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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

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, passing sentence...

" 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."

I stand by those comments today.

Cheers, ARNIE
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