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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Letter 34: "....while Steventon is still ours...."

"He received my letter, communicating our plans, before he left England, was much surprised of course, but is quite reconciled to them, & means to come to Steventon once more while Steventon is ours.-"

In case there was any doubt as to how the less influential members of the Austen family felt about the move to Bath, the above very clear statement must remove a great deal of that doubt. And the unstated but clear implication is that James Austen and his wife are not part of that "ours", they are dispossessors, evictors.

I cannot help but be reminded of the scene at the end of Fiddler on the Roof (which I will check tomorrow to see if it is a modern invention or was part of Sholom Aleichem's original stories), when the Tsar's local boss, who has known Tevye all their lives, gives Tevye and his fellow Jewish villagers the notice to get out of Anatevka forever within a couple of days. Tevye finds one shred of dignity he can still preserve in the face of this horrible act of injustice, when he tells his "old friend" the\ boss to get off of Tevye's land, while it is still Tevye's for those few

As far as I can tell from a quick check online, the only Austen biographer who makes a specific comment about the plain meaning of this passage is Tomalin. Nokes quotes the passage, but does not otherwise take special note,and the few other biographers who even touch on this passage at all merely include it within a quotation of the entire paragraph and otherwise treat this passage as if it were no different from other routine gossip and family news.

I love, and totally agree with, Tomalin's very frank and straightforward discussion of JA's anger over being evicted from Steventon by brother James and his wife Mary. I was particularly pleased to see Tomalin connecting the dots back to the following passage in Letter 30, written less than a month before Letter 33, which I had overlooked a few weeks ago, because I did not realize exactly what was being described:

"The wedding-day is to be celebrated on the 16th because the 17th falls on Saturday -& a day or two before the 16th Mary will drive her sister to Ibthrop to find all the festivity she can in contriving for everybody's comfort, & being thwarted or teized by almost everybody's temper.-Fulwar, Eliza, & Tom Chute are to be of the party;-I know of nobody else.-I was asked, but declined it."

What this means, Tomalin has noticed, is that James and Mary were celebrating their 6th wedding anniversary, and it is hard to avoid the feeling that Mary is a kind of Mrs. Norris, a busybody who intrudes and oppresses family while claiming to be concerned about everyone else's comfort. And Tomalin sees meaning, and I agree with her, in JA's very matter of fact report of her refusal of this invitation--"I declined it"--nothing else need be said, CEA understands all the reasons why JA
declined it.

When you look at this series of letters from late 1800 through Feb. 1801, the theme of anger over being dispossessed is everywhere, but also the surreal and grotesque added layer of being forced into frequent contact with the dispossessors, who are celebrating this moment in Austen family history. No wonder the sarcasm drips from so many places in these letters, it was the hypocrisy about the injustice, the final indignity of being expected to grin and bear it, while being treated so abominably, that JA hated the most.

And isn't that the essence of the first half dozen chapters of S&S, the way that the three Dashwood women must endure Fanny's triumphal hypocrisy? Marianne can barely stifle her anger, and expressing it against Fanny.

Sound familiar? I can just imagine the lost epistolary version of Elinor and Marianne, with letters being written from Norland by Marianne which sound exactly like this series of letters written by JA from Steventon to CEA at Godmersham.


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