In Hitchcock’s movie, Rear Window, Grace Kelly’s Lisa looks over at the woman in the apartment across the way and sympathizes: “I’d say, she’s doing a woman’s hardest job, juggling wolves.” I always took “wolves” to mean two things. First, the wolves are the three men in Miss Torso’s apartment, trying to get up her skirt. Second, the wolves, at least for me, represent sorrows. Lisa acknowledges Miss Torso’s “not in love with any of them.” Miss Torso’s waiting for her boyfriend Stanley to come back from his military service. The suits she’s entertaining represent a certain sadness or loss. They’re not the best guys, nor are they Stanley.
A favourite literary allusion of mine, I think, lays out a 21st-century plan for juggling wolves, that is, for getting rid of unfit partners and for handling your grief.
Now, I’m a sucker for explicit literary allusion, references to books in other works of art. Like that part in Dirty Dancing, when Robby hands Baby a copy of The Fountainhead. You don’t have to know a thing about The Fountainhead to know the script-writers are using it to make Robby look like an ass. “Some people count, and some people don’t.” You’ve got to wonder how many people cringe at The Fountainhead just because of Dirty Dancing. I also read Rasselas because Helen Burns was reading it in Jane Eyre. I picked up Middlemarch because Newland Archer, in The Age of Innocence, receives a copy in his box of books from London. My gateway to Dickens was Little Women. And, my daughter’s gateway to Dickens was Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.
Some allusions are more subtle, like the easter-eggs only experienced gamers know about. When you catch on, your head spins. My all-time favourite allusion of the subtle kind is in Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion . And, the passage Austen “lifts” is from Samuel Johnson’s famous Rambler Essay, #47 . I think Austen borrows from Johnson to teach us how to juggle wolves.
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot can’t help thinking there’s something about her cousin, Mr. Elliot, that rubs her the wrong way. Everyone in Anne’s family wants her to marry him. [Cousins marrying wasn’t particularly that big of a deal in Austen’s day.] Anne doesn’t have any brothers. Marrying her cousin means the family property stays in the family. But, Anne’s got reservations:
Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. [Persuasion, 17]
Mr. Elliot’s not a man of action, so to speak. He hasn’t exhibited any “bursts of feeling” in his own right, at least, not in front of Anne. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of man, either, who’d stand up to wrong-doing or help people in need.
And, Anne has been a person in need. She’s experienced more than her fair share of sorrows. She’s lost her mother. And, partly because she’s had to depend on poor maternal substitutes, she’s lost the love of her life. She let herself be persuaded not to marry Captain Wentworth when he asked her years ago. Now, he’s back in town, [dealing with his own grief by?] revenge-dating younger women.
We learn, however, that Anne has tried and continues to try to regulate her grief when she speaks with Captain Benwick. Disastered by the death of his fiancé, Benwick’s been reading Marmion and Lady of the Lake, poems Anne admires. Anne recommends, on balance, a healthy dose of “endurance” reading:
Feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists … as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances. [Persuasion, 11]
Anne’s got experience dealing with loss. And, she’s trying to pass models of “moral and religious endurance” along to friends in need. Austen doesn’t get into specifics as to which “moralists” Anne thinks Benwick should be reaching for. But, if there’s one essay which fits the bill, it’s Samuel Johnson’s Rambler #47, The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow.
At the most basic level, Johnson’s essay’s a 411 on how to greive properly, how to regulate sorrow so it doesn’t overpower you. His advice is as pertient, now, as it ever was. He cautions people who’ve experienced loss not to start worrying they’ll lose everything else they’ve ever loved:
He that regards none so much as to be afraid of losing them, must live for ever without the gentle pleasures of sympathy and confidence; he must feel no melting fondness, no warmth of benevolence, nor any of those honest joys which nature annexes to the power of pleasing. And as no man can justly claim more tenderness than he pays, he must forfeit his share in that officious and watchful kindness which love only can dictate, and those lenient endearments by which love only can soften life. [Rambler 47]
Thinking you’re bound to lose everything keeps you from expressing and accepting benevolence and warmth. You can neither please others nor let others please you. Later, in the essay, Johnson identifies the action and “employment” of “soldiers and seamen” as the “antidote of sorow,” a theory Austen champions throughout her book.
If you read Austen and Johnson together, you identify a resemblance immediately:
There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. – Austen
He must feel no melting fondness, no warmth of benevolence, nor any of those honest joys which nature annexes to the power of pleasing. – Johnson
Anne, essentially, rejects Mr. Elliot because she’s read Dr. Johnson. She’s attempted to regulate her sorrow, her fear of further loss, both by seeking and by offering sympathy. Resultantly, she’s learned to appreciate the warmth and benevolence of good friends. Only, Austen adds, to Johnson’s appreciation of kindness, Anne’s appreciation of a good, fiery temper, the moral indignation expressed by active, navy men like Captain Wentworth.
Mr. Elliot, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have a moral compass. He’s cold. As we find out, later, he’s doing everything he can to avoid losing his money and his title. And, he doesn’t respond to either the kindness or calumny of others. He’s a bad wolf, incurable, maybe. Anne’s seeming “intuition” or good sense, which, we find, is actually the result of study and hard work, serves her well.
So, my favourite allusion in Austen provides a recipe for juggling wolves. It’s not a bad prescription for any of us, really, to try to live our lives without worrying we’ll lose everything we haven’t lost already and to look for partners who can give with honest joy and who call out injustice where they find it.