(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Letter #2: Unpleasant matters falling out re Eliza Fowle and Tom Lefroy

In response to my previous post about Eliza Fowle's "illness" being a veiled reference by Jane Austen in her surviving Letters #1 & 2. Ellen Moody had several comments, to which I reply as follows:

[Ellen] "I read Arnie's suppositions on Eliza's miscarriage but see there is no evidence for a pregnancy in 1796. I don't "betcha" the woman had miscarriages in those years. We don't know. I agree the husband seems to be regularly inflicting her this way but it's a leap to say there were miscarriages in between with no evidence. Other letters from this era (including Austen's) are not shy to cite miscarriages."

Ellen, I am not persuaded by _your_ arguments. From my research I have found that there is a small army of references (over the entire range of JA's letters) to pregnancy and its various outcomes and effects, with a whole spectrum of ways of presenting them, ranging from the purely factual to the wildly fanciful. In that context, this one is mainstream, and shares characteristics with several of the others. So I consider my speculation an informed and strong one.

The sequence of my discovery is revealing. First, I responded to the cues in that sentence at the very end of Letter #1, standing alone. Then, I was pleasantly surprised to see them validated by an elaboration of the same theme in the very _beginning_ of Letter #2. Almost like the famous anadiplosis with "She could not forgive her" between chapters in _Emma_. Which fits with my sense that JA, in an important way, saw her letters to CEA as successive chapters in a never ending collaborative "novel" telling the story of JA's and CEA's shared journey in life.
Alas, that story was _not_ never ending, it _did_ end tragically, far too soon, in 1817--like the fragment of _Sanditon_, something recognizable as remarkable even as a fragment, but which is almost unbearably poignant, because we know that the full story would have been another immortal masterpiece.

In short, I see the very thrifty Jane Austen taking advantage of letters she was writing for mundane purposes of reporting real life events, and turning those letters into a particularly wonderful form of performance art, transforming real life into art in the moment, improvisationally. With each passing year, my appreciation for her letters has grown and grown, as I see more and more of these layers.

"If she did have a miscarriage it's another leap to say that this particular day in this year was a miscarriage day. I see the reference to "unpleasantness" (as I said) as separate from Eliza's illness. The latter comes in what would be another paragraph were Austen making separate paragraphs."

Speaking of leaps, I just saw _The Black Swan_ and recommend it highly as an extraordinary meditation on, among other things, art and creativity, which can appear very dangerous and threatening to some. But what would ballet be without leaps? I feel the same way about literary criticism, the whole point in describing works of imagination (and, as I said, above, I consider even JA's letters as composed works of imagination as much as fact) is in imaginatively making leaps based on reasonably firm foundations.

As for the separated paragraphs you mention, what I have found is almost as common in JA's letters as abrupt changes of topics, is how often JA subtly and covertly alludes _back_ to the topic just (apparently) abruptly abandoned. She does it all the time, in fact, now that I think about it, she does it all the time in her novels too. She only appears to be randomly flitting from topic to topic like a manic bumblebee, but actually some of these "flits", as in ballet, are choreographed. It is a way of writing that at times verges on poetry, of which we of course all know she, like her creatures Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot, was a very sophisticated reader, and of which I also claim she was also a vastly underestimated writer. Great poetry reaches for the unspoken connection between seemingly unrelated ideas via imagery.

And this "unpleasantness" image is a perfect example of that, as Christy, it seems to me, noticed, when she wrote, "And as these "matters" of poor Mrs. Fowle were being empathized with, and supported by team Austen and Lloyd, perhaps Jane Austen was sensing her Tom Lefroy 'matter' as also moving in the direction of...'falling out unpleasantly'."

Indeed there are parallels between the Lefroy "matters" and the miscarriage "matters", courtship and pregnancy both being intimate matters between male and female with uncertain outcomes. And I claim that JA was well aware of those parallels, and she has deliberately highlighted them by this poetic syntactical ambiguity.

[Ellen] "Also for the first time I've begun to think perhaps the Lefroy affair
is reflected in _P&P_.....Let's remember while she writes these two letters she is writing the first version of First Impressions."

As I mentioned last week, Linda Walker's article makes a "persuasive" case for _Persuasion_ as alluding to Tom Lefroy, and I have found repeatedly that when JA alludes to an actual or fictional source in one novel, she is likely to have done so in one or more of her _other_ novels as well. I have long believed, as have several other critics over the years, that Tom Lefroy is prominent in the shadows of P&P as well.

I claim that a key connection between P&P and the Lefroy Affair is _Tom Jones_. The repeated allusions to _Tom Jones_ in JA's first two letters are explicit, whereas the extended allusion to _Tom Jones_ in P&P is covert, but pervasive, most of all in the oscillating portraits of Darcy and Wickham. In the first half of P&P, Wickham appear to be Tom, Darcy appears to be Blifil. In the second half of the novel, that portraiture "flips" 180 degrees in Lizzy's mind, and she then sees Darcy as a good
guy like Tom, and Wickham as bad news like Blifil.

This might well be a clue to how JA felt about Tom Lefroy over the period of time from 1796-1798 and beyond. If JA has cast Tom Lefroy as Tom Jones (which would also give surprising additional meaning to JA's teasing, absurdist comments about Tom Fowle's taste in names in "christening" his vessel with the name Tom in some way---there can be no doubt that JA of all people was aware of the coincidence of names among Tom Fowle, his vessel, Tom Lefroy and Tom Jones), then it's interesting
in that regard to think about Wickham's abruptly tacking away from Lizzy and nearly getting engaged to the heiress Miss King as being a representation of how JA felt when Tom Lefroy seemed to abruptly get engaged to his Irish heiress, whom he did of course marry.

But it's also interesting in that regard to think about Darcy's initial uptight, unwilling attraction to Lizzy, which sounds a lot like Tom Lefroy to me, who, it is clear from the historical record, was on a relentlessly ambitious career track to the top of his profession, and who, throughout his adult life, professed a quite severe, authoritarian sort of religious fanaticism that, in my opinion, would have been anathema to Jane Austen. But at 21, perhaps he might have seemed to JA
as having potential.

So we might see Darcy's transformation in P&P as a wish fulfilment, a sweet dream that never happened in JA's real life.

When _Becoming Jane_ came out as a movie a few years back, perhaps the most egregious and ridiculous departure from the probable, among many, was the idea that it was Tom Lefroy who turned Jane Austen on to _Tom Jones_ and not, as I believe to be the case, the reverse. JA, at age 20, had already demonstrated in her wild and wacky Juvenilia--of which the modern absurdist playwright Joe Orton was a big fan--that she was already well versed in the cutting edge of literature past and current.

And the first two letters show that, as JA and CEA must _both_ have been well versed in _Tom Jones_, in order for JA to allude to it so playfully in regard to the color of Tom's coat.

So I see JA's references to _Tom Jones_ in these letters as reflections of the irrepressible JA, like Lizzy Bennet, playfully teasing the uptight Tom Lefroy, trying to thaw him out of his stiff demeanor, and laugh a little. Even in the first half of the novel, Darcy, for all his snobbish hauteur, demonstrates a quick wit and very droll sense of humor--he responds really well to Lizzy's teasing, giving as good as he gets. That would suggest that Tom Lefroy also had a sense of humor, and
that was what prompted JA to see him as a development project worth pursuing.

All of which also tells you that Henry Austen was not being very honest when he made such a big deal in his Biographical Notice about JA really not liking Fielding at all. Yeah, right! The late convert to sanctimonious religiosity did protest too be believable!

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: