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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cassandra's puns and allusions

This post was prompted by Diana Birchall's response to my earlier comment about Cassandra not being happy with Jane's ticcing punning satirical barbs directed at family members:

[Diana] "Why do you think CEA did not enjoy punning, Arnie? It was a punning family. Nearly every member of it makes puns in the doggerel they left behind, and Mrs. Austen was known for her "sprack wit." A couple of CEA's charades survive (in the book of poems and riddles by Austen family members), which at least show that she did participate in these playful activities, and didn't sit apart, forbiddingly poker-faced."

Diana, I did not mean to portray CEA as a dour stick in the mud-rather, I imagine CEA as seeing JA as being "too much of a good thing" when it came to wit and satire. Like Mrs. Weston who begs Emma not to divert her with unkind satire on Miss Bates, or Jane who begs Lizzy not to tease so much.

And I would suggest that the starting point for discussing CEA's attitude toward JA, must be CEA's letter to Fanny written right after JA's death, which is the one and only extended bit of writing by CEA that survives (I am 99% sure I am correct in that statement?).

"I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed…..I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand that struck the blow."

Now why in the world would CEA write something so jarring as those final words, as if JA's death were somehow a just punishment imposed by God for sins committed by JA during life, sins which CEA somehow aided and abetted? And why would CEA allude so openly to _Othello_ in this way (an allusion Jocelyn Harris noted, without further comment, in _A Revolution Beyond Expression_ published a few years ago), as if CEA were Othello and Jane were Desdemona?

There is something very very disturbing in this, and the only possible mitigation I can come up with for these awful pronouncements is that CEA had become temporarily unhinged by grief over JA's death, and in her Othello-like madness, said crazy things.

But I believe the most plausible inference for what CEA means by "sometimes unjust to & negligent of others" is that CEA must have turned a blind eye and deaf ear for a very long time when JA mocked and sometimes raged at their mother and their brothers for various and sundry injustices, and CEA would have especially been alluding to JA's barbs directed against Fanny's own father, Edward Austen Knight (and also, perhaps, prior to 1808, against Edward's wife Elizabeth).

My sense is that part of what CEA was doing in that letter was playing the role she had played for a long time vis a vis Fanny Knight---reflecting CEA's subordinate status as spinster sister/aunt, she was currying favor with the rich niece who one day might be the one distributing favors and largesse to the rest of the Austen family.

And note that CEA in that long letter to Fanny never says a word about Anna Austen Lefroy, the other senior niece, even as she recites the grieving of the Austen family. I think that is a veiled reflection of Fanny's longstanding jealousy of the special attention that JA devoted to Anna, particularly in regard to Anna's writing career.

So, CEA's letter shows that she too knew her way very well around the English language, and was ready to weave a complex literary allusion into daily life as JA ever was.

Cheers,
ARNIE

1 comment:

Matt said...

If you like puns then check out http://www.puncut.com/