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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Letter 63: The Crowning of the Most Celebrated Female in....England!

Letter 63: "....Wednesday.-Yesterday must have been a day of sad remembrance at Gm. I am glad it is over. We spent Friday evening with our friends at the boarding-house, and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow-inmates, Mrs. Drew and Miss Hook, Mr. Wynne and Mr. Fitzhugh; the latter is brother to Mrs. Lance, and very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, and, poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were
it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read Corinna."

Four and a half years ago, I wrote the following in an email about the above passage in Jane Austen's Letter 63:

"...what if there is something in _Corinna_ that in some way has to do with cannons or deafness! That would mean that what has always been read as a recommendation of that novel by de Stael, was actually a sick joke about a deaf man!"

I eventually found the following confirmation of my hunch in one of the 1807 English translations of _Corinna_ that JA had clearly read by the time she was writing Letter 63:

Book 2, Chapter 1: "Oswald awoke in Rome. The dazzling sun of Italy met his first gaze, and his soul was penetrated with sensations of love and gratitude for that heaven, which seemed to smile on him in these glorious beams. He heard the bells of numerous churches ringing, discharges of CANNON from various distances, as if announcing some high solemnity. He enquired the cause, and was informed that the most celebrated female in Italy was about that morning to be crowned at the Capitol, — Corinne, the poet and improvisatrice, one of the loveliest
women of Rome. He asked some questions respecting this ceremony, hallowed by the names of Petrarch and of Tasso: every reply he received warmly excited his curiosity......At the foot of the steps leading to the Capitol the car stopped, and all her friends rushed to offer their hands: she took that of Prince Castel Forte, the nobleman most esteemed in Rome for his talents and character. Every one approved her choice.
She ascended to the Capitol, whose imposing majesty seemed graciously to welcome the light footsteps of woman. The instruments sounded with fresh vigour, the cannon shook the air, and the all-conquering Sibyl entered the palace prepared for her reception."

Book 15, Chapter 7: "Corinne, who was a believer in presentiments, and now made presages of every thing, said to Nevil, — " Is not the melancholy that I feel on entering this place a proof that some great misfortune will befall me here?" As she said this, she heard three reports of CANNON, from one of the isles of the Lagune — she started, and enquired the cause of a gondolier. — " It is a woman taking the veil," he said, /"/at one of those convents in the midst of the sea. The
custom here is, that the moment such vow is uttered, the female throws the flowers she wore during the ceremony behind her, as a sign of her resigning the world, and the firing you have just heard announces this event." Corinne shuddered. Oswald felt her hand grow cold in his, and saw a death-like pallor overspread her face. —" My life!" he cried, "why give this importance to so simple a chance ?" — " It is not simple," she replied. "I, too, have thrown the flowers of youth behind me." —/" /How!
'when I love thee more than ever? when my whole soul is thine ?"—" The thunders of war," she continued, "elsewhere devoted to victory or death, here celebrate the obscure sacrifice of a maiden — an innocent employment for the arms that shake the world with terror: — a solemn message from a resigned woman to those of her sisters who still contend with fate."

I just checked the Janeites archives, and I see that Christy Somer independently flashed on the same joke last year (on my birthday):

"Apparently, in Corinna there is a scene involving the firing of a cannon...So here again, JA is responding in that irreverently wicked and creatively-alluding humor -almost as if she was quite used to this type of `communication' to someone disabled -and as this gentleman was."

So if both Christy and I are in substantial agreement about an
interpretation, that is both surprising and supportive of the validity of same, as we so rarely agree on such things!

What I would add today is that this is precisely the subtle absurdist humor of the Juvenilia---if Mr. Fitzhugh is so stone deaf that he cannot even hear a cannon, then obviously the only hope for him to hear anything is to have him _read_ about the sound of loud cannons, and in his imagination, he will hear those cannon reports!

But, as is usually the case with JA, it's not just a joke. The cannon reports in these two passages in Corinna are not trivial details. In the first instance, the cannon discharges announce the crowning of the most celebrated female in Italy, in the latter case, the three cannon reports (like the Masonic repetitions of the three chords in The Magic Flute) are symbolic of a woman taking the veil at a convent.

I assert that it is not an accident that this little joke about Mr. Fitzhugh and his deafness is also Jane Austen thinking out loud, wondering whether the imminent relocation to Chawton Cottage is a harbinger of JA being on the verge of becoming the most celebrated female in _England_, or whether it will turn out instead to be her resignation from the world. In late 1808, JA really did not know how it would play out!

Two centuries later, we may safely say that the answer was (thankfully) the former rather than the latter! (and in our era of global Austenmania, I would not be surprised to learn that Jane Austen, in 2012, was among, say, the top 20 most celebrated females in _Italy_ as well!)

Cheers, ARNIE

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