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

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 30 cryptically pointing back to cryptic passage in Letter 28 about the Payne Family

Several years ago, Diana Birchall wrote a very interesting article about Warren Hastings entitled something like "Gold Mohrs and Palanquins" for Jane Austen's Regency World, in which, among many other points, she mentioned, in passing, Maria Payne, who was a companion to Mrs. Warren Hastings during the latter's old age.

Diana and I had, back when she wrote the article (in 2006, I believe), tossed ideas back and forth very briefly about the following very cryptic passage which begins Letter 28, dated December 1, 1800, which I had noticed for the first time and brought to her attention:

“Shall you expect to hear from me on Wednesday or not?-I think you will, or I should not write, as the three days & half which have passed since my last letter was sent, have not produced many materials towards filling another sheet of paper.-But like Mrs. Hastings, " I do not despair "-& you perhaps like the faithful Maria may feel still more certain of the happy Event.”

At the time, as I recall, we were not able to make much of it, and even two weeks ago, I looked at it again and found I had nothing fresh to say about it. Tonight, though, I was startled into recalling the above quoted passage (still fresh in my memory from rereading it two weeks ago) when I read, this evening, the _following_ parallel passage which begins Letter 30 dated January 3, 1800:

"The "perhaps" which concluded my last letter being only a "perhaps," will not occasion your being overpowered with surprise, I dare say, if you /should/ receive this before Tuesday, which, unless circumstances are very perverse, will be the case. I received yours with much general philanthropy, and still more peculiar good will, two days ago; and I suppose I need not tell you that it was very long, being written on a foolscap sheet, and very entertaining, being written by you. Mr. Payne has been dead long enough for Henry to be out of mourning for him before his last visit, though we knew nothing of it till about that time. Why he died, or of what complaint, or to what noblemen he bequeathed his four daughters in marriage, we have not heard." very strange that Letter 28 and Letter 30, written less than 5 weeks apart, _both_ begin with an apparently absurdist discussion about (a) durations between letters passing between the Austen sisters, and also about (b) the lengths of their letters, and then _both_ (c) also lurch abruptly into an apparent non sequitur about a subject never previously addressed by JA in any prior letter, i.e., the Payne family.....

I had never connected these two introductory epistolary passages before, but I reaized right away that in some way they _must_ be connected....but how??

First, it drove me back to Le Faye's Bio Index, and then to my old notes about Diana's article, to refresh my dim memory about Mr. Payne, both his life and his demise. What I learned from Le Faye is that Mr. Payne died suddenly and intestate (i.e., without a Will) on December 7, 1800, just 6 days after JA began Letter 28 writing about "the faithful Maria" who "may feel still more certain of the _happy_ Event."

That is very curious, don't you think? What does JA mean, exactly, by "we knew nothing of it till about that time"? Is "it" Mr. Payne's death? And when is "about that time"? Is she saying that she knew about Mr. Payne being mortally ill _before_ he died, or after? It seems that JA and CEA know what JA meant, but it seems very muddy to me, and I wonder if that was intentionally so, JA did not want to be too precise, in case other eyes at Godmersham than CEA's read Letter 30.

Apparently Henry Austen has been in mourning for Mr. Payne, because Henry is Eliza's husband, and Mr. Payne was (as Le Faye tells us) Warren Hastings's old friend, and Eliza of course was (officially) Warren Hastings's goddaughter. If JA really did not know about Mr. Payne being ill when she wrote Letter 28 on December 1, it seems to me a very improbable coincidence for JA to suddenly write about this man's daughter so cryptically on December 1, only to have him suddenly drop dead six days later!

No, surely JA and CEA first heard (from Henry, no doubt) that he was dying, _then_ JA wrote Letter 28, _then_ JA heard the news of his actual death.

And....bigger question----why is JA making this jarringly tasteless joke about this man bequeathing his daughters to noblemen? Especially when you consider that Maria Payne is one of those four daughters, and that she is as attached to Daylesford as Harriet Smith was to Hartfield during the first part of Emma, and JA has written that weird thing about Maria Payne and "the happy Event" in Letter 28.

And...perhaps the seemingly silly discussion of durations between letters, and lengths of letters, in some way is a veiled reference to the perhaps sensitive subject of the chronology of these letters in relation to Mr. Payne's final illness and death? Again, maybe JA is conveying information to CEA in a coded fashion.

My sense is that Le Faye recognized this connection between these opening sections of Letters 28 and 30, and all this "smoky" fuzziness on JA's part, and Le Faye was hoping nobody else would notice it. But, being pragmatic, she knew that perhaps some stubborn readers (like myself) might, and then she did not want anyone to make any unpleasant inferences, such as inferring that Mr. Payne's death was not _that_ sudden, and that JA and CEA had been informed of his being mortally ill at least a week or two before he actually died, and therefore "the happy Event" JA was suggesting that Maria (Payne) was feeling "still more certain" about was her own father's imminent _death_! That would not be borne!

Except I really do think it is the most logical inference from the material at hand. Certainly it fits with JA's joke about the daughters being bequeathed to noblemen, which would, according to the black humor of the joke, be a "happy Event" for Maria!

And Le Faye's bio index also revealed that Mr. Payne had, during his life, been an old friend of Warren Hastings, so it would make sense that the Austens would pay close attention to the death of this man, who, Le Faye also tells us, had connections via his deceased mother, to the Royal Family!--Hence JA's wisecrack about bequeathing his daughters to noblemen.

And.... it also just occurs to me as I write this, that there is even blacker humor in JA's joke. Why? Because Le Faye's Bio Index emphasizes Mr. Payne's very sudden death (so sudden, we are to infer, that he had no time to make a Will). And the clear implication is that because he was intestate, his estate, a la Jarndyce v Jarndyce, took 6+ years to settle, and during that long duration of his probate estate, his unfortunate wife apparently was burdened with the obligation to pay for the upkeep of the royal menagerie for that whole time, because that apparently had been _his_ obligation while alive, although I have no idea why the Royal Family did not pay its own bills for its own menagerie.....

Anyway, the darker humor of JA"s joke is based on the conceit of a man bequeathing his daughters to noblemen, as if his daughters were _farm_ animals, which is darkly funny if the delay in estate settlement apparently caused his wife to have to shell out big bucks to pay for the upkeep of _royal_ animals.

In short, JA was never far away from her dark vision of Englishwomen being treated like farms animals under English marriage and family laws and customs.

In summary, then, Le Faye's handling of all of this is very strange, and that fits with the fact that Mr. Payne was, as I mentioned above, an old friend of Warren Hastings. After all, if memory serves me right, Le Faye took a big bite out of David Nokes and another well known Austen scholar some years ago, because they dared to suggest what has been rumored for over 200 years by many people, i.e., that Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen was Warren Hastings's illegitimate daughter, sired on JA's paternal aunt Philadelphia. So it would make sense that Le Faye would be extra vigilant about anything unsavory in JA's Letters (which of course were long in the public domain) which pertained to Hastings, and would, if she could, divert readers from any sort of inference that JA was not kindly disposed toward Warren Hastings.

Of course, as I have blogged and posted in these groups, I am convinced that JA was _not at all_ kindly disposed toward Warren Hastings, despite the sugar coated mythology to the contrary that has been promulgated over two centuries by the likes of Le Faye.

Very interesting, as Arte Johnson would have said......

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. And, in light of all the above, should we make anything of the following last P.S. to Letter 66?:

"The Portsmouth paper gave a melancholy history of a poor mad woman, escaped from confinement, who said her husband and daughter, of the name of _Payne_, lived at Ashford, in Kent. Do you own them?"

Le Faye has no Bio Index entry for a Payne family living in Kent. Perhaps the reason is that there was no such family, and that there was no such "melancholy history" in real life at all, but that this was JA's (characteristic) sort of mini-fantasy (like "Mr. Floor who is _low_ in our estimation"), a kind of "bookend" to her "faithful Maria" confabulation in Letter 28, prompted by some news about Maria Payne?

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