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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Jane Austen found great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions not her own

In our ongoing group read of Jane Austen's letters in Janeites and Austen L, we reached Letter 66 this week, written when JA was 33 years old, and which included the following curious passage:

"I am sorry my verses did not bring any return from [JA's brother] Edward, I was in
hopes they might-but I suppose he does not rate them high enough.-It might be partiality, but they seemed to me purely classical-just like Homer & Virgil, Ovid & Propria que Maribus."

I posted about the above passage in Letter 66 last year, and quoted at lavish length from the excellent article on this very topic by my friend, Mary DeForest, who in my considered opinion is the preeminent scholar in the world today on the topic of Jane Austen & the Greek & Roman classics:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/1988-persuasions-article-about-jane.html

My posting of the above had followed my own preliminary explorations into Jane Austen's veiled allusions to the Heroides of Ovid:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/i-have-now-had-chance-to-followup-on-my.html

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/eliza-bennet-another-one-of-jane.html

That thread then moved into speculations pro and con about Jane Austen's knowledge of Greek and Latin--the languages and/or the literature---and my position was that Jane Austen almost certainly read, and read extensively, in the classics in English and not in the original ancient tongues. And then a couple of other people mentioned the following passage in Jane Austen's History of England, written when she was just 16 years old:

"....she had one daughter, afterwards the Mother of Lady Jane Grey, who tho' inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting...the King died & the Kingdom was left to his daughter in law the Lady Jane Grey, who has been already mentioned as reading Greek. Whether she really understood that language or whether such a study proceeded only from an excess of vanity for which I beleive she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain. Whatever might be the cause, she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, & contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her Life, for she declared herself displeased with being appointed Queen, and while conducting to the Scaffold, she wrote a Sentence in Latin & another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her husband accidentally passing that way."

That passage was interpreted literally by Ellen Moody, and I responded as follows:

Ellen, once again you completely misread JA's irony--these mocking statements are not JA's own opinions, she has adopted the voice of one of men who held their pens (so to speak) and wrote the histories which either ignored women, or failed to give women such as Lady Jane Grey the respect they merited. This is the kind of joke a man who felt threatened by female intellectual achievement would make--sorta like the self-revealing joke made by Santorum's biggest financial supporter the other day.

Therefore, your thinking this is the true, sincere, non-parodic voice and opinion of Jane Austen about Lady Jane Grey is a tragic error!

And there's another giant hint that JA is horsing around which is readily discernible by those who hear the echo of the end of the above-quoted passage....

"while conducting to the Scaffold, she wrote a Sentence in Latin & another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her husband accidentally passing that way"

...in the following, strikingly parallel passage from Letter 10 (written seven years after JA wrote her History of England) which we discussed 10 months ago:

"Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a _fright_.--I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband."

I wrote about the above passage in Letter 10 from two different angles last year:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/dr-halls-stillborn-child-and-mrs.html

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/03/frightened-childbearing-mothers-in-jas.html

My point, once again, is that the failure to realize that JA loved to occasionally and abruptly shift into parodic voice mimicry mode in her letters is a fatal error indeed, if one wishes to capture the quicksilver essence of JA's Protean personality.

And the final, giant hint that JA loved to play this sort of parodic game is that she uses Mr. Darcy to tell us all about it, when he accuses Elizabeth Bennet of getting a great deal of pleasure out of doing that very same thing:

"....I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."

And that is exactly why I paraphrased Mr. Darcy in my Subject Line:

Every Janeite has _indeed_ had the pleasure of JA's acquaintance long enough to know that she found great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact were not her own.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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