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

Monday, June 27, 2011

Letters 30 & 31: Henry Rice the Prodigal Son?....and Mary Lloyd plays Mrs. Elton to Peter DeBary's Frank Churchill?

_Henry Rice the Prodigal Son?_

"That James Digweed has refused Dean Curacy I suppose he has told you himself-tho' probably the subject has never been mentioned between you.-Mrs. Milles flatters herself falsely; it has never been Mrs. Rice's wish to have her son settled near herself-& there is now a hope entertained of her relenting in favour of Deane.-Mrs. Lefroy & her son in law were here yesterday ; she tries not to be sanguine, but he was in excellent spirits.-I rather wish they may have the Curacy. It will be an amusement to Mary to superintend their Household management, & abuse them for expense, especially as Mrs. L. means to advise them to put their washing out."

At the end of Letter 31, we have JA, above, revisiting, exactly one week later, that same thorny question of who will accept the Dean Curacy (and why, by the way, is it that JA spells it "Dean" when it is an adjective describing the curacy, and "Deane" when it is the village name?--she did this in both Letter 30 and now in Letter 31 as well). Now that the heir apparent, Peter DeBary, has astonished various Austens by refusing the curacy, JA now turns her attention to several other candidates.

JA begins in characteristically fine absurdist form--first supposing that James Digweed has told CEA that he has refused it, even though.....he probably has never mentioned it to CEA! Again, shades of the mangled logic progressions of Lewis Carroll! I doubt that James Digweed ever was interested in the first place, this strikes me as raillery with no factual foundation.

I also have a question--what does Le Faye mean when she writes about James Digweed: "ordained 1797 and became curate of Steventon 1798 but never actually held a benefice"?

Then we move on to another mini-satire--Mrs. Milles of Kent, whom JA is mocking as a silly gossip and long distance match prognosticator, has apparently speculated that Mrs. Rice of Kent would want her son, Henry Rice-- one year younger than JA--to settle near herself in Kent. The point is that Henry Rice was a serious candidates for the Dean Curacy, and in fact Le Faye's Bio Index reveals that Henry Rice _did_ become the Dean Curate in 1801.

Le Faye also informs us that Henry Rice was an eldest son, and "cheerful and amusing but a hopeless spendthrift and gambler, forever expecting his widowed mother to pay the debts he constantly incurred." As we will read in Letter 33, I think JA did not agree with Le Faye's appraisal of the relationship between Henry Rice and his mother. Stay tuned a few weeks on that one....

So far, this is not particularly interesting, but now it gets very interesting:

_Mary Lloyd plays Mrs. Elton to Peter DeBary's Frank Churchill?_

In regard to Peter DeBary's refusal of the Dean Curacy described by JA so elaborately and allusively in Letter 30, I just noticed a subliminal detail in the following sentence in Letter 31, which has completely altered my interpretation of the Peter DeBary saga:

"I feel rather indignant that any possible objection should be raised against so valuable a peice of preferment, so _delightful a situation_!-that Deane should not be universally allowed to be as near the Metropolis as any other country villages."

I previously suggested that in this passage JA was engaged in a put-on, speaking in the voice of her _father_, Reverend George Austen, bewildered at how Peter DeBary could possibly refuse such generous terms (which really are not so generous) to serve as curate in so advantageously situated a village as Deane (which JA hints is somehow similar to Glencoe, site of the famous massacre).

Now the phrase "so delightful a situation" has made me reasonably certain that it is _not_ the voice of Revd. Austen at all that JA is imagining, but that of _Mary_ Lloyd Austen, wife of James Lloyd, who will be the boss of the new Dean curate. Why??? Because of the following passage in Chapter 41 of _Emma_:

"...Jane Fairfax was still at her grandmother's; and as the return of the Campbells from Ireland was again delayed, and August, instead of Midsummer, fixed for it, she was likely to remain there full two months longer, provided at least she were able to defeat Mrs. Elton's activity in her service, and save herself from being hurried into _a delightful situation_ against her will."

It is not merely the exact quotation of "a delightful situation" that makes me so certain of the parallel between Mary Austen and Mrs. Elton. That was the "bread crumb" that alerted me to investigate possible parallels, but once I did, I quickly realized that there were, prima facie, a couple of promising parallels discernible between these two ladies, one fictional, one real: i.e., they are both become the wife of the local clergyman; and they are both officious busybodies (did you think of Mrs. Elton---along with Lady Catherine and Mrs. Norris----as I did, when you read "It will be an amusement to Mary to superintend their Household management, & abuse them for expense"?).

But it was when I considered Mary Lloyd Austen as the bewildered voice channeled by JA in Letter 30, that also provided a satisfying answer to the two questions I addressed in my last post, which it had not initially occurred to me might be related:

first, my inference that "Peter DeBary was the "tall clergyman who came with [the two Miss Ledgers, who, by the way, Le Faye has no idea who _they_ are!], whose name Mary would never have guessed"; and

second, my asking whether "JA [was] playfully hinting that Mary Lloyd (who was apparently not yet an item with the recently widowed James Austen) was interested in Peter DeBary."

How interesting the whole thing becomes if there _was_ this personal history between Mary Lloyd Austen and Peter DeBary, dating back 5 years to 1796. How much does it color our understanding of the little saga of the Dean curacy if Peter DeBary spurned Mary (who, as we know, was very sensitive about her post-smallpox appearance) in 1796 despite her having shown interest in him, leaving Mary to eventually refocus her matrimonial aspirations on James Austen! _That_ would cast the little rant against Peter DeBary which I now attribute to Mary Austen in a more sinister light.

I imagine Peter DeBary looking at the Dean curacy and being conflicted, being in need of a living to support himself now that his long term tutoring gig in Edinburgh has come to an end, but (1) finding the financial terms offered by James Austen and his wife less than satisfactory, and also (2) being very wary of placing himself under the thumb of the very woman whom he had scorned 5 years earlier, and her husband who probably was aware that he was Mary's "consolation prize". This fits perfectly with my previous interpretation of Miss Hawkins as having been scorned by the man she really wanted, Frank Churchill, and having to settle for Mr. Elton, but holding on to bitter resentment for having been scorned.

And I think JA saw all of this, and remembered all of this, when she wrote Emma, and "a delightful situation" was her way of tagging it.

Cheers, ARNIE

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