misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Unbecoming Conjunctions: A syphilitic Mr Woodhouse (!), Fashionable NA & Laughing at Anne Elliot

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of days ago, I posted a selection of postings from the first half of the reading and discussion a group of us enjoyed on Austen-l, Janeites, and WWTTA:  Jill Heydt-Stevenson's Unbecoming ConjunctionsLoving Lydia and Lucy; MP as soft-core porn (!); I covered the discussion Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  Tonight I post the second half on Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion.   Again I begin with a summing up of the book, this time by Diane Reynolds, and I follow up with her first posting on each of the three books and my reply.  I include Jill H-S's explanation for how she first came to write the book; I do place the discussion of Northanger Abbey after Emma as it was published and worked on afterwards.  The discussion of Emma include a section on Austen's early unfinished fragmentary first serious novel, Catherine, or The Bower, and that is included here too.

The title of the book refers to Austen's apology for laughing at Mrs Musgrove's "fat sighs" over the death of her no-good son, which our narrator tells us if only Mrs Musgrove had the sense to face it, she was well-rid of; it also alludes to the use of criteria of "good" taste to repress female impulses to be openly sexy, scurrilous, to expose hypocrisies, and even to needle and ridicule people, all of which H-S says Austen does in her novels (as well as letters), and which H-S enjoys.

Mrs Musgrove in Bath (from 1995 BBC Persuasion)

The title of this blog refers to three new claims or perspectives found in UC:  JHS argues that Mr Woodhouse was a libertine in his youth and now has syphilis (whence his debilitated state of health); makes her focus on Northanger Abbey its fashion by using theoretically-based consumerist criticism; and she argues the implied author of Persuasion ridicules Anne Elliot.

So, again on the framing of the book:

Here is Diane's summing up of the book:

Introduction to Jill Heydt Stevenson Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History

Jill Heydt-Stevenson’ argues that Jane Austen employs submerged bawdy humor and sexual innuendos to critique patriarchy. Beneath the smooth surface of Austen’s Regency romances seethes a great mass of underground wit—what we see as the primary text is simply the tip of the iceberg of a much more fully realized world that the reader must work to uncover.
Like JHS, I see subversive wit as running throughout JA’s entire oeuvre from her earliest juvenilia to Emma, where it comes to culmination (Sanditon is harder to get a sense of). My belief is that JA, with her love of word play, couldn’t resist imbedding
hidden meanings into her writing. Also, knowing the economy of language in JA—she doesn’t waste words— I tend to agree—or at least listen attentively and consider thoughtfully—when JHS points to a long tear in Lydia’s chemise as a symbol of sexual activity.

JHS has given us the gift of ample research and offers a stream of sources that imbed JA’s sexual allusions in currents of thought and literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In her introduction, JHS writes that she examined popular manuals and ladies periodicals, a range of verse, literary anecdotes and the prominent place of Shakespeare in the culture to place JA in a current of sexual subtext. One of our collective enterprises as we read the book together will be to discern how robust an environment supports a “bawdy,” double-entendre reading of JA’s texts. Can we place credence in the double entendres JHS posits? I’m hoping people on the list who are alive to the JA’s contemporary culture can weigh in on this subject of how much currents of thought or popular culture support the thesis that JA embedded bawdiness in her books.

In that vein, what do we make of statements in which HS seems to hedge on her own arguments, such as the following: “Austen’s biting quips and bawdy humor, far from being an isolated occurrence … often resemble the off-key references in … various publications, in which funny epitaphs were popular and in which sexual allusions, THOUGH RARE [my emphasis], do occur .”(16) Sexual allusions: stream or trickle? Does she have “enough” to support her arguments? How much
is “enough?”

Further, how does the project of uncovering "unbecoming conjunctions" influence how JHS reads the novels? This is a core issue, and I will suggest, that while I find some of her readings problematic, that can stand side by side with accepting that a particular phrase or scene is bawdy or sexual while rejecting her interpretation of its significance to the novel. In other words, in instances I can agree with JHS that a scene denotes an unbecoming conjunction and at the same time disagree with how she interprets that piece of information. For example, in the introduction she discusses Persuasion’s Dickie Musgrove (26) and I would agree that the early death and sentimental mourning of DM do present an unbecoming conjunction of memory to the reality of his lumpish self— but not with JHS’s conclusion that JA is turning lamentation into an aesthetic experience and pointing to the radical relativity of perception. I think JA here is scathingly criticizing turning lamentation not into aesthetics, but into sentimentality and into the ruthless exploitation of DM’s death to turn him into a hero of sorts to serve the needs of the survivors. I think JA is pointing out—once again--how people lie, which perhaps gestures toward what  JHS means by the “radical relativity of perception."
Finally, we need to both understand and evaluate JHS’s contention that her book shows how “Austen’s humor, her exploration of the body’s expression of social constructions, and her presentation of women’s histories through the everyday objects they handle all encourage reassessment of cultural expectations, Romantic era assumptions, and the history of the novel as it provides coordinates for a journey into territory largely unexplored.” (27)
JHS describes "unbecoming conjunctions" as follows: “what happens when two ideas or images or people, set side by side, reveal unforeseen similarities.” JHS goes on to say, “Austen’s conjunctions allow for the simultaneous apprehension of paradoxical responses when she presents courtship as comic and moving, as erotic and ridiculous, as satisfying and disturbing.” (25) (To me, this means JA’s conjunctions let us see courtship as two (or more) seeming opposite things at once.) JHS calls “unbecoming conjunctions” “elastic structure[s]” which shake up conventions and emphasize “point of view and the process of judging over judgment itself.” (26) Do we agree? What does this mean to you?"

Jill replied:

"Hi everyone, I'm happy to respond to Diane's question about how I got into this project and ended up writing a book on it, because in retrospect, it's been a strange and unexpected journey. I had never noticed any of the bawdy slang in JA, though I had written my dissertation and published two articles on her,  until one day I was teaching Persuasion, and we were analyzing the section when Anne sees Wentworth and Bath and Lady R.makes the comment that the curtains across the way are well hung. The entire back row of students in this undergraduate class started laughing. I asked them to share the joke. They turned red. After class I called them up for an explanation, but they merely said that there was a sexual double meaning and left it at that. I went to the OED and looked it up-never having heard the phrase myself (blame that on my sheltered background). I still couldn´t believe that Jane Austen meant "that." A few years went by and a couple more of these instances came up in class. I started asking my colleagues about these and learned that in fact the "bawdy" Austen was a kind of open secret. People noticed these double meanings and laughed in private but very few wrote about it. I did some research and found a couple of wonderful articles from the 70´s and 80´s that addressed the issue. So I decided to have some fun (the Sherlock Holmes / Nancy Drew in me) and wrote a paper that I gave at a conference.  The paper was well-received, and I became audience to everyone´s contribution (the "what about that!" and the "what about this!" and "I always wondered, but didn´t dare say"). I was in the middle of a book on Austen and the Picturesque, which I very much wish I had written, but put that aside to work on an article on this. When I started looking, I was surprised and, well, shocked at what I was finding.  My research changed my thinking not so much about Austen (I´d always thought of her as a razor-sharp wit and a pure genius), but about the era itself, and all the assumptions about how the world of women was completely sheltered. When I was writing a paper on another topic, Lady´s Magazines, I was astounded to find sexual jokes in these conservative "for a lady only" publications. It seemed to me that we should rethink how we thought about the period JA lived in-a time sandwiched between the bawdiness of the 18th century and that of the Regency. Further, I´ve always found JA´s style gorgeous-polished, witty, urbane, brilliant-but analyzing this aspect also made her world, her influences, her reading more complex and more varied to me. So that was the origin of the book ..."

Mary to Edmund and Fanny:  "Do not attack with me a watch" (1983 BBC Mansfield Park)


From the seventh week on Emma

Mr Woodhouse tenderly concerned for Emma's health -- she is melancholy because she fears Mr Knightley has learned to love Harriet (1972 BBC Emma)

Diane R wrote:

""'Praying to cupid for a cure:' Venereal disease, prostitution and the marriage market in Emma"

In this chapter, Jill argues that double meanings, combined with sexual secrets, drive the novel. Do we agree?

First: Does Mr. Woodhouse have venereal disease? Jill uncovers suggestions that he might. Keeping warm was considered a treatment ... and we know Mr. Woodhouse is always sitting by a warm fire. And then there's Mr. W's fictional Kitty, the fair but frozen maid. Jill supplies the rest of the riddle, which is about a man suffering from venereal disease: Kitty "kindled a flame I still deplore." Jill writes that Kitty's (the riddle's) "sexual violence is especially disturbing" (160) as the riddle provides two possible cures for the disease: one, which was in common folkloric circulation, was sex with a virgin, the other was applying topical mercury ointment and wrapping up in flannels to "sweat out" the illness. Women--or more precisely, their "fluids" --were commonly considered the cause of venereal disease. Thus, engaging in sodomy was seen as a way to avoid contracting venereal disease. In the riddle, this "cure" is alluded to by the chimney sweep, who would have been a boy (there's also, I will point out, mention of a chimney sweep in the letter Austen wrote that includes the line that Mr. Floor was feeling low. Jill writes that chimney sweeping was an 18th c term for sexual intercourse, though strictly with a woman). The chimney sweep also represented a chimney--hence heat. And a light diet was recommended for syphilis sufferers, particularly a thin gruel, Mr. W's favorite meal, according to Jill. She writes that Austen is hinting that Mr. W was a libertine in his youth. (Anielka suggests that Mr. W is still a libertine--she shared with us the unusual wording of a passage in which some of our familiar female friends come to dine with him.)

I found the venereal disease idea fascinating because never once-- never, ever--had it had crossed my mind that Mr. W might have venereal disease ... and I found myself nodding because the weight of this assertion is supported by multiple references: Kitty, the heat, the gruel.

JHS discovers a "joke" in the Kitty riddle having been copied by Harriet and Emma from Elegant Extracts, a "moral" and "instructive" periodical. She contrasts Harriet and Emma's bawdiness with Mr. Elton's more upright manners. The riddle "highlights the novel's subversive content and also collapses the gulf" between the sexual underworld of the time and Highbury.

Let's get back to the chimney sweeping motif, connected with images of heat that surround Mr. Woodhouse and also drifting over to the Bates's. As Emma heads to see Jane's new pianoforte, Miss Bates says: "Patty came to say she thought the kitchen chimney wanted sweeping." Miss Bates's response is: "Oh... Patty do not come with your bad news to me." At the same time, we find that Frank is reinserting the rivet into Mrs. Bates's spectacles, which means Frank and Jane are alone together with an old woman who can't see or hear well. When the guests arrive, Jane plays Robin Adair, a song whose lyrics tell of a woman is wooed and coldly abandoned.
Harriet throws her Mr. Elton momentos into fireplace as "mock sexual relations with him, sex that she also hopes will cure her." Additionally, Emma leads Harriet into all the attitudes that were said to lead to prostitution: pretension, ambition, over-education, an overstimulated imagination seeking romantic love.

Jill then moves into "Catherine or the Bower," a piece of JA's juvenilia which she sees as a companion piece to Emma. Catherine is called "Kitty" in this work. While Kitty has healthy and sensuous reactions to the world around her, including a man named Edward  Stanley, both Stanley and Kitty's aunt "sex up" or "smut up" Kitty's natural and normal sexuality. The aunt, Mrs. Percival, sees everything as sexual vice and Kitty as a fallen woman, although she has done nothing. Edward Stanley teases Kitty with suggestive double entendres that sexualize her and rather violently pulls her into a room with him. The story critiques, Jill says, the way that society projected a twisted sexual ideology onto young women.

Jill discusses how Frank plays with Jane, a subject we have covered well on this list, and ends with a section on the architecture and landscape of Donwell Abbey, likening Harriet to an architectural project for Emma. JIll talks about an avenue at Donwell that "leads to nothing, nothing but a view" and connects this both to Emma's failure to build Harriet into the edifice she'd hoped to create and to Much Ado about Nothing, playing on the double entendre of the word "nothing" in that play's title. (Arnie, who has been linking Austen to Much Ado for several years, may be able to fill us on more of this, such as Shakespeare's meaning for "nothing.") I think most of us would agree with Jill's conclusion that all of Austen's novels involve main characters who struggle with perception and distortion, a theme she enhances with her, as usual, intensive research.

I replied:

I don't have much to add to Diane's summary and commentary this week because there did not seem to be much of the larger agenda in this chapter.  No phenomenological considerations as such (Jill H-S does use the word in the chapter on MP), no dichotomies collapsed, no gender undermined. The chapter does open by quoting Mary Wollstonecraft in a way which implies impugning her for being a prig or anti-sex, and it is true that Wollstonecraft has been criticized repeatedly as herself being anti-sexuality or at least regarding the way sexuality is experienced in society for women as dangerous and ending up causing them much grief. Jill H-S is out to show that this is not an attitude she and another school of feminism shares.

Beyond that Diane has summarized all the points of controversy and arguments ably.  Do I think we are supposed to think Mr Woodhouse has a venereal disease?  No.  The weight of reference is not supported by the overt story line; if Mr Woodhouse had venereal disease we should be told about treatments he's taking -- there were very painful ones.  The references are extrapolated from one another and take on a life of their own. Do I think there is a lot of sexual innuendo in Emma; yes, and the famous "Kitty, a fair but frozen maid," is the kind of arch song where the surface meaning is not wholly explained by itself. It reads enigmatically until you put back in and make explicit the sexual innuendoes. But If this poem is semi-salacious, that does not mean the rest of the charades Emma and Harriet put in their book are salacious or scatalogical, nor that all the other references to chimneys and sweeps in Emma are sexual and that then we can extrapolate further from that.

The business about prostitution shows the strengths and weaknesses of the new historicism. This is another set of "tools" used throughout this text (UC) to find new kinds of readings of Ausetn. New historicism began in early modern studies -- a book whose title had the word "cheese" and "worms" in it: a scholar teased out of some writings by someone not at all elite nor educated which showed that he viewed the world non-religiously or not conventionally and with an idiosyncratic view all his own, one he did derive from larger conventions.  What one does is take a series of details, often neglected by establishment history, and elaborate them at length one after connecting them (if this is literary criticism) to a few sentences or perhaps just one allusion (it doesn't hae to be that many); after the elaboration from a historical perspective of the non-establishment you then put the findings you have back into the book, read them out of the book, and voila a new reading.  It's a substitution for the older close readings of books which were really rooted in psychological ideas about the implied authors, moralizing and common sense reactions to the particular story and/or characters and imagery.   Just taking the text on its own it is powerful enough for me. I can see that Frank humiliates Jane, how subject she is to him, how she is baited (she is a Miss Baites thus) by him and Emma, that Emma seduces Harriet and so on.

I did very much like the section on Catherine, or the Bower and think it's a relatively neglected text. It's not been analyzed and discussed as a genuine fragment of a serious novel in the way of The Watsons, Sanditon, or Lady Susan (which is however truncated finished). I don't know that it has to be connected to Emma but rather deserves a chapter on its own. It anticipates themes and type characters in the four published novels during Austen's lifetime and two posthumously published novels in 1918.  Although there's some overspeak here (Mrs Percival "embodies a pathological terror of sexuality"), surely we are to see unfair rigid repression and distrust in the aunt and a point of view that anticipates Mrs Norris and other harridan older women who harass and make the heroine's life miserable.  We don't know enough about the hero to see if he was to be a cad like Frank or a good man like Henry Tilney/Mr Knightley.

Jill H-S doesn't bring this up but the bower is such an important motif in the 18th century novel and since (George Sand).  It's a getaway, an escape, a dangerous place, a place to rebel from, find solitude and may be found in Jane Bowles's recent good play, In a summer House, just now getting the attention it should. There too there's an aunt who wants to prevent her niece from going out to the summer house where the aunt surmises she might have sex and indulge in "dreams" that will make her rebel.   There's an essay on this motif in one of Nancy Miller's essays in Subject to Change.

I too think Emma has little real power in the novel (see UC, p 179, "Conclusion" of this chapter).  She wants to manipulate the lives of others and discovers they will not be her puppets.  She does manipulate her father but only up to a point: she had never been to sea we are told; he does control her.  Even if Mr Knightley moves into Hartfield, he will be the respected husband and she will have much less agency than she had before.  Claudia Johnson and others have written in strong praise of this novel because they see it about a powerful young woman. Emma is privileged, but the song "women, lovely woman reigns alone" rings ironically to my ears.

I posted the next day again on Emma as an uneasy erotic text and about the new historism of UC:

I agree that the new historicism takes very very hard work. You must trawl through contemporary journals, visual remnants, sociological documents (wills, hard news of the time, law), but sometimes (even often) one has to ask, what have you come up with when you have finished your arduous effort?  If it were a matter of producing a mentalites anthropological study of the era, it would be more applicable; it's the applying this kind of thing to a specific text where in many cases the evidence in the text is slight that I object to as baseless.  I've been reading these kinds of studies lately in my Victorian studies. Jill H-S has actually in Emma more instances of sexual innuendo than say three studies I recently read supposedly of Trollope novels where all three were dependent on making the connection by a single phrase in the Trollope text.

Here it's a stretch between sexual innuendo and taking a story and saying the motiviation in the story for an incident that is here reified in the way of movies (Davies often takes gaps in the narrative or referred to scenes and invents the whole scene and films it; this enables him to inject very different meanings into the story).  A character havings syphilis is on a different order of reality in a text than a sexual innuendo in the dialogue.

My objection is seriously to what Arnie calls jargon-ladden sentences; they are not just jargon-ladden. They are written this way because there is an attempt to make the assertions credible out of a theory.  We are very often far from Austen's text in what the sentences assert about the text in the NA chapter of UC.  I liked the ideas and will read some essays, but what was asserted as interesting often was at a wide distance from NA. It would be different if these ideas were being used in service of a sociolgoical study of fashion in Austen's day, not this particular text.

Provocative is a word much used. Sometimes I find it's used as a way of acknowledging there is something subversive in a text without actually dealing with it. Or saying the writer means to ruffle the person reading the text said to be provocative.  My reading of the use of this word is that much of the time it does not refer to the text at hand itself, but an assertion of attitudes on the part of the critic which are intended to somehow bother the assumptions of the reader, not an assertion which provides a new reading itself. I realize the distinction is subtle.  The reading of the text is not what is said to be provocative, rather it's the aim at the reader and what is said about the author as readers read with identity politics in mind.

So I'd say it's provocative to say Mr Woodhouse has syphilis because it would make the novel about a different kind of thing and also suggest that Austen herself is willing to make a sympathetic character syphiletic and is not at all condemnatory about this.  In older novels it's not usual for writers to have characters at the center who are transgressive in this way to the contemporaries at the time who would regard syphilis as shameful.  To us (to me) it's not shameful but rather a desperate reality of the times where a large percentage of people got this disease. Most of them hid it, and we only have figures from the 1890s when the first cures emerged and we know people in hoards chased the new meedicines (which didn't work by the way).

Again if UC were about the spread of venereal disease at the time, and were using firm evidence in Emma for this I would not only have no quarrel, I'd applaud the bringing out of this reality.  But it's not.  If you seriously thought Austen meant us to think Mr Woodhouse is syphilitic, then you have to ask yourself why in her letters does Austen have nasty cracks about adulteresses?  Why she has to have Emma excuse Jane Fairfax for as mild a thing as clandestine engagement. 

But there is no evidence for any of this.  There's a book by Umberto Eco I recommend; it's about reading fiction and what kinds of questions and answers are legitimate in trying to understand the text:  Six Walks in fictional Woods. I recommend it.  In a nutshell, he says the novelist aims to reveal imagined characters through the action of the story, his meditations and uses of language.  All that we can know of a particular story and its characters is contained in the novel.  Even if through Emma's characters Austen refers to real events and people outside the book, there is a limit to what we can attach to real people or outside the book unless the book allows for it clearly.

There is no hidden Mr Woodhouse who does things we don't know about, no hidden John Knightley

To put it bluntly, there is as much and more evidence in Emma that Jane F is pregnant by John K as Mr Woodhouse is syphilitic.  Jane F and John K have met going to the post office; he doesn't approve; what is he doing there in Highbury that day? She is neurotic, upset, hysterical. Something sexy is going on with Frank. There is just as much  evidence that Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston are Harriet Smith's parents, or that Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates are.

I realize I am swimming against a mighty stream here.  Nineteenth Century contexts a periodical I've been reading these past few days is filled with essays that practice the new historicism. It's hard to do and gets you published and tenure.  But it's often wrong and is practiced partly to have somthing new to say.  On a serious general level it's practiced because literary studies have lost their nerve and want to make themselves into cultural studies to have respectability and look useful.

I've gone on too long and probably most people on this list have long stopped reading what I'm arguing for here, but it is my serious argument against this chapter and the NA chapter too.


Back to the fourth week, on Northanger Abbey:

Henry and Eleanor Tilney walking with Catherine Morland on Beechen Cliff, looking at the picturesque woods and talking of Italy and Anne Radcliffe's romances (2007 WBGH Northanger Abbey)

Diane R summarized:

"Fashioning the Body: Cross dressing, dressing, undressing and dressage in Northanger Abbey."

In this chaper, JHS examines characters, again with emphasis on embodiment --how they dress, talk and interact with animals and objects-- to show how in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen critiques the ideology of romantic love and to examine how JA undermines traditional notions of how men and women act ( their culturally defined sexual identities), unmasking traditional gender roles as inauthentic rather than natural.

Thus, for example, Henry Tilney's use of a "soft" voice and "simpering air" when he first meets Catherine means he's playing the role of a woman, undermining gender roles. His "self parody" and willingness to adopt either culturally constructed femininity or foppishness (with its suggestions of homosexuality) mean he is less of an upholder of traditional patriarchy than normally thought. Mrs. Allen, with her exaggerated concern for her dress, both defines herself by artificial gender categories (women are supposed to look a certain way) and unintentionally parodies these categories, which are thus exposed as constructed and not authentic.

In one of the best sections of the chapter, JHS exposes John Thorpe's sadism, exhibited for instance, in his cruelty to his horse, and his tendency to look at both horses and women as objects to possess. She shows, convincingly, I think, that when Thorpe won't let Catherine leave his carriage to join the TIlney's, the scene is a symbolic rape --(and rape is, of course, one perversion of the ideology of romantic love). In this scene, Catherine begs him six times to "stop" the carriage: "Pray, pray, stop Mr. Thorpe.--I cannot go on. --I will not go on. ... But Mr. Thorpe only laughed, smacked his whip, encouraged his horse, made odd noises and drove on ... Catherine .... was obliged to ... submit." JHS also contends that JA surrounds Thorpe in language stereotypically used to represent the sodomite (which was equated with homosexuality at that time). She leaves open whether or not he is a gay man trying to disguise his tendencies with an exaggerated masculinity or a heterosexual male who has adopted the conventions of masculinity to such an extreme form that it represents a "psychosis."

JHS also points to mysteries of the Gothic as representing the mysteries of sexuality to Catherine, arguing that Henry uses images of castles and dungeons and danger to titillate Catherine.

I'm already going on too long, so I will break this off. I thought JHS raised some interesting points in this chapter. I appreciated some of the theory she brought in--I will order the book she cites on shame, for instance, through interlibrary loan, and I was interested in some of the theories of authenticity and inauthenticity she cited. However, this was one chapter where, often, I felt, fairly straightforward ideas were buried under an avalanche of theory, or to put it another way, that we didn't need the edifice of all the theory to understand that the way characters dress and act can reveal their inauthenticity. However, others may argue that the theory adds needed nuance to our understanding of the novel.

I cut the questions off from the discussion of JHS on NA. I would ask: Do you find JA exploring a homosexual undercurrent in NA? Do you think the scene with Catherine in the carriage with Mr.Thorpe is a symbolic rape? Do you think JA uses the gothic in sexual and/or romantic ways and what does it mean that the gothic Catherine searches for doesn't exist in her world? Is this simply a parody of gothic novels? Or does the "gothic" exist in Catherine's world, and as a sort of early Emma, she looks for it in all the wrong places? Other thoughts?

Mrs Allen and Catherine Morland go shopping in Bath (2007 WBGH Northanger Abbey)

I replied:

Here's my contribution on this week's chapter -- I'll write separately on Judith Wilt's Ghosts of the Gothic, which I'm glad Linda liked.  I'm probably repeating what Diana said to some extent, and I do agree we are at risk of incurring Austen's satire on overblown supersubtle talk. Catherine says: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible" which Henry pronounces "An excellent satire."

I take this chapter to offer a different angle on NA: rather than concentrate on the gothic as the controlling element, Jill moves to a (fashionable) consideration of consumerism and consumerism theory, which she sees in this novel as coming down to clothes and hats.  There is a huge classic work on this by Brewer and (I think) Roy Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods. She cites a large number in her notes and bibliography.

It is a propos of NA: while there are no or few or only tiny fleeting set pieces of description, it's clear Catherine dresses up and in the latest fashion. Isabella Thorpe remarks on her hat or dress; Henry finds her ever so pretty. It's not just Mrs Allen. I agree with Jill that "in the heroine's world" [of this book] no simple equation exists between concern with dress and incontrovertible sincerity" (p 105).  In one of Marilyn Butler's introductions to the novel she spends half the space on the gothic and Radcliffe, but the other half on the world of fashion in Bath. If we look further (take Jill and Marilyn Butler's investigations of clothes further) we see that the General has the best china and new Rumford hearth, Thorpe is very proud of his gig (and Henry has a neat one too).  Even Eleanor pays attention to what she wears and is up to date on the latest novels and history.

However, I find the way the chapter works is not simply to judge a character by his or her attitude towards clothes (and here's where I think we might as well drop too much subtlety and admit the method is very like Ann Hollander's -- whom Jill cites -- and also Alision Lurie), but to use consumerism to return to the book's main agenda or theory: to see how dress undermines gender, how manners in dress undermine gender. Diane R puts this sensibly:  "to  examine how JA undermines traditional notions of how men and women act ( their culturally defined sexual identities), unmasking traditional gender roles as inauthentic rather than natural."  But Jill goes further than this, for she objects to the idea of authenticity and says there is no such thing for sure or real.  See p. 115: "Austen interrogates authencity."  Again Jill wants to prove there is no such thing as certain feminity or masculinity.

(Digression: authenticity versus sincerity goes back to Lionel Trilling.  In brief: Sincerity refers to telling the truth about your feelings or ideas to someone else; you are not literally dishonest; you do not present a false face or stance about yourself.  So John Thorpe is simply put a liar; so too Isabella Thorpe.  Trilling says this kind of honesty is no longer valued because individual social relationships are not truly valued as central to people's lives; what people care about is their selfhood.  I find that Austen does care about simple telling truth; Davies's redoing of the book (2007 NA film) in his film shows he doesn't care but justifies lying when the person has some social rationale for it.

Authenticity is adhering to what our selfhood is, apart from others, with the implication we will depart from the values and norms of the general society.  Whether you tell the truth about this or not is another matter.  We are now anxious about our identity or individual existence's meaning.  Many recent critics want to show that Austen's characters fight off values and norms of others so they want to be authentic)

Jill's book goes the more recent post-modern idea:  we must doubt we have a selfhood that is coherent in the first place, doubt we can break away from social life, that we have an identity that cannot be coerced apart from society.  A little thought show how this coheres with this idea about gender.  as there is no certain gender, so there is no certain authentic self. 

We are how we dress :)  I call this phenomenological considerations for phenomenology is the study of what appears to our consciousness and much of this chapter is about that.  What is on the surface.  I think though that for Austen the notion we are what we dress makes Mrs Allen silly and hollowness in (I agree with Jill at one moment anyway poignant) Isabelle Thorpe. 

For me this line of thought justifies (paradoxically) lying and conformity and overvalues social life, misunderstands its limits, but that is big topic so I return to NA.

But I for one found some of what she said interesting and useful. I'd summarize the insights that this kind of performance (the critic's performance) this way:  "Dressing" is about Mrs Allen. It is true that unknown to Mrs Allen "fashion provides no guarantee" of "safety" (meaning respect by others and protection) and "furthers her isolation."  (Not that this matters for most of the characters in this book who are such egoists -- by which I do not mean Henry Tilney). Part of consumer or dress theory comes in when she says each new dress is kind of a love affair with a phase of courtship. I've seen this say when people go to proms. And here I think Ann Bermingham is right (whether or not Austen would agree with her), that this is vulgar (stupid) materialism, the kind of thing that leads to extravagant weddings (and huge debts for culled fools).

Cross-dressing is about Henry Tilney. While I'm alive to how conceited Henry can be and also masculinistic in his opinions (like the dialogue about dance being the same as marriage), I can't go as far as the recent feminist school which berates him as a bully. I like how Jill sees him as trying on roles, only I'm not sure he does; he's playful -- like his creator Austen. I take the older view he sometimes is her mouthpiece -- it's a matter of tact and personal reading here, so since I take the gothic parts of the novel seriously and think Catherine's view fo the general vindicated, I find Henry's distress at her suspicions an understandable overreaction.

Dressage is about Thorpe -- One of Diane's questions was "you find JA exploring a homosexual undercurrent in NA?" While Jill does talk about homosexuality (most unexpectedly to me) in her analysis of Thorpe, seeming to suggest he is so over-the-top in his boorish (my word, not in the book) macho maleness, he may be hiding or rejecting his homosexual self (pp. 117-118), I thought she was using this line of argument as to turn what is in front of us -- this appalling enactment (to use her frame) of a super-male type into a closet gay -- all at the same time as she likens what happens when Thorpe drives off with Catherine to symbolic rape.  This is not easy to do; she gets there by taking dress theory and examining it through the lenses of dissolving away gender and authenticity.

He is one of the unredeemable characters (they'd none of them be missed) in Austen; so too (for different reasons) Mrs Norris.

Undressing is about Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland. Like Diane I found the discussion of shame perceptive. Jill says we don't like Isabella because she is shameless (p. 126). By contrast Catherine is capable of feeling profoundly ashamed -- as when she sees what a fool she has been to surrender to facile gothic fantasies.  I would imagine many of us has felt ashamed when we looked at some object which reminded us of how silly we have been either in public or in front of ourselves when alone.

It takes several turns of thought to come to the idea that "shame" is a "protective mechanism regulating human beings in their eagerness for communal life" (p. 129).  How did we get here?  Well, I've heard cruel ridicule in public life justified as a way of "shaming people" justifiably in order to make them conform (control them from doing things the average person doesn't like). So if you buy into the importance of social life and also such procedures (which latter I don't) then you can see "shame" as a protective mechanism."  It stops you from making a fool out of yourself, stops you from allowing yourself to be vulnerable to others' ridicule.

I was amused to find Jill saying that "the life of things are 'in disputed possession' of other things" This reminded me of Robbe-Grillet where he says "les choses sont contre nous!" (p. 131)

But Jill goes further than this: shame is also a way of regulating our experience or enactment of sexuality (p. 130). We (girls) are taught not to look at men's penises, so then when we find ourselves staring at something which shows a voyeuristic impulse (or a penis) we turn away in distress. This seems to me to come out of allowing the cant norms of communal life to enter into our psyche too deeply, but I do it myself.  I turn away from things in private when no one but me sees what I'm doing.  I would justify it as taste: whether learned and imposed or coming out of some recess of my own sensibility, there are things that are in bad taste.  They need not be sexual and I need not turn from them in shame; rather I reject them. I love the ending of Alan Bennett's Bed Among Lentils where Susan turns to the vicar-husband and tells him she finds his life, his morals, his ideas about god in bad taste.  And I feel her revulsion.

So shame can connect to revulsion to enact decency which has nothing to do with common attitudes.

But (as they say) I digress and get too far away from NA -- except that I think General Tilney's ideas about manners are in very bad taste. He does not know manners are there to make people comfortable; he uses them for ostentation and intimidation.

I take the last line of this section about 'the source of gothic terror" to mean Catherine does not realise that this comes from being bartered by men.

Redressing is mostly about Catherine.  I found some of this section really forced.  Catherine is a naif because she wants people to say what they mean, and asks how can you know when someone is saying the opposition of what they mean -- like General Tilney about his visit to Woodston.  Austen knows people do this and wants to point it out to us; I feel she deplores it and her ideal is the openness, candour, no mystery even if human nature and reality (as we read in Emma) must leave it an ideal.  Lying makes the social fabric or our dependence on security and safety and order (now I'm using dress language) the tenuous not to be trusted thing it is.  It can fall apart at any time -- and so we see General Tilney throw Catherine out almost in the night.

The part ends on a reference to Frederick Tilney. We often forget him; he is a deadly type; he'd go for simple rape and get away with it We ought to pay more attention to him than we do

Diane said she ordered a book on shame. I got from my library Susan Staves's essay on Fielding and the Comedy of Rape and read it for my coming paper on Rape in Clarissa.

The eighth week on Persuasion:

Anne Elliot in profound distress as she muses over old letters, and her anguished memories (2007 ITV Persuasion)

"Comic Mourning and the Female Gaze in Persuasion."

"A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions ..."

Jill finds Persuasions a novel about appearances and gaze, the role of aesthetic appeal, and, appropriate to its "autumnal" tone, grief. Jill writes about the novel's emphasis on physical appearance, from the vain Sir Walter's counting the number of passably attractive people on the streets of Bath to Mrs. Clay's freckles to Anne's "ruined" looks and Wentworth's continued virility. Wentworth's virility is underscored by his connection to "well-hung" curtains; Mr. Elliot's lack therein by his "underhung" jaw. Jill traces the term "well hung" as a genital allusion back to the 17th century and notes the way male Regency fashion, with its short-fronted coats and pale, tight-fitting trousers, attracted attention to the mid-section of the male body. She also connects this allusion to Tristram Shandy, a novel she says was one of JA's favorites. She quotes Park Honan stating that Tristram Shandy was a novel JA knew intimately and used as a narrative model. I have long suspected that JA was influenced by TS--if so, this to my mind is a strong argument in favor of the subtext school.
Through all of Persuasion, according to Jill, comic, bawdy undertones and unbecoming conjunctions weave in and out of the story, adding a wry or comic counterpoint to the autumnal mood. Anne's grief for Wentworth, her lost love, for example, is juxtaposed against Dick Musgrove's mother's grief for her oafish son. Mrs. Clay is sexually suspect, and will end up as a high class prostitute. Louisa "jumps" the stiles--or has Wentworth "jump her" from one to the other: jump is a euphemism for sex from the 17th century onward. Austen, isn't JIll says, suggesting that Wentworth and Louisa have had sex, but is allowing her characters to embody a robust sexuality. When Wentworth lifts Louisa, the sensation is "delightful" to her. A hurt in the head signified being cuckolded: Louisa "cuckolds" Wentworth when she falls for Benwick.

I'm having a hard writing about this chapter because my own take on Persuasion keeps swerving in slightly different directions. I don't think Jill and I disagree, but it perhaps is a matter of emphasis. This is what I think: I think Persuasion is a novel about power and the ways power attempts to use rhetoric (language) to distort, erase or change reality. It IS a novel about appearances, but mostly about the way power intersects with appearance and reality. JA, in this novel, seems to me to anticipate Marx, and his statements about the way money renders an unattractive man sexually appealing (except that she would say, it really doesn't, if you have the courage to cut through the rhetoric, which JA does and which makes her the most subversive of writers!) This is a novel about the way money attempts to distort human relationships . This is exactly the core theme of Persuasion captured in its essential plot point: concerns about money distort--and for a long time ruin-- the apparently authentic love between Anne and Wentworth. LIkewise, Mrs. Musgrove's money and power in her small world mean she can refashion Dickie Musgrove's history into a sentimental drama--and people have to listen, while conversely, Anne's real grief is erased because she has no power (and yet that erasure in itself, paradoxically becomes a place of power, and as Foucualt would understand, a way of evading the power of society's gaze--which Anne is repeatedly grateful for once Wentworth reemerges. And Jill points towards this when she talks about Anne turning her back on her family's gaze empowers her to talk to Wentworth). Sir Walter is reduced to gazing at ugly people because he's lost power over his surroundings--he has to leave his ancestral home specifically because of money problems. He has money problems, because he's had the power not to gaze at money. Poverty reduces Mrs. Smith to ugly machinations to try to get her inheritance, something JA would have understood, if not approved. And yes, Jill is right that sexual politics lie under all of this. I also agree that she's right that JA supplies a running wry running commentary on all the autumnal elegy-- she can't not; she's Jane Austen; she's acutely aware of the possibility of her whole subject collapsing into bathos; her own gaze is too honest and relentless not to point out the dangers and distortions of nostalgia and grief.

I also think Jill is right to focus on Louisa's fall and head injury, but I would see it in more Biblical terms--social power, the falsely based power of money--splats head on against real power--ultimately gravity wins, you can't put the Lord to test. I would agree with Jill's analysis at the end that Anne gains at least temporary power over Wentworth, especially when he exonerates her from guilt in refusing him years before. Comedy overtakes tragedy. Life is filled with people falling into folly, but the steady gaze of Anne wins her power.

Anne Elliot assuring Wentworth she's certain now, just before they kiss (2007 ITV Persuasion)

I replied:

UC:  does the implied author of Persuasion ridicule Anne Elliot's abjection?

I think not.  While I can see there is much physicality in this novel (as there is in Austen's others novels), and there are a couple of specific passages where the implied author or narrator of the book suddenly separates herself from Anne and laughs at her romanticism, the tone seems to me closer to fondness (in the way Austen distances herself from Fanny Price) rather than mockery.

To many a reader Anne's abjection is probably absurd, her long years of misery ludicrous overreaction.  Snap out of it, jackass is (I've not myself experienced but other depressed people have told me they have) is one of these reactions people who are life's winners often (in the sense of worldly success and getting what you might want pragmatically) are said to say.  Trash and nonsense.  What a fool you are.  I grant there may be lots of readers who imagining to themselves the scene of Mrs Musgrove inbetween Anne on one side and Wentworth on the other of a couch, just go off into titters of laughter at these three emotional sighers. There are people in life (and characters in novels) who are unimpressed by other people's emotions.   Trollope enjoys putting such a character in a distraught scene to make for farce (he does so in He Knew He Was Right).

But I find no one in this novel of that temperament.  The prosaic Mrs Crofts feels for others and says herself that she couldn't bear it when she was left to live by herself while her husbasnd was at sea. It seems even she, solid body that she is, got depressed.

Austen does not attribute Anne's haggard and distressed state merely to love: for 8 years she has also consistently had to live with the soul-withering Elizabeth, the corrosively selfish Sir Walter, the dense Mary, no one around, not even Lady Russell has her fineness of apprehension, but as I write fineness of apprehension and remember that Austen wants us to see that Lady Russell, smart as she is has a second rate mind, I know such values are elitist and anyone who would present that as an obstacle in getting a job say, would be despised and laughed at as too sensitive to live.  Probably it's so that we could say when Anne is riding in the carriage with Lady Russell, she is wrong to think that Lady Russell is doing everything she can to ignore Wentworth, while all the while her heart acid and raging against him, except the narrator attributes this lack of balance to Lady Russell too -- in a paragraph which is crude and shows the novel is not finished.

We are told had Anne been able to get out of her circle the way Wentworth was, she might have gotten over her devastation, but as a woman this was not possible to her is the implication.  She tells Harville women sit at home preyed upon by their own emotions, without sufficient outlook, but then she knows Harville has a heart the way she does. 

This reading of Anne as ridiculous did seem to me the most heartless of the book.  Sir Walter had he any brains (but he too is partly a caricature) would perhaps agree and so too Elizabeth.

I'd agree we are to see that Benwick postures and Louisa Musgrove is silly, overexcited by the attention of Wentworth.  She hasn't the intelligence to come near his mind.  As Wentworth says, Benwick loses it out of his emotionalism and it's implied by Wentworth that later in life Benwick will emerge as a Mr Bennet-type, married to a woman who bores him. (We may hope they do not end with five daughters and insufficient income to marry them off; we don't know enough of Louisa's other values beyond erotic attraction to know if she'll turn as overmateralistic as Mrs Bennet's is made to appear -- Mrs Bennet is part caricature.)

There is an interesting parallel drawn between Mrs Clay and Mrs Smith, both desperate nontitled poor women. Mrs Smith's language for Mr Elliot is over the top, and there is something disquieting the way she would not have told Anne about Mr Elliot had Anne appeared to her to be in love with him.  Anne is disturbed about this. I find Mrs Smith's manipulation and willingness to believe in gossip at a couple of removes criticized by Austen by implication too, but find the text unfinished here so don't know on what grounds we were to critique here quite. Mrs Smith's money may derive from less than salubrious activities in the colonies (including slavery) as Captain Wentworth's fortune derives from his business in ferocious sea-fighting, taking over other ships, killing people.  I don't have any sense in this book that the implied author criticizes Wentworth for his business nor Mrs Smith for her sources of income. As outsiders we may (as outsiders we may find Anne's behavior ridiculous as I say). Mrs Smith had a fragile and tenuous hold on her meagre security so (as she says) is willing to pretend to believe in her relative's pretended concern for her in the hope they will help her if she needs them to even if it's unlikely.  Better than open quarrelling (that kind of desperate statement reveals to me some of Austen's hidden attitudes towards some of her relatives.)

 The emphasis on "know" to indicate that Mrs Clay has been promiscuous with naval men does not persuade me. There is not enough in the story beyond the so-called pun to warrant it.  That she is after Mr Elliot and something is going on between them, and something more was to be explained about her boots is clear. They were having a liaison in Bath but that she's available to all sailing comers is not supported by the text eve if she uses Gowland's lotion. Nor do I think we are to take her as having venereal disease. I wouldn't call her a high-class prostitute as Austen is careful in her use of such words for women.  She sympathized with women's desperation and is amused to think that Mrs Clay may yet end up Lady Elliot; in her world she knew many a woman with a high title and access to property got there through less than moral means.  Really she reminds me of Lucy Steele, functions similarly, and Lucy Steele is in her desperation paralleled to Elinor.  What Mrs Clay's hidden sexual liaison shows up is the stupidity of Elizabeth Elliot, how susceptible to flattery, that she can't see the father is at risk and her position.  But that does not mean there is a parallel because Elizabeth retains her strong pride; it is helping her through life dislike her though we may (well at least I do because I feel Austen wants me to dislike her and I do dislike the type person she is made to project.)

Again I thought the sexual pun reading overdone, in this novel the most overdone thus far.  Well hung and under hung do stand out and men at the time did dress sexily, in ways today that would be called effeminate (left over from the ancien regime male extravagant dress).  Sir Walter is a strikingly sexy figure -- I have wondered if we are to take him as having homosexual impulses, as his language about men and himself suggests something more is afoot here than making him an aging obtuse (heartless) dandy.  But when the landscapes of the book were hijacked this way, I thought to myself this is not Finnegan's Wake.  I've read readings of Finnegan's Wake which demonstrate sentence after sentence is lascivious, imitations of copulation, and I thought these were right. Not here. .

I also don't see gender undermined in this novel -- rather more emphasized than usual though the closing speech by Anne to Harville does make both sexes emotional and (that ugly word from our sarky times) "needy."  When Mrs Crofts though says she can be comfortable aboard ship, I don't find that masculinizes her (p. 198). 

As in Emma (Mrs Weston), S&S (Eliza Williams), P&P (Charlotte Collins), MP (Fanny at the close), there is a pregnancy in the book: Mrs Wallis and Nurse Rook works as a midwife: here is the bodily sex in this book -- one of danger as death is so rampant in it.

The gravity Diane pulls in through seeing the Bible at work in some of the imagery and attitudes towards Louisa's fall may be there (I think it is), but I don't find Biblical references.  There was a thread last week wasn't there about Austen's secularism.  Her religion is a matter of morality, in the 18th century way she's not Bible-oriented; that kind of thing comes later in evangelicism.  I take her to be embarrassed and (like Samuel Johnson) would find that irreverent and not belonging to a romance.  I think Austen does explore dejection but from within. I'll hijack one line on UC:  that we have in Persuasion "a despondent woman who entertains others without rest."  That makes me think of Cassandra's portrait of Austen with those dark lines in her face, tightly crossed arms, headachy look of wishing she was not being drawn and her poem about migraine headaches. The despondent woman is Austen and she is keeping her dejection at bay by writing and rewriting "without rest" to entertain others and keep herself sane.

The book's comedy come from its comic structure (somewhat undermined by the justified fear in the last paragraph about the tax Anne pays that any time Wentworth could be drowned), and the determined uplift now and again -- as the comment by the narrator undercutting the allusions to Charlotte Smith's melancholy poetry about spring never coming again. The farmer thinks spring comes again and it does.

I gained least from this chapter because it seemed to me least of the six books to lend itself to this against the grain rollicking reading. 


Final gut reaction to core of UC:

Wentworth tells Anne a man in love truly with a deeply congenial companion ought not to get over it (1995 BBC Persuasion) .On this last see comments ...

Tags: gothic, jane austen criticism, jane austen films, jane austen novels

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.