) by organizations like The Left Book Club, meant to make available to ordinary readers great books at an affordable price. They had light-weight hard-back covers, these two in a set of beige and dark brown books, announcing thereby how serious they were. In other words, not packaged as romance, or a girls' book, but including the more available or well-known respected books as well as (often times) more unusual choices: this set had Dickens's David Copperfield but also (so sex was part of this world to some extent), Richardson's Pamela.  Another set in black with silver letters contained R.D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone.

Of course, they were Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, still the best known and most widely read, the most frequently adapted. I read first and loved Pride and Prejudice. I saw it as exquisitely witty, very funny. I recognized the parents as versions of mine: it was validating to see this incompatible couple. I sided intensely with Mr. Bennet as I had with my father. It was a revelation and comfort to see truths about marriage out there. It was only years later I admitted to myself how softened the portrait was, how overt little punishment meted out.

Then I read Sense and Sensibility. I have, in a sense, never stopped reading it. Elinor Dashwood became interwoven with my being as I endured the abrasions and contradictory demands of teenagehood.  It wasn't that I could imitate her literally, but I kept in mind how she prudently guarded herself, how safety and self-respect lay in not letting the world see. Self-control. Again it took years for me to see that it was the Marianne in me she was teaching me to protect. Steady I would now say. Not just from men but the policing of outward cant and unexamined norms. We are ever offending every moment of our lives, cries Marianne, in protest, to which  Elinor replies that she has not told her to adopt these others' views or even act as they do when it comes to what counts. It was Elinor I reminded myself of in moments of distress. I figured out what to do.

Fast forward two years and I was in an old-fashioned drug store in NYC, the kind that used to sell classics in paperback for 40 cents. On a turning contraption I found Mansfield Park, a soft white book with Restoration comedy type caricature figures, where the blurb promised “a rollicking comedy.” In my naivete, I assumed the editor misunderstood what she had read. There too was Jane Eyre, a drawing of a Victorian looking young women dressed in a dark color against a dark green background. I don't know which I read first. Jane Eyre I read so many times I could envisage favorite scenes on the page, like Helen dying in Jane's arms. “Reader, I married him,” yes, for me, a third relationship at age 23. But it was Fanny who stayed with me. I identified utterly with her, with her real strength and also her sense of herself as utterly undervalued. I knew what she felt on the other side of the door, hesitating, dreading to walk in. When I got to the end of the book and read of life as a struggle, as endurance, I felt I had read something so strengthening, I turned back to the first page, and reread immediately.  I've reread it so many times, I do think it has ever left my mind since.

Alas, I cannot recall when I first read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Between ages 17 and 19 I cannot remember my life very well. There are blanks. I know I read them by the time I was 21 because it was that year Emma was assigned in a college course on the eighteenth-century novel I was in.  I knew it was the only one I had not read. (I was in my thirties when I read Elizabeth Jenkins, the first biography I read and realized there were other serious novels! Not just the hilarious Love and Friendship whose wild mockery I couldn't get over when I encountered it either in graduate school or a second-hand bookshop (yes it was Chesterton's edition) because here I was 200 years later and these jokes hit home. At fifty-five surely we may give over worry about “the persecutions” of males. ) Northanger Abbey had gotten into me by that time; the professor suggested we reread it with a sliver of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho.  I was fond of it, and it seemed to me I had reached one of the important goals of my existence when I got to Bath, enacted some long-standing dream, looking down from Beechen Cliff, at the ready to reject all I saw. I didn't. But a high moment.

Persuasion was my favorite by that time. I knew it was. That nadir of shattered nervousness when Wentworth comes into the room after eight years of absence. When I had a bad miscarriage at Keswick Hospital in the Lake District, Jim brought it to my bed to read the next day. My daughter, Isobel, took is with her to college to function similarly. Years later I've understood it is truncated, parts crude, a third volume planned and never executed, but those parts finished to perfection, especially that revised ending.

I conclude I must've read them in a blue paperback reprint of Chapman's texts because I had them when it came time to go to England (when I was 22). They were then to me sister-novels, packaged together, not misrepresented, but not particularly attractive. I must've hunted them out in a better bookstore.

But I didn't like Emma. I didn't understand that while my conscious mind recognized her malice, unjustified self-conceit, how she was hurting the foolish Harriet and plangent heroine, Jane, I had also identified enough. I used to say the scene where Emma insults Miss Bates was so painful, it was worse than the final moments in Lear because after all they were after all that had gone before a final “after-loss” after life had meted out its worst. What I didn't understand was it was not that moment I couldn't bear but this afterward when Mr. Knightley reproaches her so brutally. I now think it one of Austen's two supremely virtuoso works of art (the other Mansfield Park) but its text is too rebarbatively defensive despite its texts' strongly harmonizing rhythms  and continual turns to reasoned perspectives outside all the stories, which enable me sitting there to feel the diastole and systole of a heart-beating calm. A blue Houghton-Mifflin paperback, the kind assigned to students in those days.

It was post-1995 when I first read her three unfinished fragments, Catherine,or The Bower; The Watsons, Sanditon, and Lady Susan. It was due to being on Austen-l, and I read Austen's letters for the first time then too. I grieve she never wrote the second and third volume of The Watsons in any state. Here she was unguarded. So too in a kind of reverse mirror, Lady Susan. (I will write a post-script blog to this one on my own Under the Sign of Austen, Two.) Like E.M. Forster, the letters shocked me as utterly disjunctive from the abiding presence of the implied author of the novels. It took a long time and re-readings for me to realize, yes here is the strain, the inculcated antipathetic self-policing, the regaling us as a form of anesthetizing to keep what we have to at bay.

It's increasingly a problem to keep in contact with these texts. So much gets in the way, distorting contexts, the insistent complacency of fans and scholars too. I see why Henry James cried out against the careerist “in” use of “everyone's Jane” back in the 1890s. It doesn't do to find fault in Jane either.   To see the actual distance from what we might wish her to have written and what in her circumstances and given her background, what she did write.  I am one of those who can find in close readings and through some of the films enough of Austen coming through to extend the texts a little.  I am grateful for the enlargement of her small oeuvre through some of those which turn a kaleidoscope to offer another perspective. Rare, but a few of the sequels: Jo Baker's Longbourn, Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club; Juliette Towhidi's mini-series film adaption, Death Comes to Pemberley, with its depiction of a later strained Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin deepened for me Elizabeth's ability to be "excessively diverted" when others might cry). To other of the actors, actresses, script-writers who have realized the books adequately now and again. I enjoy reading her close contemporaries as in dialogue with her.  Whenever I do return to one of her texts, as I did two weeks ago Lady Susan, what she writes, the very words, her stance, what she does see exhilarates and consoles me. That she has seen it too. Even in Emma, she never fails me..

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen Moody, who holds a Ph.D. in English literature, is an independent literary scholar who has taught in colleges for more than 30 years. She has published in various areas (Renaissance through nineteenth-century, the gothic, French and other eighteenth-century novels, translation, film studies). Her edition of Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake is due out late this summer.  She maintains a website with much often-consulted material on Jane Austen's novels as well as e-text editions of later eighteenth-century French novelists, translations from Italian Renaissance poetry – and Anthony Trollope.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Austen and why we still read her:

In this series of guest posts, a meta diary of sorts,  Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. The first is by me. Hat tip to Sarah Emsley for giving me the idea of inviting guest bloggers.

The Mysterious Miss Austen

 Mystery didn't bring me to Austen, but mystery keeps me coming back. I first read Austen as a teenager, so I missed the cosy, wide-eyed, heart-pounding immediacy that a child brings to a text. How, then, might I have identified with young Catherine Morland, who, just like me at age 10

"loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house."

I too disliked piano lessons

 My first Austen novel, unsurprisingly, was Pride and Prejudice. I read it because it was famous. Then I read Emma  because I heard it was Austen's masterpiece. I moved on and very much enjoyed the autumnal Persuasionthen Sense and Sensibility, at which point I was in love. Mansfield Park came later, and though it is now a favorite, I can't say I enjoyed it at first. Most likely, I was too old for the first encounter. I thought Fanny a prig and longed for Mary and Edmund to marry. 

The scene where Fanny cuts roses in the sun ... similar to the strawberry picking in Emma. I no longer wish for Mary and Edmund to make a match. 

 In graduate school, I turned most often to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I loved Pride and Prejudice for being so light, bright and sparkling, to me at that time as delightful and sprightly as Mozart.  Sense and Sensibility appealed for exploring situations I often found myself in. I identified deeply Elinor: I had the Mariannes and Lucy Steeles in my own life. 

I loved Austen too for doing what I found so rare in literature: acknowledging and laying out financial realities. This was congruent with my own life, where money mattered, and “shillings” were not laid out lightly, especially in graduate school. And I would have loved Austen for Charlotte Lucas alone. Charlotte married with her head, not her heart, yet remained a decent human being and attained a decent life. (I naturally, however, would marry for love.)

Charlotte marries with her head and it all works out.

So from early on I was an Austen fan. It was only later I developed a fascination.

That happened as I began to recognize what Kenneth Johnston in has called the white spaces in Austen’s work:
the sense that there is something 'missing' in Austen's stories often gives rise to, or provokes, parodies or critiques of her novels in which the 'blank' spaces in her novels are filled up ... (Unusual Suspects)
Long before Johnston, I'd started to intuit a mystery bubbling below the bright surface of these texts, as I did in Henry James. What was it about Fanny Price? What really was going in Mansfield Park? And Emma? Timelines and back stories began to fascinate me as indications of how completely Austen had planned her novels--and of how much was submerged, waiting for an astute reader to uncover. Allusions started to pull me deeper. Seemingly offhand details began to catch my eye.

Some have called Emma the first mystery novel, with its authorial misdirection about Frank and Jane Fairfax and the possible murder of Mrs. Churchill. What constitutes a mystery is a matter of debate, but Austen directs us perhaps to the mysteries lurking beneath her own surface texts, even as she seems to satirize the very quest for mystery.

As Henry Tilney says to Catherine:

Unable to … repress your curiosity, you will instantly arise … and proceed to examine this mystery. After a short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear …  your eyes will be attracted towards an old fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold … you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer—but for some time without discovering anything of importance –perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open—a roll of papers appears—you seize it—it contains many sheets of manuscript—you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber … when you lamp suddenly expires in the socket …

Maybe there really is a mystery lurking in Northanger Abbey?

Wicked Jane stops us there: she knows we love a mystery. Henry's mocking Catherine: but is there a real mystery he doesn't want her to see?

Austen will properly chide us for looking for mysteries, using Mr. Knightley as her proxy:

Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?

But can we trust Mr. Knightley? For there is a mystery dancing all around Emma, only she simply can't see it.

For me, the pull towards Austen continues to be in the mysteries, the dropped hints, the double entendres, the possible puns, the dual readings that lie just below the surface. What VirginiaWoolf, in a different context, calls Austen’s laughter, draws me in, Austen laughing at us as we topple in the face of her repeated misdirection. As long as I keep finding news clues, I will keep coming back, looking for another a "secret scroll" in her texts and knowing the whole time she may be playing us all for fools. If so, I will laugh yet again: Austen has not disappointed me yet.