FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: @JaneAustenCode
(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 54: "....say no more....but not a word more..."

In Janeites & Austen-L today, Christy wrote: "In this letter, JA is invited to stay longer. She now divulges the secret of her 1802 mishap with Harris Bigg-Wither. I can understand why she would not have divulged this to the Godmersham clan. Natural pride, and general propriety, would have kept this secret for as long as possible. And she seems sure that they will honor this privacy as well. "

I responded as follows:

Christy, when I first read your above comment this afternoon, I was away from my home computer and also away from my tattered (perhaps "shattered" is a better word, as it has now mitosed into two roughly equal halves!) copy of Le Faye's (third) edition of the Letters, and so I was left to the last resort, temporarily, of reading the relevant text in Letter 54 on my IPhone:

"-I have been so kindly pressed to stay longer here, in consequence of an offer of Henry's to take me back some time in September, that not being able to detail all my objections to such a plan, I have felt myself obliged to give Edwd* and Elizth** one private reason for my wishing to be at home in July.-They feel the strength of it, & say no more; -& one can rely on their secrecy.-After this, I hope we shall not be disappointed of our Friends' visit;-my honour, as well as my affection will be concerned in it."

I looked at that passage over and over, and wondered, how in the world did you ascertain the "private reason" that JA shared with Edward and his wife to be JA's 1802 mishap with HB-W, as you so discreetly put it?

Then, as soon as I got home, I saw that you were relying on Le Faye's footnote, which reads as follows:

"Catherine and Alethea Bigg were due to come to Southampton. The secrecy of the explanation to EAK and his wife may be a reference to Harris Bigg-Wither's brief and unsuccessful courtship of JA in 1802; JA may have felt that to stay on at Godmersham would look like a deliberate attempt to avoid meeting his sisters."

I then checked Le Faye's Index, and verified from prior and subsequent letters that indeed "our Friends" was a reference to Bigg sisters (not to be confused with "Big Sisters"!), and so it was a plausible guess by Le Faye that the HBW "mishap" was the general topic that JA was tiptoeing around.

But..something continued to bother me about Le Faye's explanation---it somehow felt too tidy, and unsatisfying in a way I could not quite put my finger on for several minutes, until I identified a clue to what was bothering me--JA's reference to "my honour"--to my ear, that sounded so....out of place in one of JA's letters to CEA. A quick word search in Le Faye's edition confirmed that JA _never_ referred to her own or anyone else's "honour" in _any_ of her letters to CEA or Martha or Anna, and she only used the word "honour" idiomatically (e.g., referring to doing something "in honour of" someone) . But..... JA used the word "honour" in a very similar way to the usage in Letter 54 once in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, and _several_ times in her two letters to James Stanier Clarke. And _that_ was when I had my small epiphany--in those letters to Clarke, JA was using the word "honour" as a total put-on, covertly mocking the pompous platitudinous officious Clarke, a man who probably used the word "honour" in every other sentence! She was writing her letters to Clarke the same way Mr. Bennet spoke to Mr. Collins--for comprehension only by those with a sharp ear for irony.

So...was it possible that JA, in that passage in Letter 54, was similarly using the word "honour" in a faux, mocking way? Here is the entire relevant passage, which includes what I quoted, above, but also some additional material, see if you hear what I hear:

-I have been so kindly pressed to stay longer here, in consequence of an offer of Henry's to take me back some time in September, that not being able to detail all my objections to such a plan, I have felt myself obliged to give Edwd* and Elizth** one private reason for my wishing to be at home in July.-They feel the strength of it, & say no more; -& one can rely on their secrecy.-After this, I hope we shall not be disappointed of our Friends' visit;-my honour, as well as my affection will be concerned in it.-Elizath** has a very sweet scheme of our accompanying Edward into Kent next Christmas. A legacy might make it very feasible;-a Legacy is our sovereign good.-In the mean while, let me remember that I have now some money to spare, & that I wish to have my name put down as a subscriber to Mr. Jefferson's works. My last Letter was closed before it occurred to me how possible, how right, & how gratifying such a measure wd* be."

This time I read the passage _against_ the grain, as if JA were speaking in the pompous, snobbish voice of the Squire of Godmersham and his Great Lady. First, JA, barely keeping her countenance, "confides" in Edward & Elizabeth, and reveals to their ears only "one private reason". So JA is flattering their vanity, pretending to make them her special confidantes. And it works like a charm! Edward & Elizabeth buy it hook, line, and sinker--on dry ground!---and respond in appropriately grave tones: "Oh, Jane, yes, we feel the strength of it, say no more! You can rely on _OUR_ secrecy."

And then I realized that there was a passage in one of JA's novels which perfectly captured that same phoniness, words spoken by the Queen of JA's Phonies:

"But not a word more. Let us be discreet—quite on our good behaviour.—Hush!... mum! a word to the wise.—I am in a fine flow of spirits, an't I?....And again, on Emma's merely turning her head to look at Mrs. Bates's knitting, she added, in a half whisper, "I mentioned no /names/, you will observe.—Oh! no; cautious as a minister of state. I managed it extremely well." Emma could not doubt. It was a palpable display, repeated on every possible occasion...."

And this explains that strange sentence "After this, I hope we shall not be disappointed of our Friends' visit; my honour as well as my affection will be concerned in it." Translated into plain, unironic English, JA is saying, "After concocting, on the spur of the moment, this elaborate, exaggerated and thoroughly insincere excuse, if the Big sisters don't show up, I will be exposed as a big fat liar--that is JA's "honour", i.e, her reputation for honesty! Whereas the plain truth, which Edward & Elizabeth could not be told, was that JA simply missed the company of her plain old friends in mobcaps, Martha and CEA, and JA was very much looking forward to a snug fortnight with them _regardless_ of whether the Bigg sisters were there or not! That's why JA, in the same voice of insincere desire to see Elizabeth and Edward again sometime soon, writes:

"Elizabeth has a very sweet scheme of our accompanying Edward into Kent next Christmas. A legacy might make it very feasible;-a Legacy is our sovereign good."

Just as JA joked about legacies providing a wholesome diet in Letter 52, she again jokes about the "sovereign good" (in a Shakespearean pun on "sovereign", the name of an Elizabethan-era gold coin worth about a pound) of spending more time in Kent--but it will only be feasible if JA and CEA miraculously discover the "sovereigns" required to pay for the trip! She is about as sincere here as Mr. Bennet is for Mr. Collins to come back soon to Longbourn---NOT!!!

JA yearned to go back to her own real life, even if it was in a crowded walk-up apartment in stinky Southampton!

And this _also_ provides a startling alternative explanation for the following mysterious ending of the above quoted passage, seemingly unrelated to the prior comments about Edward & Elizabeth:

"In the mean while, let me remember that I have now some money to spare, & that I wish to have my name put down as a subscriber to Mr. Jefferson's works. My last Letter was closed before it occurred to me how possible, how right, & how gratifying such a measure wd* be."

Could it be clearer now that JA was not pleased that she had been led to waste even one iota of her preciously small cache of money on Mr. Jefferson's sermons--which, I am guessing, were a great favorite of either Edward or Elizabeth?

JA's method of expressing such displeasure is to satirize the purchase, because only Elizabeth Austen Knight (or Mrs. Elton) would utter such blather as "how possible, how right, & how gratifying such a measure would be."

In short, the above quoted passage comes alive with JA's brilliant witty irony when read against the grain, as she intended Martha (if not CEA) to read it!

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: