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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Shakespearean Web of Jane Austen's Letter 74

"You cannot imagine-it is not in Human Nature to imagine what a nice walk we have round the Orchard. The row of Beech look very well indeed, & so does the young Quickset hedge in the Garden.-I hear today that an Apricot has been detected on one of the Trees.-My Mother is perfectly convinced now that she shall not be overpower'd by her Cleft Wood-& I beleive would rather have more than less."

Regarding the above passage near the end of Jane Austen's Letter 74, Diana Birchall wrote:

"She describes her orchard walk with humorous exaggeration: "You canot imagine - it is not in Human nature to imagine what a nice walk we have round the Orchard." She mentions a quickset hedge, which translates thus: "A quickset hedge is a type of hedge created by planting live hazel or whitethorn (common hawthorn) cuttings directly into the earth. Once planted, these cuttings root and form new plants, creating a dense barrier. The technique is ancient, and the term quickset hedge is first recorded in 1484. The word quick in the name refers to the fact that the cuttings are living (as in "the quick and the dead"), and not to the speed at which the hedge grows.
Cleft wood is another technical old fashioned term: "Timber that has been split once (half section wood) or several times (split section, wedge section) along the grain to produce planks." There are lots of interesting examples of cleft wood gates and fences all over England, though why Mrs. Austen was "convinced now that she shall not be overpower'd by her Cleft Wood - & I beleive would rather have more than less," we do not know; perhaps she wanted a fence built."

Diana, you've zeroed in on another (deliberately, I believe) enigmatic passage filled with mysterious clues--- here is my train of thought, which, as I hint in my Subject Line, leads to a remarkable insight about the deeper meaning of it all:

What got me started was the humorous exaggeration of "It is not in Human nature to imagine" in the first sentence. Right away, it _strongly_ reminded me of some famous literary passage, but I could not quite put my finger on it for a few minutes. But my crossword puzzle obsession--which trains me to use fragmentary data to retrieve from my subconscious what I already know--served me well, and I suddenly knew exactly where to find that passage:

"I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and methought I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was."

Of course this is Bottom in Act 4, Scene 1, of Midsummer Night's Dream, and there is no doubt in my mind that Jane Austen, in her mimicry of Bottom's famous hyperbole about imagination, was sharing a sophisticated literary allusion with fellow Shakespeare lover CEA.

Spotting that thinly veiled Shakespearean allusion made me wonder whether there might also be a connection between it and the following absurdist passage earlier in Letter 74 which you also flagged, Diana:

"I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive. We shall have pease soon-I mean to have them with a couple of Ducks from Wood Barn & Maria Middleton towards the end of next week."

I now realize that that earlier sentence contains not one, not two, but _three_ additional allusions to Shakespeare!:

(a) one of the fairies whom Titania summons to serve Bottom during "Bottom's Dream" (which the senses of man cannot comprehend) is named _Pease_blossom!;

(b) in Letter 75, written less than a week later, there will be yet _another_ reference by JA to "pease" (which are what we today call "peas") in an _explicitly_ literary context that includes both Walter Scott and Shakespeare (specifically, The Merchant of Venice)!

(c) there are two references to "mulberry" in all of Shakespeare's plays, and one of them is the following speech by Peter Quince in Act 5 Scene 1 of (what else?) Midsummer Night's Dream, narrating the action of the play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe:

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show;
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know;
This beauteous lady Thisby is certain.
This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall's chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper. At the which let no man wonder.
This man, with lanthorn, dog, and bush of thorn,
Presenteth Moonshine; for, if you will know,
By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
To meet at Ninus' tomb, there, there to woo.
This grisly beast, which Lion hight by name,
The trusty Thisby, coming first by night,
Did scare away, or rather did affright;
And, as she fled, her mantle she did fall,
Which Lion vile with bloody mouth did stain.
Anon comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,
And finds his trusty Thisby's mantle slain:
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broach'd his boiling bloody breast;
And Thisby, tarrying in _mulberry_ shade,
His dagger drew, and died. For all the rest,
Let Lion, Moonshine, Wall, and lovers twain
At large discourse, while here they do remain.

And that brings us to the enigmatic reference to "cleft wood" which you also took note of, Diana. Does JA, by "cleft wood", in some way mean to refer to the "chink" in the "Wall" through which Pyramus and Thisby communicate? The mulberry trees at Chawton which may not be dead but which are not alive---are they pointing toward Pyramus and Thisby who have killed themselver next to the mulberry tree?

And/or does JA also mean, by "cleft wood", to wink at the following very famous passage in the _other_ Shakespeare play besides Midsummer Night's Dream which has fairies acting at the behest of a powerful master?:

This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
And here was left by the sailors. Thou, my slave,
As thou report'st thyself, wast then her servant;
And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorr'd commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a _cloven_ _pine_; within which rift
Imprison'd thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died
And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as mill-wheels strike.

Of course this is Prospero, in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, reminding Ariel of the torment that Prospero freed him from-and, when you think about it, during his imprisonment inside the _cloven_ tree, Ariel was not really dead and yet not really alive either!

And _that_ is my clue as to why JA has spun this entire gossamer web of veiled Shakespearean allusion in Letter 74. It is not just meaningless display of erudition, it is a veiled commentary on the real world subject matter of Letter 74, specifically, JA's sharp desire to have a visit from Anne Sharp, which I wrote about earlier today.

JA, in the beginning of Letter 74, has revealed a desperate desire to reunite with Anne Sharp after what has surely been a long separation. And therefore, I think JA sees herself as one part Ariel, one part Thisby, in every aspect lacking the _power_ to be close to her dear Anne Sharp--to enjoy, as in the case of Pyramus and Thisbe, a forbidden love----and needing the intervention of a powerful sorcerer---perhaps referring thereby to CEA herself---to free JA from the tree in which she sits imprisoned, to knock down the wall dividing her from her dear Anne, but lacking the power to do either of these things herself!

And maybe, just maybe, that absurdist suicidal subtext is part of the reason why JA has also written, in Letter 74:

"I had a great mind to add that if she persisted in giving it, I would spin nothing with it but a rope to hang myself-but I was afraid of making it appear a less serious matter of feeling than it really is."

That "spinning wheel" which JA does not wish to accept from Mrs. Knight sounds awfully symbolic to me as well.

Bottom, upon awakening, could not be more in awe of his dream than I am of Jane Austen's awesome display of meaningful erudition, spun into the most exquisite gossamer web of metaphor, pun, and allusion, in Letter 74!

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Arnie Perlstein said...

In followup to my three posts yesterday about Letter 74, which centered around my claim that Jane Austen had both Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream and Ovid's tale of Pyramus & Thisbe in the Metamorphoses in mind as she wrote Letter 74 while she was editing Sense & Sensibility, I did various word searches to see if there were any more angles to explore, and also to see if any of these allusions had been previously detected by other Austen scholars or Janeites.

Turns out, there was one prior detection, which I knew about in 2007, but had (consciously) forgotten since then---Jane Odiwe, in her 2009 Sense & Sensibility sequel, entitled Willoughby's Return, wrote the following passage:

"….On the following Tuesday afternoon, Elinor and Marianne were sitting in the latter’s favourite room at Delaford, a small parlour with windows that looked toward the orchard and the mellow brick garden walls that enclosed it. The apple trees, heavy with fruit, gleamed crimson in the October sunshine, and the twisted mulberry tree, in one corner, associated forever in Marianne’s mind with those star-crossed lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, was abundant with swelling purple berries...."

I wrote 2007 and not 2009 because I have not read Odiwe's sequel, but my Googling today reminded me that in July 2007, at the Becoming Jane fansite, where I was at that time a regular commenter, the blogger Icha wrote a blog in which she credited Jane Odiwe for that very same idea:

So, with my memory now refreshed, I see that my original contribution to this matrix today is (i) to extend the web of connections to JA's veiled allusions in Letter 74 while proofreading of Chapters 30-32 of S&S where Mrs. Jennings makes such a big deal about the mulberry tree at Delaford, and also (ii) to show that it is not merely Ovid in the background of JA's allusions in S&S, as Odiwe suggested, but _also_ Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (which of course incorporates Ovid's tale as the play within the play) and Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer as well.

I always strive to give credit where credit is due.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Icha said...

Thanks a lot for the note and acknowledgement, Arnie. Very interesting. Good to hear from you!