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

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Jane Austen Code

In relevant part, Anielka Briggs also posted the following earlier today in Austen L and Janeites:

"....The joke is either (i) that Mrs. Austen assumes every childbirth is attended with trauma and the potential death of the mother. Not particularly funny as Elizabeth Knight nee Bridges did indeed die as a result of childbirth the day after the letter was completed and so the joke prediction was correct and in very poor taste. Rather surprising Cassandra didn't get her scissors to that one....... Unless she thought it was funny...... or (ii) [re: old "Mrs." Elizabeth Knight]....So unless Mrs. Cassandra Austen was blessed with the prescience of her namesake or the letter is a complete forgery or she and her two daughters are plotting murder in code, she couldn't possibly really have being preparing mourning clothes."

The passage she referred to was, again, the following paragraph in Letter 57:

"“My mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K.; she has picked her old silk pelisse to pieces, and means to have it dyed black for a gown -- a very interesting scheme, though just now a little injured by finding that it must be placed in Mr. Wren's hands, for Mr. Chambers is gone. As for Mr. Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation. How is your blue gown? Mine is all to pieces. I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a touch. There was four shillings thrown away, to be added to my subjects of never-failing regret.”

Here is what I just wrote in response:

Anielka, in my considered opinion, you've gotten close with scenario (i), but... you misread the tea leaves at the last minute. It does not require (to use your own mocking phrase, which you unmistakably directed at me) "a brain as large as a planet" to see it--all you need is a familiarity with what I dubbed, in January 2005, the Jane Austen Code.

But, as Lizzy Bennet suggests in P&P, "Do not let us quarrel about the past", so I will now explain what I see on the subject of Mrs. Austen's mysterious mourning clothes.

What I have found repeatedly to be the case is that JA, in her letters, used her mother (or Martha Lloyd or some other close female acquaintance) as a kind of "straw woman" for put-on messages--here are two instances where JA used the phrase "My mother wants to know...." which I find quite suspicious:

P. 31: "My mother wants to know whether Edward has ever made the Hen House which they planned together"

P. 35: "Pray mention the name of Maria Montresor's Lover when you write next, my Mother wants to know it, & I have not courage to look back into your letters to find it out."

I am skeptical that JA's mother really wanted to know either or both of those facts, partly because they seem rather silly, but partly also because JA gave us all a clue to this sort of playful practice, when, in P&P, she put the following words into Darcy's mouth, describing her favorite heroine Elizabeth Bennet's delight in put-ons:

"....I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own...."

What I am claiming is that JA herself found equal enjoyment in occasionally ATTRIBUTING to others opinions which in fact WERE her own!

So, back to the above passage in Letter 57, I see this reference to her mother's mourning clothes in exactly the same put-on light. I also start from the opinion I have sincerely held for some time, based on all the facts we know about the Austen family history, which is that after the 1805 death of Revd. Austen, the Austen women were condemned to live in a kind of limbo of totally inadequate housing--and the one person who was in the best position to take them from limbo to paradise was Edward Austen Knight-yet he failed to provide them with the keys to Chawton Cottage for FOUR LONG YEARS.

Thnk about it. Edward Austen Knight woke up every day for 1,461 days, and thought, "I am NOT going to provide adequate housing to my mother and sisters today". At least John Dashwood's decision to stiff his mother and sisters out of his father's precatory deathbed request was made during ten minutes of conversation with his wife, and then what was done was done. Edward had to re-make this decision every day for all that long time period. The example of Fanny and John Dashwood's "King Lear" conversation makes you wonder whether JA thought that Edward, perhaps, had not made this decision entirely on his own, and, indeed, did not require repeated reminders from his wife as to why they really could not afford to be too generous to his mother and sisters.

All we know for sure is that when Edward Austen Knight's wife dies, within ELEVEN DAYS thereafter, BOOM!----apparently out of nowhere, EAK makes the decision to provide the Austen women with Chawton Cottage. Look at Letter 60, dated 10/24-25/08, if you don't believe me. It's astoundingly obvious when you connect the dates AND the dots. And that is why I am far, far from being the only scholar to reject the claim of coincidence. I am among the many who believe that it was precisely the death of the sister in law who carried such an animus toward JA which was the salvation of the Austen women.

And it is through the lens of that situation that I view this "mourning" paragraph in Letter 57. It seems totally understandable why JA, writing Letter 57 precisely at the moment when Elizabeth Knight first seemed certain to die in childbirth, but then made an (apparently) miraculous recovery, should indulge in some major humor as black as the dye she suggests her mother wants to apply to her gown.

Talk about a moment of massive moral conflict and turmoil! Here we have JA, being the moral, decent, honorable person she really was, who would not wish for the death of a relative, EVEN a relative who was the sole and inplacable obstacle to the well-being of the Austen women, and, equally important, to JA's own literary aspirations. In that last regard, every Austen scholar has pointed out the undeniable fact that it was only after JA moved to Chawton Cottage that the publications began and then continued in an increasing flow.

But counterpoised against all those considerations, we have the natural, human anticipation that if by the omnipotent hand of god Elizabeth Austen Knight were to die, the Austen women's plight would likely be quickly eased.

Is it any wonder, then, that when the word came down to JA (completely wrong, as it turned out) that Elizabeth was NOT going to die after all, there HAD TO be a lot of crazy, mixed-up feelings churning around inside JA, back there in Southampton, far away from Godmersham, listening to her mother's complaining about this and that--like Jane Bennet holding down the fort at Longbourne waiting for Lizzy aka the cavalry, to arrive to provide crucial reinforcement. It must have made JA feel completely crazy.

And so, out of the cauldron of all that emotional turmoil would naturally bubble up a joke about Mrs. Austen preparing for mourning, something that her mother had probably said the week BEFORE---and it would be very funny indeed, to both JA and CEA, in the darkest way--attributing to their mother what must have been a familiar theme, that of "counting your chickens" (which is exactly what Mrs. Austen--and JA-- did in 1816-7 when Uncle Leigh-Perrot died).

And, by the way, don't be so quick to dismiss the notion that CEA held a pillow over Elizabeth Knight's face the night after she received her marching orders from JA via Letter 57, an event that JA memorialized when she wrote the following about the death of the mistress of another great English country estate:

"An express arrived at Randalls to announce the death of Mrs. Churchill! Though her nephew had had no particular reason to hasten back on her account, she had not lived above six-and-thirty hours after his return. A sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more. It was felt as such things must be felt. Every body had a degree of gravity and sorrow; tenderness towards the departed, solicitude for the surviving friends; and, in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried. Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame. Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances."

In regard to "curiosity to know where she would be buried", is it just a coincidence that in Letter 59, dated 10/15-16/08, JA writes, "I suppose you see the Corpse--how does it appear?'

But.....lest anyone take what I just wrote entirely at face value----even I don't really entertain the possibility that CEA actually murdered Elizabeth Knight---but I DO very much believe that JA subliminally DID joke about it, in the most deliciously macabre way, in the subtext of Emma. Let me explain.

I am not the first person to see Frank Churchill as a representation of Edward Austen Knight, but I do believe I am the first to see Mrs. Churchill as a representation of Mrs. Elizabeth Knight--which fits very nicely with my sense of Elizabeth Knight as wearing the "pants" in terms of the decision to deny the Austen women a decent place to live. Viewed in that light, Elizabeth Knight would in that sense be treating EAK AS IF he were a nephew subject to the caprices of a domineering aunt, powerless to object to her demands. But if this was so, there was strange justice in all of this, because while Elizabeth Knight apparently held this power in that domain of withholding largesse from Edward's relations, this may very well have been a quid quo pro for EAK's decision to keep her, his wife, in continuous childbirth from the day they married till the day she died 17 years later!

Cheers, ARNIE
(c) Arnold Perlstein 2010

P.S: I will at the AGM in Portland ALSO explain how all of the above relates to the shadow story of Northanger Abbey!

P.P.S.: I also just did a double-take on what JA wrote on P. 35 about looking back into CEA's letters---it means that at least as late as 1799, JA had retained CEA's letters written to her up till that time. One naturally wonders whether JA maintained that practice till her death, and, if she did, it suggests that the bonfire that CEA started shortly after her sister's death included several hundred letters that CEA had written to JA--what a sad fire that must have been!

(c) Arnold Perlstein 2010

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!