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:
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?
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
- Deirdre Le Faye & Me: "I am a scholar, she is a scholar: so far we are equal"
- The Hunger Games’s Veiled Allusion to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
- Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation
- August Wayne Booth in Once Upon A Time: Jane Austen Really IS Everywhere in 2012!
- 20 shades of hero/villain Mr. Darcy