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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Letter 62: The Curious Case of the Miss Alfords

The following, curious passage, which comes at the very end of Letter 62 , is not one that has _ever_ attracted any particular attention in print, at least as far as I can discern after diligent online searching. However, I think that at least some of you will agree that this passage has been unjustly ignored, as it is virtually unique in all of JA's letters, in a very curious and interesting way. Without further ado, here it is:

"I have but one thing more to tell you. Mrs. Hill called on my Mother yesterday while we were gone to Chiswell-& in the course of the visit asked her whether she knew anything of a Clergyman's family of the name of Alford who had resided in our part of Hampshire.-Mrs. Hill had been applied to, as likely to give some information of them on account of their probable vicinity to Dr. Hill's Living-by a Lady, or for a Lady, who had known Mrs. & the two Miss Alfords in Bath, whither they had removed it seems from Hampshire-& who now wishes to convey to the Miss Alfords some work, or trimming, which she has been doing for them-but the Mother & Daughters have left Bath, & the Lady cannot learn where they are gone to.-While my Mother gave us the account, the probability of its being ourselves, occurred to us, and it had previously struck herself ((Two lines cut out)) likely-& even indispensably to be us, is that she mentioned Mr. Hammond as now having the Living or Curacy, which the Father had had.-I cannot think who our kind Lady can be-but I dare say we shall not like the work....."

Le Faye's sole footnote for this passage reads as follows: "Mrs. Hill: Not Catherine Bigg, but the wife of Dr. Hill, Rector of Holy Rood, Southampton, and also of Church Oakley near Deane."

I find this passage curious for several reasons, but I begin with this one:

1. There is no Biographical Index entry for either of the two Miss Alfords from Hampshire. Now those of you who took my introductory comments seriously and actually read the above passage without skimming too fast, already know exactly _why_ there is no such entry--Le Faye does not attempt to explain who the Miss Alfords were, because JA already has, when she speculates that the "Miss Alfords" must actually be none other than the Miss _Austens_! The factoid which seals that deal is that Mrs. Hill "mentioned Mr. Hammond as now having the Living or Curacy, which the Father had had", and Le Faye's entry for "Mr. Hammond" confirms that the curacy he took over in 1806 was that of Deane, which of course was once the living that Revd. Austen had, and gave to James Austen.

The most important thing I've learned during the past year of this group read of JA's letters is that it's most definitely _not_ Le Faye's m.o. to include a sentence in her footnote to the effect of the following:

"It is very difficult to tell how much of the story JA tells about Mrs. Hill and Mr. Austen and the mysterious Lady in Bath is a true account, and how much, if not all, of it, has been fabricated by JA out of whole cloth (or trimming) in one of her satirical moods."

No, Le Faye does not want Janeites to start wondering about JA engaging in _implicit_ satire and fantasy of this kind in her letters, because this is a Pandora's Box Le Faye wishes to remain firmly closed in the minds of Janeites. Why? Because (to deploy another metaphor), it's a slippery slope which leads straight to the kind of wordplay I identified in Letter 61, in which JA referred to the "amiability" of a wife who died in childbirth after being continuously pregnant for the entire length of her married life, in relation to the "amiability" of that dead wife's younger sister, who has just entered into matrimony with that dead sister's brother. If readers have to be on constant irony alert, who know where it will end?

2. Now, here are several reasons why I suspect that JA's report to CEA about the mysterious Lady of Bath is not a straightforward report of an event which actually happened, but instead some sort of coded allegory about some actual, but very sensitive, subject, which JA did not wish to write about in a straightforward way (and which Le Faye did not wish to invite speculation about):

a. By the time JA was writing Letter 62, in December, 1808, the Austens had not lived in Bath for over three _years_. So, it would be absurd for the mysterious Lady to have suddenly realized in December 1808 that the "Miss Alfords" and their mother were no longer in Bath--that's the kind of absurd sequence of events we find in JA's juvenilia! The only way this can be a truthful report is if the Miss Austens and Mrs. Austen spent some extended time in Bath on a visit long _after_ Mr. Hammond assumed the curacy of Deane in 1806, and, realistically, no earlier than the Fall of 1808. And I am unaware of any such trip by the Austen women to Bath anytime in 1808. Quite to the contrary, in Letter 55, written by JA to CEA in June, 1808, JA writes "It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of Escape!" Doesn't sound to me like an excursion to Bath occurred during the ensuing months thereafter.

b. For some reason, either CEA or Fanny Knight Knatchbull found something sufficiently unladylike (or worse) in JA's description of her mother's supposed speculations about the Alford-Austen naming error, that it warranted cutting out _two_ lines of text! My guess is that JA wrote something that was not entirely respectful to her mother and/or the Lady, or both!

c. Why in the world would Mrs. Hill conceal the identity of the Lady in the first place? Why create mystery in the minds of Mrs. Austen and JA? It makes no sense for a donor of a nice gift to operate in this cloak-and-dagger way. Again, only in the juvenilia do we read such crazy stuff.

d. And last but not least, JA supposedly has no clue as to who the Lady is, and yet she dares to say that she and CEA "shall not like the work".

A heap of absurdities, as Mr. Weston put it. And yet, those two deleted lines suggest that these are not light, trivial, good-natured absurdities, they must instead be disturbing in some way. Because CEA does not take out the scissors very often in these surviving letters, and she surely would not do so to conceal some trivial point. I have a hunch that somehow, some way, the mysterious Lady is code for Aunt Leigh Perrot, who of course lived in Bath, and as to whom the Austen women, especially Mrs. Austen, lived in a permanent state of suspense as to whether Aunt Leigh Perrot would ever make the Austen women's life easy by means of a substantial gift. Any verbal stink bomb tossed by JA in the direction of their imperious Aunt would be exactly the sort of snip-worthy passage that CEA gave the heigh-ho to.

And so, to me, what is _most_ absurd is that neither Le Faye nor any other biographer has ever seen fit to engage in even the elementary sort of analysis that I have set forth above. It's the same old same old, that "deep sixing by normalization" strategy that I've detected Le Faye engaging in whenever this sort of alarming passage pops up in JA's letters. Le Faye implicitly acknowledges that she read this passage carefully enough to register that the Miss Alfords were not strangers--she does not even bother to include an entry that says "mistaken surname for CEA and JA". Rather, Le Faye provides a footnote for Mrs. Hill, as if this were a humdrum bit of gossip.

And so, for the last 17 years, readers of her 3rd (and now her 4th) edition have breezed right by this passage without noticing it, and it makes you wonder, what is the point of someone editing the letters of a great person, if the editor is going to consistently engage in this sort of editorial decision-making, forcing readers to don their deerskin caps and figure out, on our own, what the heck is going on in a curious passage like the above?

Food for thought.



Jennythenipper said...

Don't you mean Deerstalker? (Sorry, Arnie, I'm all about Sherlock, lately.)

It is very interesting and Aunt Austen Leigh Perrot seems like a likely candidate for the mystery lady.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Yes, it's a good thing I am not a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, they'd probably drum me out for such an egregious faux mot! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE