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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jane Austen's Two Most Famous AND Misunderstood Artistic Pronouncements

In Austen-L, Ellen Moody just wrote the following comments about a famous passage in one of Jane Austen's surviving letters to her nephew (and, much later, her Memoirist), James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL):  

"Her description of JEAL's fiction is by-the-way more than slightly off. He does not write "manly glowing" and grand pictures: he's a writer of sensitive narratives, the kind of male who writes "l'ecriture-femme," not only in the memoir, but in his Hunting at the Vine (a nostalgic gentle piece) wherein at some point he says (or maybe his daughter quotes him) that he becomes so hurt when people mock Scott that he has to leave the room. He appears to have liked the romantic melancholy Scott. His daughter understood this (though the aunt did not). Perhaps had Austen written a biography of JEAL it would have been as "off" as his or her, though in her fiction when her imaginative self took over she could pick up aspects of all these people and turn them into first caricatures and then develop humanely -- at least in those cases where she felt they deserved such honoring." 

  I responded as follows:

 Ellen, for the umpteenth time, you fail to note Jane Austen's irony, and therefore come to exactly the wrong conclusion about something significant in JA's writing. Don't you see the amazing parallelism between the combination of praise and self-deprecation of Letter 146 dated 12/16-17/16....

 "By the bye, my dear Edward, I am quite concerned for the loss your Mother mentions in her Letter; two Chapters & a half to be missing is monstrous! It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them;-two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something,-I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety and Glow ?-How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour? "

 ....and the _exact_ same combination of praise and self-deprecation of Letter 138(D) dated April 1, 1816 (i.e., written 8 1/2 months before Letter 146)?:  

"You are very very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. "

 As I have previously explained, at length, in a series of posts, it is no coincidence that Letter 138(D) was written on April Fool's Day:

 http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/04/jane-austens-special-april-fools.html

And I have also previously explained, at length, in a series of posts, that JA was mocking JEAL when she wrote the above passage in Letter 138(D) in much the same disingenuous way she pretended to praise Clarke:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/01/nest-of-my-own-room-of-ones-own.html

So Ellen, you are with Virginia Woolf in completely missing the boat on this point.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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