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Monday, July 30, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 73: The Mystery of "MY name is Diana..."

I did not read Jane Austen's Letter 73 all the way through yesterday, having had all my attention absorbed by the suggestive innuendoes about Aunt Leigh-Perrot (that I noted in my immediately preceding blog post) at the very beginning of Letter 73. However, a passing comment in Janeites by Christy Somer about "My name is Diana" as a passage later in Letter 73 intrigued me, I could not imagine what she was referring to.

But now that I have carefully studied the section near the end of Letter 73 from which she quoted the last sentence, I find it all quite extraordinary, mysterious, and even a little bizarre---and therefore certainly worthy of much more than passing consideration (I cannot find that any Austen scholar has ever taken a stab at explaining it).

Here it is in toto----it is a passage that describes JA's social encounters over the course of one day and one night in the vicinity of Chawton with a visiting entourage consisting of various members of the interrelated Terry and Harding families:

"I have not much to say of ourselves.....we were called upon to meet Mrs. and Miss Terry the same evening at the Digweeds; and, though Anna was of course invited too, I think it always safest to keep her away from the family lest she should be doing too little or too much. Mrs. Terry, Mary, and Robert, WITH MY AUNT HARDING AND HER DAUGHTER, came from Dummer for a day and a night -- all very agreeable and very much delighted with the new house and with Chawton in general. We sat upstairs and had thunder and lightning as usual. I never knew such a spring for thunderstorms as it has been. Thank God! we have had no bad ones here. I thought myself in luck to have my uncomfortable feelings shared by the mistress of the house, as that procured blinds and candles. It had been excessively hot the whole day. Mrs. Harding is a good-looking woman, but not much like Mrs. Toke, inasmuch as she is very brown and has scarcely any teeth; she seems to have some of Mrs. Toke's civility. Miss H. is an elegant, pleasing, pretty-looking girl, about nineteen, I suppose, or nineteen and a half, or nineteen and a quarter, with flowers in her head and music at her finger ends. She plays very well indeed. I have seldom heard anybody with more pleasure. They were at Godington four or five years ago. MY COUSIN, FLORA LONG, WAS THERE LAST YEAR. MY NAME IS DIANA...."

Before grappling with the two most puzzling excerpts (which I've shown in all caps) in which JA momentarily but unmistakably shifts away from her own point of view, it is helpful to visualize the family trees involved. The unifying "limb" of this particular family tree is that of the three married sisters born of Sir Bourchier Wrey:

1.. Mrs. Dionysia (Diana) Harding, with her daughter of the same name;

2. Mrs. Florentina Long, with her daughter Flora [neither of them present at Chawton]; and

3. Mrs. Anna-Maria Toke [also not present at Chawton].

The other "limb" associated with the above passage is Mrs. Elizabeth Terry, who was the sister of Mr. Harding (husband, of course, of the above-described Mrs. Harding). So now we can begin to decipher the above passage. The visitors were Mrs. Elizabeth Terry with two of her adult children, Mary and Robert, accompanied by Mrs. Diana Harding and her young adult daughter--in a nutshell, two sisters in law traveling with some of their respective adult children. Le Faye seems to think it sufficient to provide a footnote to "MY name is Diana" as follows: " JA is presumably quoting Miss Harding". But as I will now demonstrate, that is a totally inadequate analysis.

First, why does JA write "with MY Aunt Harding and her daughter"? Among those present that day, this can only be from the point of view of either Mary Terry or Robert Terry--it cannot be Miss Diana Harding, because Mrs. Harding is _her_ own mother, not her aunt! Then within a few sentences, we have descriptions of Mrs. Harding, Mrs. Toke, and Diana Harding which must be from the point of view of Jane Austen herself. And _then_ we have a reference to "my Cousin, Flora Long", which could be from the point of view of any of Mary Terry, Robert Terry, or Diana Harding. And then the section ends with "MY name is Diana", which _must_ be the younger Miss Diana Harding.

By the emphasis on the word "my", it suggests to me that JA has very consciously been playing around with shifting point of view in the above-quoted excerpt. And all of the above makes me wonder whose point of view is being expressed by the following experiential observations:

"We sat upstairs and had thunder and lightning as usual. I never knew such a spring for thunderstorms as it has been. Thank God! we have had no bad ones here. I thought myself in luck to have my uncomfortable feelings shared by the mistress of the house, as that procured blinds and candles. It had been excessively hot the whole day."

Are these JA's own thoughts, or is JA reporting the words of one (or more) of her young visitors? There is a breathless Harriet Smithish quality in these ejaculations which sounds distinctly un-Austen-like, in sharp contrast to the keen Austenian descriptions of Mrs. Harding, Mrs. Toke and Miss Harding---JA is always especially attentive to family resemblances--or, as in the case of the sisters Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Toke, the curious _lack_ thereof. Is JA intimating that perhaps Mrs. Toke and Mrs. Harding are really not biological sisters after all? In short, what in the world is going on here?

I think the key to the answer is that JA is having some quasi-authorial fun, deliberately playing with confusion of point of view, for the enjoyable puzzlement of her sister, who, I would suspect, was JA's favorite audience for such wordplay games. And what I am reminded of most of all is the famous strawberry-dashes scene at Donwell Abbey in _Emma_, as to which the conventional wisdom is that it is only Mrs. Elton whose voice we are hearing (filtered through Emma's drowsy ears), but I have previously opined that several speaker's voices are confusingly mixed together:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/12/latest-on-sutherland-fracas-and.html

Is it just a coincidence that the above passage in Letter 73 includes the observation (by someone) that "It has been excessively hot the whole day", in curious synchrony with " glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade." in the Donwell Abbey scene. And....note that the visit of the Terry-Hardings includes a visit to the home of one of the Digweed brothers---and the Digweed brothers were the closest thing to the Knightley brothers in JA's real life--a set of brothers who did largescale agriculture in the immediate neighborhood of JA's neighborhood of origin---so is it just a coincidence that Donwell Abbey is where we have the strawberry scene?

And finally the date of Letter 73 is May 29, whereas the al fresco Gypsy party to Donwell Abbey takes place in the third week of June in 1814---not that far apart, calendrically speaking.

So....was the younger Diana Harding, whose playing gave JA such pleasure to listen to, in some way an inspiration for Jane Fairfax, whose playing gave Mr. Knightley such pleasure to listen to? Questions, questions, and still more questions---but even if we are left with speculation, it is far preferable to sweeping the entire passage under the proverbial rug, and pretending that it is not a very very strange passage indeed to find in a letter?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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