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.

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