The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. Aug. 18, 2000

Dear Meister,

I put the question about the filmmaker's obligation to history before my husband, and apparently he was interested enough to write himself a "crude outline" (his description) for an essay.  I think he brings up some good points, so I thought I'd pass some of it along.  I decided to leave out the specific film examples as too inflammatory, historically speaking.

"The first reductionist position is that filmmakers dealing with historical subjects should present nothing but the bald facts, so far as they are known.  In other words, historical films should be documentaries. (The Thermian fallacy) Example: The Wannsee Conference.

The second reductionist position would be that film is art, not history, and the filmmaker has no obligation to historical truth if it interferes with or contradicts his vision (The Oliver Stone fallacy)  Examples: JFK, The Killing Fields.

Much of human history is unknowable.  The rest is seen through filters of language, conflicting accounts, prejudice, and flat-out lies that make the ultimate truth of what really happened difficult or impossible to determine.  If historical truth is so hard to find, why bother with history at all?  If film is art, shouldn't the artist be allowed to make his point as effectively as possible?  Oliver Stone has built a successful career on this approach to history.

One reason why the filmmaker should respect the truth of history, as far as it is known, is that it helps the artist to gain the respect of the audience.  If George Washington sends orders to his generals by field telephone or King Arthur finishes off the bad guys with his trusty Uzi, even the most unsophisticated audience may conclude, rightly, that anything the artist says is bunk.  Audiences are well aware that there were no movie cameras at the battle of Agincourt, but given the chance, they are willing to suspend disbelief long enough to listen to what the filmmaker has to say.  Respect for history helps produce this suspension."

Dear Cheryl's Husband,

Agreeing with Bruce that Cheryl is a genius, I might add that you are a right smart feller, too.  As a history enthusiast, I couldn't have said it better myself.  Thanks.

Dear Ashton,

A murder of crows, a flock, gaggle or skein of geese, a crash of rhinoceros.  What's more fun that reading the names for a group of any given animal?  But how about groups of Austen characters?

No, a dither isn't right, maybe effusion.  Oh, what a lovely word, and look at the double letters.  Jane often uses double letters when she writes us on Thursdays.  Just last week she wrote us a lovely letter ... Oh! letter has a double letter ... isn't Miss Woodhouse so very clever to point that out ... but as I was saying, Jane's letter...

Okay, so I took some of the easy ones ... any challengers out there?

Dear Folks,

Mine are so good that I am a little bit embarrassed to show them - oh, what the hell!

Thank you - thank you - what can I say? I couldn't have done it without all the little people, they are the real heroes. You have my permission to associate at least two meanings with "ton", "litter", "pride", and "rash".

Dear Ashton,

Those were some god-awful puns.  Well done.

Dear Ash,

O.K. I rented MP.  I find it impossible to soften but I will challenge your statements, or rather, the lack thereof.

You did not do Rozema justice.  In your review you failed to use the words sacrilege, desecration, and blasphemy.  Pathetic and pitiable also come to mind.  You were too kind by using the word "travesty".  Well, it does fit the dictionary definition of "travesty", but even so, "travesty" is not strong enough.

I can sincerely say that I have seen more faithfulness to the books and better productions (costumes, sets, etc.) on "Wishbone".

"Can I speak plainer?"

The material point is that if you are going to produce MP, then produce MP.  If you want to do "something else", then do "something else" - don't mix apples and oranges. I am really sorry Rozema spent all that money and that was the best she could do.

But on the other hand, I was brought up with the saying, "If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all."  So please allow me to redeem myself and say that it was nice to see Victoria Hamilton again; I liked the facade of the mansion; and the actress who portrayed Mary Crawford was tolerable, I suppose.  I'm afraid that's the "nicest" things I can say.

I took a quick look at the "Archives" and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed and agree with Cheryl's posting of 6/17/00, Julie Grassi of 7/4/98, Julie P.'s review posted by Ashton on 6/15/00, and Dave Payton 12/27/99.  Ash's posting on 12/20/99 had me in tears.  I really cannot add anything to what they have already said.

My wish to NOT see the film was not entirely based on your review.  There are other people on the MP board at RoP who concur with your opinion - and some who do not, I might add.

I'm sure you had good intentions in suggesting that I see the film for myself, but I found it very disturbing indeed.  I will get off my soapbox now.  I just wanted to let you know that I did see it, and once was enough.  I couldn't get it back to the video store fast enough.

From the Meister: This is off the subject, but I couldn't help noticing all the phrases from our Lady's novels incorporated into your posting - some in quotes and others not. Have you read Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, (1906) by John H. and Edith C. Hubback? The first author was the grandson of Jane's brother Francis ("Frank") Austen and he mentions that the family had the habit of using Aunt Jane's phrases in all conversations, even those unrelated to literature. Incidentally, like William Price, Francis rose from a modest background to acquire a commission in the navy. He would eventually rise to the rank of admiral and then was knighted. I know that, at one time, he was in charge of erecting coastal defenses to fend off an expected invasion by Napoleon.

Dear Ashton,

No, I haven't read that book - and a lot of others that I want to "get around to"- but it does sound very interesting.  I am so sick of saying, "I don't have time!"  Would there be more hours in a day!

If I keep on finding quotes by Our Lady does that mean that I, also, might rise to the rank of Admiral and be knighted? :-)
Best regards,

From the Meister: Yes you will, if I have anything to say about it.

Dear Janeites,

Regarding Ashton's comments about Our Dear Jane's silence on the subject of tobacco, I would like to put in my two cents.

I have done a far amount of study on the history of tobacco usage in England and America and have come to the conclusion that one reason that Miss Austen does not mention the smoking of the plant is that because in her class tobacco was consumed by the majority of tobacco users in the form of snuff. During the Regency the French had pretty much abandoned snuffing in favor of pipe smoking. The English, on the other hand, seemed to think it their duty to pick up the slack.

The Prince Regent's mother was a mighty snuffer, and, in fact, it is still possible to buy a blend very similar to the one she used. It is called "Crumbs of Comfort" and is flavored with peppermint. The Regent, himself, stored vast quantities of snuff and snuff boxes in the palace. The habit was participated in by the highest to the middle classes. Clergymen were especially notorious snuffers as they could partake in the habit while giving a sermon. The rural poor also used snuff, but they used it in the same way that Americans use Copenhagen snuff, i.e., a pinch between the cheek and gum.

The smoking habit was indulged in by the urban poor, workmen and sailors. It was considered declasse' and really didn't get going until about just before the Crimean War.

I believe that the reason that Miss Austen never mentioned it was because there was no need to. Her novels are pretty much stripped of ornamentation and unless snuffing or a snuffbox is cogent to the plot, there's really no reason to mention that Henry Crawford, for example, opened a tortoise shell snuff box and took a pinch of Kendal Brown. Detective novels use the lighting or smoking of cigarets as a stalling device. Miss Austen had no use for stalling devices. A lesser author (or Miss Rozema if she'd had her wits about her) would have indicated the stronger than thought relationship between Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford by having Fanny discover Henry's snuff box on Maria's dressing table. But she had no need to and didn't.

As far as we know, Our Dear Jane may have had a taste for Irish Dry Toast. Just because her relatives never mentioned it means nothing. Thirty years ago (before the safety nazis) if one's parents or grandparents smoked, dipped or chewed it wasn't worth mentioning. It was just a matter of fact and meant nothing except that perhaps they weren't Pentecostals. The same thing holds, I think, with Miss Austen. It is the bad writer who magnifies small things to great significance and the good writer who sees the whole picture.

As far as the Mansfield Park movie goes, well, it wasn't very good. It was to Jane Austen what Roger Corman's movies were to Edgar A. Poe. As a matter of fact, Corman was probably more true to Poe despite those heaving bosoms. I did notice a couple of things that may be of interest to the Board.

These are just small things, but as they say, "Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves."

Perhaps it's just me, but tobacco and slavery are so joined in my mind, Rozema's "ironic" tag line is ... stupid, insulting, hypocritical, ridiculous, and about everything in the world except funny. I think I would have been more likely to consider MP, The Movie as a flawed good try had I not been slapped in the face with this huge sell-out for a cheap laugh.  Perhaps we need to construct a new rule of thumb:

"When an artist starts declaring that her mainstream work isn't a sell-out, you can be certain that's exactly what it is."


Dear Folks,

I have made marginal notes in some of the things that Jane Austen read. One category of notable things is ethnic slurs. I will relate some of those in this posting because I want to make a point about Jane Austen.

Gird your loin - these things are offensive.

The first two are from Sterne's books. The first is from Tristram Shandy, Chapter 92, Volume III. (Incidentally, the modern printings of the book are in three volumes, but this is a re-packaging of Sterne's original eight volumes.) Here, Sterne is off on one of his joking digressions in which he is suggesting that cleanliness may not be all that it is cracked up to be. The joke ends in this rather disturbing way.

"Another objection to all this remedy, is its want of universality; forasmuch as the shaving part of it, upon which so much stress is laid, by an unalterable law of nature excludes one half of the species entirely from its use: all I can say, is that female writers, whether of England, or of France, must e'en go without it--

As for the Spanish ladies--I am in no sort of distress--"

Well, that is disturbing, but it may be part of the English culture. I say that because I recently heard the exact same slur from the mouth of an Englishman - actually, an Englishwoman - actually, a well-educated Englishwoman of my acquaintance.

The next is from Sentimental Journey, from the first volume, the chapter entitled "IN THE STREET CALIAS". Here, Sterne's protagonist is haggling with the master of his hotel over the cost of a carriage. The protagonist becomes hot under the collar.

" ... For my part, being but a poor sword's-man, and in no way a match for Monsieur Dessein, I felt the rotations of all the movements within me, to which the situation is incident - I looked at Monsieur Dessein through and through - eyed him as he walked along in profile - then en face - thought he looked like a Jew - then a Turk - disliked his wig - cursed him by my gods - wished him at the devil --"

Actually, one can find a great deal of anti-Semitism in the literature of the day. I found a naked version of it, for example, in Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. If one is sensitive to persons of African ancestry, one may be offended by some other passages in Belinda as well.

Perhaps some will rush to absolve Sterne or Edgeworth (or Fanny Burney) by pointing to more liberal passages in those same books. They might point to Sterne's frequent abolitionist passages or to Edgeworth's famous championship of the native Irish. Well, OK, but I think the matter a mixed bag.

I am waiting for that person who would excuse these things as an artifact of the times - that person who will instruct me to excuse members of a less progressive age. I will give a hint; find me similar sounding passages in the writings of Jane Austen or Mary Wollstonecraft - I don't think you can do it. Ultimately that discussion may center on Emma - I hope it does because I am well prepared for that debate as well.

I may be wrong, but I think the word "tobacco" appears only once in our Lady's novels; that would be in a joke that Mary Crawford makes in Mansfield Park. Jane Austen did not allow the use of tobacco in her novels. My point is that tobacco smoke is not the only foul, regency-period odor filtered away from our Lady's writings - the purple slurs are sent away as well. One might ask that if the foul odors are excluded, then are these true representations of the age? It's a good question, what say you?

Dear Ashton,

If a joke that was probably 2500 years old when Sterne told it is among your best evidence of his racism, you need to get back to work.  I'm sure the men of Athens made equally witty remarks about hirsute Spartan women.  As for the second remark, Sterne seems to be laughing at his own cowardice as much as anything.  It's not nice to think that the worst insults he could come up with were "Jew" & "Turk" but would you be equally offended if we substituted current American equivalents  " ... thought he looked like a lawyer -- then a Neo-Nazi"?  Sterne may have been rabidly anti-Semitic, but that comment is questionable proof.

I seem to be in the minority in my belief that doing the right thing counts for more than believing the right thing.  Most Union soldiers may have been racist, but the majority believed they were fighting a just fight.  I can't excuse their beliefs, but I can honor them for rising above those beliefs.

Which brings us back to Jane Austen.  Her novels are intended to reflect her world, not the whole world and I would assume that she was just as insulated from anti-Semitism as I (for instance) am today.  Furthermore, Jane Austen knew that there were many things better left unsaid.  If she met someone who had changed his name and religious affiliation to advance his business and social opportunities, I'm sure she was much too polite to notice.

Dear Cheryl,

What gets into you sometimes? What does the antiquity of ethnic slurs have to do with anything? Are you saying that the remark that I highlighted is not anti-Semitic? (Think about the context - the protagonist is complaining about being over-charged.) What are you saying in your first paragraph?

How can you say that people can be expected to do the right thing consistently if they don't think the right way? Do you expect proper education and moral attitudes to count for nothing? Are you suggesting that it was the Union soldiers who decided to free the slaves, or will you be so generous as to give northern-abolitionist intellectuals a tiny bit of credit for awakening consciousness and for their moral agitation?

How can you say that Jane Austen was insulated from these things when my posting is clearly taken from her reading? Think about her brothers and all the great variety of society that they brought to her. Are you suggesting that Jane Austen wrote without a occasional slip because she had never heard ethnic slurs? What are you suggesting in your final sentence?

Do you know the difference between race and ethnicity? Do you agree that "Jew" is not a racial designation?

Dear Ashton,

What I'm saying in that first paragraph is the hairy women comment is equivalent to "white people can't dance" or "men won't ask directions" or "women can't read maps."  These are fictions of humor, not to be taken literally, and they've been with us since human speech became sophisticated enough to make them.  They are found in every single culture around the world. I'm sure Bruce can supply us with an appropriate quote from Claude Levi-Strauss or Joseph Campbell explaining the biological conservation of insulting a strange culture instead of going to war with it.

Yes, Sterne's remark is anti-Semitic, and it's equally anti-Turk and anti-French.  But the remark itself is a complete stereotype of its kind.  Is it meant to be taken literally, or is there another meaning? You've read Sterne and I haven't so I should trust your answer ... I only wonder if you've asked yourself what Sterne's intent there was?

You've got it all backwards -- I said that people often do the right thing despite not thinking the right way, and that such action is admirable. People can never be "expected" to do the right thing no matter what moral education they've received. (And do you really think that the Northern Abolitionist intellectuals constituted more than a percent or two of the total manpower of the Union? Have you read the contempt which many Northern soldiers had for Abolitionists?)  I would even go so far as the say that striving to do the right thing is the most likely way to bring about the proper "moral attitudes" you mentioned.

I say Jane Austen was insulated because I would guess that little, if any, of her (theorized) knowledge of anti-Semitism came first hand.  I doubt she ever saw a Jew being abused in whatever manner was common for her time, any more than I have.  What I'm saying about Jane Austen in my final two sentences is that she knew certain beliefs, feelings, urges, etc. are not fit for public display.  This would include Anti-Semitic remarks.  But before you declare that there are no "slips" in Jane Austen, let me remind you that Patricia Rozema, among others, found slavery in Mansfield Park and some have found an incestuous lesbian affair in Emma.  One can find anything when one is determined to do so.

As for your last question, my upbringing was very sheltered in some respects.  My parents never labeled people that I can remember so it wasn't until I was about 20 and working for a caterer that I found out what "Jewish" meant (due to weddings.)  I find myself siding more and more with the faction that declares "race" an invalid concept, so I guess I agree that "Jewish" isn't a racial designation.  But I'm not sure that "Jew" is  an ethnicity any more than "Catholic" or "Fundamentalist Christian".  Just thinking aloud here.

Dear Cheryl,

I hope I can help you the rest of the way out of that hole.

Let me first make some clarifying remarks about Sterne, Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Do I think Sterne and Edgeworth irredeemable fascists? No - quite the contrary; both authors deserve their reputations as progressive individuals. It is just that I am very sensitive to the use of stereotypes and slurs and so I was able to pick out these isolated passages (for reasons that I will explain to you). My main goal was to point to the purity of Jane Austen's heart, our Lady never made a slip of this nature - or, equally likely, our Lady recognized such slips for what they were and edited them away. Now, if your contention that Miss Austen was never subjected to these influences is true, then "it is lessening the honor of [our friend's] triumph very sadly." However, your contention must be very wrong indeed; the only evidence I can lay hands on immediately is my posting on Barnaby Rudge. Perhaps you will agree that the prejudice against the Jews of Jane Austen's time could hardly have been less explicit or less celebrated than that against Catholics.

C'mon my mulch-sprinkled friend, let yourself go, let yourself think about Jane Austen in this new and wonderful way.

My daughter is mulatto. She was born in 1970 at the peak of the "black is beautiful" era and so she was too light skinned for black families to adopt. I remember taking her to the park, when she was four years old, where it happened for the first time - one of the other children called to her, "hey, you with the fuzzy hair." She looked at me but I was stunned - too unprepared to explain - I failed her. Later in junior high she was often treated to that same slur; she would insist on having her hair straightened. The father of her son is Mexican, so the son is half Mexican, one quarter African-American, and one quarter Irish-Catholic. Even at two years, he has demonstrated a full portion of machismo, but he also has a unusually graceful manner and an engaging, considerate personality. He is extremely attractive. On any of those very rare occasions when he does have a tantrum, we blame the Irish; so, you see, we have our prejudices too. Still, perhaps you can now understand why I bristled at Sterne's slur against Spanish women. Had he made that remark in my presence, I would have gone ballistic.

Your suggestion that slurs deflect aggression is perfectly wrong. They are the seeds of destruction because more than being hurtful, they are wounding. Left alone and when the conditions are just right, they grow into Riefenstahl films and then blossom into death camps in Poland or internment camps in California. I say stomp on these seeds wherever you find them.


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