Playing the Austen version of the Great Game; observations on the AGM

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Sherlockians understand the Great Game as being the conceit that the fifty-six short stories and four novels that comprise the Canon were written by Sherlock Holmes’ biographer, Dr. John H. Watson, and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was merely Watson’s literary agent. These stories, written over four decades and spanning the reign of three monarchs, were often written quickly to supplement Watson’s income as a doctor, and thus they are filled with inaccuracies and are inconsistent.

And yet Sherlockians do their best to reconcile these inconsistencies, searching railway timetables, consulting maps and demographic data to justify a location, a person, a tide or even the weather. Scholars have posited improbable gymnastics so that Watson might have been injured in both the shoulder and the leg at the Battle of Maiwand, rather than accept the fact that the real creator of Holmes and Watson never gave his most famous creations the attention to detail that he lavished on his historical novels.

When I became a Janeite, I thought Austen would be mostly free of this sort of conceit, but at the recent Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting in Minneapolis, I realized the Great Game exists in other fashion. The most obvious example is the search for Pemberley, the home of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Dr. Janine Barchas gave one of the plenary presentations—Naming Names in Pride and Prejudice—where she discussed the Fitzwilliam name and its connotations during Austen’s time, and also Wentworth Woodhouse (in South Yorkshire), the home of the Earls Fitzwilliam. She broadly suggested Wentworth Woodhouse as a model for Pemberley. It seems a natural choice, especially as the name suggests characters from Emma and Persuasion.

There have been many candidates for Pemberley, of course. The website for Chatsworth House doesn’t quite come out and say it is the model for Pemberley, but it makes no bones about it being used for the filming of Death Comes to Pemberley, the BBC adaptation of P.D. James’ novel. My UK Janeite friend Christopher Sandrawich has some sympathy for the nomination of Chatsworth House, based primarily on the topography and the aspects of the land to be had from various projections of the house, although he admits Chatsworth House would be too grand for Darcy’s “ten thousand a year.”

Concerning the nomination of Wentworth Woodhouse, he responded:

  1. It isn’t in Derbyshire; it is in Yorkshire
  2. It is a handsome stone building but
  • It does not stand on rising ground
  • No high wooded hills at the rear
  • No stream in front, not artificially widened
  • No bridge to cross, and
  • Cannot be viewed from the other side of a valley by a carriage reaching a clearing in the woods, which then descends to the bridge
  1. I have no idea if it has a Park 10 miles around, but you certainly cannot in the front of the house walk alongside a stream and talk of fishing
  2. The stables appear to be around the back and are not sited as with Chatsworth so that their owner could appear around the corner of the building to surprise visitors on his lawns.

To him, these are all very damning arguments, but I have to laugh, both because I admire his reasoning and because it all seems rather silly. I think it reasonable that Austen had any number of grand houses in mind when she created Pemberley, from Stoneleigh Abbey to Chawton House to Godmersham Park to Chatsworth House.

Something else that was wonderfully silly was Tim Bullamore’s breakout session, Wickham Wanderer: Was Lydia Bennet’s Lover Mad, Bad or Simply Misunderstood? Bullamore, editor and publisher of Jane Austen’s Regency World, went through verbal gymnastics to cast poor Wickham as simply the plaything of the scheming Georgiana Darcy. And Diane Capitani and Holly Field found a surprising depth in A New View of Mr. Collins or: “You Used HIM Abominably Ill.” They argued that our poor opinion of Mr Collins comes from Lizzie Bennet and question her reliability.

I think we have the freedom to play the game with Austen’s stories in this fashion because of her use of  free indirect discourse. If you’re unaware of the term (which I was before I became a Janeite), it refers to her third-person narrative style that occasionally takes the viewpoint of one of the main characters. I had several conversations with other attendees about the difficulty of really knowing what’s going on in Austen’s novels—whether one can always believe the narrator.

I also attended a talk by Jocelyn Harris, Introducing Elizabeth Bennet, who made a compelling argument, backed by no concrete evidence, that Austen may have modeled her most famous heroine after the actress Dorothea Jordan, mistress of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV). And, of course, she mentioned the exhibition of the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds at the British Institution in 1813, an exhibit that has been recreated online by Janine Barchas, mentioned earlier. It’s a curiously circular world of Austen scholarship, that becomes increasingly self-referential. It’s almost as if one could create a Unified Field Theory of Austen, a gigantic flowchart that always leads back to certain touchstones and the one ring of power (to borrow from Tolkien), on which is inscribed, “It is a truth universally acknowledged …”

Of course the current Austen ring (now you see why I invoked Tolkien) is the one briefly owned but never possessed by pop star Kelly Clarkson. It was mentioned by many at the AGM and I made the unfortunate remark that I didn’t see what the fuss was. I’m afraid I care little for jewelry. To me, Austen lives in her novels and surviving letters, and the propriety of her ring leaving England is problematic for the country that maintains dubious claim to the Elgin Marbles. But to many, the few objects Austen owned provide fixed points in time and space that help understand her relationship to her world and those references to it we find in her novels.

That pre-occupation with Jane’s relationship with her world sometimes makes me despair for poor Jane. I imagine her sitting down to write with a checklist: must place Barton Cottage in Devonshire because of generous poor laws; work in reference to venereal disease (“Kitty a fair but frozen maid?”); have I mentioned the picturesque lately? So many scholarly investigations of the underpinnings of Jane’s novels give an image of an intensely calculating author. Instead, I like to think Jane wrote as I wrote. She walked and thought and returned to her desk to let the ideas flow. I realize, of course, that these scholars don’t really suggest Jane was calculating—they admit she was merely a product of her times—but an over analysis of her life and times has the effect of making her seem overburdened with agenda.

That’s probably why I enjoyed Dr. Joan Ray’s plenary talk, Do Elizabeth and Darcy Really Improve “upon acquaintance?” Dr. Ray, former JASNA president, showed the extent that Darcy’s slight—“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”—rankled Elizabeth throughout the book. We think of Elizabeth as a exemplar of womanhood—independent, proud, intelligent—but Dr. Ray, simply by counting the days from that first informal dance at Lucas Lodge to the Netherfield Ball, shows how long Elizabeth carried a grudge. Get over it. And Dr. Ray also showed how quickly Darcy re-evaluated Elizabeth and how much Elizabeth’s pride prevented her from seeing him anew.

In fact, several presenters mentioned that many first-time readers of Pride and Prejudice, especially those not prejudiced by seeing the many adaptations, find Elizabeth a bitter pill. Her dismissal of Charlotte Lucas’ decision to marry Mr. Collins being a case in point. I enjoyed Dr. Ray’s talk because it dispensed with needing to consider English politics, Austen’s antecedents or the influence of Radcliffe, Scott or Richardson (authors Austen admired). Instead it focused on the very understandable motivations of a young woman who’d been slighted by a handsome man; no need to play the great game at all.

Of course, I’m guilty of playing the game myself where Austen is concerned. I have twisted facts to fit theories—something Holmes warned against. For the purposes of my book, Jane, Actually, I thought it more poignant that the only portrait of Austen be the watercolor/pencil sketch created by Austen’s sisten, Cassandra. Recently, of course, there’s been news about the Rice portrait, painted by Ozias Humphrey, that some maintain depicts a young Jane Austen. Claudia Johnson, a noted Austen scholar, champions this view. The National Portrait Gallery in London has so far refused to weigh in on the controversy; they earlier declined to purchase the Rice portrait.

buttonI remain skeptical, but I admit I remain so because it suits my purpose. This large, beautiful painting of a young girl would make such a lovely representation of Jane, but even if it were universally acclaimed, I still think I would prefer the sour puss image I put on the button I distributed at the AGM.

So after four days of hearing Austen dissected and watching Janeites wearing muslin and secreting their iPhones in their reticules, I’m happy to return home and simply enjoy Austen as a simple entertainment. Probably my nicest memento of the AGM was the parting gift given to us by the Minnesota region: a simple copy of Pride and Prejudice. It’s not my crushing annotated copy or a beautifully illustrated one. It’s small enough to put in my purse or take on a bike ride. It’s pretty guileless; no need to play games at all.

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