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

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dr. Hall's Stillborn Child and Mrs. Musgrove's Dead Son Tom

Nancy Mayer drew a parallel between Jane Austen's infamous outburst about Dr. Hall in Letter 10...

"Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright--I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband

....and the "fat sighings" passage in Persuasion (which I quote below), and I responded as follows, because I see a common source for both.

First, as I wrote a few days ago about that passage in Letter 10:

"What I wondered was whether there was some very _specific_ animus felt by JA (and/or CEA?) toward Dr. and/or Mrs. Hall, for some _specific_ reason, that would trigger such a nasty witticism. I looked at Le Faye's bio index and saw first that the Halls were a March-September marriage--Dr. Hall (vicar of Monk Sherborne since 1793) was 49, but his wife must have been considerably younger, as she was clearly pre-menopausal and lived till 1846, suggesting she was no more than 25 at the time. So that tells me what I needed to know--this is the old familiar anger that JA felt about women marrying men (especially much older men) and then being pregnant a lot. She looked at her husband and realized that she had married a much older, probably much less physically attractive man, and was shocked into a miscarriage. Gallows humor once again.
And then I checked the regular Index, and lo and behold, there in Letter 19, written 6 1/2 months after Letter 10, is the following "bookend" to the "unawares looked at her husband" barb, written by JA from Bath to CEA back home in Steventon:
"In Paragon we met Mrs. Foley and Mrs. Dowdeswell with her yellow shawl airing out, and at the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall — and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead. These are all of our acquaintance who have yet met our eyes."
So I get the sense of JA seeing Dr. Hall as a pious hypocrite, and once again, there is the absurdist fantasy of a death unnoticed. I just did a quick check and I see that a few commentators (going back to Cornish in 1914) have noted the connection between these two letters, but nobody has taken the trouble to try to suss out the common denominator, and to realize that this is not just about Dr. Hall's personal flaws in JA's eyes, it taps into Jane Austen's invariant hostility to the notion of married English gentlewomen _in general_ being subjected to endless pregnancies, miscarriages, childbirths, and (all too frequently) death in childbirth. The very same "motor" that I claim drives Northanger Abbey, i.e., Mrs. Hall is another real life Mrs. Tilney, or so she seems in 1798. However, as noted before, she ran the gauntlet successfully and made it to old age."

So I see JA's shocking joke as a momentary flareup of strong outrage. And it only bolsters that interpretation to see the strong parallels to the passage about Mrs. Musgrover and _her_ dead son. As you will see, below, I do not read that narration as Jane Austen's point of view, but that of her fictional creature, Anne Elliot's. Here, read the entire passage to get the full context:

"They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him: they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed. Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable, substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne's slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for."

Anne is _angry_ because Mrs. Musgrove is in between her and Wentworth on the sofa, completely screening Anne from seeing Wentworth, and vice versa. And so Anne can only _hear_ Wentworth as he says "Yes, Ma'am, a terrible loss indeed" and similar comforting platitudes, even though what Anne wants more than anything in the world at that moment is to be physically close to Wentworth. His physical proximity alone has reenergized Anne's libido, perhaps for the first time in eight years, and it is so powerful experience that it temporarily swamps, it _obliterates_, for those few instants, Anne's normal Christian charity, and all she can think is, "Enough about this son, whom alive nobody had cared for, let me get close to that man of-- not, who _used to be_--mine!" Anne's powerful _visceral_ sense of loss at that instant makes her utterly intolerant of any other woman's loss, no matter how painful. I think this is absolutely brilliant subtle characterization by JA at this time. And then she shows this, by stepping back a few paces, and having her narrator look down upon both Anne _and_ Mrs. Musgrove, and make some characteristically ironic comments:

"Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain -- which taste cannot tolerate -- which ridicule will seize."

The narrator is describing exactly what happened inside Anne's head--it was not a rational reaction on Anne's part, because rationally, the large bulky Mrs. Musgrove does have as good a right as Anne--with her own graceful set of limbs--to be in deep affliction. But Anne's reason is overpowered by her own yearnings, and so the always-suppressed judgmental voice inside Anne's head suddenly takes charge, and ridicules (internally) Mrs. Musgrove, giving Anne some relief from the torment she feels at that instant.

So, to infer from the above that JA ridiculed fat people, or that she did not have sympathy for mothers who lost sons, is , to me, a complete misreading of that passage. Instead, I read it as JA's brilliant depiction of how even an intensely charitable, self-restrained person like Anne Elliot can, at times, in the throes of hard-to-repress passion, become, for a moment, the very opposite of all those things.

And I think that is exactly the same psychological process at work as in the above-quoted comment in Letter 10---and it speaks to the intensity of JA's anger over the way English wives were forced to endure endless pregnancies, miscarriages and childbirths, an anger that could flare up so intensely that she would write such a thing in a letter to her sister. But, as with the narrator's wise reflections on Anne's internal unChristian outburst, when JA's passion flared in outrage at yet another in the endless series of Mrs. Tilneys suffering one of the all too predictable adverse consequences that so regularly arose from bearing the cross of endless pregnancies, JA's normal self-restraint temporarily evaporated, and her outrage blazed through.

And I am sure CEA did not destroy the letter because CEA shared her sister's outrage over this "plague", and found some release or catharsis for her own, perhaps more tightly controlled feelings of this kind, in her outspoken sister's passionate expressions. Just as an audience at a particularly powerful stand-up comedian's performance can find release or catharsis in laughter at terrible things, such as racism, political oppression, or the like. Laughter is the best medicine, sometimes most of all in the saddest and most awful situations.

And CEA was fortunate to have a permanent ring side seat at The Jane Austen Show, and every JA letter was another show!

Cheers, ARNIE

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