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

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Princess of Godmersham, the Princess of Highbury, and the Prince

This is the first in a series of posts I sent to Janeites and Austen-L since last night, all in response to the friendly challenge posed to me by Nancy Mayer, to give my interpretation of a famous passage in an 1817 letter Jane Austen sent to her niece, Fanny Knight, a few months before Jane's death. I promise you that there is some explosive and important gold at the end of this particular rainbow, if you follow it to the end.

Nancy, here is my reply to your question as to Jane Austen's real life attitude
toward adulterous women.

First, in JA's 3/13/17 letter to Fanny Knight, we have the passage you are so heavily banking on:

"...If I were the Duchess of Richmond, I should be very miserable about my son's choice. What can be expected from a Paget, born and brought up in the centre of conjugal infidelity and divorces? I will not be interested about Lady Caroline. I abhor all the race of Pagets."

First, in point of historical fact, Lady Caroline Paget, who at 20 was completely innocent of any of the game of musical beds played by her parents and her father's brothers, actually did marry Charles Gordon-Lennox, 5th Duke of Richmond, and remained married--and so far as I can tell, faithful--to him for the rest of her long life.

But JA was not psychic and did not know this, I am sure you will object. To which I reply, do you think that JA really meant it when she convicted this young woman--whom she did not know at all---of guilt by association, by saying that she _hated_ this girl merely because she was a member of a family of rakes?

Consider first to whom this letter has been written, and under what circumstances. It is written to Fanny Knight, the eldest daughter of JA's wealthy powerful brother Edward, at a moment when JA is aware that she is dying. If you examine all the letters JA wrote to Fanny, and compare their tone to all the letters JA wrote to CEA, you will see that JA has in her letters to Fanny repeatedly adopted an unusually false and flattering tone, which JA never adopts with CEA except in clear jest. JA basically writes exactly what she believes Fanny wants to hear, validating all of Fanny's upper crust snobberies and vanities.

And there is even a sly evasion, a legalistic copout disguised as a hypothetical ---"If I were the Duchess of Richmond...."---But JA most assuredly was _not_ the Duchess of Richmond, who perhaps _was_ the kind of imperious grande dame, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who would convict that young woman of the crime of being born to dissolute parents. Do you think JA emulated the Lady Catherine de Bourghs of her

For example, look at how JA ends the letter, to get a sense of the fake, flattering tone that JA has adopted throughout, which is a million miles from her normal manner of expression when writing to CEA:

"But how could it possibly be any new idea to you, that you have a great deal of Imagination? You are all over Imagination. The most astonishing part of your Character is that with so much Imagination, so much Flight of Mind, such unbounded Fancies, you should have such excellent Judgement in what you do! Religious principle I fancy must explain it...."

This is total B.S. from one end of that paragraph to the other! Do you think that JA really found Fanny to be this astonishing paragonic combination of imagination and judgment?

And this is exactly the same kind of hyperbolic nonsense that we have already seen a dozen examples of in the first six letters, which CEA understood was hyperbolic nonsense, meant to amuse JA's knowing sister who was entirely in on the joke and would know when her sister was being absurd. But it is clear from reading this whole letter that there is no shared joke between JA and Fanny, Fanny, like Emma, does not know when she is being sucked up to! Fanny is clearly lapping this flattery up as
fast as JA slathers it on!

And yes, we _have_ heard this falsely flattering voice before, often, in the breathless effusions of another middle aged impecunious spinster speaking to another wealthy and very vain heiress:

""Ah! Miss Woodhouse, how kind you not think us ungrateful, Miss Woodhouse, for such surprising good fortune...She will be extremely sorry to miss seeing you, Miss Woodhouse, but your kindness will excuse her. You were kept waiting at the door -- I was quite ashamed -- but somehow there was a little bustle -- for it so happened that we had not heard the knock, and till you were on the stairs, we did not know any body was coming. '..... "Thank you, dear Miss Woodhouse, you are all
kindness....."You are extremely kind," replied Miss Bates highly gratified; "you who are such a judge, and write so beautifully yourself. I am sure there is nobody's praise that could give us so much pleasure as Miss Woodhouse's. My mother does not hear; she is a little deaf you know. Ma'am," addressing her, "do you hear what Miss Woodhouse is so obliging to say about Jane's handwriting?" etc etc.

Do you think that Miss Bates was so clueless as to really believe that Emma was so kind to her and Jane?

And that same voice also in the description of yet another wealthy and very vain heiress:

"Yes, our good Mrs. Elton. The most indefatigable, true friend. She would not take a denial. She would not let Jane say 'No;' for when Jane first heard of it, (it was the day before yesterday, the very morning we were at Donwell,) when Jane first heard of it, she was quite decided against accepting the offer, and for the reasons you mention; exactly as you say, she had made up her mind to close with nothing till Colonel Campbell's return, and nothing should induce her to enter into any engagement at present -- and so she told Mrs. Elton over and over again -- and I am sure I had no more idea that she would change her mind! but that good Mrs. Elton, whose judgement never fails her, saw farther than I did. It is not every body that would have stood out in such a kind way as she did, and refuse to take Jane's answer; but she positively declared she would _not_ write any such denial yesterday, as Jane wished her; she would wait -- and, sure enough, yesterday evening it was all
settled that Jane should go. Quite a surprise to me! I had not the least idea! Jane took Mrs. Elton aside, and told her at once, that upon thinking over the advantages of Mrs. Suckling's situation, she had come to the resolution of accepting it. I did not know a word of it till it was all settled."

Do you think Miss Bates was such an unperceptive moron as to really mean all these flattering remarks about Mrs. Elton?

And then contrast it to what JA wrote to someone when she was speaking honestly, without hyperbole or flattery, about a very similar subject to what she wrote about the Pagets:

"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ``attached & affectionate' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at
first. --"

Can you see the difference?

Now I will go watch Roger Federer and mend my laptop. ;)

Cheers, Arnie

[Nancy then responded with a blanket rejection of all my above arguments, but I was fortunate to wake up to read some astonishing additional information that went far beyond what I had already sussed out, above---follow me to the next post in this blog for the next installment of my argument...]

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