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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"The other Mary" in Letters 49 & 50....even though Lord Brabourne and Deirdre Le Faye would not want you to connect those two dots

Not to go out of order in our group read of JA's letters, but I happened to come across two passages in Letters 49 & 50 today, which fits perfectly with the notion that JA did not think very highly of Mary Lloyd Austen....and how!

First here is the relevant passage in Letter 49:

"Alphonsine" did not do. We were disgusted in twenty pages, as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure; and we changed it for the "Female Quixotte," which now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it. Mrs. F. A., to whom it is new, enjoys it as one could wish; the other Mary, I believe, has little pleasure from that or any other book."

The standard interpretation of the first part of that quotation is that JA and the other two ladies in her ad hoc reading group, her sisters in law Mrs. Frank Austen and Mrs. James Austen, were all disgusted at the theme of adultery depicted in de Genlis's Alphonsine, and that is why the book was put aside for another. I have never found that argument convincing, and have always believed that JA here is doing what she does so often in her letters, i.e., assuming the voice of another person for purposes of satire and irony--and in this instance, I believe that other person is none other than Mary Lloyd Austen!

Why would JA do this in this case? Because we can see the reason in what JA writes at the end of that same paragraph---"the other Mary, I believe, has little pleasure from that or any other book."

It seems clear to me that Frank's wife Mary is not the problem here, it is James's wife Mary, a prig, who puts the kibosh on reading any further in de Genlis. Here's how i reconstruct the background on this---first, I believe it was JA who brought Alphonsine forward in the first place--after all, it is well known that JA was very interested in de Genlis's fiction. And it could not have been Frank's wife Mary who brought it forward, she was all of _seventeen_ in 1807 (she married Frank at age 16 a year earlier!), and she was hardly going to be bringing forward risque literature for her two much older and more mature sisters in law to read.

So...the barely concealed subtext of this passage is a little power struggle between Jane Austen and James's wife Mary, and the "turf" being contested between them is JA's "home field", i.e., literature.

When Alphonsine is tossed aside at Mary Lloyd Austen's insistence, I see JA as the one who then comes forward with _another_ subversive feminist-tinged text, The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox. And of course Mary Lloyd Austen has little pleasure in it either, which is what prompts JA's openly derisive barb at her Bowdlerizing sister in law.

And which also, I believe, finds its way into Pride and Prejudice, in the mouth of the equally unpleasant Caroline Bingley:

"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."

"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am NOT a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."

Now _that_ is a sweet revenge on JA's part, to paint Mary Lloyd Austen as Caroline Bingley, getting her comeuppance from JA's most attractive and witty heroine, Lizzy Bennet!

And...what seals the deal on this interpretation, I claim, is the following passage in Letter 50, written exactly one month after Letter 49:

"I should not be surprised if we were to be visited by James again this week; he gave us reason to expect him soon, and if they go to Eversley he cannot come next week. I am sorry & angry that his Visits should not give us more pleasure; the company of so good & so clever a Man ought to be gratifying in itself; – but his Chat seems all forced, his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife’s, & his time here is spent I think in walking about the House & banging the doors, or ringing the Bell for a glass of Water."

First, what is noteworthy is that Lord Brabourne, that unashamed Bowlderizer, in his 1884 edition of the letters, deleted everything in that paragraph after the words "he cannot come next week." Of course he does this, because this is an additional unmasked attack by JA on James Austen, and that just won't do to let Janeites see JA being so severe in her judgment on both her elder brother James and his wife.

But note in particular the reference to "his Opinions on many points too much copied from his Wife's", and think about it in connection with JA's assuming the voice of Mary Lloyd Austen in rendering a harsh judgment on de Genlis's Alphonsine. That is surely one of the opinions which James has been forced to mouth in support of his wife!

And finally, why do I suggest in my Subject Line that Deirdre Le Faye does not want us to connect these passages in Letters 49 & 50? After all, she never connects the dots between passages in different letters, whether or not they are controversial passages or not. And she does not delete any of the text of the letters as Brabourne did.

No, what she did was much sneakier, and really is her M.O., always doing her censorious work in the shadows---very simply, Le Faye fails to include a reference to the above passage in Letter 49 in Mary Lloyd Austen's index entry! Therefore, a reader who was not able to deduce who the "other Mary" was, would not be able to connect these passages in these two letters, and realize their full mutual implications when read together!

As they might have said regarding the recently concluded British Open, "Par for the course".

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: