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

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 32 Potpourri

"Expect a most agreeable letter, for not being overburdened with subject (having nothing at all to say), I shall have no check to my genius from beginning to end. "

I've now learned that whenever JA claims to have "nothing at all to say", I immediately suspect her of having a great deal to say, but covertly. And Letter 33 certainly fits that description, as it is filled with all sorts of veiled anger at the fate of married Englishwomen.

But JA starts out comically. After speaking at length about the letter CEA has recently received from brother Frank about various important events in his naval career, JA then writes:

"Eliza talks of having read in a Newspaper that all the 1st Lieut[enant]s of the Frigates whose captains were to be sent into line-of-battle ships were to be promoted to the rank of commanders. If it be true, Mr. Valentine may afford himself a fine Valentine's knot..."

Don't be confused, that was not Eliza Hancock Austen who read the Newspaper, it was Eliza Lloyd Fowle. The Hubback _Sailor Brothers_ book states that "The "promotion" spoken of in this letter was extensive, and took place on January 1, 1801, on the occasion of the union of Great Britain and Ireland." What caught my eye was JA's reference to "a fine Valentine's knot". I could find no other reference to a "Valentine knot" anywhere in Google Books, but I suspect that JA is referring to something along the lines of the following:

But what does JA mean by such a reference? Is it that Lieutenant Valentine, upon being promoted to the rank of Commander (which actually did not occur for him, per Le Faye, until 1806), will be a little less poor, and therefore might, as in the case of Captain Wentworth, become a more eligible bachelor capable of attracting a bride to tie a love-know with? Or is there some other plausible meaning that is eluding me?

" We played at vingt-un, which, as Fulwar was unsuccessful, gave him an opportunity of exposing himself as usual."

Even I do not read this passage as suggesting that Fulwar Fowle was a flasher (I defy anyone to repeat that aloud three times very fast without stumbling over a consonant or two!), but JA seems instead to be rather straightforwardly saying something along the lines of "Fulwar Fowle felt foolish after flaring off at his friends." ;)

Then JA gets down to the "nothing" she really has to say:

"Eliza says she is quite well, but she is thinner than when we saw her last, and not in very good looks. I suppose she has not recovered from the effects of her illness in December. She cuts her hair too short over her forehead, and does not wear her cap far enough upon her head; in spite of these many disadvantages, however, I can still admire her beauty."

In December 1800, my guess is that Eliza Lloyd Fowle, then 32, would have just endured perhaps the tenth pregnancy of her 12 year marriage (Le Faye lists 6 births, one stillborn, but there is a 3 year gap in births from 1795-7, which gap, I strongly and sadly suspect, was not due to separate beds, but to miscarriages, and I suspect the same occurred again in 1800--'illness" indeed!). JA's sadness (and resigned anger) over the way this stoical friend is being worn out physically but this gauntlet of pregnancies is visible to me, just under the surface.

And the death of women is the theme of the next bit as well:

"The neighbourhood have quite recovered the death of Mrs. Rider; so much so, that I think they are rather rejoiced at it now; her things were so very dear! and Mrs. Rogers is to be all that is desirable. Not even death itself can fix the friendship of the world."

Le Faye's footnote identifies Mrs. Rider as the old haberdasher in the neighborhood, and Mrs. Rogers as her successor. There is JA's black humor instantly seizing upon this death, wickedly suggesting that Mrs. Rider is paying a big postmortem price for her having charged too much while alive! And that ironic tone fits hand in glove with the irony of the following much more famous paragraph, which, upon my rereading it now, has me genuinely LOL as if I had never read it before:

"[Mrs. Churchill's sudden death] was felt as such things must be felt. Every body had a degree of gravity and sorrow; tenderness towards the departed, solicitude for the surviving friends; and, in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried. Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame. Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints. "

I just love the addition of the totally subversive afterthought to all the initial pieties: "...and in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried". And I love the way JA tweaks Goldsmith for a sardonic laugh. And I love even more the irony which JA enjoys so much, that she actually writes dialog to follow it, which is the way that Mrs. Churchill, in death, earns a reversal of her longstanding "conviction" of having imagined all her illnesses. And the best irony of all is the hidden one, which is that if Frank murdered her, then that would be his perfect revenge on her for all the years she pretended to be sick in order to control his life!

And I see the seeds of all of that in the tale of Mrs. Rider in Letter 33.

Then we come to this whopper:

"I am happy to hear of Mrs. Knight's amendment, whatever might be her complaint. I cannot think so ill of her however, in spite of your insinuations, as to suspect her of having lain-in -- I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an /accident/ at the utmost."

The above is (to paraphrase Saddam Hussein) the mother of all inappropriate jokes in JA's letters, which I have written several times in the past, and which I mention in my JASNA talk, a little fantasy on the theme of the 47 year old Mrs. Knight, adoptive mother of Edward Austen, somehow getting knocked up--but it's okay, because it must have happened by accident!

I think JA is in a particularly free flow of uninhibited spirits as she writes this letter, because she has been away from CEA's restraining influence for several months, _plus_ JA has just enjoyed an evening at Deane where she and Martha, as well as Mr. Holder (he who tells infamous puns), have probably all been egging each other on to more and more outrageous verbalizations. I would not be surprised if the joke about Mrs. Knight arose as part of the general hiliarity of the evening at Deane.

"The Wylmots being robbed must be an amusing thing to their acquaintance, and I hope it is as much their pleasure as it seems their avocation to be subjects of general entertainment."

And, without taking a refill of ink for her quill, there are the sarcasm-filled seeds of Mr. Bennet's famous comments about schadenfreude!

And the last item in my little potpourri of excerpts from Letter 33 is the following, yet _another_ "paean" to serial pregnancy and childbirth:

"Caroline was only brought to bed on the 7th of this month, so that her recovery does seem pretty rapid. I have heard twice from Edward on the occasion, and his letters have each been exactly what they ought to be -- cheerful and amusing. He dares not write otherwise to /me/, but perhaps he might be obliged to purge himself from the guilt of writing nonsense by filling his shoes with whole peas for a week afterwards. Mrs. G. has left him 100/l./, his wife and son 500/l./ each."

The "Edward" who writes to JA is cousin Edward Cooper, the clergyman whom (according to Annette Upfal, and I believe her to be 100% correct) JA and CEA mercilessly satirized in Jane's 1793 History of England, first using a portrait of Edward Cooper's own ugly face to represent Edward IV, and then describing Edward IV in a similarly unflattering way:

And Caroline Powys Cooper, in strikingly similar and dire circumstances like Elizabeth Lloyd Fowle, has just given birth to her fifth child in seven years of marriage (she too had a few more to go before her career as "breeding animal" ended). JA's sarcasm is overt here. Edward Cooper is "cheerful and amusing" because he is not the spouse who is bearing and then caring for this large litter of small children, and so JA thinks of a fairy tale sort of karmic punishment for his utter cluelessness and disregard for his wife's well being.

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

I just realized I should post a link myself, to my other post about Eliza Lloyd Fowle and her unfortunate career of serial pregnancy:

Cheers, ARNIE