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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jane Austen's Last Birthday

This is my birthday tribute to Jane Austen.

On Monday, December 16, 1816, Jane Austen sat down (or, possibly, given the recurrent illness which plagued her subsequent to the publication of Emma in early 1816, reclined) and wrote the only one of her surviving letters which was written (at least in part) on her actual birthday. It is Letter 146 in Le Faye's edition, and it is written to her nephew, James Edward Austen (whom I will refer to as JEAL to avoid confusion with Jane's brother Edward) .

Jane was 41 that day--exactly the same age, curiously, that her brother Edward achieved on October 7, 1808, when Jane wrote Letter 57 to Cassandra, and (for various reasons I will explain in my book having to do with her complex relationship with Edward) jokingly referred to his having completed his thirtieth year, when he had actually completed his _fortieth_. But there are no jokes in Letter 146 about her own completion of four decades on earth; in fact there is no reference to her birthday _at all_, which itself is quite curious.

Some might suggest this was yet another example of Jane's modesty, self-deprecation, and dislike of the limelight, alongside the string of examples so often produced to support that claim. However, all of them are, in my opinion, written with strong irony, and are intended to mean--to those attuned to Jane's irony---precisely the opposite. Letter 146 itself contains a particularly famous one of those examples, when Jane first jokes with JEAL about 2 ½ chapters from a novel he was writing having gone mysteriously missing—Jane mockingly claims her own innocence of the theft—and then writes these now-famous words:

“I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, fill of Variety & Glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

It is mind-boggling to me that this epigram has been quoted hundreds of times in books and articles as evidence of the modesty of Jane Austen's literary scope and aspirations. Hats off to the relative handful of scholars who have recognized the enormous irony that completely undercuts the apparent meaning. In reality, and as Jane herself knew better than anyone in the world, her novels have enormous scope and aspirations--- in their shadow stories, they depict the entirety of her world---national and world affairs and literature, both contemporary and historical, are painted in a thousand ways on those two inches of ivory, by Jane's patient Brush. And Jane could not resist the pun of “much labour”, to recall her strong sense of her novels as her own children, born, indeed, “after much labour”!

Did JEAL himself have any clue that he was the target of a major put-on by his hoax-loving aunt? I doubt it. He was an 18-year old young buck flush with his own grandiose schemes to achieve literary glory. He had not only his aunt, published author by then of four novels, to emulate, but also his father, who co-wrote the Loiterer literary magazine when_he_ was that age, and who wrote poetry all his life, and his Uncle Henry the sermon writer (and I cannot help thinking of Henry Crawford and his thoughts about sermon writing as I read Jane's praise of Henry's sermons in Letter 146), and also JEAL's elder half-sister, Anna, who, he surely was also aware, had been working on a novel of her own--which is so famously memorialized in several of the surviving letters from her aunt Jane--two and a half years earlier. Over a half century later, when JEAL wrote his Memoir of his by then famous aunt, he certainly showed no awareness of more than a fraction of the scope of his aunt's writing.

There is another unstated subtext to Letter 146, one which JEAL might have been aware of. His acronym is JEAL because he was christened James Edward Austen, but was, two decades after his celebrated aunt's death, to add the hyphenated name “Leigh” to his surname when he hit the inheritance jackpot as an adult and inherited Rosings from Aunt Leigh Perrot.

The following is a link to the first of five posts I wrote nearly a year ago in this blog, on the subject of the disinheritance of the Austen women upon the death of Uncle Leigh Perrot in early 1816, less than a year before Jane Austen wrote Letter 146 to JEAL:

Jane writes Letter 146 as if none of that heartbreak and emotional trauma described in that series of blog posts had ever occurred, but you can be sure that it was vividly present in Jane's mind as she wrote to JEAL. This was true Christian charity on her part.

The subtly poignant highlight of this letter, for me, is the other literary subtext which never gets noticed , when Jane writes “You will hear from Uncle Henry how well Anna is. She seems perfectly recovered.”

As I noted, above, Anna Austen Lefroy, JEAL's elder half sister (and Jane's psychological daughter), had been working on a novel, under Aunt Jane's loving tutelage, when she got married in 1814. The unspoken subtext of Jane reporting on Anna's health is that it was no joking matter to either Anna or her aunt that Anna had been forced to suspend work on her novel after marrying and then bearing two children in rapid succession. She had borne her second daughter nearly three months earlier, and that was the “recovery” alluded to by Jane. Did Jane foresee that Anna would never finish that novel, and would, one sad evening years later, burn the manuscript? I believe Jane harbored great hopes for Anna as a writer, and would have greatly saddened to hear that, but also proud to know that Anna would eventually become a published author more or less at the same age as Jane was when writing Letter 146.

And what an ironic shadow that subtext casts on JEAL's “manly sketches”, which, if we may judge from the Memoir, would have been just the sort of narcissistic pompous tripe that Jane satirized in her Plan for a Novel, and also in her famous covertly mocking letters to James Stanier Clarke.

I finish this post with a quotation from Letter 146 which alarmingly reminds me of the suspiciously phallic cucumber sandwiches of The Importance of Being Earnest: “Tell your Father, with Aunt Cass's Love & mine, that the Pickled Cucumbers are extremely good, & tell him also--'tell him what you will”--No, don't tell him what you will.....”

Was Jane ever “earnest” in the sense of literally meaning what she wrote? I think not!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Jane wrote Letter 146 from Chawton Cottage, her home with her mother, her sister and her dear friend Martha Lloyd, for eight productive years, but it is not our only window into how the mature Jane Austen thought and felt on her birthday. The one other writing we have which we know to have been written on or about her birthday was the eulogistic poem she composed exactly seven years before Letter 146, and less than a year after settling at Chawton Cottage, in honor of the death of Madam Lefroy, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in Part III of the following blog post:

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