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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The News that Really Made Jane Austen Sicker: WHY JEAL DID IT

[The conversation continues in Janeites and Austen L]

Nancy: "....makes me more dubious than before that JEAL wrote as he did with a conscious agenda in mind. It seems as though his writing was influenced more by Victorian ideas of propriety and of the past then from any desire to hide or lie."

Nancy, we're not talking about shadow stories here. This stuff is entirely in the bright lights, there is no subtext, it's all text. And as this post will elaborate, I think that JEAL had many very significant reasons for trying to suppress the true meaning of that line from Letter 157. It turns out to be nothing less than the tape on the door at the Watergate Hotel, it's a wormhole through Sir Walter Elliot's looking glass and goes to the heart of JA's real and literary life.

First, I repeat what I have said, i.e., I can see absolutely no other plausible interpretation of JEAL's editorial liberties than a conscious intention to deflect blame for the exacerbation of JA's illness from its true cause, the Leigh Perrot disinheritance, to a phantom alternative cause, the Henry Austen bankruptcy.

The change of "legatees" to "party" alone would suffice to prove he intended to do that, but when it is combined with the deliberate conflation of the bankruptcy with the 1817 letters where JA writes about her illness, which conflation just happens to dovetail with that change of word, it is QUADRUPALLY proved. It is not possible to imagine that he just accidentally did both of these major and interlocking alterations, unless of course you do believe that Seth Grahame Smith was right and there really WERE zombies in 19th century England, and JEAL was one of them!

Edith: "Arnie, you're too harsh on JEAL. Remember that he grew up in the family that had probably long since rationalized its unequal share of the Leigh-Perrot estate. James was like a son to Mrs. P, the sailor brothers were away, Henry evidently didn't rally round as James did...and he was evidently Mr. P's godson, a clever move, and that counted for a lot in those days. JEAL would have absorbed his family's take on the whole thing -- tho I admit, changing "legatees" for "party" is pretty much a smoking gun. No chance, I suppose, that Charles changed it while forwarding a copy of the letter to JEAL...?"

Edith, first I thank you for acknowledging the smoking gun of the word change, and I also compliment the ingenuity of your suggestion about Charles as the creative editor---but the original letter is in the British Museum, and I think somebody would have noticed if there had been an erasure and substitution of such a key word in that sentence!

But I think you're also raising a moot point. You seem to be suggesting that JEAL "inherited" from his parents the point of view that he deserved to inherit the Leigh Perrot fortune. Even if it were so that his parents indoctrinated him thusly, it only adds to my argument that JEAL felt entitled and justified, once he recognized that Charles's letter put a damper on the celebration of his own good fortune, to sanitize the facts! Even Iago had his own reasons!

But back to Nancy's comment about JEAL's Victorian propriety as JEAL's motivation. Does it hold water? Well, yes, there are many other instances in the Memoir where he seems to be concealing certain material, but where he himself would not seem to have a personal stake. In those instances, I would acknowledge that it WOULD be plausible for you to point to "Victorian ideas of propriety" to account for his bowdlerizing, rather than some malevolent personal motivations. this instance of the Leigh Perrot disinheritance, where JEAL himself became the principal legatee, it is SUCH an obvious and dramatic conflict of interest, that it is, as JA would have joked, 'beyond every thing". I could not imagine a MORE suspicious and incriminating circumstance! Victorian propriety as a motivating factor pales in comparison to this very personal motivation. And it also fits perfectly with the omission that both Harding and Sutherland both have pointed to at length in their respective Introductions, i.e., the shoplifting case of Mrs. Leigh Perrot.

And so I can see no plausible explanation for JEAL's motivation in undertaking this creative editing other than that he wished to utterly negate JA's explicit statement that the disinheritance made her much sicker. Since he could not negate her statement as she wrote it, since he clearly lacked the power to destroy the letter or prevent its eventual publication, he boldly decided to take the bull by the horns and purport to publish the relevant portion of that letter, but to edit it to say something COMPLETELY different than what JA actually wrote. We're talking major cojones and chutzpah here.

Nancy, your position, as you stated it, is actually contradictory on its face---if JEAL had no desire to hide or lie, then where exactly did Victorian ideas of propriety come into play, if not to hide or lie about a piece of information he considered improper to be described in the Memoir?


But now perhaps for the most important aspect of this subject, which so far I have only addressed in passing. I.e., let's step back a few paces and ask, even if JEAL did these things intentionally and for these reasons, does it really matter? Should we care today? And my answer is, "YES!" Think about it---could there be any subject more important when examining the memoir of a genius author beloved of millions of people around the world today, than to consider events which contributed more than trivially to that author's very premature death? At the very top of the list of regrets that JA's readers would list regarding her, is that she died so young, at the peak of her powers, when she might, given the pace at which she seemed to write, have given the world a half dozen or more masterpieces. It's a sentiment that has been voiced a thousand times in print, and felt by any Janeite who knows her biography at all.

But, curiously, I'd be willing to bet that the only biography written about her which does NOT express that regret at her early death as depriving the world of many masterpieces is....JEAL's Memoir, which I have just looked through, and could not find a single expression of that kind. Very curious, and if I am correct, very revealing.

Regardless, I think JEAL was no fool, and he recognized just how high the stakes were on this troubling point raised by that single sentence in Letter 157. Here he was writing this memoir of his aunt, which was in effect her "coming out" party on the larger stage of English literature, and suddenly he has to put out that fire before it consumes his entire project.


Perhaps it happened at a late stage in the process of putting this Memoir together, when he first became aware of the existence of Letter 157, and its damning contents. Perhaps Charles Austen's daughter, Cassandra Esten, who was 9 years old when her father received that letter from his dying sister, but was now 62 in 1870, had never forgotten hearing her father complain bitterly to her mother. Because surely the disinheritance was a heavy blow to Charles himself, and not just to his mother and sisters. Le Faye's footnotes to Letter 157 reveal that "During Mar. 1817 CJA's daughter Harriet-Jane continued to be seriously ill, and in addition his mother- and sister-in-law Mrs. and Miss Harriet Palmer both fell ill; his diary entries reveal his worries in this situation." That disinheritance was potentially a matter of life and death not only for JA but also for the women in Charles's life---Medical care was very expensive in those days! And so that letter (which is the ONLY letter from JA to Charles, among the hundreds that JA must have written, that survives today--suggesting it was of special significance to Charles) perhaps was a symbol to Charles of a family where, as JA famously wrote in another letter, there was a conspiracy by one part of the family to impoverish another part of it. Where the lucky few prospered, while the unlucky men languished in genteel poverty.

And I also just noticed the following very curious factoid in Le Faye's biographical note about Charles's children: "Cassandra-Esten assisted her father in executing CEA's Will in 1845....She was also able TO ASSIST JEAL IN THE COMPOSITION OF HIS MEMOIR." (!!!)

The plot thickens! I wonder first what Le Faye's sources were for that last statement---is it possible that Cassandra Esten approached JEAL when she learned he was working on the Memoir, and brought Letter 157 to his attention, knowing full well what his reaction would be? Is it possible that her "assistance" in the composition of the Memoir came at a steep pecuniary price, albeit one that JEAL could very well afford? I.e., did JEAL pay off Cassandra Esten not only to allow him to publish that letter, but also for her to look the other way when he changed "legatees" to "party", and reconstructed the context of that letter to point the finger at Henry Austen, who was by then long deceased, leaving no children of his own to defend his memory? and to keep her lips sealed for the rest of her life about this change that she was well aware of. There must be SOME reason why Cassandra Esten apparently never raised an objection to that change of words in the 27 years she survived the first publication of the Memoir, and why Letter 157 did not get sold and published until after her death. Speculation, yes, but reasonable, plausible speculation, based on solid premises.


But let's get back to JEAL and his motivations. As he's writing this Memoir, it's about 30+ years after he inherited the fortune of Uncle Leigh Perrot. That inheritance in 1837 not only provided him with a life of gentlemanly ease from that point forward. If you think about it, the expectancy of that inheritance long before Mrs. Leigh Perrot died was surely a powerful tool that JEAL did not hesitate to deploy in inducing Emma Smith, an heiress from the Chute family, to marry him in 1828. So he had the luxury to then sire 10 (count 'em, 10) children in 14 years and to have the serious money at hand right from Day One to raise them in grand style.

And that raises yet another question, on the subject of JEAL's character and morality. As far as I am aware, and please somebody correct me if I am wrong, but JEAL apparently never felt it necessary to share much of his unearned prosperity with his elder widowed half sister Anna. Here's what Le Faye tells us in her bio note about Anna, who was widowed at 36 in 1829 (one year after JEAL married his rich heiress Emma), with seven children to raise, ages 2 to 14: "Following [her husband Ben Lefroy's] early death in 1829, Anna and her children lived in various rented houses in Westham, Oakley, Basingstoke, Winchester, Monk Sherborne, and Reading; she died in Reading 1 September 1872..."

Sounds to me like JEAL was a chip off James Perrot's block, carrying on the proud tradition of a complete lack of generosity toward impecunious female relatives. Even as, in their old age, he solicits Anna's assistance in compiling the Memoir.

So it makes even more sense that JEAL would go to extreme lengths to preserve James Leigh Perrot's reputation, as he himself had by 1870 long since became a kind of replica of his great uncle, repeating and extending his sins of omission unto the fourth generation......

In light of ALL of the above, the very last thing on earth that JEAL wants is to have to explain how his own personal circumstances might fairly be considered relevant to the accuracy and faithfulness of his account of his famous aunt's life and work. And in particular he does not want anyone to ever go through the chain of analysis that I have done in this series of posts, to question how credible his facts and interpretations are. He does not want to deal with the extreme embarrassment of having to explain that he has been living on wealth, the denial of which to JA, her impecunious siblings, and her mother apparently and tragically played a contributing role, we can never know how large, in precipitating JA's early demise.

No wonder he even goes out of his way repeatedly in the Memoir NOT to refer to his own familial ties to JA and the other Austen family members, even when the context begs that he reveal his personal, subjective interest in the matters he describes as if he were an objective disinterested biographer. Of course, he wants to put his readers's critical faculties to sleep at every point.

And it's no accident, and very revealing, that nowhere (unless I have overlooked it) in the Memoir OTHER THAN the veiled allusion to Henry's bankruptcy, does JEAL ever address the issue of wealth and poverty, either in regard to JA's own life, or in regard to any of the novels. Of course the JEAL who was so intent on putting the kibosh on any suggestion that James Leigh Perrot had stiffed the Austens, was not about to talk about any resemblance between such behavior and that of, say, John and Fanny Dashwood. So that raises the stakes even higher in terms of that line from Letter 157--it's not only about JA's death, it's about trying to keep the genie in the bottle, the genie being the savage critique of the financial structure of the English gentility, and the particularly bad deal that women got under it.

It does not get any bigger than that in the realm of biography and family history.

Nancy: "He might even have changed legatee to party because he feared the legal term would not be understood by ladies. "

Nancy, tell me you're teasing, please! In the words of the great sage John McEnroe, "You can't be serious!".

But, in case you are's not just one bridge, I am prepared to sell you the entire cache of gold at Fort Knox, at a very very steep discount, if you are still interested. Limited time only, drop me an email---and remember, cash only. I don't take chances, even with good friends! ;)

ARNIE (and I think you might want to consider never serving on a jury in a criminal case, as I believe you would NEVER convict anyone of anything!) ;)


Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous, thanks for that, but there's no reason to be anonymous if you're giving the host a compliment! ;)