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

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Amongst ladies....." : Le Faye's Subject Index in her new 4th Edition

As I believe I mentioned last month, I bought a copy of Le Faye's brand new 4th edition of Jane Austen's Letters a few weeks ago, and I was particularly curious to see what changes she made to the footnotes to the letters, as a result of whatever might have crossed Le Faye's desk or desktop since she edited the 3rd edition. After about 30 minutes thumbing through the footnotes to both the 3rd and 4th editions, side by side, I was quickly disappointed, but really not surprised, to see almost _no_ alterations in those footnotes. That's why I put the completion of that little review project aside until a day when nothing else was happening of an intriguing nature, and I would then force myself to complete my double checking, in the interest of being thorough, and not assuming that there were no significant alterations in the remainder of the footnotes.

This evening, in the aftermath of my recent postings about Le Faye's footnoting of passages in Letters 59 & 60 about Catherine Bigg's impending wedding to Revd. Herbert Hill, I decided to check Le Faye's much heralded new Subject Index, to begin to get a handle on her approach to what struck me as inevitably being a very subjective editorial decision--deciding what major categories to use for organization, deciding which ones were not needed, etc etc. Different competent editors could make very different decisions in this regard.

As I began that browsing, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Le Faye had included as a major Subject Heading, "Pregnancy, Childbirth". How about that! Given that so many of JA's overt and veiled allusions to pregnancy and childbirth in her letters range from negative to very negative in tone to outright scandalous, I was not sure how Le Faye was going to deal with that very sensitive subject. And I sat up in my chair, wondering what I'd find.

And that's when my eye was caught by a subtopic entry in the "Pregnancy, Childbirth" category for "an accident"---which I immediately knew was referring the reader to JA's bon mot about Edward Austen Knight's 47-year old widowed "adoptive" mother, Mrs. Knight, in Letter 32, written when JA was herself 25:

"I am happy to hear of Mrs. Knight's amendment, whatever might be her complaint. I cannot think so ill of her however, in spite of your insinuations, as to suspect her of having lain-in -- I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an accident at the utmost."

Now, I distinctly recalled (and then quickly reconfirmed) that Le Faye's 3rd edition contained no footnote whatsoever about this piquant passage, even though (1) this passage was noteworthy enough for Lord Brabourne to Bowdlerize out everything in it after the word "complaint", and (2) this passage, and Lord Brabourne's radical editorial amputation of same had previously been commented on by a couple of brave Austen scholars over the years (beginning with Queenie Leavis's ultra-discreet comment about it without actually telling her readers which letter it was in, or what it said exactly!).

So, if any passage in all of JA's surviving letters would have merited some sort of explanatory footnote---some words to the wise about JA's extremely wicked sense of humor at the expense of brother Edward's benefactress and quasi-adoptive aunt, who at 47, was hardly going to be the subject of sincere speculations by anyone, let alone the prim and proper Cassandra, of an accidental pregnancy, especially as the lady was unmarried at the time--it would be this passage. If nothing else, Le Faye might have informed her readers of how both Chapman and she had honored their editorial obligations to their readers by _not_ following Brabourne's editorial surgical practice.

Pretty important stuff to know, if you were a Janeite reading these letters for the first time and wishing to have as true and complete a picture of Jane Austen the person as she had left behind in her letters. And, apparently, since that entry in the Subject Entry gave P. 388 as the location of the footnote pertaining to same, Le Faye had apparently decided to alter her reticence on this point in the 3rd edition, and finally give this passage some emphasis, to actually bring this passage to a reader's attention. I sat up even straighter in my chair--this really was surprising, especially given that there were practically no alterations in the footnotes to the first few dozen letters. Maybe Le Faye would make up in the quality and significance of her footnote alterations, what might be lacking in the quantity of same.

So....I turned to p. 388 of the 4th edition with bated breath to see exactly how Le Faye had decided to word this auspicious footnote, and look at what I read:

"Amongst ladies, the euphemism 'accident' was used to denote a miscarriage."

That's it. Nothing about Mrs. Knight being the subject of that passage. Nothing about her being 47 and unmarried when Letter 32 was written. Nothing about Brabourne's Bowdlerization, only the above explanation and nothing else.

Now, I am wondering what an intelligent reader of Letter 32, without any prior background in JA's biography, would make of JA's passage about Mrs. Knight, _after_ reading Le Faye's new footnote. Frankly, I haven't a clue. It makes absolutely no sense to me. Why would the unmarried, 47 year old Mrs. Knight having a miscarriage be any less of an insinuation by Cassandra than the unmarried, 47 year old Mrs. Knight actually bearing a live baby? The insinuation (which, again, was obviously never made by Cassandra in the first place, this had to be JA's invention from the get-go) is equally scandalous in both cases, because the scandal arises from the idea of Mrs. Knight finding herself "in for it" at all!

Now, this time around, I will not state my own personal inferences and speculations about what was in Le Faye's mind when she made this key editorial decision, because I think her editorial actions speak much louder than my words about her actions ever would. The key test, again, I suggest, is whether the reader is better informed about what matters in that passage after reading that footnote than (s)he was before reading it. I think the answer to that key question is crystal clear.

And now I can see that it's going to be a _very_ interesting experience poring through Le Faye's Subject Index to see how other sensitive passages in JA's letters are handled in Le Faye's Subject Index. Because I have a strong hunch that there are at least a half dozen more of such interesting alterations which I have not yet detected.

Cheers, ARNIE

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