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Friday, July 27, 2012

Jane Austen’s Letter 73: “I had forgot there were but eight already”/“Die two months ago, and not forgotten yet?”



As we resume our group read of Jane Austen’s letters (after a refreshing 3 month hiatus), we find Letter 73 right in the middle of a dense trove of 6 letters all written to Cassandra by Jane during a 6 week period.  My comments in this post are limited to the very _beginning_ of Letter 73, which, as I will spell out, means much more than it seems to at first:

“It was a mistake of mine, my dear Cassandra, to talk of a tenth child at Hamstall. I had forgot there were but eight already.
Your enquiry after my uncle and aunt were most happily timed, for the very same post brought an account of them. They are again at Gloucester House enjoying fresh air, which they seem to have felt the want of in Bath, and are tolerably well, but not more than tolerable. My aunt does not enter into particulars, but she does not write in spirits, and we imagine that she has never entirely got the better of her disorder in the winter. Mrs. Welby takes her out airing in her barouche, which gives her a headache-a comfortable proof, I suppose, of the uselessness of the new carriage when they have got it. “

That first sentence find JA right back on her hobby horse about serial pregnancy, which, as I have argued 100 times, is the one completely unvarying, repeated motif in her surviving letters, a few dozen times over a period of 2 decades. My inference: JA was consistently _appalled_ by serial pregnancy.

JA is being sarcastic in that first sentence, disingenuously acknowledging CEA’s correction of JA’s immediately preceding (missing) letter in which JA stated that cousin Cooper’s wife was expecting a _tenth_ child. Le Faye’s bio index reflects that CEA was indeed correct, in that as of 1811, the Coopers did have “only” eight surviving children (although they probably had several more miscarriages or infants who had NOT survived).  

Mrs. Cooper was 37 in April 1811, and had not borne a surviving child since 1805, after running a harrowing gauntlet of (at least) eight pregnancies over an 11 year period during her twenties. So it sounds like Mrs. Cooper, in 1811, has been “betrayed beyond an Accident at the utmost”, so to speak—an unexpected pregnancy.  

I see JA’s mistake-as-sarcasm in that exact same category of absurdist irony that Hamlet so famously deploys in regard to the rapidity of his mother’s remarriage to his uncle:


Just as Hamlet deliberate understates the time lapse between funeral and wedding, to make his point that  two months may as well be two hours, as _both_ constitute a shockingly short interval, so too in Letter 73’s missing predecessor, JA deliberately exaggerates the number of Cooper children, to make the point that it doesn’t really matter if it’s 9 or 10—either way, it sounds like it’s cows and ewes instead of women that we are talking about.

But here’s the best part of JA’s barbed wit. I suggest that JA does _not_ dismount from her hobby horse after that first sentence. Instead, it is no accident that JA segues immediately into a discussion of what superficially appears to be a new subject, i.e., the latest complaint of her Aunt Leigh Perrot, i.e., that great lady’s “headache” due to riding in a “new carriage”.  But it’s anything but a change of subject.
To understand JA’s coded meaning, and how it connects straight back to Mrs. Cooper’s litter of babies, read that paragraph about Aunt Leigh Perrot alongside JA’s infamous wit pertaining to _another_ post-childbearing-age relative, Mrs. Knight, in a letter from JA to CEA written ten years earlier when Mrs. K was widowed and age 48:

"I cannot think so ill of her however in spite of your insinuations as to suspect her of having lain-in. I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an Accident at the utmost"

In venting her spleen about Mrs. Cooper’s late pregnancy (which apparently miscarried, as Le Faye does not list any surviving child from after 1805), JA has been reminded of JA’s earlier absurdist deployment of ironic wit, in suggesting an accidental pregnancy suffered by the _post-menopausal_ Mrs. Knight. But this time, in Letter 73, JA transplants the joke onto the ever tempting target of Aunt Leigh-Perrot (age 64).

Think I’m stretching things? Well….read that second paragraph of Letter 73 more closely. JA speculates that her Aunt has never entirely gotten the better of her disorder in the _winter_. Letter 73 is dated May 29. So do the math—apparently her Aunt’s “disorder” began at least 5 _months_ earlier---how many “disorders” afflicting women last that long? One comes to mind immediately, and it is pregnancy:


If you read the above-linked post of mine from 2 years ago (or if you’ve heard any of my JASNA presentations since May 2010), you are aware that Aunt Percival’s description of a “cold” in JA’s juvenilia Catharine and the Bower is actually a veiled description, month by month, of a _pregnancy_!:

"...How could I be so forgetful as to sit down out of doors at such a time of night? I shall certainly have a return of my rheumatism after it—I begin to feel very chill already. I must have caught a dreadful Cold by this time--I am sure of being lain up all the winter after it--' Then reckoning with her fingers, 'Let me see; This is July; the cold weather will soon be coming in--August--September-October-November-December-January-February-March-April—Very likely I may not be tolerable again before May. I must and will have that arbour pulled down--it will be the death of me; who knows now, but what I may never recover--Such things have happened....It is unknown how many people have died in consequence of catching Cold!...."

That I am the first (and only) Austen scholar to ever identify Aunt Percival’s “Cold” as a pregnancy is perhaps the best example I know, of how unreceptive Austen scholarship has been to the very notion that JA, at age 17, could possibly have hidden such an outrageous sexual innuendo in plain sight!

So just as Aunt Percival might not have been “tolerable” again before May, so, too, Aunt Leigh Perrot is ”not more than tolerable” after her stint at Bath. And, in closing---for Aunt Percival’s “catching Cold”, JA has, in Letter 73, just substituted, for a “Cold”, _another_ one of JA’s many fictional code words for pregnancy—“headache”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: JA’s famous “Headache” poem was dated only a few months after Letter 73 in 1811 (read it now with new eyes):

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