Sunday, August 15, 2010

Austen's fat joke

I forgot about this notorious passage, and laughed aloud (not a rare occurrence when perusing Austen) when I was rereading Persuasion this weekend:

They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him;--they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed. Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne's slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.
-Persuasion, Chapter 8

The "son" is "Poor" Dick Musgrove, and the criticism of Mrs. Musgrove's display of false sentiment is merited. But what's fascinating is that Austen wins you over to the other, less defensible part of the ridicule. And if you didn't partake in the joking already, she most definitely gets you on her side with what follows: an amazing sort of apology that actually serves as justification for the mercilessness:

Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,--which taste cannot tolerate,--which ridicule will seize.
-Persuasion, Chapter 8

The passage is pretty infamous, a clear instance of "regulated hatred" (D.W. Harding's wonderful, if problematic, notion; which, however, doesn't help to explain Austen's treatment of "Poor Dick," also worried over). But it is also just hilarious, an instance of that penchant for absurdity--the image of the novel's heroine and her "pensive face" eclipsed, as it were, by this behemoth--that readers of Austen see but don't quite acknowledge as much as they should: this is the Austen who can't quite let go of something that strikes her as uproarious, however weird and wonky it may be. Readers forgive such excesses in other authors, but in their reason they often patronize Austen (indeed vainly) for such reveries, even though she is so brilliant as to combine this with a really savage jab at "unbecoming conjunctions," and make us think hard here about the nature of ugliness. Indeed, the mode seems to me more like that of Gillray or Cruikshank, or the really vile stuff one could find a few years earlier in the Jacobin Review (and real Janeites are sensitive to this discrepancy in mode, which is not one of mere propriety): it's supposed to be disturbing, supposed to make us unsure where the poignancy stops and turns ugly itself.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I'm seriously gaining an appreciation for Austen that I never had until your posts on her. It's like the best psychoanalysis you can read.

"But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,--which taste cannot tolerate,--which ridicule will seize."

I've been trying to say this for the past 10 years but haven't come close.

There's so much bite (smart bite) in these passages. "a comfortable substantial size INFINITELY more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humor"

You have to be pissed off to write something like this. If she's patronized for her style, it's the problem of the reader, not her. She "sounds" comfortable in negotiating generalities that of course are not always true with exceptions by basically saying "regardless of exceptions, this is still generally the case." She's very passionate in not letting exceptions dilute her instinctual fire for describing what she experiences, and what she thinks is generally the case. Regardless of being "generally the case" or not, I admire this passion of this caustic expression. At the very least, it's a great laugh which you point out. But yeah, it's not a great laugh to whoever feels they are the direct object of this style of writing. Again, this is the readers problem and if they are offended maybe there's some truth to it...and I would say they should get to a place where they can take themselves as a joke.
But the world I live in (up until this point in my life) name drops Jane Austen without any recognition for this fire you point out in her writing so I'm unaware of the critics.