We speak of them as they were
Male Voices in Praise of Jane Austen
|Volume 2, Number 1||January 1, 2003|
Edited by Sophia Sentiment
I am hoping you all made it through the holidays with Happiness and Cheer. Your Editor has been so Jolly and busy that this Newsletter will be somewhat skimpy on her part, not to mention a day late!
I picked up the first Artemis Fowl book without knowing anything about it except it was another children's book that was a crossover best seller (and it was $3 cheaper than the first Lemony Snickett book.) I confess I ended the book with the feeling that I had just been taken for a ride, and I don't mean that in a good way.
Artemis Fowl is more like the beginning of a media empire than a children's book. While the Harry Potter books (for instance) contain some items that seem like "naturals" for a video game (Quidditch & the enchantments guarding the Sorcerer's Stone) Artemis Fowl bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a novelization of a video game currently in development (I strongly suspect that's exactly what it is too). Guns, lots of different guns, "power-ups", health points, gadgets galore, magic spells, and even tactical nuclear weapons. Yes, you heard me, the fairies have "environmentally friendly" nukes. Which They Use. On Humans. But Not Unless The Humans Try To Steal Their Gold. So I Guess It's Okay..
Every character and situation feels derivative. One minute you think you're reading a Stainless Steel Rat adventure (Harry Harrison) the next one of the Myth series (Robert Aspin) or The Case of The Toxic Spell Dump (Harry Turtledove). Unfortunately, Eoin Colfer doesn't have any of those authors' gift for wit. His idea of humor is: fairies who talk like characters out of a "Rambo" parody, the incredible power of dwarf farts, and fairy vomit.
Actually, it may all be pretty funny to an eight year old boy. Parents may be less amused by product placement for computer, handgun and ammunition manufacturers, an explicit description for the best area of the body to group your shots to kill, fairy weapons which have settings described as "Scorched, well done, and crisped to a cinder." And for young kids, the idea that should they accidentally stumble on the fabled pot of gold at the end of a rainbow , it could lead to a nuclear bomb being dropped on their family. While I don't think children should be overly sheltered from violence (especially when it's clearly part of a fantasy) I was surprised by this book's casual attitude. I'd be interested to hear how many boys ask for a Sig Sauer (automatic pistol) complete with extra magazines and ammunition with Teflon-coated slugs "just like Butler" this year.
Still, the biggest problem with Artemis Fowl is simply that it isn't very well written, and the characters aren't engaging. There are plot holes big enough to drive a continent through and our two "heroes": Artemis Fowl the human and Holly the fairy are so self-serving that their creator seems to think they should be admired for stopping short of gratuitous murder. As for the secondary characters, the last time someone wrote a work of fiction in which the servants were this badly treated, the end result was the Civil War.
So, my recommendation is that you should probably skip this book and that you should definitely read it yourself before you let any children in your household get their hands on it
Claudia Johnson and Gideon Polya
I stumbled across a book titled: Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History by Gideon Polya concerning the Bengali Famine of 1943-44 (and others) that you may find of interest by checking out this interview.
Since I may get to attend the conference in Winchester next July, I thought it may be helpful to be a little acquainted with Claudia Johnson, one of the speakers. I bought two of her books, namely, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel and Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s. In Jane Austen she leans heavily on Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) found online HERE. I have only begun reading that book where she compares Burke's philosophy to Jane and the other women writers of that time.
Desiring to find out more about this Burke fellow, I checked the MV archives for Burke and found some discussion about his involvement with the Hastings trial which needs some further looking into on my part. According to Johnson, Burke had quite an influence on the women writers of the day. However, it appears that Jane did not "buy into" his philosophy of the "ideal patriarch" of the family being promoted in novels. Jane wrote'em like she saw'em. As it turns out she was quite a rebellious little writer whom I never even suspected of doing such. One example is her Mr. Bennet, hardly your "ideal Father" figure. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, and this is precisely why it behooves us to study Jane's Times.
Caro Sposo and Emma
George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was an English composer born in Germany. In fact, Handel's earliest successes were in Germany and then Italy. He preceded his chief benefactor, the Elector of Hanover, to a permanent stay in England just before 1714 when the Elector was declared George I, King of England. Handel became an English citizen in 1727. You and I might think of him as a composer of religious oratorios, most notably The Messiah (1742); but, if you had asked Jane Austen, our Lady might have identified him as the composer of operas. She would have been more correct than us—as usual. On the other hand, would she have identified him at all? That is the question before us today.
The question stems from the classification of music current in Jane Austen's time: "ancient" music was officially classified as anything written twenty years previously. Since Handel died 16 years before our Lady was born, Jane Austen would have been correct had she identified him as the composer of "ancient" operas. (By those standards, the songs of The Rolling Stones would be "ancient" today—Hm-mm, maybe that's right!) So, how familiar was our Lady with "ancient" music. Quite familiar I think and I will call upon your favorite music expert to support me in this thesis—Mrs. Elton.
Handel's first opera in England was Rinaldo (1711) and a famous aria from that was "Caro Sposo". (I heard it recently, and it is very beautiful, as are all of Handel's arias.) The opera was a huge success. That made me think of Chapter 14 of Volume 2 of Emma. That is the chapter in which Emma had her first visit with Mrs. Elton, the Miss Augusta Hawkins that was. First of all, Mrs. Elton established her credentials for us.
"... I am doatingly fond of music—passionately fond;—and my friends say I am not entirely devoid of taste. ... I hope we shall have many sweet little concerts together. I think, Miss Woodhouse, you and I must establish a musical club ..."
Later in that same conversation, Mrs. Elton mentioned her first meeting with "Knightley", whom she took to be her husband's "particular friend":
"... I must do my caro sposo the justice to say that he need not be ashamed of his friend. ..."
(You can almost sense Emma's teeth grinding.) Well, perhaps this is just a coincidence. Or, maybe not—if not, then it would have been a fine, subtle Jane Austen joke, because Handel's "Caro Sposo" is sung by the soprano just after her character had discovered her husband's infidelity.
Italian music and Persuasion
In Jane Austen's time, Italian music was considered the very best with the second best not worth mentioning. I suppose that is why Handel went first to Italy and why most (40) of his "English" operas were written in Italian. I think that odd, because, besides Handel, there were Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Mozart (1756-1792), and Beethoven (1770-1827), all from the German culture. All these men composed soon enough for Jane Austen (1775-1817) to appreciate them and yet not one peep out of her. That is surprising because the English Royalty were Germans from sixty years before her birth to well after her death. I would have guessed that there was some interest in German culture, especially since England fought no wars with them in those days. In fact, Austria and the German states were allies of England against Napoleon, most notably perhaps, at the battle of Waterloo. The English indifference strikes me as very strange. (My wife—my caro sposa—just suggested to me that there might have been little interest in German culture precisely BECAUSE the Royals were a bunch of Germans—"have you ever read anything about those royal nerdniks?")
Mozart was a child prodigy, a much sought-after performing artist when still a child. He first performed in England at about the age of nine or ten. The trouble is that his contemporary public could never forget that and never fully accepted the adult composer.
The adult Mozart sought patronage as a composer in Vienna which, in those days, was tantamount to going to Italy because the Italian states were controlled by Austria. There his compositions were considered to be "barbaric German music" by a court dominated by Italian composers (including the infamous Mozart nemesis, Antonio Salieri). Mozart's first operas were composed in Italian before he took the controversial step of composing operas in—ugh—the German language.
I don't want to complain too much in this regard because I too prefer Italian opera over all others except Mozart's. (I also think of Wagner as an overly wrought barbarian.) It is just that I wonder why contemporary German composers were not better thought of in England in Jane Austen's time. Nowadays the particular Germans I mentioned are highly regarded. (I can give personal, compelling testimony that even animals love Mozart. On the other hand, I don't want to place too much reliance on the tastes of animals because their collective indifference to Verdi undermines their credibility—their detestation of Bob Dylan might sink their reputation.)
Another Italian musical export of the time was the castrato, an adult male who had been castrated as a boy so that his voice would not change, would remain suitable for operatic roles as a soprano or alto. (Ah-hh-ahh!) All of the great composers wrote for the castrati including, of course, Handel and Mozart. The English were quite comfortable with this—castrato performances were well attended and much appreciated in London and Bath—as long as no one tried to lay a hand on an English lad. There were no English castrati, only well-paid Italian visitors. Performances of this kind were well attended in London right up until the time of Jane Austen's death.
All of this encourages us to reflect a bit on Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion. I am thinking of Chapter 8 of Volume 2—that chapter that describes Anne Elliot's roller-coaster of emotions at a music concert in Bath. That is the manic chapter where Anne first learns the truth of Wentworth's tender feelings for her and then gained a more complete sense of Mr. Elliot's obsequious manners. Wentworth would misinterpret everything and leave the building in the brusque, jealous manner that Anne would desperately hope to learn to quiet. But it is all beautifully woven about the music—that Italian music that only Anne seems truly capable of appreciating. It is only Anne that is proficient in the Italian language, and it is that proficiency that Mr. Elliot cleverly exploits, first in an attempt to flatter Anne and then to disrupt her conversation with Wentworth—to drive a wedge between them. It is a chapter full of desperate and passionate feelings that, even collectively, the Bronte sisters could not have appreciated had they all lived two life times. It was one of the last chapters that Jane Austen would ever write and leaves us all with the sense that her exquisite subtlety and complex, passionate nature had not abandoned her at the end—were likely never greater than at any other time of her short life. I am overcome.
Suttee and Sari
In the last letter, I mentioned Mark Twain's troubled, troubling treatment of the "Thugee" in his Chapters on India in Following the Equator. There are other troubling chapters about that land; there is one dealing with the practice of "suttee", and others dealing with the atrocities committed against the British in the "dark hole of Calcutta" and during the famous "Indian Mutiny" of 1856 (the "Sepoy Rebellion"). And, of course, there is the caste system. Well, Twain took the British accounts of all these things uncritically, and, anglophile that I am, I am not too uncomfortable with that—not TOO uncomfortable. However, there are at least two sides to every story, and the British accounts, reproduced in FtE, certainly do seem to justify European cultural and legal interventions in that part of the world—so, be alert.
Well, I am not an historian so I cannot offer annotations to Twain's accountings of British accounts, but I can bring better balance to my account of Twain's treatment of the subcontinent, which was, in itself, quite balanced. He loved India and the Indians. Read these comments on their appearance:
"... what a dream it was of bloom and blossom, and Oriental conflagrations of costume! The walking groups of men, women, boys, girls, babies—each individual was a flame, each group a house afire for color. And such stunning colors, such intensely vivid colors, such rich and exquisite minglings and fusions of rainbows and lightnings! And all harmonious, all in perfect taste; never a discordant note; never a color on any person swearing at another color on him or failing to harmonize faultlessly with the colors of any group the wearer might join. The stuffs were silk—thin, soft, delicate, clinging; and, as a rule, each piece a solid color: a splendid green, a splendid blue, a splendid yellow, a splendid purple, a splendid ruby, deep, and rich with smoldering fires—they swept continuously by in crowds and legions and multitudes, glowing, flashing, burning, radiant; and every five seconds came a burst of blinding red that made a body catch his breath, and filled his heart with joy. And then, the unimaginable grace of those costumes! Sometimes a woman's whole dress was but a scarf wound around her person and her head, ..." [Chapter 37]
I have had a number of Indian friends and I have come to understand just how beautiful and how sexy the sari has evolved. I find Indian women beautiful and flirtatious with delicacy and propriety. You get a sense of all that in the above passage. On the matter of the physical beauty of dark-skinned people, Mark Twain had this to offer.
"... Then there would be the added disadvantage of the white complexion. It is not an unbearably unpleasant complexion when it keeps to itself, but when it comes into competition with masses of brown and black the fact is betrayed that it is endurable only because we are used to it. Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare. How rare, one may learn by walking down a street in Paris, New York, or London on a week-day—particularly an unfashionable street—and keeping account of the satisfactory complexions encountered in the course of a mile. Where dark complexions are massed, they make whites look bleached-out, unwholesome, and sometimes frankly ghastly. I could notice this as a boy, down South in the slavery days before the war. The splendid black skin of the South African Zulus of Durban seemed to me to come very close to perfection. I can see those Zulus yet—'ricksha athletes waiting in front of the hotel for custom; handsome and intensely black creatures, moderately clothed in loose summer stuffs whose snowy whiteness made the black all the blacker by contrast. Keeping that group in my mind, I can compare those complexions with the white ones which are streaming past this London window now: ..." [Chapter 41]
That seems like something Malcolm X might have written, but no, it was written by a white man—a southern white man. (Is it just my imagination, or does the passage seem slightly homo-erotic to you as well?) Well, it does make me think about Jane Austen's Sir Walter Elliot who said a few of the same things of London streets, did he not?
Is that it? Is that all there was? Is this all there is?
Of course, the main reason that I picked up Following the Equator was to examine one of Mark Twain's caustic remarks about Jane Austen that appears there. I thought—I hoped I would find this remark to be an excerpt from a much larger passage that, when considered in its full extent, would show that Twain actually loved Jane Austen and his petulance would be explained away by my penetrating analysis of his true feelings and tastes. Alas, that unfortunate remark, that single paragraph, that I have reproduced elsewhere, is all there is. Jane Austen is mentioned nowhere else in FtE. (The only satisfaction that I have garnered from this otherwise disappointing exercise is that now I am making a direct reference to what before I had gained only from secondary sources.)
There is, however, a context for Twain's mind cramp that is mildly interesting and I will now set that before you. The offending remark was placed in Chapter 62, the chapter that begins with, "There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined ones."
Twain was on board a ship making its way between India and Africa and thoroughly enjoying himself, wishing that this beautiful voyage would never end. (He really was a steamship denizen at heart.) He then began to reflect on the ship's library. His first object was a joke and his principle target was Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).
"... to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this ship's library: it contains no copy of the Vicar of Wakefield, that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing. A singular book. Not a sincere line in it, and not a character that invites respect; a book which is one long waste-pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities and dreary moralities; a book which is full of pathos that revolts, and humor that grieves the heart. There are few things in literature that are more piteous, more pathetic, than the celebrated 'humorous' incident of Moses and the spectacles."
We will never know what Twain's thoughts were about that book. Perhaps he didn't like it. Then he ended the critique and, almost as an afterthought, he appended that single, isolated comment about Jane Austen—that remark that has condemned him to a long tenure in purgatory where the only readings allowed him are the Bronte novels and Microsoft help-screens—purgatory can seem like hell—he got what he deserved. If he works hard, he will be promoted to heaven and a complete library eventually, he will get what he deserves.
Darcy—I mean Jane Austen—had it right: "The wisest and best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."
Ashton gives us very good examples in his study of Mrs. Elton and Italian music of "knowing" what was going on in Jane's Times to better understand her works. Now that the holidays are behind us, I hope to fill in some more gaps.
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