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

Monday, March 7, 2011

Letter 14: More astonishing echoes of Pride & Prejudice

Because of my claims that Letters 10 through 13, these late 1798 letters, contain deafening echoes of P&P, I was already primed to start looking for them in Letter 14, too--but even I did not expect to find so many more, and such obvious ones,, including the first dramatic climax of P&P, so definitively echoed in Letter 14, beginning right at the start, in the first 4 sentences of Letter 14, best shown by simply aligning the parallelisms alongside each other:

First we have the parallel re delays in receipt of letters from a dearly beloved sister:

Letter 14: "Your letter came quite as soon as I expected, and so your letters will always do, because I have made it a rule not to expect them till they come, in which I think I consult the ease of us both."

Those words could easily have been written by Lizzy to Jane Bennet. And they remind me of the following lines from Ch. 46 of P&P:

"They had just been preparing to walk as the letters came in; and her uncle and aunt, leaving her to enjoy them in quiet, set off by themselves. The one mis-sent must be first attended to; it had been written five days ago. The beginning contained an account of all their little parties and engagements, with such news as the country afforded; but the latter half, which was dated a day later, and written in evident agitation, gave more important intelligence. It was to this effect.

"Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature...."

But, you may well object, so far this is a tenuous parallel at best, and I would agree with you, were it not for the next two sentences in Letter 14:

"It is a great satisfaction to us to hear that your business is in a way to be settled, and so settled as to give you as little inconvenience as possible. You are very welcome to my father's name and to his services if they are ever required in it."

I would think all Janeites would hear the unmistakable echo of two related passages in P&P:

First, Mr. Bennet's comments about Lydia's going to Brighton with the Forsters:

Ch. 41: "Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances."

And second, the narration after the astonishing news of Wickham's and Lydia's marriage is received at Longbourn:

Ch. 50: "[Mr. Bennet] had never before supposed that, could Wickham be prevailed on to marry his daughter, it would be done with so little inconvenience to himself as by the present arrangement. He would scarcely be ten pounds a year the loser by the hundred that was to be paid them; for, what with her board and pocket allowance, and the continual presents in money which passed to her through her mother's hands, Lydia's expences had been very little within that sum. "

It almost seems as if JA has written this introductory section of Letter 14 as a parody of Lydia's escapades with Wickham, casting Cassandra in the role of Lydia, and Revd. Austen, of course, as Mr. Bennet, but also, as to the writing of letters reporting such events, Cassandra as Jane B. the letter writer and Jane A. as Lizzy the letter recipient.

But I think more likely there has been a fairly innocent event which involved some sort of monetary transaction, which may nor many not have involved a payment of 10 pounds (notice that is the exact amount that Mr. Bennet mentions!) to each of Cassandra and Jane, and JA, whose head is overflowing with P&P, immediately and playfully relates the one to the other.

And this makes perfect sense, because it would be impossible to write the words spoken by Lizzy Bennet in P&P, unless JA were in precisely that same mood of witty, penetrating banter---so of course when JA was done being Lizzy Bennet for the morning, she would remain in that same character as she began writing to Cassandra!

Even I am not prepared to claim, based only on the evidence of these lines in Letter 14, that Cassandra and/or Jane really were involved in some Lydiaesque intrigues with young, worthless men, as to which Revd. Austen would have to make his "name and services" available (exactly the way Mr. Bennet expects will be required for him to fix the Lydia fiasco--and note the witty irony of "services", which would mean, fighting a duel!)

And note a third parallel, to the very next two sentences in Ch. 50 of P&P:

"That it would be done with such trifling exertion on his side, too, was another very welcome surprise; for his chief wish at present was to have as little trouble in the business as possible. When the first transports of rage which had produced his activity in seeking her were over, he naturally returned to all his former indolence.

Mr. Bennet thinks of Lydia's elopement as "the business", and that is precisely why, I claim, JA refers to CEA's "Business!

But the P&P parody goes on in Letter 14:

"I shall keep my ten pounds too, to wrap myself up in next winter."

So here we have JA's imaginism at full tilt. JA thinks of this imaginary ten pound note she may be receiving as if it were a shawl or tippet, to be wrapt around JA to keep her warm next winter (already an absurdity, because she is writing Letter 14 in the midst of the _current_ winter!).

And this personifying image is not a trivial one---there is that characteristic Austenian cynicism about money that Auden famously noted, in the same vein as the song "Diamonds are a girl's best friend", as we think about Fanny Price freezing in her attic as a paradigm of the impecunious woman of JA's day being "out in the cold" because she lacks the money to keep her warm! Is there some suggestion that JA herself may one day find herself, like Fanny, being given the Catch 22 of either marrying a man for money, or else being frozen into submission?

And this particular "episode" in Letter 14 ends with a further personification of an actual article of clothing metamorphosed into a person:

"I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your Black velvet Bonnet to lend me its cawl, which it very readily did, & by which I have been enabled to give a considerable improvement of dignity to my Cap, which was before too nidgetty to please me. I shall wear it on Thursday, but I hope you will not be offended with me for following your advice as to its ornaments only in part. I still venture to retain the narrow silver round it, put twice round without any bow, and instead of the black military feather shall put in the coquelicot one as being smarter, and besides coquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter. After the ball I shall probably make it entirely black."

I am sure CEA did not mind JA borrowing her bonnet's cawl (what is that, exactly? I can't find a definition of "cawl"-the closest thing seems to be the rare newborn's "caul" which was kept as an heirloom), but even in this passage, we have perhaps the strongest echo of P&P yet, this one pointing unmistakably to Lydia Bennet _again_, in Ch. 39:

"And we mean to treat you all," added Lydia; "but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there." Then, shewing her purchases -- "Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better."

And when her sisters abused it as ugly, she added, with perfect unconcern, "Oh! but there were two or three much uglier in the shop; and when I have bought some prettier-coloured satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable. Besides, it will not much signify what one wears this summer, after the -- -- shire have left Meryton, and they are going in a fortnight."

And, by the way, I am not the first to detect the echo about bonnets between Letter 14 and P&P. Another close reader who understands the parallels between letters and novels is Jill Heydt Stevenson, who was the first to detect it, in her insightful discussion of it in "Animated Ideology in P&P", which I found in Harold Bloom's recent edition of P&P.

What all of the above tells us is not only was JA's head full of P&P as she wrote this letter, we can even be more precise and pinpoint that she had been, that very morning, working on Chapters 39, 41, 42, 46, and 50, and _every single one of them_ having to do with Lydia!

None of this is coincidental!

Think of all the critics who have suggested that these letters are trivial and can tell us little about JA as a writer, and think about all the other critics who have taken at face value JA's famous comments in her letters to Anna Lefroy and to James Stanier Clarke, in which she deprecates her writing, makes it sound insignificant. They have all missed the point entirely!

Instead, Lydia Bennet is once more our surprising guide for how to look in JA's letters for insight into her writing of her novels, when in Ch. 42 of P&P we read that Lydia's letters are "much too full of lines under the words to be made public".

Ten months ago, I discussed that bit of suggestive narration here....

...and today I now understand, additionally, that JA is pointing to _her own_ letters as also being "too much full of lines under the words to be made public"!

Cheers, ARNIE

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