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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The News that Really Made Jane Austen Sicker

The following is a sequence of two messages that I sent this afternoon to the Janeites and Austen groups, responding to one comment made by Diane Reynolds, who has ably been leading a group discussion there on the subject of James Edward Austen Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen. My second message is a correction of part of my first message, and I have copied them both here, because I think the sequence is interesting.

Diane actually began as follows, in relevant part:

“In Chapter 11 of The Memoir, James Edward Austen-Leigh describes the decline and death of JA….. The chapter opens with ‘Early in the year 1816 some family troubles disturbed the usually tranquil course of Jane Austen’s life; and it is probable that the inward malady, which was to prove ultimately fatal, was already felt by her ..’ We don't learn what those "family troubles" are, though I have a dim recollection of her brother's bank failure, and there is no explanation for what appears an implicit linking of these outer troubles with JA's "inward malady.' "

That sets the stage for my two responses, as follows:


Diane, you have zeroed in on a very interesting question here. In my considered opinion, the passage you questioned may be the single most disingenuous, self-serving and even despicable passage written by JEAL in the entire Memoir, and I will try to explain why I feel so strongly about this.

Indeed, it does appear from the passage you point to that JEAL is subtly laying some blame for JA's ill health at the door of Henry's bankruptcy, which, as far as we know, was THE major bad news in the Austen family in the first months of 1816 (it occurred in March 1816). Superficially, it seems like a very plausible suggestion on JEAL's part, and if we didn't have any other background, we would have no reason to look behind his comments. However, I believe this innuendo about Henry does not stand up to closer scrutiny, and actually smacks of something out of Iago's playbook--the "inadvertent" slander.

So let's look at the other evidence. As I read the letters from late 1815 and the first half of 1816, what I see is that they are all overflowing with JA's elation over her completion of Emma, and its publication. Unless I have overlooked something, there is not a word in any of them about JA herself feeling ill, let alone about her feeling ill because of Henry's troubles. JA is on a massive high, she has reached the heights, people are beginning to know who she is and she is horsing around with new friends like the Countess Morley.

That of course does not negate the possibility that the stress from Henry's travails did make JA sicker--and if it had happened, JA was highly unlikely to complain about such a thing to her nieces and nephews (who were her sole familial correspondents during that time). But the high she was on from the giddiness of the encounters with Haden the apothecary, the whole charade she carried on with Stanier Clarke, etc etc, is not pretended, this is real, and I believe it muted the negative effects of whatever illness she was suffering then, and overpowered even the distress of Henry's bankruptcy.
But far more important in this analysis is what we DO know about extrinsic events having an adverse effect on JA's health during the last years of her life. JEAL makes sure to include this innuendo pointing the finger at Henry for making JA sicker, but JEAL utterly ignores the one AND ONLY extrinsic event that occurred during the last two years of JA's life which she herself EXPLICITLY referred to as having a drastically bad effect on her health! To wit: check out the following passage from Letter 157, Sunday April 6, 1817 {when was Easter Sunday that year?], to Charles Austen (who was then staying in London):

"A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle's Will brought on a relapse, & I was so ill on friday & thought myself so likely to be worse that i could not but press for Cassandra's returning with Frank after the Funeral last night...I am the only one of the Legatees who has been so silly, but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves. My mother has borne the forgetfulness of HER extremely well....."

Is it just a coincidence that we have this passage in a letter written by JA in April 1817, which harps on that exact theme of extrinsic stress exacerbating JA's illness? The next question is, did JEAL have any idea about what a shock JA suffered when she, her sister and her mother heard that Uncle Leigh Perrot had [quoting Le Faye] "left everything to his wife for her lifetime, with the reversion of a large sum to James Austen and his heirs, and of L1,000 each to those of Mrs. Austen's younger children who should survive Mrs. LP." ? You might wonder, perhaps he did not know of the existence of Letter 157, and did not know about that.

Well, that doesn't stand up, because something else JEAL wrote in the Memoir shows that he was aware of the family dynamics which made that testamentary omission of JA, CEA and Mrs. Austen so shocking and upsetting. Look at this other bit of memoiristic doubletalk on this very subject:

"I do not know how early the alarming symptoms of her malady came on. It was in the following March [i.e., 1817] that I had the first idea of her being seriously ill. It had been settled that about the end of that month, or the beginning of April, I should spend a few days at Chawton, in the absence of my father and mother, who were just then engaged with Mrs Leigh Perrot in arranging her late husband's affairs; but Aunt Jane became too ill to have me in the house, and so I went instead to my sister Mrs Lefroy at Wyards'."

So JEAL zeroes in on precisely that moment when JA wrote that letter to Charles, but taking subtle pains to make it sound like he has given the reader the lowdown on the Leigh Perrot inheritance, while remaining utterly silent about the reason WHY JA becoming too ill for him to visit the house!

But why would JEAL go to such lengths to create the false appearance of Henry's bankruptcy having been a contributing factor to JA's decline, instead of the shock of the disinheritance by Uncle Leigh Perrot? That one is easy, and it's the same answer I gave a few weeks ago for why JEAL never mentions Aunt Leigh Perrot's famous trial for shoplifting. To wit, when Mrs. Leigh Perrot died in 1836, JEAL became the squire of the Leigh Perrot estate, Scarlets. So, if JEAL was aware of how devastating an effect that disinheritance had upon JA's health, he had every self-serving reason NOT to mention it! Ultimately, he was the primary beneficiary of that disinheritance of the Austen women!!!

What I find not merely self serving, but despicable, is that JEAL protests too much. He could have just left the subject of extrinsic events triggering health declines for JA silent, but he has a further agenda. He knows about JA having been devastated by the disinheritance, and so he wants to put the kibosh on that meme. And his method was to go to the trouble of implying very strongly that it must have been some event OTHER than the disinheritance which so adversely affected JA's health, and then mentioning the Leigh Perrot inheritance and NOT connecting it to JA's health.

It's all too pat, it sounds like "spin" that is specifically designed to address the question of JA's health as impacted by family news, but then point to a superficially plausible cause that preserves the reputation of the Leigh Perrots, JEAL's benefactors.


As I was preparing to post that same message on my blog, I went back to the text of Chapter XI of the Memoir to quote the actual passage originally quoted by Diane, and only then realized that the case for JEAL's disingenuousness, self-interest and despicacity (I know it's not a word, but it sounds good!) is much stronger than I had realized. In light of what I will show you, below, the evidence of JEAL's intentional duplicity is overwhelming and 100% conclusive.

Specifically, I had not reread the ENTIRE opening paragraph of Chapter XI, which reads as follows [I put certain excerpts in all caps for emphasis]:

"Early in the year 1816 some family troubles disturbed the usually tranquil course of Jane Austen's life; and it is probable that the inward malady, which was to prove ultimately fatal, was already felt by her; for some distant friends whom she visited in the spring of that year, thought that her health was somewhat impaired, and observed that she went about her old haunts, and recalled old recollections connected with them in a particular manner, as if she did not expect ever to see them again. It is not surprising that, UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, some of her letters were of A GRAVER TONE than had been customary with her, and expressed resignation rather than cheerfulness. In reference to these troubles IN A LETTER TO HER BROTHER CHARLES, after mentioning that she had been laid up with an attack of bilious fever, she says: 'I live upstairs for the present and am coddled. I am the only one of the PARTY who has been so silly, but a weak body must excuse weak nerves.' "

JEAL's audacious lying is positively breathtaking! It is now clear that JEAL DID read Letter 157 (that JA wrote to brother Charles), and it is especially clear because JEAL quotes from it! And not just quotes from it, but quotes from the most important line in that letter! Or should I say, MISquotes from that line in Letter 157. The smoking gun of JEAL's culpability is the word "party" in that last sentence. In the original letter, that word was "legatees", and of course it is apparent why JEAL made this change. He correctly judged that by changing that single word, and also using the phrase "under these circumstances" in his own sentence introducing that quotation, he could completely alter the context of that sentence. JA's bilious attack is presented as the ultimate effect of Henry Austen's bankruptcy (with the intervening passage of 13 months cleverly obscured). And, what's more, the exhilaration of JA's Spring 1816 letters is actively denied by referring to letters of "a graver tone". Really, this is the kind of lying you expect in modern political campaigns!

So it turns out that what could at least theoretically have been a coincidence is not a coincidence at all, it was a completely intentional deception, where JEAL's agenda of whitewashing the devastating effect of the Leigh Perrot disinheritance was accomplished by smearing the memory of Henry Austen.

And it now is also clear that my analogy of JEAL to Iago turns out to be incredibly apt, because Iago's technique was exactly the same, not merely misleading, but turning truth COMPLETELY upside down, by deploying the damning evidence against Leigh Perrot as evidence against Henry Austen, and leaving it to the reader (i.e., Othello) to connect the dots. JEAL may as well have purloined one of Henry Austen's handkerchiefs and dropped it in JA's sickroom!

What incredible chutzpah---you almost, as with Iago, have to admire the technique, even as you deplore the horrible immorality!

And don't forget what is perhaps the sharpest irony of all. JEAL was a CLERGYMAN, and, compared to this sort of wicked deception perpetrated on the world by a clergyman, Mr. Collins and James Stanier Clarke seem like holy saints. JEAL claimed that JA never represented real people in her novels, but he neglected to point out that HE did not always represent real people in his Memoir!



Jennythenipper said...

Wow, this is pretty damning evidence against JEAL. Miss Austen Regrets also laid some of the blame of Jane's illness on Henry's door. If there is a portrait of a man like this in Austen it John Dashwood, who I've always found to be the lowest of the low.

Arnie Perlstein said...

I had completely forgotten about Miss Austen Regrets, but of course you are spot on re Henry being partly blamed for JA's illness--now we know where that meme originated!

And yes, I was just thinking yesterday that JEAL grew up to be John Dashwood--what a horrible thought, but also spot-on! A slick, self-congratulatory smarmy phony shmuck.

It tells you how prevalent that sort of men behaving very badly occurred in JA's time, that she could fictionalize the experience of the three Austen women after the death of Revd. Austen in the person of Fanny and John D. rationalizing a minuscule inheritance for the three Dashwood women, and then have it played out AGAIN in her own life from the same side of the family. Like a horrible Groundhog Day that keeps happening over and over.