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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Revd. Austen's Letter to Son Frank: "To Thine Own Self Be True (but don't require the same of me) "

In Janeites and Austen L, Christy Somer brought forward some extracts from a letter written by Jane Austen's father to his elder sailor son, Frank, in December 1788, which you can read here:

http://lists.mcgill.ca/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind1108e&L=austen-l&T=0&F=&S=&P=401

Nancy Mayer responded in part: "Still, our modern interpretation is likely to equate disinterest with not having interest in rather than being impartial."

And here is my further response:

Nancy, it's not a modern interpretation, it's just an inaccurate definition! You are absolutely correct that "disinterested" means "impartial"-- it is "uninterested" that means "does not give a damn"!

But there is an irony associated with Revd. Austen's letter to Frank, one which pervades the entire letter, which is of the greatest importance in understanding Austen family dynamics, the recognition of which depends upon knowing something about the plays of some theatrical hack named... Shakespeare. ;)

I.e., as soon as I read Revd. Austen's letter of advice to son Frank, I was struck very powerfully by the unmistakable allusion to the following words of advice from another rather famous, but fictional, father, to his equally famous, but fictional, son:

Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for shame! The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, And you are stay'd for. There- my blessing with thee! And these few precepts in thy memory Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportion'd thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar: Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel; But do not dull thy palm with entertainment Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee. Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy; For the apparel oft proclaims the man, And they in France of the best rank and station Are most select and generous, chief in that. Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all- to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!

I think Revd. Austen, whom we all know to have been a highly intelligent, extremely & literarily learned man, was having some very VERY sly fun turning Polonius's very famous fatherly advice into very polished, elegant prose.

In this regard, note all of the following three huge parallelisms:

First: The date of the letter to Frank is December 1788, which falls right in the center of the era of the Steventon amateur theatricals, which ran sporadically between December 1787 and January 1790, with special emphasis, apparently, on the Christmas season, when, presumably, the entire clan was assembled together for a period of weeks. In Mansfield Park, the list of plays that is considered for performance includes Hamlet, and, what's more, Tom Bertram reminds Edmund of how their father Sir Thomas has been know to enjoy a good performance of Hamlet: "How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement?" I think it highly likely that Revd. Austen was equally amused at his own brood's productions of the Bard's plays, and in particular Hamlet. (I think that if I had a time machine and could spend two hours as a fly on the wall anywhere and any time during Jane Austen's lifetime, I think that being present at the Steventon production of Hamlet would have been near the top of my own list for where I'd want to be!)

Second: Polonius's speech is saturated in imagery of sea travel, which makes perfect sense, since Laertes is about to sail from Elsinore to Paris and spread his wings in the big city for the first time. And of course Frank Austen is about to embark on what will eventually be a naval career that will last over half a century.

Third: the topics as to which both fathers, real and fictional, render advice to their sons, are extremely parallel, including how to behave toward others, and in particular, how to handle money. Just read both carefully, and you will see how closely Revd. Austen tracks Polonius.

Fourth and finally, note that Polonius gets a bad rap (mostly from Hamlet) for being long winded, the big joke being that it is Polonius who coins the most famous aphorism ever on the subject of conciseness, while speaking to Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet:

This business is well ended. My liege, and madam, to expostulate What majesty should be, what duty is, Why day is day, night is night, and time is time. Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time. Therefore, since BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF WIT, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.

And yet, ironically, Polonius's speech to Laertes is much shorter than Revd. Austen's letter to Frank--and I believe that Revd. Austen was well aware of all of this, and was having a jolly good time playing with this conceit, while at the same time giving his son some genuinely sensible, but long-winded, advice.

There's no question in my mind that one of the reasons Frank held onto this letter for 75 years was that it revealed not only his father's love for him, but also his father's considerable literary erudition and sense of humor.

But....as to what JA thought about all of this, I am sorry to say that she does not think her father's joke was entirely funny. Why? I have written in the past about the significance of the veiled allusion I see in Mansfield Park to Hamlet, e.g.:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/sir-thomas-as-ghost-of-king-hamlet-and.html

In that post, I write about Sir Thomas being the "Big Mouse" not being agreeable to sitting in the "trap" set by "mad" son Tom, and not being willing to be confronted with painful truths about himself as represented in the character of Baron Wildenhaim in Lover's Vows--painful truths like Sir Thomas's Antigua slave plantation.

In that regard, it has been known since 1969 that Revd. Austen was a Trustee for his neighbor Nibbs of some land in Antigua, and it is also clear that Revd. Austen was a pragmatist who, having survived an onerous orphaned childhood, recognized the value of attaching himself not only to the likes of Mr. Nibbs, but also the much more powerful Warren Hastings. And there is also that pesky Austen family habit of sending "new-hatch'd, unfledg'd" children away from home--by my count, the only Austen children out of the eight who actually lived at home continuously until age 14 were James and Henry. Look at the others---Edward was "sold" to the Knights; George was sent away because of his "problems"; Jane and Cassandra were sent away to school twice, with nearly fatal results; and of course the sailor brothers were sent to the Naval Academy.

I get the feeling that Revd. Austen's attitude was that he had lived through such experiences, and worse, so why should not his children (except of course James and Henry, who were exempt, perhaps because Mrs. Austen would not part with her first born James, and Revd. Austen especially enjoyed Henry's company?

Anyway, just as Polonius navigates his way through the treacherous waters of King Hamlet's and then King Claudius's court, so too did Revd. Austen navigate through his own troubled waters, perhaps following advice that he dared not put into writing in his letter to Frank, but which Frank (who, we know from the way he skilfully handled very dicey and delicate matters for the East India Company in China) read between his father's lines.

So thanks to Christy for bringing Revd. Austen's letter to Frank to our attention!

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Austen children going away was not unusual for their time, lots of boys went into the navy at a young age, and lots of girls were sent to boarding school. James and Henry being at home continuously was more unusual.

Louise