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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 36: "...I am more anxious to know the amount of my books..."

"...James I dare say has been over to Ibthrop by this time to enquire particularly after Mrs. Lloyd's health, & forestall whatever intelligence of the sale I might attempt to give.-Sixty-one guineas & a half for the three cows gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables. Eight for my Pianoforte, is about what I really expected to get; I am more anxious to know the amount of my books, especially as they are said to have sold well...."

Last week, I included the beginning of the above excerpt in a gathering together of disparate digs that JA sends in the direction of brother James, especially during and in the aftermath of JA's exile to Bath. However, I did not take note till this morning of the full import of the _end_ of this excerpt, "I am more anxious to know the amount of my books..."

The way I see it, what is unspoken but strongly implied is the awfulness of the sale of JA's books as a traumatic event in JA's life. Did she have a _large_ collection of books? If so, then what a devastation to her as a writer, to be suddenly torn away from a large collection of books which she has collected over more than a decade! Or did she have a _small_ collection of books? If so, then why did any of them have to be sold at all, for whatever pitifully small proceeds as could be garnered for them?

Large or small, therefore, such collection must have been lovingly assembled by JA over that long period of time. And if anyone reading this has any doubt about my claim, looking solely at her letters, look at how JA correctively rewrites this particularly ugly part of Austen family history in S&S, in the description of the dislocation of the Dashwood women to Devonshire:

"The furniture was all sent around by water. It chiefly consisted of household linen, plate, china, AND BOOKS, with A HANDSOME PIANOFORTE of Marianne's. Mrs. John Dashwood saw the packages depart with a sigh: she could not help feeling it hard that as Mrs. Dashwood's income would be so trifling in comparison with their own, she should have any handsome article of furniture."

So, even though the Dashwood women get screwed, inheritance-wise, nonetheless Marianne (JA's alter ego) gets to keep her books and her pianoforte, a luxury that JA herself did _not_ enjoy!

And look at how the importance of art-related possessions is emphasized and reinforced when they move into Barton Cottage:

"...each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavoring, by placing around them BOOKS and other possessions, to form
themselves a home. Marianne's PIANOFORTE was unpacked and properly disposed of; and Elinor's DRAWINGS were affixed to the walls of their sitting room."

And finally the following paean to books not long afterwards in S&S:

"I wish," said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, "that somebody would give us all a large fortune apiece!"

"Oh that they would!" cried Marianne, her eyes sparkling with animation, and her cheeks glowing with the delight of such imaginary happiness.

"We are all unanimous in that wish, I suppose," said Elinor, "in spite of the insufficiency of wealth."

"Oh dear!" cried Margaret, "how happy I should be! I wonder what I should do with it!"

Marianne looked as if she had no doubt on that point.

"I should be puzzled to spend so large a fortune myself," said Mrs. Dashwood, "if my children were all to be rich my help."

"You must begin your improvements on this house," observed Elinor, "and your difficulties will soon vanish."

"What magnificent orders would travel from this family to London," said Edward, "in such an event! What a happy day for BOOKsellers, music-sellers, and print-shops! You, Miss Dashwood, would give a general commission for every new print of merit to be sent you—and as for Marianne, I know her greatness of soul, there would not be music enough in London to content her. And BOOKS!—Thomson, Cowper, Scott—she would buy them all over and over again: she would buy up every copy, I believe, to prevent their falling into unworthy hands; and she would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree. Should not you, Marianne? Forgive me, if I am very saucy. But I was willing to shew you that I had not forgot our old disputes."

"I love to be reminded of the past, Edward—whether it be melancholy or gay, I love to recall it—and you will never offend me by talking of former times. You are very right in supposing how my money would be spent—some of it, at least—my loose cash would certainly be employed in improving my collection of music and BOOKS."

I think JA has made it clear in her first published novel what importance she ascribes to the necessity of a home to contain many books, in order for it to be a proper home to an intelligent young woman like Marianne Dashwood....or Jane Austen!

So, whether she had a large or a small collection of books at Steventon,
either way, their being sold was a reflection of how little JA's writing really meant in the Austen family, when push came to shove. James Austen's
being set up in as advantageous a position as possible---VERY important.
Jane Austen's writing--of no importance whatsoever.

Money talks, as JA understood very well. Regardless of whatever may have been expressed verbally to JA encouraging her writing, these were empty words, because when it came down to shillings and pence, no real value was ascribed to JA's writing, and her need for a library of books to support her writing.

And now we see, in fuller context, why JA would make that crack about "the
other Mary" and her lack of interesting in reading books.

No wonder she was so resentful of James and Mary Austen--wouldn't anybody be under such circumstances?

Cheers, ARNIE


P.S.: A final thought occurred to me as I was posting this: the one member of the Austen family who could not possibly please ignorance of the importance of books to JA would have to be James--the literary brother, the one who was the moving force behind the Loiterer, the one who wrote plaintive poetry all his life.

What a particularly awful betrayal it would have been in JA's eyes for _him_ of all the members of her family to benefit, even if indirectly, from the sale of JA's book collection!

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