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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Letter 44: Abandon all hope, ye who read here, of claiming that Jane Austen did not slip astounding literary allusions into her letters and novels!

Diane Reynolds first quoted from Jane Austen's Letter 44...

"If I have any intention of going to the Grand Sydney-Garden Breakfast, if there is any party I wish to join, Perrot will take out a ticket for me." Such an offer I shall of course decline; & all the service she will render me therefore, is to put it out of my power to go at all, whatever may occur to make it desirable."

..and then added:

"It's interesting to me that she (or is an editorial decision--this would be very interesting to find out) put the Aunt L-P quote in quotes. Generally-- in fact always--JA slides into other people's words without quotations and she does it in the novels as well. Why quotes here? An inconsistency on her part? I'm thinking editorial decision."

I responded that I read that passage in Letter 43 as JA doing a satirical quotation--probably edited for great satirical effect---of whatever her aunt Leigh Perrot said that betrayed that horrid woman's hypocritical Mrs. Norris-like reaction--and surely this was _not_ the first instance of it--and I love the added touch, which is that Aunt Leigh Perrot, Mrs. Elton-like, refers to her husband simply as "Perrot"!

There was an added bonus of this question being raised, however, as it led me to inspect the text of Letter 43 for quotations, thinking it would, by virtue of close temporal proximity, be the most accurate evidence we have of whatever JA's practice was in this regard at the time she wrote Letter 44. It turns out there are _three_ quotations in Letter 43, each of which has its own interest, with the last being the coup de grace!:


Since I wrote so far, I have walked with my Mother to St James' Square & Paragon; neither family at home. I have also been with the Cookes trying to fix Mary for a walk this afternoon, but as she was on the point of taking a LONG walk with some other Lady, there is little chance of her joining us. I should like to know how far they are going; she invited me to go with them [& ] when I excused myself as rather tired & mentioned my coming from St J[ames'] Square, she said " that IS a long walk indeed".

That sounds like a direct quotation of spoken speech, for the primary purpose of depicting the stress that Mary Cooke (age 24) put on the word "is"---and I noted that earlier in that same anecdote, JA had captured another stressed word "long", so the overall intent is a bit of satire of Mary Cooke's hyperbolic mode of speaking. Sort of like the way Lydia Bennet put lines under the words in her letters!


I wrote to Henry because I had a letter from him, in which he desired to hear from me very soon. His to me was most affectionate & kind, as well as entertaining;-there is no merit to him in that, he cannot help being amusing. He expresses himself as greatly pleased with the Screen, & says that he does not know whether he is " most delighted with the idea or the Execution ".

Clearly, JA is quoting from Henry Austen's letter to her, but why does JA only quote that one snippet? It seems to me it is because that is a particularly memorable turn of phrase.

That turn of phrase was also very familiar to me, and I became curious to know if it was already a famous quotation when Henry wrote it, and perhaps that was why it was in quotes. Google Books brought me to the following footnote written by Rev. James Dallaway to an book entitled Anecdotes about Architecture by the famous Horace Walpole, which was published in 1805 (i.e., exactly when JA was writing Letter 44!), even though I only found the quoted passage in an excerpt in another book published after JA's death:

"One of the first buildings completed by Gibbs, in point of time, was at King's College, Cambridge. The diminutive Doric portico is certainly not a happy performance, either in the idea, or the execution. "

So, that would be a witty thing for Henry to do, to couch his aesthetic judgment of a decorative Screen of some kind (a work of art that Henry had perhaps bought or been given) in the snobbish verbiage of such a book by the famous aesthete Horace Walpole. Harmless, witty fun.

But here's something curious vis a vis that turn of phrase---I also found, via Google Books, the following remarkably similar context for that turn of phrase in an 1855 London Quarterly Review article regarding a large exposition in London:

"As to the Fine Art Courts, apart from this subject, we know not which to admire first and most,—the idea, or the execution, —the instruction, or the pleasure, they impart..."

Was that contextual semantic similarity, "not knowing whether", just a coincidence? Unless the 1855 article writer had a copy of JA's letter in front of him, it had to be a coincidence, but I wonder....

As I said, the best is last:


Mrs Buller goes with us to our Chapel tomorrow;-which I shall put down as " Attention ye First ". I hope she will keep an account, too.

This one is the most powerful--and unexpected---quotation of all---it occurred to me as soon as I focused on it that this was clearly a veiled allusion to the sign over the gate of the entry to Purgatory in Dante's Divine Comedy:

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

If there was any doubt on that attribution, it was quickly dispelled when Google Books brought me to a snippet from the Jane Austen Society publication from 2000 which pointed out that Letter 44 was written on the day before Good Friday, 1805--although, as far as I can tell, the JAS writer did _not_ notice the sacrilegious allusion to Dante, which I nailed down as soon as Wiipedia verified to me that it just so happens that the action of the Divine Comedy _ALSO_ began on the day before Good Friday, 1300!

So, first, how sharply pointed is JA's satire, to equate entry by Mrs. Buller and JA (and probably Mrs. Austen as well) into a Christian chapel on Good Friday with entry into _Purgatory_! And then, if I am reading that last sentence correctly, to amp up the sacrilege by JA saying she hopes that Mrs. Buller will, after that visit to the Chapel, keep an account of precisely _how much_ hope she has actually abandoned!

Now, at first it might have seemed that JA was making cruel fun of Mrs. Buller, perhaps for overpiousness. However, I am certain it is precisely the opposite, just as the sharp black humor about the woman who saw her husband and miscarried was really an expression of JA's anger at how that woman was being oppressed by pregnancy---this learned, sacrilegious satire by JA is actually arising from JA's anger over the hopeless hand that Mrs. Buller has been dealt in the card game of Life! This is the same Mrs. Buller as to whom JA has just written, earlier in Letter 43, with a great deal of sympathy for this poor woman's plight, as her husband Mr. Buller is apparently slowly dying, with no cure on the horizon, and Mrs. Buller does not even have her children there to help or to commiserate with her--a truly _hopeless_ situation.

And so I think JA is writing cynically, suggesting that prayer will do nothing for Mrs. Buller at this point, all that she can do at this sad stage of her life is to keep track of her remaining store of hope as it ebbs away entirely.

A very very dark vision of human life, but there it is. JA called 'em as she saw 'em.

And perhaps some piece of that Dantean quotation was connected to JA's own dark envisioning of her own prospects---and perhaps that is why two weeks later, when writing Letter 44, a _plan_ has been devised to deal with the crisis of where and how to live once they leave Bath--to partner up with Martha Lloyd and Frank Austen and find a way.

Cheers, ARNIE

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