Friday, November 1, 2019

Räbeliechtli, Jane Austen Style

Oy. I haven't posted since June? Life is speeding along at such a pace, I can't process it. The little man in my life is pretty all-consuming. I can't believe it's already November! Obviously, I didn't manage my annual Twisted Austen story. I'm truly sorry about that, as I greatly enjoy the event. Look for a revival next year. NaNoWriMo begins today. I'm going to try to finish the project commenced last year: a rewrite of my Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice series. Currently, I'm posting the original version at A Happy Assembly, if anyone wants to read along. 

Here is my latest post from Austen Authors, in tribute to old traditions new to me, but in the process of becoming my own. Enjoy!

Räbeliechtli, Jane Austen Style

While the last hurrahs of Halloween echo through the weekend, my family and I will be participating in a much older autumnal tradition, one more akin to the harvest festivals of millennia ago than the community-wide, candy-fueled masquerade we indulge in today. Tomorrow evening, all the school children will gather at the top of the town (like so much of Switzerland, we're built on a hill). The lights will turn off, and the windows will fill with the Swiss-German equivalent of jack-o-lanterns: Räbeliechtli (ra-ba-leekt-li). In English, this roughly translates little turnip light. The school children have built parade floats covered in the things, and each has also carved one to carry, suspended from a string or mounted on a stick, like a torch. They parade through the town (Räbeliechtliumzug), more children and adults joining in along the way, until we all descend en masse upon the main town square, where there is an award for the best float and free sausages for all the kids. It's really hard to explain the experience, but take my word for it, it is absolutely magical, perhaps particularly because no one ever catches on fire or burns down the town. The atmosphere is perfectly fairytale. The videos embedded in this post, though they are not from my town's celebration, were chosen because they begin to capture the experience (for images from the biggest Räbeliechtliumzug in Switzerland, check out these from Richterswil's Räbeliechtlichilbi). Enjoy them! Hopefully, the clips work in all countries.

Does this have anything to do with Miss Austen? Admittedly, I'm reaching more than a bit, but I look to the good people at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath for precedence. A few years ago, they published a fun article with instruction for carving your own "Jane-o-lantern," including some history of Halloween. After providing the common origin story of the holiday, derived from the Celtic harvest festival Samhain, the author explains how these traditions were celebrated in Austen's time:
During the night of spooks and ghosts, homes would be lit by rustic lanterns carved from turnips (known early on as neeps) beets and rutabagas. Pumpkins would be used later, as they were brought to Europe from the New World in the 17th century. These flickering lights were set out in hopes of welcoming home friendly souls and chasing away the evil spirits who wandered that night.
Jane Austen would have been aware of these celebrations and divination rites; however, as the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, it is doubtful that she would have partaken in such goings on.... She mentions neither these holidays or her feelings towards them.

There, at least, is the turnip connection. Often the last vegetable of the harvest, turnip lanterns were a natural choice for carving but more labor intensive than pumpkins (trust me on this: they are much less forgiving, you need a lot more of them, and they rot faster). The internet is alive with images of creepy turnips, carved by people harkening back to the past, often in the style of jack-o-lanterns. This is not what the Swiss do. They carve beautiful turnips, often decorated with Christmas images. The Christmas season has already begun here, though it needs a few more weeks to get into full gear (Samichlaus, the Swiss equivalent to Santa, has his big day December 6th, while the Christkind visits on the 24th).

This year I carved my own Räbeliechtli, instead of just helping my kids with theirs (and yeah, even the 22 month old has one), inspired by the Jane-o-lantern concept. Not sure what to call it (Janeliechtli doesn't really work), but of the thousands of turnips decorated in my town this week, I feel pretty confidant that I'm the only one who opted for an Austen motif. I'm quite pleased with the result, though it would have been way easier with a pumpkin. If you've never carved a giant turnip before, the inside is solid and takes a bit of work to hollow. The smell is somewhat similar to horseradish, though not as intense. I imagine that if I had been doing this all my life, it would reek of childhood nostalgia. As it is, I need a pumpkin to conjure such sensations. There's something about the texture of the pulpy seeds slipping between my fingers and that sweet, fresh scent. It's hard for a humble turnip to compete. Happy harvest everybody, however you celebrate it!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Mirrors of the Mind, Part Two

Reposted from Austen Authors

Imagine, if you can, that you have never read Pride & Prejudice, never saw a film version, and never heard of Mr. Darcy. It's an exercise in which I constantly engage, and still it is incredibly difficult. I first read the book almost 30 years ago, when I was twelve or thirteen, and am so familiar with the story that any memory of my first impressions of it are largely buried beneath the weight of countless rereads and endless analysis, but I do remember being completely floored when Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth. I saw he had some interest in her, but did not think (especially not only halfway through the novel) that he would find her an acceptable wife. Having embraced all of Elizabeth's prejudices, my astonishment was, like hers, "beyond expression."

As argued in my last post, Austen utilizes accepted contemporary notions of physiognomy, the "art" of determining a person's internal attributes by assessing their exterior, to manipulate the expectations of her readers while simultaneously providing a potent critique of of the pseudoscience. Appearances are deceptive. Character should be determined by actions, never a person's words, smiles, and polished manners alone. This is the dominant theme of Pride and Prejudice, which Austen originally titled First Impressions. Do not trust them, the authoress urges us, and she proves her point by playing upon physiognomical assumptions.
"Poor Wickham; there is such an expression of goodness in his countenance! such an openness and gentleness in his manner."  
"There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it."

Let's juxtapose Darcy and Wickham. Superficially, they are equally endowed. Both are handsome, were reared in the same environment, and received the same education. It is their deportment (and financial circumstances) they they distinguish themselves from the other. Wickham is relaxed and comfortable, while Darcy is rigid and off-putting. Physiognomy judges not merely a person's physical attributes, but also how their eyes move, the rapidity of their movements, the modulation of their voice, their intensity of expression: all were considered representative of the internal state. A person's social discomfort could be interpreted as a reflection of some moral or mental failing, while easy manners might be presumed the result of a person's honesty.

This dichotomy between the two men is established when each is introduced. First their appearances are discussed, both favorably, but it is their manners that determine how they are perceived by their new acquaintances. Here is where we first meet Darcy:
[Mr. Bingley's] brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

When the people of Meryton hear disparaging information about Darcy, it is because he has already behaved disagreeably that they are so quick to believe it, particularly because their source seems so trustworthy.
[Wickham's] appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty -- a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation -- a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming ...
Repeatedly, Mr. Wickham is described as not merely charming, but as a man whose appearance professes his integrity. He looks like a good man. After reading Mr. Darcy's letter, Elizabeth reflects, "His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue." While care in judging character based on appearance alone is a theme in all of Austen's novels, this is probably her most transparent and decisive disproval of physiognomy. Had she not led us into the trap of using the conventions of physiognomy to judge character in the first place, she could not have so thoroughly proven her point.

To return to this notion of imaging you know nothing of the plot of Pride and Prejudice, try to rediscover the shock of Mr. Darcy's letter. As unexpected as his proposal was, it is Wickham's trespasses that are the true bombshell. We can far more easily believe good of Mr. Darcy (after all, he is equally handsome, and has given us no additional reason to feel offended since his opening salvo), but that Wickham should be so morally deficient is almost incredible. Elizabeth's struggle to accept the truth mirrors our own, and we are all forced to reconcile with the folly of our assumptions.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the less dramatic, though equally poignant, example of being led astray by physiognomy that occurs in Mr. Darcy's letter. He writes of the ball at Netherfield:
Your sister I also watched. -- Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. ... the serenity of your sister's countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched.

Oh, the vanity (or should I say pride?) of believing one can know another's heart and mind through mere observation! Mr. Darcy does great harm to both Jane and Bingley in his cold assessment of their emotional states. He was very wrong to assume he could know Jane's feelings based on an evening's worth of sporadic observation. To understand a person's character, a variety of information is required. Austen does not suggest ignoring appearances, but rather urges us to also consider a litany of other variables: reputation, financial conduct, consistency of opinion, and, above all, whether a person's words and actions correspond. Had Elizabeth attended to Wickham's inconsistent statements regarding his respect for the Darcy name, rather than indulging in the flattery of his attention, she might have been on her guard against him from their very first evening in company together.

I should like to think that I will return to this subject for one more post, but summer vacation (finally!) begins for my daughter the same day as I'm next scheduled, and the prospects seem slight that I will find the time to properly devote to it between now and then. I'm more likely to provide something lighthearted and easy, as my brain will be shot for anything else, but perhaps part three will manifest itself later this summer or in the fall. Please let me know if you're interested in more of this analysis. It would be a great motivator. Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Mirrors of the Mind, Part One

Reposted from Austen Authors.

His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue. She tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the attacks of Mr. Darcy; or at least, by the predominance of virtue, atone for those casual errors, under which she would endeavour to class what Mr. Darcy had described as the idleness and vice of many years continuance. But no such recollection befriended her. She could see him instantly before her, in every charm of air and address; but she could remember no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the mess. - Pride and Prejudice
Though they may not be aware of it, readers of 19th century literature are inevitably familiar with the theory of physiognomy: the notion that a person's character can be assessed through their external appearance. Authors of the period almost invariably utilize the practice to delineate their characters, and Jane Austen is no exception, even as her physical descriptions of characters are notoriously brief. I'm particularly cognizant when physiognomical depictions creep into my reading, in no small part due to my research into psychiatric practices of the time (please refer to my novel, The Madness of Mr. Darcy), which relied heavily on appearance to diagnose disorder. I could name countless instances in Austen novels that rely on the theory. What more need we know about John Thorpe or Sir Walter Elliot than what we learn immediately upon introduction? However, I also believe that if there is one message that remains constant throughout all of her works, it is that appearance can be deceiving and actions speak louder than words. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?

First, I think we need to keep in mind how very wide spread the theory of physiognomy was in the late 18th century, when Austen wrote her earliest novels. The idea dates back to Classical Greece and has ebbed and surged it's way through Western philosophy ever since. It's revival in the 18th century is largely due to the writings of Johann Kasper Lavater, a Swiss pastor and poet affiliated with the early Romantics, whose writings on physiognomy in the 1770's were published in German, French, and English. His theories became so mainstream as to become part of everyday parlance, so that even a critic of physiognomy would very likely still utilize its conventions.

I believe that this is exactly what Austen does, providing physiognomical depictions of certain characters and then actively undermining them. The most obvious examples of this are Willoughby and Wickham. Both are charming men with the appearance of goodness, whose subsequent actions reveal how very despicable they really are. This is a tool Austen utilizes in every one of her books. Look at characters like Mary Crawford, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Elliot: all are possessed of an external appearance that hides the corruption of their interiors. There are certainly also abundant examples of Austen characters whose exteriors perfectly mirror their souls, but Austen teaches us not to trust first impressions. We must wait until a person's behavior reveals the truth behind their intentions.

Jane Austen's Lady Susan Love and FriendshipThe topic is much in my thoughts having just finished rereading Lady Susan (by the way, if you haven't read it before or are planning to again, our read-along of the novel a few years ago is an excellent accompaniment. Find it at The Writer's Block forum). Written in the mid-1790s when Austen was not yet twenty, this short epistolary novel relies on a subversion of physiognomy to drive its plot. We don't have a description of the title character until six letters into the story, but her true character has already been laid bare. She is a conniving, unfeeling, and immoral woman, bent on indulging herself at the expense of others, including her only child, Frederica. Though she has never met her sister-in-law, with whom Lady Susan comes to stay, Mrs. Vernon and her relations know enough of their guest to think the very worst of her. Mrs. Vernon's brother, Mr. De Courcy, writes of Lady Susan in the most scathing terms and yet yearns to see her, much like some oddity on display in a circus side show. Despite his firm prejudice against her, he totally succumbs to her charm. Mrs. Vernon is not as easily deceived. When she finally meets Lady Susan, we finally receive the following description of her:
Well, my dear Reginald, I have seen this dangerous creature, and must give you some description of her, though I hope you will soon be able to form your own judgment. She is really excessively pretty; however you may choose to question the allurements of a lady no longer young, I must, for my own part, declare that I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan. She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older. I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace. Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend. One is apt, I believe, to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will naturally attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. I am sorry it is so, for what is this but deceit? Unfortunately, one knows her too well. She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white. She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.
Lady Susan's appearance is entirely deceptive, and Mrs. Vernon is only safe from her guest's enchantment because she has prior knowledge that guards against its influence. She provides the story with its conscience, coming the closest to the narrative voice we are accustomed to in an Austen novel, and anticipating the discernment of heroines like Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price, who perceive the faults behind a charming exterior even while those closest to them are blinded by it. Sense and Sensibility is an excellent example of Austen's ability to subvert our expectations using physiognomy, as not only are the charming revealed to be sinister (Willoughby), but also the vulgar prove themselves steadfast friends (Mrs. Jennings). Austen further explores this paradigm in Pride and Prejudice, tweaking it with romance, and producing the perfection that is Mr. Darcy. As this is where my analysis gets increasingly complex, I shall abandon it for today and resume the discussion later. I must say how great it feels to be working an essay, even if in fits and starts. My children leave me little time for such pursuits these days. Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 25, 2019

This is a repost from Austen Authors:

How clearly I recall writing this blog post in March of 2011. I was six months pregnant with my daughter and spent the bulk of the morning at a lab getting my second glucose test for gestational diabetes. I whiled away the hungry hours devouring the new evidence that Jane Odiwe, author, artist, and friend, had brought to my attention concerning the authenticity of the Rice portrait. For decades, experts have debated whether the portrait is or is not of Jane Austen, the crux of the naysayers' argument relying on both the date of the portrait and a lack of proof of provenance. Would Jane Austen have been young enough to be the sitter, and why, if it is Austen, is there no mention of the portrait by her descendants for almost 100 years after it was painted? Some of the biggest names in Austen scholarship stand on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, but I have always wanted so very much to believe it is a portrait of Jane. My complete bias now on the table, you can imagine my excitement (possibly aided by glucose overload - turns out I did have GD) that early spring morning in 2011, as I delightedly detailed the history of the controversy and presented the new evidence that the painter was Ozias Humphry and not Johan Zoffany, as previously believed. I was too busy with new parenthood to properly follow up a few years later when new, high image photographs revealed a date on the canvas of seventeen eighty something (Claudia Johnson had already said it was proof of authenticity in this article, so what more could I really add, anyway?). Happy to live in a world where I knew just what my favorite author looked like, I proceeded through the next several years content the matter was closed, even as the National Portrait Gallery continued to stubbornly refuse to authenticate the portrait. So it was with chagrin and abject disappointment that I read on another March morning in 2017 the Financial Times article that discredited the portrait. My emotions were something like Elizabeth Bennet's in reaction to Mr. Darcy's letter: at first I refused to believe it, but gradually the truth took hold. There was stamp on the back of the Rice portrait that proved the canvass had to be made after 1800. I rushed over, where the Rice family keeps the world informed about their quest to authenticate the portrait, and saw their inability to reply to this blow with dismay. It was like a dear friend had died.

Since that day, I have come to accept that I love the portrait regardless of the sitter's identity. It can still represent my idealized image of who Austen was, even if it isn't actually her. Then yesterday I read this headline from The Guardian: Jane Austen? Family says note establishes disputed portrait's identity. By the time I reached the end of the article, hope had blossomed anew.

Even without any relevance to the Rice portrait controversy, the discovery of a previously unknown note by Fanny Caroline Lefroy, Austen's great-niece, would create buzz in the Janeite community, but the fact that this note explicitly establishes the provenance of the Rice Portrait makes it a bombshell. The handwriting matches Lefroy's, of which there are many existent examples. It was somehow, seemingly miraculously, suddenly found in Austen's writing desk.

Now, some of this feels just a bit too convenient. However was the note overlooked for so long? I'd like to see testing done on the paper to establish its age. There is a lot of information missing, but nevertheless, the claim is absolutely tantalizing. It certainly calls into question the dating of the stamp. Another explanation will need to be provided for its existence, but if it can be rationally accounted for, pressure for the National Gallery to finally recognize the portrait (and hopefully acquire it, saving it from its current fate in a storage locker) will certainly increase. What that would do to the value of the beloved but inadequate portrait by Cassandra Austen, currently the only verified portrait of her face, is an interesting question, as well as how that consideration might influence the NPG's position.

Also worth noting is that the authentication of the Rice portrait may have implications for another, unverified portrait, the knowledge of which is confined to a photograph in a Christie's catalog from an estate sale at Godmersham Park in 1983, its current whereabouts being unknown. You can read more about it in that original blog post from 2011, but the long and short of it is is that this could be a portrait of the Austen family. If so, Jane is the very young girl, positioned third from the left. Bears something of a resemblance to the girl in the Rice portrait, doesn't she?

You can see a much better image of the restored Rice portrait at the family's website: It's gorgeous!