04 septiembre 2011

In reply to "Masterclass with Miss Austen"

Licencia de Creative Commons

From the surreal back to... the, erm... surreal!


While I was doing some fortunate research on Mark Twain for a you-don't-need-to-know-the-cause professional issue, I bumped into an eye-catching Google result that led me to A Course of Steady Reading's article Masterclass With Miss Austen

Illustration of Alexander Pope's
The Rape of the Lock
by Thomas Stothard.
You know, the thing with classics is that you can never be too careful about knowing them for sure: you'll never end up covering as much you originally undertake to know, which is the same thing as saying that you'll never end up reading the whole of a book, even when the physical boundaries set between the first and the last page may give you the feeling that you have. 

So my conclusion, before I actually go to the point of this article, is (considering I've been reading Homer and Virgil lately, as well) that we can never master a classic, and that's what's most fascinating about them, hearing what other people have to say about the book after the book, the story behind the story, the allusions, the whole range of symbols, everything! And Barthes said so, he said so: everything, even the smallest "detail", has been put there for a reason; even, I dare add, if the author was so spontaneous as to leave it there unconsciously.

Although this may (not) come in the way of a surprise, completing the reading of a classic  is barely the first step to ever begin any sort of approach to it— trust me, critics have made sure to write five or six times more than those few pages you've read when you were doing The Divine Comedy. Classics have filled a whole industry, it's amazing, isn't it? The fact that the book you were flicking through the other day, that very little specimen of literature (or whatever you may choose to call it), should have been spoonfeeding a whole other community of writers. But that's art. That's how art works. It's a circle, a cycle, that never truly comes to an end. And whoever may attempt to acknowledge it, on whatsoever their grounds, must be certain that they truly wish to embark on such a journey—because once you begin, as I'm telling you, it takes a truly bloated stomach—or should I say, eye?— not to go on reading, and on, and on, and on, and on...

He cut off a long lock of her hair,
Illustration of Jane Austen's
Sense and Sensibility, by
Hugh Thomson.
Now, Jane Austen is certainly my top favourite authorit was so before I ever even knew Keira Knightley, or Collin Firth, or Jennifer Ehle's twinkly eyes and Bennet-like hairdo; it was so even after I came to know Henry James (whom I do adore, but not as much as I adore Jane), after I knew Edith Wharton, and Thackeray, and Virginia Woolf, and Twain, and my dearest, dearest Oscar Wilde... And yet, yet, every time I take a fancy for researching any further on her, I come to learn something new. It's amazing. It's smashing, it's shocking, its... frustrating. But it's amazing! 

It's a little bit daunting, too, to bump into more and more and more... I guess man's not made to see he knows less than what he thought he knew; I guess the feeling is more or less like hearing you've won the lottery broadcast live. But no, they made a mistake, it just wasn't you. Or, rather, it just never happened, it was only part of your escapist fantasy: the charm is inevitably broken. 

At this point I can't help sympathising with this feather-braind female character from A bundle of letters (by Henry James) when, in one of those letters she writes, she claims, "Well, I do want to know so much that it seems sometimes as if I wanted to know everything; and yet there are so many things that I think I don't want to know." [sic], I know this phrase by heart!

So when I came across the article quoted at the beginning of this one, the very title spurred me on to print it—I prefer to read the printed version of things, if possible. So I printed it and read it on the following day (that was, last Friday evening) and by the time I was finishing it, I just started writing a reply to this woman. This woman who, very much like me, had found something and chose to make it public knowledge in her website, http://acourseofsteadyreading.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/masterclass-with-miss-austen/#comment-784

The following is a transcription of my own very brief, very succinct (?) reply to "Lyz"'s essay (the latter waswritten on Feb.2011) on a couple of literary findings... The typing mistakes I have corrected them, the rest, I have left it as in the original posts, in spite of myself. And one more detail: there's a mistake with the time that Lyz' page says I've written those posts. It all happened yesterday afternoon, so where it reads "am", that should be "pm"... Well, you may go on reading now... Eat and enjoy!

Dear Liz,
Having read your “Masterclass…” article, I must confess (or “feel obliged to assert, you choose) that I truly believe that clues find US, and not that we merely come to them by chance. What a marvellous Find, a real Find! Now, I have not yet come to read Rosabella, but I do know what you felt while writing this article, while doing your “research.” I too can freely claim to take pride in having solved my own little “mystery” unasked— well, not a mystery proper, perhaps, but again, the feeling equals that of unveiling a great truth. Or so I am led to believe.

The adrenaline, the shock, that risk-sport-like moving sensation that you are somehow standing miles away from all those who, like yourself, have read Jane Austen but failed to (or never even made an attempt to) discover the kind of facts that underline her prose. And when I say that I “take pride in” matching facts, or evidence, or whatever that is, I do not mean, not in the least, that Darcy-like sense of pride, no. Perhaps it has more to do with vanity, with Emma’s vanity, rather than with pride.
You see, there is this scene in SENSE & SENSIBILITY, described by Margaret herself, where Willoughby cuts off a lock of Marianne’s hair… Well, let me tell you that while I was doing my first year in Literary and Scientific Translation, during one of our English Literature lessons, we came to discuss Alexander Pope’s, “The Rape of the Lock.” There is a scene in this poem that seemingly matches the one described by Margaret, as follows:
He takes the Gift with rev’rence, and extends

The little Engine on his Finger’s Ends:
This just behind Belinda’s Neck he spread,
As o’er the fragrant Steams she bends her Head:
Swift to the Lock a thousand Sprights repair,
A thousand Wings, by turns, blow back the Hair,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos’d;
Fate urg’d the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,
(But Airy Substance soon unites again)
The meeting Points that sacred Hair dissever
From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!

And then, Margaret recalls in conversation with Elinor:
But, indeed, Elinor, it is Marianne’s. I am almost sure it is, for I saw him cut it off. Last night after tea, when you and mama went out of the room, they were whispering and talking together as fast as could be, and he seemed to be begging something of her, and presently he took up her scissors and cut off a long lock of her hair, for it was all tumbled down her back; and he kissed it, and folded it up in a piece of white paper; and put it into his pocket-book.
Now, I was eighteen years old and had read all of AUsten masterpieces so far when my mind made the instant association with Jane Austen’s S&S, I had, like you, no evidence to support my linkage except for my own knowledge of both sources. Had Jane intended the allusion? Or was I, mad for her literature, just making things relate with one another?
Since I was barely installing the Internet service, I only relied on the printed versions of S&S that I had at home to check. So, I went on to check… Turned out that I had one particular “Oxford World’s Classics” version of S&S in English that I had not yet come to read (I’d read the novel from the library edition, and then bought my own, but had never read the latter yet!). I knew this edition counted with an extra “Explanatory Notes” section by the end of the book, so I searched there first thing, hoping that there would be some note related to the scene retold by Margaret in Chapter XII. Eventually, after flicking through the never-ending pages of this section, I found it:
46 I SAW HIM CUT IT OFF: the erotic significance of a man’s cutting off a lock of a young woman’s hair is most memorably stated in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714).
Further, there is, within the same Oxford edition, a section entitled “A CHRONOLOGY OF JANE AUSTEN”, which is devided into “Life” parallelled with “Historical and Cultural Background.” Although there is no record here of Jane having read The Rape of the Lock (as there is, on the other hand, a bundle of records regarding her reading of THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO &c.), I trust that Jane had read Pope’s poem by the time she included this scene in S&S. It can’t simply have been done pointlessly, can it? I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time that Jane mocks, as Pope did in his heroic epic, the idea of the "token of love," as it is. Besides, according to these records I am revising at the moment, there is a line that reads, within the “Life”, left-hand part of the section, “1797 – [...] begins revision of ‘Elinor and Marianne’ into Sense and Sensibility [....]“. By 1797, Jane was 22 years of age: she can’t have read Pope without a laughing eye, nor could she have skipped such a poem, given that it is, in tone, the perfect match to her own “mock” style, always somehow embedded within some scene or another.
I must stop writing now, or else you will think me a… Well, the word escapes me.
Hope you have enjoyed my experience. I have certainly sympathised with yours first time I read it— which was, yesterday evening.
Ever yours,
(from Argentina!)

Aha, not so fast! It doesn't end just there... What might have remained a mere suspicion on my part, was, in fact, eventually confirmed. As I tell immediately after this first post, I found some further evidence that might be worth your while: Jane literally mentions Pope, and, not without reason, I'm afraid, she mentions him in connection with our dear Mr. Willoughby:

Forgot to write, that there is also evidence supporting me in the fact that through the characters of Willoughby and Marianne, Jane echoes the voices of Shakespeare and other authors, and here I’ve found this, my triumph over my own self!!!!!! Just have a look, please:
You have ascertained Willoughby in every matter of importance [...] You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper [...]
Aha, now there can be no doubt. Jane knew Pope just as she knew Radcliffe and Scott and whoever! The cutting off of Marianne’s lock is an allusion, there can be no doubt.
I remember that when I went to my Literature teacher then, in 2008, when I had only lately made my “discovery”, she barely looked at me with a dead-pan face, and uttered, nonchalantly, as it was, “Well… it might be…”
Again, I believe that these things come to us, they FIND us, not we them. It feels surreal—but, alas! They ARE surreal, for Heaven’s sake!

I read both my comments but a day afterwards (that is, within a time difference of a mere 24 hs) and I can hardly believe my tone... No wonder the first reply I got was so short, and totally unbecoming. The second reply I got was from Lyz herself... But of what use would it be for me to transcribe it? Take a peek by yourself at:


If you love Jane Austen, or thought that you didn't, you might enjoy Lyz' find in connection with Rosabella, and perhaps even mine! We Austen readers seem to love feeding ourselves and one another with more and more to discuss about her, while she... Well, she will probably be resting in peace without caring that much to read us! Cheers to Jane, and Lyz. ┌┌┌┌

Further Food For Thought:

  1. http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/apope/bl-apope-rape.htm (Alexander Pope's quoted poem, The Rape of the Lock
  2. http://acourseofsteadyreading.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/rosabella-or-a-mothers-marriage/  (Article on Rosabella, by Catherine Cuthbertson within A Course of Steady Reading, website)

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