Sunday, January 22, 2012

Lost daughter: Jane Austen, part four (Perlstein)

We have been looking at the opportunities Jane Austen had to read Mary Wollstonecraft. The consensus is overwhelming that the opportunity was there: there are family connections, tenuous but real, as pointed out by Claire Tomalin,  and access to circulating libraries during Austen's years in Bath. More importantly, though, is the textual evidence that the ideas laid out in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman -- the need for rational education and a marriage of mutual respect -- find fictional flesh in the examples and counter-examples of the novels, as we saw the other day. I even found a hidden clue, a secret nod, embedded in the name of one of the most contentious characters.

The first post of this series touched on the difference between Tory feminism and Enlightenment feminism, drawing on Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction by Margaret Kirkham, which we looked at in more detail in the second post. This book, in its 1983 original or its 1996 second edition, I'm not quite sure, was reviewed by Margaret Doody. I haven't seen the review, but it was thoroughly picked apart by one Arnie Perlstein, an unlikely, to put it mildly, contributor to the discussion. There is no more passionate defender of Jane Austen as a radical feminist than this outsider. I think we can call him, as Ms magazine called Bob Lamm when he liberated Mary from the dungeons of the National Portrait Gallery, a male feminist.

The biography on his blog:
I'm a 59 year old independent scholar (still) working on a book project about the SHADOW STORIES of Jane Austen's novels (and Shakespeare's plays). I first read Austen in 1995, an American male real estate lawyer, i.e., a Janeite outsider. I therefore never "learned" that there was no secret subtext in her novels. All I did was to closely read and reread her novels, while participating in stimulating online group readings.
Then, in 2002, I whimsically wondered whether Willoughby stalked Marianne Dashwood and staged their “accidental” meeting. I retraced his steps, followed the textual “bread crumbs”, and verified my hunch. I've since made numerous similar discoveries about offstage scheming by various characters.
In hindsight, it was my luck not only to be a lawyer, but also a lifelong solver of NY Times and other difficult American crossword puzzles. These both trained me to spot complex patterns based on fragmentary data, to interpret cryptic clues of all kinds, and, above all, not to give up until I’ve completed the puzzle--and literary sleuthing Jane Austen's novels (and Shakespeare's plays) is, bar none, the best puzzle solving in the world!
If you like fisking, take a look: Margaret Doody's misguided review of Margaret Kirkham's Pioneering, Prescient & Spot-On 1982 book Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction. I didn't see this until later. I first came across his forensic examination in November, when he claimed that Jane Austen was haunted by the Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft, and got in touch in the comments. (Dear reader - please do the same!)

He posts about once a day, essays or diatribes rich in iconoclastic ideas and mad enthusiasm. I suspect the lawyering is a bit slow in Florida at the moment, and I for one am glad of it, if that gives room for the flowering of amateurism (a term of high praise in Wollstonecraft Towers). Here is a fair flavour of his argument:
I think JA was haunted by the Ghost and the memory of Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman who was brave enough to speak out on behalf of women very publicly, and who, after her death, was vilified because she had been so brave.

It's no accident, therefore, that JA alluded SPECIFICALLY to the very radical polemical novel CALEB WILLIAMS (written in 1809), which, after all, just happened to be written by Godwin, who just happened to have been the husband of...............Mary Wollstonecraft!
Here is an example of the sort of convoluted crossword theory he favours. I'm not saying he's wrong; I'm just saying  you need to have a special sort of mind to follow the thread. Ariadne and the Minotaur?
So it means that when I interpret Henry Tilney as having an epiphany about his mother's death as a result of Catherine's detective work at the Abbey, this is deeply connected to JA's allusion to Godwin's 1809 novel, a novel written a few years AFTER Godwin had a chance to see how the Far Right seized on his Memoir of his dead wife as grounds for crucifying her reputation in the court of public opinion.

So JA is telling us, covertly that (i) in a way, Godwin was Henry Tilney, because he eventually "got it" that he had screwed up, and he wrote Caleb Williams as penance, and (ii) in another way, Godwin was GENERAL Tilney, who did regret the role he played in bringing about his wife's death.
He speculates about Godwin's role:
And the most awful thing is that Godwin "killed" his wife TWICE, and both times it was "involuntary womanslaughter"--the first time, by getting her pregnant, leading to her physical death in childbirth, and the second time by writing her Memoir (perhaps trying to resurrect her), but having it backfire, and instead leading to the public assassination of her character!
And he sums up his view of Jane Austen's feminism:
I believe that for a very long time, maybe her whole adult life, JA played with the idea of going public with her true feelings. But in the end of the day, every time she put quill pen to paper, she chose to go undercover -- but I get the very strong sense that she always felt ambivalent about that painful decision. The regret that Catherine and Eleanor express when they talk about Mrs. Tilney is, I think, JA's own regrets....

So Northanger Abbey is in a very real sense JA's eulogy to the greatest feminist "heroine" of her time.
He also speculates in Jane Austen the radical but covert feminist Part 268 that Mary Bennet is Jane Austen's alter ego, named after Mary Wollstonecraft.  He agreed that I was barking up the right tree as regards name clues, and commented that Mary Bennet is "the most important surrogate for Mary W in all of Jane Austen's fiction":
...what you have is Mary Bennet as JA's covert self portrait! JA has led the reader down the garden path, seeing if we will take the bait and join with the rest of the Bennet family in unjustly and at times cruelly scorning Mary, but hoping that we will struggle with our inner Mr. Bennet and instead realize that we've been guilty of a wrong first impression of Mary, and reconsider.

So we have a surface parody of Mary, but a veiled anti-parody which vindicates Mary (who I claim is named after Mary Wollstonecraft). And I claim exactly the same sort of anti-parody in Northanger Abbey which has a surface parody of Catherine, but a covert anti-parody which vindicates Catherine's keen perceptions.
Enough to make anyone dizzy. Next time, a look at the post that kicked this all off, from historical novelist Lauren Gilbert.


  1. Roberta, thank you for your liberal and generous commentary on my Austenian heresies, as they relate particularly to Mary Wollstonecraft! I would apologize for making you "dizzy", except I get the feeling that you enjoy the dizziness I induce, sorta the same way that many people enjoy a really vertiginous roller coaster ride! ;)

    I am a mad enthusiast, it is true, but there is, as you so graciously intimate, method in my wild, whirling words, and I deeply appreciate your sharing my ideas with your readers!

    I am returning the favor by posting a link at my blog to this post of yours!

    Cheers, ARNIE

  2. Great to have you here, Arnie! I look forward to reading more of your dizzy-making crossword-puzzle breadcrumb trails!