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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Letter 62: The Curious Case of the Miss Alfords....and Jane Austen's Trim Street Blues!

Letter 62: "-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...."

Christy Somer: "This closing portion of letter 62 has certainly brought some interesting responses -when lines have been cut from the letters, the 'gap' cannot help but usually create a little bit of mystery, or a place for conjecture."

I understand you wish to minimize the mystery, Christy, but what you wrote, above, is very misleading. As I detailed in my previous two posts, the excision of two lines is only one of _four_ suspicious aspects of this passage--for one short paragraph to contain four suspicious aspects is synergistic, I claim, because the odds that so much smoke should be swirling around the same short passage means that the degree of coincidence of four such points is exponentially more unlikely to occur randomly than each one individually.

Christy: "However, after reading the letter a few times -and the various postings on it, I also do not interpret this communication as a fictional mock-up involving her aunt Leigh-Perrot's 'relationship' with them."

It is not surprising, after a hundred examples scattered over 62 letters, that you and I both remain consistent in our opposite reactions to this sort of passage in JA's letters--you always deny what I always claim. ;)

Christy: "Yes, JA writes of 'trimming' work which was obviously done for them by this lady, and I see that the reality (and mention)of their having lived on Trim street is just too wonderful for our resident puzzle/pun enthusiast to leave-off; and so, must assign a tag to this 'mention' as being a Freudian-slip."

I would like to be clearer on this point, and also to add some more substance:

First, I only ascribed a Freudian slip to Ellen because she did not give the slightest sign in her detailed account of the above passage that she had noticed the pun on "Trim Street" in "trimming". If she did notice it, she has only to say so, and I will then _gladly_ retract my suggestion of her not being conscious of the wordplay. However, even given the connection of the above passage to Trim Street that she pointed out, and that I agree is there, it's important to also note that Ellen and I nonetheless interpret the passage very differently from each other.

And in all events, I was very clear before, and am happy to reiterate, that I give Ellen credit, regardless, for pointing out what I consider to be the important thematic connection between Trim Street and the above passage. I missed it, and, according to the kinds of things I look for in JA's letters, I should have found it. Why? Because, I should have found it six months ago, when we read Letter 29, which included therein the very passage about prospective living situations in Bath that included a negative reference to Trim Street, and which, I strongly suspect, Ellen had in mind when she wrote her comments about Letter 62 earlier today:

Letter 29, 1/3-5/01: “There are three parts of Bath which we have thought of as likely to have Houses in them.-Westgate Buildings, Charles Street, & some of the short streets leading from Laura Place or Pulteney St: Westgate Buildings, tho' quite in the lower part of the Town are not badly situated themselves; the street is broad, & has rather a good appearance. Charles Street however I think is preferable; the buildings are new, & it's nearness to Kingsmead fields would be a pleasant circumstance.-Perhaps you may remember, or perhaps you may forget that Charles Street leads from the Queen Square Chapel to the two Green park-Streets.-The Houses in the streets near Laura Place I should expect to be above our price.-Gay Street would be too high, except only the lower house on the left hand side as you ascend; towards that my Mother has no disinclination;-it used to be lower rented than any other house in the row, from some inferiority in the apartments. But above all other's, her wishes are at present fixed on the corner house in Chapel row, which opens into Prince's Street. Her knowledge of it however is confined only to the outside, & therefore she is equally uncertain of it's being really desirable as of its being to be had.-In the meantime she assures you that she will do everything in her power TO AVOID TRIM ST. altho' you have not expressed the fearful presentiment of it, which was rather expected.-We know that MRS. PERROT will want to get us into AXFORD Buildings, but we all unite in particular dislike of that part of the Town, & therefore hope to escape. Upon all these different situations, You and Edward may confer together, & your opinion of each will be expected with eagerness.”

If I had focused on the implications of that very negative assessment of Trim Street in Letter 29, I'd have searched the word "trim" in JA's other letters, knowing her penchant for coded wordplay, and such a word search would have brought me straight to the curious passage in Letter 62 that I brought to everyone's attention yesterday. And then I would _also_ have taken note of that last sentence, in which Aunt LP wished to relegate the Austens to _Axford_ (a name which is only one letter removed from _Alford_ !) Buildings, which, JA's comments make clear, was as undesirable a choice as Trim Street! So I now add that Leigh-Perrot Axford-Alford wordplay connection as a _fifth_ suspicious aspect of the Letter 62 passage! I.e., JA knew that CEA would see the name "Alford" and would have readily associated it with "Axford", and that would have made even clearer the covert pointing to Aunt Leigh Perrot.

But I did _not_ pick up on that passage six months ago, and so I am indebted to Ellen for having alerted me to pay attention to the word "trim"!

And now I will add a _sixth_ suspicious factor as well, which is based on the post I wrote less than a month ago about _another_ passage in that same Letter 29, and which I just realized:

"As you have by this time received my last letter, it is fit that I should begin another; & I begin with the hope, which is at present uppermost in my mind, that you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party's being with you....".

In that earlier post, I made the argument that JA was saying to CEA, in code, that JA hoped that CEA, in wearing a "white gown", was treated with proper respect by the snobbish Godmersham set, and was not treated as a poor relation who should be content with second-rate status.

Now I see that JA's aversions to Trim Street and Axford Buildings are part and parcel of that _same_ sensitivity to upperclass snobbery (just think Emma Woodhouse vis a vis Miss Bates or even the Coles and Mr. Elton). And it comes as no surprise to me that when JA writes about "trimming" in two of her later letters (#87 and #98), she refers to it in direct relation to wearing _white_ gowns!

So this all pulls together the wordplay on the word "trim", as it pertains to higher or lower class status, _both_ in terms of residential neighbourhood (Trim Street) and also in terms of women's couture (trimming associated with white gowns). Whether it's the rich snobs of Godmersham, or the rich snob Aunt Leigh Perrot, it's always the same story--the Austen women being treated as second class citizens.

And so, in terms of the big picture, the connections of that passage in Letter 62 to the two passages in Letter 29 I just described make it even more certain that Aunt Leigh Perrot is indeed the unnamed mystery Lady of the passage in Letter 62!

Christy: "I still continue to see most of these 'puns' or 'connections' as naturally forming occurances which may carry varieties of meanings, and always existing within the flow of language and communication -not usually done in full consciousness, yet in hindsight, free-floating and speculatively synchronizing enough to find themselves as futeristic fodder for all manner of conjecture and theory. "

Yes, we are indeed polar opposites, Christy, but the difference between us is that you refer to my analysis as "conjecture and theory", as if your interpretations are not _also_ every bit as much conjecture and theory as mine! We are all theoreticians on this bus, and I claim that my theory fits the actual textual facts better than yours does!

Cheers, ARNIE

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