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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cowper's Tirocinium: "Then why resign into a stranger's hand A task as much within your own command...,

Diana Birchall responded with a remarkable insight to my previous post about Linda Walker's 2004 article about Jane Austen being sent away at seven:

"I think Arnie (via Linda Walker) is talking sense about the unhappiness of JA's childhood."

Thanks, Diana! Reading Linda's article in May 2006 was my own wakeup call to begin to read the biographies and the letters _against_ the grain. My own research into JA's novels had by then already primed me to receive the crucial message Linda had to convey, and I have never lost sight of it since. In my opinion, those who would seek to divorce the letters from the novels make a serious error. They are of a piece.

"If you methodically look at the facts, as Walker does, it adds up to Fanny Price-level trauma. At the very least Jane Austen undeniably endured horrors in her illness and the deaths so close to her, at such a young age."

I am glad you are on the same page with Linda and myself.

"We can understand how she so feelingly entered into Fanny Price's thoughts later when she wrote: "Her eagerness, her impatience, her longings to be with them, were such as to bring a line or two of Cowper’s Tirocinium for ever before her. “With what intense desire she wants her home,” was continually on her tongue, as the truest description of a yearning which she could not suppose any schoolboy’s bosom to feel more keenly."

Diana, you've zeroed in on _precisely_ the passage in MP which best exemplifies this message of JA's anger at having been sent away to be educated!!!! I just spent an enlightening 15 minutes slowly "translating" Cowper's coded commentary on education into everyday prose in my mind, so as to understand what he is saying. And what he is saying in The Tirocinium is clear--- look at Cowper's own dedication:

"To the Rev. William Cawthorne Unwin, Rector of Stock in Essex, the tutor of his two sons, the following poem, _recommending private tuition in preference to an education at school_, is inscribed, by his affectionate friend"

And as if that weren't enough, it is no accident that Fanny recalls that particular quote----here is the full stanza that contains that quotation:

Oh! 'tis a sight to be with joy perused,
By all whom sentiment has not abused;
New-fangled sentiment, the boasted grace
Of those who never feel in the right place;
A sight surpass'd by none that we can show,
Though Vestris on one leg still shine below;
A father blest with an ingenuous son,
Father, and friend, and tutor, all in one.
How!—turn again to tales long since forgot,
Aesop, and Phaedrus, and the rest?—Why not?
He will not blush, that has a father's heart,
To take in childish plays a childish part;
But bends his sturdy back to any toy
That youth takes pleasure in, to please his boy:


[And here is the crucial part]:

Then why resign into a stranger's hand
A task as much within your own command,
That God and nature, and your interest too,
Seem with one voice to delegate to you?
Why hire a lodging in a house unknown
For one whose tenderest thoughts all hover round your own?
This second weaning, needless as it is,
How does it lacerate both your heart and his!
The indented stick, that loses day by day,
Notch after notch, till all are smoothed away,
Bears witness, long ere his dismission come,
WITH WHAT INTENSE DESIRE HE WANTS HIS HOME.

[Could the allusion to JA's own being sent away at 7 (and also at 10) be clearer? "Why hire a lodging in a house unknown For one whose tenderest thoughts all hover round your own? This second weaning, needless as it is, How does it lacerate both your heart and his!" It's exactly what happened to JA herself. And then the very next passage describes Fanny P's experience of estrangement upon return to Portsmouth after her 10 years of "education" in a "School of Hypocrisy" at Mansfield Park. Did JA feel this estrangement when she first returned to Steventon from Mrs. Cawley's typhus-infested Southampton and then again a few years later when she returned from Mrs. La Tournelle's school in Reading?]

But though the joys he hopes beneath your roof
Bid fair enough to answer in the proof,
Harmless, and safe, and natural, as they are,
A disappointment waits him even there:
Arrived, he feels an unexpected change;
He blushes, hangs his head, is shy and strange
No longer takes, as once, with fearless ease,
His favourite stand between his father's knees,
But seeks the corner of some distant seat,
And eyes the door, and watches a retreat,
And, least familiar where he should be most,
Feels all his happiest privileges lost.
Alas, poor boy!—the natural effect
Of love by absence chill'd into respect.
Say, what accomplishments, at school acquired,
Brings he, to sweeten fruits so undesired?
Thou well deserv'st an alienated son,
Unless thy conscious heart acknowledge—none;
None that, in thy domestic snug recess,
He had not made his own with more address,
Though some, perhaps, that shock thy feeling mind,
And better never learn'd, or left behind.
Add too, that, thus estranged, thou canst obtain
By no kind arts his confidence again;
That here begins with most that long complaint
Of filial frankness lost, and love grown faint,
Which, oft neglected, in life's waning years
A parent pours into regardless ears.

Cowper goes on to recommend, as a halfway measure, that if the father is not equipped to teach, still better than sending a child away to school would be the halfway measure of hiring a tutor to live with the family, so that the child will have the best of both worlds--remaining at home while still getting excellent tutelage.

And finally, this interpretation fits with my long-time sense that the Austen family myth-making factory was behind the old wive's tale reported by Mrs. Austen and included in all the biographies, about Jane _insisting_ on going with CEA to Reading, prompting Mrs. Austen's famous comment that if CEA were going to have her head cut off, JA would want hers cut off, too. Maybe Mrs. Austen believed her own propaganda, but I sure don't, and now, thanks to Diana, we have Fanny Price as a material witness on that important point, impeaching Mrs. Austen's testimony!

Thanks, Diana, for "sealing the deal" on this interpretation!

Cheers, ARNIE

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