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

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Letter 21: Which one can't wonder at _somehow_---scour'd to nothing with perpetual motion

Derrick Leigh responded in Janeites to my previous post about Jane Austen's Letter 21 rebutting my claim that Jane Austen was somehow alluding to Mrs. Thrale's horrible life experience while married, in terms of serial pregnancy and deaths of eight babies:

"I think that JA was referring to Mrs Piozzi's writing style, so it's good evidence that JA had read something written by her. It couldn't have been her journal, because if I remember correctly Thraliana wasn't published until 1942. It was most likely to be Observations and Reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy and Germany, published in 1789. I think JA was satirising her own limited travels."

I have now responded as follows:


I beg to differ. Check out the following eloquent passage in _Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D_, published in 1788, in Letter CXXXIX (at ppg. 212-3) written by (then) Mrs. Thrale in 1775 to Samuel Johnson, which JA, I claim, read and obliquely alluded to in Letter 21:

"You ask, dear Sir, if I keep your letters—to be sure I do; for though I would not serve you as you said you would serve Lady ______, were you married to her,—live a hundred miles off, and make her write once o'week (was not it?) because her conversation and manners were coarse, but her letters elegant: yet I have always found the best supplement for talk was writing, and yours particularly so......."

[And _here's_ the "punch line" in terms of what JA could have known from published sources (in addition to whatever gossip JA might have heard via, e.g., from connections at Great Bookham) about Mrs. Thrale and her feelings about being serially pregnant and also losing so many babies:]

"...My only reason to suppose that we should dislike looking over the correspondence twelve or twenty years hence, was because the sight of it would _not_//revive the memory of cheerful times at all. God forbid that I should be less happy then than now, when I am perpetually bringing or losing babies, both very dreadful operations to me, and which tear mind and body both in pieces very cruelly. Sophy is at this very instant beginning to droop, or I dream so; and how is it likely one should ever have comfort in revising the annals of vexation?

[That is 100% congruent with JA's often expressed feelings about serial pregnancy and childbirth in the "normal" English gentry family. And then Mrs. Thrale takes it a big step further:]

You say too, that I shall not grow wiser in twelve years, which is a bad account of futurity; but if I grow happier I shall grow wiser, for being less chained down to surrounding circumstances, what power of thinking my mind naturally possesses will have fair play at least. The mother or mistress of a large family is in the case of a tethered nag, always treading and subsisting on the same spot; she hears and repeats the same unregarded precepts; frets over that which no fretting can diminish; and hopes on, in very spite of experience, for what death does not ever suffer her to enjoy. With regard to mental improvement, Perkins might as well expect to grow rich by repeating the Multiplication Table, as I to grow wise by holding Watt's Art of Reading before my eyes. A finger-post, though it directs others on the road, cannot advance itself; was it once cut into coach-wheels, who knows how far it might travel? When Ferguson made himself an astronomer, the other lads of the village were loading corn and pitching hay,—though with the same degree of leisure they might perhaps have attained the same degree of excellence; but they were _doing_//while he was _thinking_//you see, and when leisure is obtained, incidents, however trifling, may be used to advantage..."

[Johnson clearly struck a deep nerve when he sneered at Mrs. Thrale's intellect, and got the tongue-lashing he deserved! And then here Mrs. Thrale shows her erudition:]

"...besides, that 'tis better, as Shakespeare says, to be eaten up with the rust, Than scour'd to nothing with perpetual motion. So if ever I get quiet I shall get happy; and if I get happy I shall have a chance to get wise. Why, wisdom itself stands still, says Mr. Johnson, and then how will you advance? It will be an advancement to me to trace that very argument, and examine whether it has advanced or no. Was not it your friend Mr. ___ 1 who first said, that next to winning at cards, the greatest happiness was losing at cards? I should feel the second degree of delight in assuring myself that there was no wisdom to be obtained. Baker's Reflections on Learning was always a favourite book with me, and he says, you have all been trotting in a circle these two or three thousand years—but let us join the team at least, and not stand gaping while others trot. The tethered horse we talked of just now, would beg to work in our mill, if he could speak; and an old captain of a ship told me, that when he set the marine society boys to run round the hoop for a pudding in fine weather, to divert the officers, those who were hardest lashed seldom lamented; but all cried, ready to break their hearts, who were left out of the game. Here is enough of this I believe."

I imagine that JA knew that passage by rote, and was thinking of Mrs. Thrale's "tethered horse" when she described Anna Austen Lefroy as a "Poor Animal" in exactly the same circumstances that Mrs. Thrale described 40 years earlier. And note that Mrs. Thrale has managed along the way not only to read some serious literature (Shakespeare), but to read it with sufficient insight and imagination so as to be able to quote a passage relevant to her own life. She quotes (accurately) from Henry IV, Part 2, Act 1, Scene 2, when Falstaff, as he always does, waxes eloquent, in this instance to the Lord Archbishop who has just warned him to stay out of mischief, because he's no longer a favorite of the Prince:

"If ye will needs say I am an old man, you should give me rest. I would to God my name were not so terrible to the enemy as it is: I were better to be eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion."

Mrs. Thrale brilliantly translates Falstaff's lament to her own life as a serially pregnant wife and mother, which she sees as being "scoured to nothing with perpetual motion".

So, yes, JA's "cover story" in that paragraph was to seem to be talking about Mrs. Thrale gossipping about her travels (JA underscores the word "wonder" because Mrs. Piozzi did use that word about a million times in that travel book), but I have no doubt that CEA well understood the _subtext_ of that paragraph, which was about Elizabeth Austen as a comrade in suffering with a sadly similar experience to that of Mrs. Thrale, both in regards to serial pregnancy _and_ the secondary harm to mothers from raising a litter of children, which was the stunting of their intellect and creativity. Mrs. Thrale was evidently so gifted a person as to be able to overcome her circumstances and to develop her intellect to a high degree, but I suspect that Elizabeth Austen was _not_ gifted enough to rise above her stunted life as a bird in a gilded cage.

Cheers, ARNIE

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