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

Monday, July 19, 2010

"When once we are buried you think we are gone, But behold me immortal!"

Apropos the anniversary of JA's death and the poem she wrote just before she died, I wrote the following response in another online venue a year ago (less 2 days), in response to a comment by a friend and worthy Janeite, which praised JA's last poem as light cheerful verse stoically composed in the face of impending death:


"I got back Sunday evening from my trip to England, which included my participation in the Chawton Conference on 'New Directions in Austen Studies'---perhaps not surprisingly given that the conference was held not far from Winchester during July, one of the presentations was by Janet Todd and Linda Bree, in which they gave an interpretation of Austen's Winchester Races poem which was not far distant from [the post seeing JA's last poem as light, cheerful verse].

I am afraid I must disagree with [my friend's] interpretation, I think it is quite the opposite of a light cheerful verse. I think that JA (who, as Isobel Grundy pointed out at the conference, was buried in the Cathedral just like St. Swithin, and his anger at being buried there was THE whole point of the legend!) was doing what she had been doing her entire writing career, i.e., saying a cheerful thing superficially, but an angry thing beneath the surface. I see her as cursing her brothers's plans to turn a profit on her writing before she was cold in the ground, burying her in the Cathedral against her wishes, but also warning them that even though she was physically dead, her words, including specifically the words in her writing which revealed that all was far from sweetness and light in the Austen family, were immortal, and would one day bring to light the truth." END OF MY 07/21/09 RESPONSE

I was reminded of my above post by reading Ellen's recent post about JA's last poem, and also by reading Catherine's comment in Facebook suggesting that JA chose the wondrously beautiful Winchester Cathedral as her final resting place. I realized that I have some more to add today.

First, the prompt for Isobel Grundy to make her startling linkage of JA and St. Swithin, as both being interred in the Cathedral, was my comment during the Q&A after the Todd/Bree presentation, in which I claimed that JA was foreseeing that certain members of her family would exploit her writings for profit after her death.

Second, I feel that even more strongly today than a year ago, after all the additional research I have done in the interim. (During my research, by the way, I did learn a few months ago that the late, great David Nokes had beaten me to the punch a decade ago in arguing, in his JA bio, that the last poem was a curse--he called it a 'malediction'--by JA on the Austen family)

What's most startling about Isobel's insight is that it was not made 190 years earlier. Because, when you think about it for a moment, it is hiding in plain sight. St. Swithin is not just a saint associated with Winchester in a general way, JA's poem very specifically tells the tale of the angry saint's curse arising because he did not want to be buried in the grand Cathedral--and he is buried literally within steps of JA, who died within a week after the poem was written! This echo cannot possibly be a coincidence, and it cannot possibly be trivial!

So, why then is it that her last poem has been written about by over a dozens Austen scholars, and nobody other than Nokes ever took note of what I just wrote, above, and took a cold, hard look at that last poem as having strong autobiographical significance, in a negative sense?

Startling, but not at all surprising. Nokes took a devastating hit from Deirdre Le Faye when he wrote his bio, containing that, and many other forthright, courageous informed opinions and speculations about the darkness in JA's life.

Consider first that brother James just happened to decide to ALSO write a poem about "Venta" immediately after JA's death, in which there is neither hide nor hair of any angry saints! Instead James paints a portrait of JA as all sweetness and light. But he is not content to merely ignore St. Swithin, James takes great pains to specifically mention that "many a Statesman great & wise beneath thy hallowed pavement lies" and "the vaulted grave where sleep the learned & the Brave." and "High on the Screen on either hand Old Saxon Monarchs Coffins stand. Below beneath his sable Stone Lies the Conquerors haughty Son; Immured within the Chapels wall Sleep Mitred Priest and Cardinal. And honoured Wickham lies reclined In Gothic tracery enshrined."

Seems like he deliberately throws in the entire ancestral kitchen sink, so to speak, but somehow, the one guy whom his sister mentions, the one most famously associated with Winchester and the Cathedral, fails to make the cut.

Is all of this just a coincidence? I don't think so! An attempted whitewash? You betcha! This is part and parcel with Henry's Biographical Notice, and JEAL's Memoir, with their related drumbeat--JA never wrote about REAL people, JA was sweetness and light, JA never held a grudge, etc etc etc.

James's poem was, I argue, itself only one of the very first of countless actions taken by JA's family in the two centuries since her death, continuing to this very day, to negate as many of her "unseemly" written judgments as they could.

But fortunately (from my point of view, at least), they did not really understand "the Jane Austen Code", because, to actually Bowdlerize JA completely and destroy all traces of her resentments would have required that they burn ALL of her letters and also ALL of her fiction, because those judgments and resentments are all there in pretty much everything she wrote, under the light, bright and sparkling surface!

And now it makes so much more sense that JA herself took pains to not make her shadow stories too obvious, especially to the male members of her family. She knew there was a very real risk that NA and Persuasion might never be published, that ALL (and not merely many) of her letters might have been consigned to the flames, that her silent scream about the injustices of her world might be forever silenced.

It is in THAT context that I read "When once we are buried you think we are gone, But behold me immortal!" in JA's poem, and I cheer, because what I hear is that, even with her last bit of strength, JA's spirit stands shoulder to shoulder with St. Swithin, but this time as Nemesis speaking for the women of her age. Like the Saint, she truly is INDOMITABLE--and yet, even to her dying breath, she always recalled the Steventon theatricals of her tween years and was to the end a woman who could, wondrously, keep a (BIG) secret!

In closing, even though I entirely agree with Catherine about the stunning beauty of Winchester Cathedral, I want to add one additional wrinkle to the reasons why I don't believe JA was the one who chose it as her final resting place! I don't think she approved of the choice, not only because of JA aligning herself with the angry modest St. Swithin, but because even a superficial reading of her letters reveals that she NEVER had much say as to where she lived, or even where and when she could travel during her lifetime! So I believe she fully appreciated the very dark irony, as she lay dying in a tiny room in the shadow of the great Cathedral, that even the final "chapter" of her life was being written by others, i.e., it turned out that she had no choice as to where her body would spend the rest of eternity, either.

But, to the last, she was damned (so to speak) if she was not going to find a way to register her complaint in such a way as would OVERWRITE the cover story manufactured by her family, but in such a clever way that it would not wind up in the fireplace. ;)

And it worked! Nearly two centuries later (and now I have just gotten shivers thinking that in seven years, less 2 days, it will be the bicentenary of JA's death), we Janeites all do, every day, BEHOLD, on the printed page or the computer monitor, and celebrate, JA (the St. Swithin of literature) immortal, including (if I am successful in my writing about her) the part of her work which has NOT been previously beheld!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. (added 11/15/11) Read the following link, including the P.S. in it:

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