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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 36: Two More Scenes from The Human Comedy

"I then got Mr. Evelyn to talk to, & Miss Twisleton to look at; and I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an Adultress, for tho' repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first.-A resemblance to Mrs. Leigh was my guide. She is not so pretty as I expected; her face has the same defect of baldness as her sister's, & her features not so handsome;-she was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly & contentedly silly than anything else.

-Mrs. Badcock & two young Women were of the same party, except when Mrs. Badcock thought herself obliged to leave them to run round the room after her drunken Husband.-His avoidance, & her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene."

Is there another short passage in one of JA's letters which more conclusively stamps the author of these letters as one of history's most acute _and_ profound observers of the human comedy?

First we have the snapshot of Miss Twisleton, and if we were to guided by conventional Austen biography as to the significance of same, we would think this was proof that JA was an unforgiving sanctimonious prig who was appalled by Miss Twisleton's adulterous sins.

But a fair reading of this passage reveals a much subtler sort of portraiture. JA, it seems to me, is mocking the conventional reaction to Miss Twisleton, seeing an "Adulteress" and nothing more. Whereas JA sees much more. First, she draws an experimentally precise portrait of this woman's appearance, capturing the essence of both her genetic inheritance and also her behavior and mentality. From start to finish, we can savor JA's quintessential, deflating irony., for all the melodramatic anticipation that would for most of JA's female peers accompany seeing (gasp!), in the flesh, a real life Adulteress-- like one of the wild beasts at Exeter Exchange or Astley's---JA notices this rather sad woman's visual flaws, and also the apparently vacuous mind behind the heavily rouged face.

That is, I suggest, the really negative part of JA's judgment of this woman, more significant than her adultery, which I would guess was Lydia Bennet-esque in its thoughtlessness.

And as a bonus, we have the added piquant spice that Miss Twisleton was a Leigh by birth and her sister was married to a Leigh cousin, so there was a double family connection to the Austen family.

And then, with the tale of the Badcocks, we have still more theatre of the absurd to delight the piquant taste of JA, who, like Mr. Bennet, could not fail to enjoy such a spectacle. And yet I get the feeling that JA is not entirely amused, she also is revealing what must be, in the real world, a very sad story of Mrs. Badcock, whose husband is so out of control that she must somehow try to intervene, to prevent even greater public humiliation than has already occurred.

There was enough information there for CEA, the accomplished visual artist, to conjure up a couple of sketches, although they would perhaps not be appropriate for hanging on the walls of a respectable residence, but only for the private enjoyment of JA.

Cheers, ARNIE

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