Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite.
That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone.
One of these events is scholarship in action, albeit scholarship of a plodding, antiquarian sort – the other is “scholarship” cooked up by editorial to please marketing. The former is useful in the same way that textual criticism is useful; it provides us with a slightly clearer picture of a major literary figure’s work. The latter is ultimately speculation – unless a smoking gun appears (incredibly unlikely given the disposal of the author’s papers) passing as scholarly inquiry – interesting, fun, but simply not of use to our better understanding of the author’s work.
So why get exercised over any of this? Well, as a great American (Ow! tongue stuck in cheek again) once told us, we have to be concerned about known knowns and known unknowns….
The piece of antiquarian scholarship is, as you may have guessed, the discovery of the early Mark Twain newspaper pieces. These stories will likely be of interest only to serious Twain scholars – they will perhaps shed some light on the evolution of Twain’s style and might even allow scholars to note shifts in that style that led him to the humorous narrative form that first received wide acclaim in his breakthrough work, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Like the discovery over the last couple of decades of unpublished poems by Pablo Neruda and Rudyard Kipling, the Twain discovery will not change Twain’s status in any significant way; instead, as good scholarship often does, the discovery will have an incremental effect and bring us a slightly clearer grasp of how Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain. Valuable? Yes. Earthshaking? No.
The Darcy book is another matter.
Most of us are familiar with the periodic efforts to dispute Shakespeare as the author of his magnificent oeuvre of plays and poems. Some may also be aware that during the hey day of what is known as psychoanalytic criticism that scholars attempted to psychoanalyze both long dead authors and fictional characters. The validity of such analyses is arguable at best, laughable at worst. Hamlet’s words are Shakespeare’s (assuming WS wrote the play), not the melancholy Dane’s. Charlotte Brontë never went through psychotherapy. The safest thing we can say is that in Jane Eyre she created a character who certainly has problems with mother figures.
So it is with the latest book attempting to “prove” that Fitzwilliam Darcy is based upon a person that Austen knew named John Parker, first Earl of Morley. Little of Austen’s personal correspondence or other private writing has survived and that which has does not offer any definite clue to the identity of the person(s) who might have served as the model(s) for Darcy. While the scholar cites her study of “letters and diaries” as well as the novel’s text as sources for her conclusion, other scholars have looked at the same evidence and reached different conclusions about the person upon whom Darcy is based. This scholar, historian Dr. Susan Law, offers not textual or historical proof, but argument. However persuasive that argument may be, it’s still argument. What she’s arguing is not provable.
So why do it?
Short answer, money. The reading public never seems to get enough of all things Austen – or Austen related. There’s a built in audience for any work with an Austen connection. That’s any publisher’s marketing dream. Dr. Law may be a fine and serious scholar, but in this case she’s engaging in “marketplace” scholarship. Some will argue that she’s doing the only sensible thing – she’s monetizing her talent.
The scholars at Cal-Berkeley won’t get rich from their historically and literarily valuable discovery. Dr. Law will probably make a nice chunk of change from her speculation and won’t advance Austen scholarship one jot. This raises an obvious question, of course: is money really more important than knowledge?
Look around at the culture you live in and you can answer that question for yourself.