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Friday, July 8, 2011

Letter 32: "....I suppose he went to see the Cathedral, that he might know how he should like to be married in it." .....and the Sotherton Chapel

-Why did not J. d. make his proposals to you? I suppose he went to see the Cathedral, that he might know how he should like to be married in it."

It just occurred to me that JA's witty little absurdism, above, is one that JA preserved in her memory, as she recast the joke (of merely being physically present in sacred space as a prelude to taking vows in that same space) in a much subtler and brilliant form 13 years later in the following scene in Chapter 9 of Mansfield Park, in the Sotherton chapel:


"...While this was passing, the rest of the party being scattered about the chapel, Julia called Mr. Crawford's attention to her sister, by saying, "Do look at Mr. Rushworth and Maria, standing side by side, exactly as if the ceremony were going to be performed. Have not they completely the air of it?"

Mr. Crawford smiled his acquiescence, and stepping forward to Maria, said, in a voice which she only could hear, "I do not like to see Miss Bertram so near the altar."

Starting, the lady instinctively moved a step or two, but recovering herself in a moment, affected to laugh, and asked him, in a tone not much louder, "If he would give her away?"

"I am afraid I should do it very awkwardly," was his reply, with a look of meaning.

Julia, joining them at the moment, carried on the joke.

"Upon my word, it is really a pity that it should not take place directly, if we had but a proper licence, for here we are altogether, and nothing in the world could be more snug and pleasant." And she talked and laughed about it with so little caution as to catch the comprehension of Mr. Rushworth and his mother, and expose her sister to the whispered gallantries of her lover, while Mrs. Rushworth spoke with proper smiles and dignity of its being a most happy event to her whenever it took place.

"If Edmund were but in orders!" cried Julia, and running to where he stood with Miss Crawford and Fanny: "My dear Edmund, if you were but in orders now, you might perform the ceremony directly. How unlucky that you are not ordained; Mr. Rushworth and Maria are quite ready."

Julia is quite the resourceful devil in this scene, isn't she, using one gambit to stir up trouble not only for Maria in _her_ love life, but also for Edmund in _his_ !


Actually, as I reflect further, I don' t believe that JA dredged the above joke up from her memory. I see no reason not to infer that among the "extracts" which JA made and kept close at hand during the course of her writing career, as handy reference resources to be drawn upon as she wrote, there would have been one volume devoted exclusively to jokes, so that she would have a ready prompt to refer to, and to inspire her to conjure up a variation on an old joke in a new setting, such I believe she did, above.

Those notions of mine fit well with the following recollection of niece Marianne Knight:

"I remember that when Aunt Jane came to us at Godmersham she used to bring the MS. of whatever novel she was writing with her, and would shut herself up with my elder sisters in one of the bedrooms to read them aloud. I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door, and thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful. I also remember how Aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library, saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before."

Marianne Knight was born in September 1801, and therefore was exactly 12 years old (and with four younger siblings) when JA visited Godmersham for 6 weeks from Sept.-Nov., 1813. During that stretch, JA wrote Letters 89 through 96, and was putting the finishing touches on the writing of MP as well.

And so I think it is a virtual certainty that the peals of laughter from Marianne's older sisters Fanny and Elizabeth (ages 20 and almost 14, respectively) that echoed through the halls of Godmersham during that visit were caused by Aunt Jane reading various passages from _Mansfield Park_ to her older Godmersham nieces, including the above-quoted passage.

I imagine many Janeites would be surprised at the idea of JA eliciting peals of laughter from teenaged nieces by reading aloud from Mansfield Park, which is surely the Austen novel that most Janeites would _least_ associate with readerly LOL reactions. However, it makes perfect sense to me, as I see humor everywhere in Mansfield Park--dark biting sarcastic humor---sometimes so dark it practically draws blood---but still very very funny, when read with one's ear attuned to an appropriately dark frequency, such as in the above quoted passage.

JA, like Shakespeare, never lost sight of the central fact that the Human Comedy and the Human Tragedy are two sides of the same Human Face.

Cheers, ARNIE

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