Sunday, August 15, 2010
Austen's fat joke
Posted by Michael Duffy
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.