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Friday, May 27, 2011

Letter 26: Jane Austen's Cock & Bull Story--one of the best of its kind--about Tristram Shandy...and May-Poles!

From the moment I first read the following passage in Letter 26 written to Martha Lloyd, I was certain that there was something else going on, some previously unperceived subtext, which was the key to understanding what JA really meant by the following digression:

"You distress me cruelly by your request about books; I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of conversation. I am reading Henry’s History of England, which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, desultory, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the historian divides it himself, into seven parts, The Civil and Military: Religion: Constitution: Learning and Learned Men: Arts and Sciences: Commerce Coins and Shipping: and Manners; so that for every evening of the week there will be a different subject; the Friday’s lot – Commerce, Coin and Shipping – you will find the least entertaining; but the next evening’s portion will make amends. "

However, it was only today, purely by serendipity, as I was reading along in part of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy for another purpose entirely, that I stumbled upon the key, in the following polemic uttered by the pontificating Dr. Slop:

"Thus—thus, my fellow-labourers and associates in this great harvest of our learning, now ripening before our eyes; thus it is, by slow steps of casual increase, that our knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, aenigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and obstetrical, with fifty other branches of it, (most of 'em ending as these do, in ical) have for these two last centuries and more, gradually been creeping upwards towards that Akme of their perfections, from which, if we may form a conjecture from the advances of these last seven years, we cannot possibly be far off. When that happens, it is to be hoped, it will put an end to all kind of writings whatsoever;—the want of all kind of writing will put an end to all kind of reading;—and that in time, As war begets poverty; poverty peace,—must, in course, put an end to all kind of knowledge,—and then—we shall have all to begin over again; or, in other words, be exactly where we started."

So it turns out that the famous explicit reference to "Uncle Toby's annuity" in Letter 39, written nearly 4 years after Letter 26, is _not_ JA's first epistolary reference to Sterne's novel.

As I interpret this veiled allusion, I believe that JA, in code, is telling her close friend Martha that JA is actually delighted that Martha has requested JA to bring books along! I.e., this is another one of JA's many verbal burlesques, with her mock "distress" being code for its diametric opposite, i.e., JA's great pleasure. Which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. After all, we know that Martha has not long before been JA's best audience from Letter 19's similar burlesque ("I would not let Martha read "First Impressions" again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it."); and it seems clear to me that both of these highly intelligent and witty women--both the genius writer and the acutely perceptive reader-- have sorely missed sharing their passion for literature, and are eagerly looking forward to spending extended time together to talk about books, books, books--especially the books that JA herself has been writing so diligently (as evidenced by the endless stream of echoes of NA and P&P which I have documented during our group reading of JA's 1798-1800 letters) since their last visit together. JA and Martha are actually bursting with anticipation of JA reading her latest writing to Martha, because even though JA can indeed "do that at home", she cannot do it with as sharp and discerning an audience as Martha. Gales of laughter will ring out, but Martha will also give JA honest feedback and constructive criticism, that JA sorely misses.

In short, Martha must have been a major Muse to Jane.

And I perceive that It is no accident that JA chooses Sterne's _Tristram Shandy_ as her "code book", because that novel was already very famous as the most experimental, cutting edge novel previously written in English (in turn drawing _its_ primary inspiration from the mother of experimental novels, Cervantes's _Don Quixote_). In NA, Catherine and Isabella share a passion for horrid novels, but, as much as I do believe JA enjoyed and admired Radcliffe, I see that JA and Martha shared a deeper love is for Sterne's ground-breaking novel, with its apparently "loose, desultory, unconnected strain" masking the profoundest metafiction. And the reason I stumbled upon this allusion in the first place is that I was delving for the first time into the ways that JA emulated and extended Sterne's metafictional achievements in Northanger Abbey!

Anyway, there is a bit more to unpack today. JA, knowing she has a very sophisticated reader in Martha, cannot resist extending her veiled allusion to Sterne's masterpiece in a final, ribald direction:

"With such a provision on my part, if you will do yours by repeating the French Grammar, and Mrs Stent will now and then _ejaculate_ some wonder about the _cocks_ and hens, what can we want?"

A few years ago, when I first read that line, it was obvious to me that this was a Mary Crawford-esque salacious pun that JA would never, never, never have included in a letter to Cassandra. But now, having realized the above, it also dawned on me that this was a veiled allusion to _Tristram Shandy_, the novel which is in many ways one long virtuosic salacious pun! And it did not take me long to find the specific source JA was pointing to so slyly.

First, here is what we read near the end of Sterne's novel, that points to one of those salacious words:

"I dare say, quoth my mother—But stop, dear Sir—for what my mother dared to say upon the occasion—and what my father did say upon it—with her replies and his rejoinders, shall be read, perused, paraphrased, commented, and descanted upon—or to say it all in a word, shall be thumb'd over by Posterity in a chapter apart—I say, by Posterity—and care not, if I repeat the word again—for what has this book done more than the Legation of Moses, or the Tale of a Tub, that it may not swim down the gutter of Time along with them?

I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen: the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more—every thing presses on—whilst thou art twisting that lock,—see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.—

—Heaven have mercy upon us both!

Now, for the world thinks of that _ejaculation_--I would not give a groat."

And as for "the French grammar", there must be about 35 references to the French in Tristram Shandy, and two very interesting references to grammar:



But that's not the last of it. JA has made certain that Martha will get the literary in-joke, because the capper is that JA's comment _also_ points to the following line--which just happens to be the _last_ line--in _Tristram Shandy_, and one that has passed into the wider English parlance as a classic idiom:


"L..d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—A _Cock_ and a Bull, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard."

Indeed, JA's epistolary joke in Letter 26 might just be "the best of its kind" in all of JA's letters!

Cheers, ARNIE
sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com

P.S.: Apropos Diane's observations regarding the "May-pole" that JA described as "broke in two", and the two Elms which were "blown down", at the end of Letter 25---written by JA to CEA only three _days_ prior to JA's writing Letter 26 to Martha---is it only a coincidence that _Tristram Shandy_ includes the following passage?:


"When we arrived at the chaise-vamper's house, both the house and the shop were shut up; it was the eighth of September, the nativity of the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God—

—Tantarra-ra-tan-tivi—the whole world was gone out a May-poling—frisking here—capering there—no body cared a button for me or my remarks; so I sat me down upon a bench by the door, philosophating upon my condition: by a better fate than usually attends me, I had not waited half an hour, when the mistress came in to take the papilliotes from off her hair, before she went to the May-poles—

The _French_ women, by the bye, love May-poles, a la folie—that is, as much as their matins—give 'em but a May-pole, whether in May, June, July or September—they never count the times—down it goes—'tis meat, drink, washing, and lodging to 'em—and had we but the policy, an' please your worships (as wood is a little scarce in France), to send them but plenty of May-poles—"


Down it goes, French women who love May-poles, wood scarce in France--hmmm....

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