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Archive for July 18th, 2022


Cassandra’s drawing of Jane Austen (I’m sure this is accurate)

When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! …
— from Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817

Friends and readers,

Mid-summer and the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. The least I can do is return to Austen blogging: for this somber occasion, Vic Sanborn has written a new blog, and I can refer the reader back to one where I link Austen’s very last poem, offering a different take on Austen’s experience of life as shown us over her books, a tone different from Vic’s, but just as earnest in my sorrow that Austen died so young. I’ve just watched the new Netflix Persuasion, featuring, as I’m sure you are tired of hearing, Dakota Johnson as a re-made Anne Elliot (more on that and the current state of Jane Austen movies in the next blog).


Dakota Johnson (Anne Elliot) and Cosmo Jarvis (Wentworth, apparently a rock star) are the latest couple

And I’ve been perusing Persuasions, the JASNA journal No 43 (Summer 2022), and while most of the papers show the usual careful conventionality of approach to Austen (ever balanced, conservative in outlook, almost apolitical), and an underlying hagiography which undermines or shapes what is on offer, there is also the usual feast of information and insight if you care to study the whole issue. So for this blog I’ve singled out four essays I thought of immediate interest to us today: countering the dishonesty and complacency of the Austen world has been guilty of (me too).

The first part is a gathering of essays on the subject of Jane Austen and the arts, only the perspective isn’t that of the anthology I reviewed on this topic a while back:


Charles Austen, thought to have been painted around 1810, in the uniform of a captain

Credit where credit is due: the perspective is much more non-traditional: the authors go to places you might not expect and treat as serious art or politics what you might not think of as art or a document to be read politically (philosophically) in the first place. For example, draftsmanship training the Austen brothers had in the Naval Academy: what is left is treated as serious art. This perspective turns up stuff that is overlooked.

So first up I call attention to Devoney Looser’s essay, whose content is repeated more briefly in a recent Times Literary Supplement for July 8, 2022, “Heroics at Sea,” p 5.. Charles Austen has been presented as acting to “crush” slavery during his career as a captain aboard a British ship bound to capture any ship with enslaved people on it, free them, and punish the perpetrators. The “honest” truth (Looser is calling for honesty) is not quite what has been implied.

In 1826 the Aurora captured and boarded the Nuevo Campeador, and a brief paragraph was printed (and reprinted, went viral insofar as one could in 1826) to suggest that Charles Austen as captain was actively “crushing” the slave trade. The devil (as they say) is in the details. A group of lines indicate 250 people in chains, closely kept in filth and starvation. Someone threw a yam and it’s remarked how the enslaved people behaved over this like angry maddened dogs. Well who would throw a yam? It reminds me of how Trump throw a roll of toilet paper at an audience of Puerto Rican people after that first horrific hurricane during his regime. Then what happened to these people? papers of emancipation were handed out but what else. Looser’s research (based on that of others) finds that most of the time such enslaved people ended re-enslaved or in conditions nearly as bad as the one they were headed for — the mortality rate very high. Nothing whatever done for them. Tellingly the most interesting detail is how the captain was allowed to escape. He had some excuse of his dangerously ill wife — of course he must be allowed off the ship. Surprise, surprise. He never returned. Nor was there any attempt to capture and punish him legally for his crime. Captain Austen probably got his prize money when the ship was finally brought to port; Looser doesn’t mention this so I wouldn’t be so sure. The key to so many written documents about slavery or state-sponsored piracy at sea is how evasive the content usually is.

It is significant that Looser was able to be much clearer and more emphatic in the TLS than Persuasions.

The first essay in the volume, Julienne Gehrer’s “Martha Lloyd and the Culinary Arts at Chawton cottage, a long piece on Martha Lloyd’s cookery book teaches us a lot about the intense closeness of Martha Lloyd to Jane (and Cassandra Austen). Written with more “honesty” (I’ll call it) we read here much evidence of Jane and Martha’s close (lesbian dare I say) attachment, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog.

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A contemporary illustration of a stage production of High Life Below Stairs: a coachman, cook, and household servant all drunk refuse to open the doors of their quarters to their employers

Moving right along to the Miscellany: there are two items of note. One developing further Looser’s call for honesty on a farcical drama often misrepresented in effect; and the other breaking with a conventional conclusion about Miss Bates, but as in the manner of most of the Persuasion articles, doing it without disquieting us, and in a sense re-asserting a conventional value: how useful is social networking.

Lesley Peterson’s “Race and Redirection: Facing Up to Blackface” is absurdly prefaced by a black letter warning: This essay contains language and images that may be disturbing or harmful to some readers. It’s such thinking that leads to banning books and essays like this from schools. The usual over-interpretation frames the honest content. Peterson believes that Austen’s thin, short play, The Visit, owes a great deal to a popular farce by James Townley, High Life Below Stairs. There is a single simple allusion to the Townley play and the Austen family (this is what is interesting) acted High Life Below Stairs as amateurs at Steventon. Peterson’s whole outlook comes out of studies like Penny Gay’s and Paula Byrne’s which have Austen as knowing just about every play ever acted on the 18th century theater, with a phenomenal memory, and inspired to write her novels by details in many of them. The person wanting to write a book called Jane Austen and the Theater is certainly in good luck.

What is new here and so dreadfully distressing is Peterson actually read Townley’s play, and, unlike those who have written about it before (e.g., Byrne), brings out how two of the servants below stairs are black. Probably enslaved people because the white servants resent them for not having salaries. What’s more insult them. I hope I need not repeat the ugly stigmatizing of these black servants’ looks and clothes, and a humiliating ritual (presented as comic) they go through on stage. The story of the farce is about how two “masters” (employers) decide to infiltrate (like moles) below stairs in order to see if their servants are as lazy and over-fed as they surmise. Surprise, surprise, they are. As lazy and overfed. The sneers here are just shameless — the play’s content reminds me of people in my neighborhood who are home-owners talking of tenants as if tenants were an ontologically untrustworthy inferior species.

Full disclosure: I read the text in Garrick’s abridged version in a 5 volume 1805 collection of plays I once (every so luckily) picked up in a Chichester book shop (The British Drama, comprehending the best plays in the English language published by William Miller, Bond Street, printed by James Ballantyne, Edinburgh, 1804 — 2 volumes of comedies, 2 of tragedies, 1 of operettas and farces, with 3 prefaces telling the history of the genres). I confess I never read High Life Below Stairs until last night. I was content to read other people’s descriptions of it. So I am grateful to Peterson.

Peterson of course absolves Austen of all snobbery: she claims The Visit shows Austen would have been very alienated by the masters’ plot: alas, The Visit has a very different story (a very slender one). Basically we can’t say what Austen thought of the story matter of High Life, nor do we know if the Austens played the servants’ parts in blackface. For myself I venture to suppose they did not as it would have been great trouble to blacken two people’s faces and then clean the material off. An illustration from the era printed by Peterson suggests an actual black person (negroid) playing KIngsston, the male black servant. The female, Chloe, is given hardly any lines. OTOH, I remember Jane Austen in her letters referring to musical performers as hirelings. In fact because of the apparently necessary hagiography towards Austen, her essay only somewhat faces up to its content.


Of the at least six actresses playing Miss Bates, for me Sophie Thompkins was the most moving even if in he candied 1996 Miramax Emma: here she is at the moment of realizing Emma’s humiliating mockery of her (1996 Emma, scripted McGrath)

The last essay I have room to report on here (I am trying to keep these blogs shorter), is Diane Reynolds’s “‘I am not helpless:’ Miss Bates as the Hidden Queen of Highbury.” It makes it into the printed edition (there is a hierarchy here, and those essays online are paradoxically often by “lesser” people. Reynolds treats Miss Bates being treated with full respect, hardly any qualifications. That’s unusual. Amanda Vickery is one of the voices who does. Reynolds argues that Miss Bates’s “logorrhea” (Tony Tanner’s word and I cannot resist it for its force and felt accuracy) are in part a conscious put-up job, and cover-up.

I’ve written postings and blogs to argue Miss Bates knows about Frank and Jane’s engagement (how could she not?) and if you read this logorrhea in place (at the ball, at the alphabet game, when the piano comes, and especially towards the end when Jane has been physically sick from Frank’s punishing treatment and Mrs Elton’s unbearable needling and pressure), Miss Bate’s words & stance protect Jane – one stance comes to mind of so many – when Jane is seen to not be able to find her wrap. Frank comes over and so it’s a moment very like the one where Miss Bates declares she is not helpless. Arguably, says Diane, Jane Fairfax is “the novel’s true heroine.”

I loved her characterization of Emma “uphold[ing] a hierarchy,” “pour[ing] out her uncensored venom.” Yes she has a “horror” of “being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury who were calling on them forever” (we are to see that we see only a sliver of those who come and leave their cards or whatever).

By contrast to Emma, who is isolated except for those she choses to come under her domination (Harriet in the novel), Miss Bates is “continually in company” and we are told today and many believe that networking is power – to know a lot about neighbors and others is a kind of power.” Emma emerges as pathetic by your account. But I would qualify here that from what we see of Emma’s thoughts, just about everyone Emma meets she despises, she is bored by or can’t stand. It’s interesting whom Emma befriends, since she so little understands them. That suggests they are objects to her and she cares little about them (Harriet she drops with no problem, Frank too). Reynolds uses Rilke to justify her use of sub-textual matter (invisible) kept hidden, in the background and her reading against the grain.

The unconventionality here is the non-complacent depiction of Emma. The way some at JASNA talk of Emma has sickened me. Yet we must acknowledge Emma is super-rewarded at the lengthy end of the book – by contrast and similarity Jane Fairfax shows an inability to take too much company; she too loathes it but it of course susceptible to outrageous intrusive comments the way Emma is not. Myself I find a good deal of Jane Austen in both heroines. I also like the looking askance at the supposed deep understanding friendship of Austen and her niece Fanny Knight. In one of her letters to Fanny I feel Austen gives away she looks at Fanny as an amusing object for scrutinizing ironic study.

There is or could be a problem in claiming so much power for Miss Bates, except that Reynolds calls Emma a “magical” world and in that paragraph remind me of Trilling’s now old once well-known introduction to Emma where he declares it an idyllic or pastoral world where reality is sufficiently put aside so that we can laugh at or love these “imbecile” characters because in such an environment they don’t come to harm. What I mean to say is Miss Bates’s is what is nowadays called “soft power,” and soft power doesn’t go very far when you are ejected from your dwelling and have nowhere to live. Emma may mock, but Miss Bates, pace Mr Knightley’s justified worried sympathy (or maybe he is right), does not end up homeless because the marriage comes off. Highbury is not an Indian village and its financial customs and laws work very differently.

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Honesty is the new aegis in some of this collection. But honesty about Jane Austen, given the constituents of her fan-clubs, and the need for academics to sustain a position at their US universities (not exactly over-funded or bastions of anything near economic liberalism in the mid-20th century sense), and sceptical, well-informed (on Martha Lloyd’s movements), candid and against the grain looks at the plays and novels involved can go only so far.

Ellen

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