(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Letter 34 & NA: " would rather accept the attentions of John.."

I just found another "bread crumb" that shows yet another significant echo of JA's fiction in her letters. First, here is the real life end of the equation, in Letter 34:

"She meditates your returning into Hampshire together, & if the Time should accord, it would not be undesirable. She talks of staying only a fortnight, & as that will bring your stay in Berkeley Street to three weeks, I suppose you would not wish to make it longer.-Do not let this however retard your coming down, if you had intended a much earlier return.-I suppose whenever you come, Henry would send you in his carriage a stage or two, where you might be met by John, whose protection you would
we imagine think sufficient for the rest of your Journey. He might ride on the Bar, or might even sometimes meet with the accomodation of a sunday-chaise.-James has offered to meet you anywhere, but as that would be to give him trouble without any COUNTERPOISE of CONVENIENCE, as he has no intention of going to London at present on his own account, we suppose that you would rather accept the attentions of John.-"

In the latter half of this passage, as I noted a week ago, JA paints an unforgiving portrait of brother James as a man who, like John Dashwood, has reduced life in general, and moral judgment in particular, to an endless series of calculations of costs and benefits. If the cost of his interrupting his plans (of, e.g., going hunting with one of his rich friends who are the objects of his persistent Collinsesque toadying) were, heavens forbid, to exceed the benefit of meeting CEA (e.g., if by doing so he might also be able to accomplish some other selfish goal), then the self-centered "clockwork orange" which is James Austen would fall out of
balance, the finely calibrated mechanism would be disrupted, and that cannot be allowed.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Fanny Dashwood, and also Mary Lloyd Austen, have such an easy time manipulating their respective husbands to do banal evil---the clever wife need only speak in her husband's own language, the language of tit for tat, the diametric opposite of the Christian charity one might have hoped to receive from a Christian clergyman.

And note that JA plants a subtle mnemonic device in this passage, the turn of phrase "counterpoise of convenience", both to make it more noticeable and also to make it more memorable. "Counterpoise" is actually a word that was almost exclusively used in JA's time in a physics or chemistry context, i.e., a hard science term. JA adapts it metaphorically to a moral context, and uses it ironically. CEA cannot count on receiving the "time of day", so to speak, from brother James.

I then wondered whether JA ever used the word "counterpoise" in any other instance, and look what I found when I searched for it, in Chapter 11 of Northanger Abbey:

"She could not think the Tilneys had acted quite well by her, in so readily giving up their engagement, without sending her any message of excuse. It was now but an hour later than the time fixed on for the beginning of their walk; and, in spite of what she had heard of the prodigious accumulation of dirt in the course of that hour, she could not from her own observation help thinking that they might have gone with very little INCONVENIENCE. On the other hand, the delight of exploring an
edifice like Udolpho, as her fancy represented Blaize Castle to be, was such a COUNTERPOISE of good as might console her for almost anything. "

Is it just a coincidence that in Letter 34, the words "counterpoise" _and_ "(in)convenience" are used in the context of the pros and cons of how a young woman, CEA, is to be transported by others from Point A to Point B, and that in the above passage from NA, these 2 words are _also_ used in the context of a young woman, Catherine Morland, being tempted to accept the rude, obnoxious invitation of John Thorpe to drive her to a desirable destination, in reaction to a perceived slight in regard by supposedly generous friends to another desired conveyance of a female body? it also just a coincidence that in the cast of players in NA we have a John (Thorpe), a Catherine (Morland), a Henry (Tilney) and a James (Morland), and in the cast of real life players we _also_ have a John (Lyford?), a Catherine (Bigg), a Henry (Austen) and a James (Austen)--the last being an older brother in both cases? And, even more specific, in both cases the attentions of "John" are deemed preferable!

And note the crucial linkage of real life to fiction via a stick with the same unusual words attached to each end of that stick! Or, perhaps a better metaphor, drawn from the world of science, as suggested by that word "counterpoise", would be of a chemical bond between two "molecules"-- uniting the pathetic tales of the "heroine" CEA and the "heroine" Catherine Morland, respectively.

How could this linkage be more intentional and significant? And the capper is that the above passage in Letter 34 comes immediately _after_ the passage containing "while Steventon is still ours", which I also highlighted a week ago-a "story" in which the heroine goes to Bath from her home in the English countryside.

In short, then, I give you the Revd. James Austen, the ANTI-hero of the story of the dispossession of the Austen women from Steventon to Bath.

And that CEA did _not_ destroy Letter 34, and did _not_ excise this long paragraph about that dispossession, knowing full well exactly what it signified, and how it connected to NA, speaks volumes about CEA's agreement with JA on this judgment of brother James, and of CEA's honoring her dead sister by not silencing her after death had taken her body.

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: