Jane Austen's Letter 76(C) and its Subversive Feminist, Slavery Subtext
In the group read of Jane Austen's 154 surviving letters (one letter per week) that we have recently resumed in Janeites and Austen-L, we are up to Letter 76(C) dated October 29-31, 1812 (or two months and a week shy of exactly two centuries ago!), a very short letter written by Jane Austen to niece Anna Austen.
I posted a link to the post I wrote about Letter 76(C) in this blog last October....
Diana Birchall then responded, in relevant part: "It would take a lot of work to try to unravel what,
exactly, Jane Austen was saying about Mrs. Hunter's Lady Maclairn to her
niece Anna. Looking a few things up with each Austen letter is
profitable and fun, but this one is a subject for a book in itself.
Arnie tells us that Isobel Grundy has written extensively about it and
he has his own conjectures, as others have theirs. I have no doubt that
Jane Austen meant something but the references are too obscure for me
and the unpicking is way too much of a project."
I replied to Diana as follows:
I just reread that post for the first time since I wrote it, and I beg
to differ with you----it really isn't such a project to to pick one's
way through the few steps I took in sleuthing out the true significance
of Jane Austen's allusion to Lady Maclairn. And it's worth the small
effort, I suggest, in part because it is a quintessential example of how
hard Le Faye sometimes worked in order to make an "unseemly" Austen
allusion _more_ obscure than it was! It's clear to me that Le Faye did
not want anyone reading Letter 76(C) to imagine that:
(i) Jane Austen might actually have approved of Hunter's novel, which
exposed the moral corruption of English colonial slavery, both at home
and in the West Indies, and depicted a cavalcade of patriarchal
oppressions of African slaves and English women; and
(ii) even more shocking, Jane Austen might have drawn parallels between
the morally corrupt fictional family of Hunter's novel and the real-life
families at Godmersham and Goodnestone; and
(iii) still more shocking, Jane Austen might have shared those
subversive perspectives with literary niece Anna, age 19, in a series of
little epistolary in-jokes, that continued from the writing of Letter
76(C) in late 1812, at least until the writing of Letter 108 (also to
Anna) two years later---and we can only imagine what Anna wrote in her
half of that particular "thread" of correspondence!
Horrors! Much better to sanitize Jane Austen's meaning, and turn Letter
76(C) into a silly, harmless, meaningless, innocent bit of joking
between aunt and young niece. Or so goes the editorial thinking of
Deirdre Le Faye, it seems.
Diana further wrote: "Grundy's article that Arnie alludes to sounds
interesting...It does seem likely, as Grundy/Arnie suggest, that the
joke is that JA is comparing the houses in Lady Maclairn with ones she
and Anna are familiar with - such as Godmersham and Goodnestone; that
would be consistent with JA saying it was a complete likeness, and she'd
like to read 4 more volumes about the inmates' lives, which she jokingly
compares to the soap operatic and spicy events contained in Lady
Maclairn....But of course if she was making fun of the Knight family,
she would wish concealment. "
And I further replied to her as follows:
I was not clear about one thing, Diana---all the speculations in my
above-linked blog post about topic (iii), above, are entirely my own.
99% of Isobel's article does an extraordinary job of elucidating the
serious significance of Hunter's novel, and showing that it is anything
but silly. But Isobel only notes the Austen connection in a single,
" Jane Austen, paying Lady Maclairn the dubious compliment of ironical
encomium and fantasy, pretends to believe in the existence of the
characters as real-life persons."
...and then elaborates briefly in a single footnote:
" Austen directs her mockery at the sentiment surrounding Mary (Flint)
Howard, and ignores the Jamaican component (Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman,
2nd edn, London: Oxford University Press, 1952, pp. 406-407). It is
noteworthy that critics are divided as to whether her treatment of Sir
Thomas Bertram's West Indian property reflects pro- or anti-slavery views."
Isobel is being very coy in that footnote--she first points out that JA
ignores the Jamaican (i.e., slavery) component of Hunter's novel, but
then obliquely suggests in the latter footnote sentence that perhaps
that slavery subtext really was on JA's mind anyway.
That is why I commented as follows in my October 2011 blog post:
"Had Isobel been aware of Letter 108’s veiled allusion to Hunter’s
novel, and also had Isobel had the benefit of reading the past 17 years
of scholarship about the slavery subtext of MP, and had realized that
the consensus has clearly turned toward seeing MP as the unified,
complex _anti_ slavery (and feminist) work that it so clearly is,
perhaps she might have looked past the joking tone of Letter 76(C) and
perhaps might been induced to read Letter 76(C) more deeply than she
did. Isobel’s article is a gold mine for an Austen scholar with my
feminist, anti-slavery perspective, demonstrating in a dozen ways why JA
would have been so interested in Hunter’s novel, to the point of
initiating her own beloved niece Anna into these mysteries as well, so
that Anna, as a budding novelist, would learn to weave allusive shadows
into _her_ fiction as well! This was much more important advice than the
familiar nostrums about writing about people you knew, and only about a
few families in a country village, and Anna’s fiction demonstrates that
she absorbed this lesson very well indeed."
A lovely bit of praise from my youngest (at heart) supporter in Seattle:
[The 80-ish Mary Watson of the Puget Sound chapter commenting on the 2010 JASNA AGM]
"...Two sessions were outstanding: Juliet McMasters on the more subtle, deeper meanings of "Northanger Abbey" and a Darcy-like young lawyer, Arnie Perlstein, who revealed his very plausible theory that the "shadow story" behind much of Jane Austen's work is the horror of multiple childbirth and women's deaths. I am a Jane-Austen-as-feminist person and this really resonated with me!"
Thank you, Mary!
"Arnie's theories [about Austen and Shakespeare] may strain credulity, but so much the greater his triumph if they turn out to have persuasive force after they are properly presented and maturely considered. That is what publication is all about"
"When great or unexpected events fall out upon the stage of this sublunary world—the mind of man, which is an inquisitive kind of a substance, naturally takes a flight behind the scenes to see what is the cause and first spring of them."--Tristram Shandy
I'm a 63 year old independent scholar (still) working on a book project about the SHADOW STORIES of Jane Austen's novels (and Shakespeare's plays). I first read Austen in 1995, an American male real estate lawyer, i.e., a Janeite outsider. I therefore never "learned" that there was no secret subtext in her novels. All I did was to closely read and reread her novels, while participating in stimulating online group readings. Then, in 2002, I whimsically wondered whether Willoughby stalked Marianne Dashwood and staged their “accidental” meeting. I retraced his steps, followed the textual “bread crumbs”, and verified my hunch. I've since made numerous similar discoveries about offstage scheming by various characters. In hindsight, it was my luck not only to be a lawyer, but also a lifelong solver of NY Times and other difficult American crossword puzzles. These both trained me to spot complex patterns based on fragmentary data, to interpret cryptic clues of all kinds, and, above all, not to give up until I’ve completed the puzzle--and literary sleuthing Jane Austen's novels (and Shakespeare's plays) is, bar none, the best puzzle solving in the world!