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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jane Austen's Last Poem as the Memorial Drawn Up Per Letter 160

Today, I finally received from the library a copy of Claudia Johnson's new book, _Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures_, which Christy had mentioned a few weeks ago. When I got home, I immediately started browsing in it with eager anticipation.

Not surprisingly, it is very well written---Johnson has a brilliant mind and appears to have worked on this book for a while,it is clearly a labor of love. So it has that going for it, regardless of what a given reader may think about Johnson's ideas which are so elegantly presented.

But also not unexpectedly (given that, as Christy had pointed out, Johnson asserts that the famous "dull elves" epigram is only about grammar and book editing), I disagree all over the place with Johnson's tame, unthreatening interpretations in this book, which are a far cry from the bold, sharp feminist interpretations contained in her early (i.e., 2 decades ago) seminal readings of JA.

But even if I disagree with the 2012 version of Claudia Johnson, she continues to demonstrate a good nose for passages in JA's writing which are worthy of attention. So I decided that as I browse through her book at a leisurely pace during the next week, I will write blog posts about points of divergence between Johnson and myself. And here is the first.

On P. 28, Johnson, who has been discussing JA's interment in Winchester Cathedral, speculates as to why JA is buried there:

"...True, Cassandra avers that Jane admired the cathedral, but we have no indication that she ever worshipped there or wished to do so. Though Austen jokes in a letter of 27 May 1817 that if her doctor fails to cure her, she will "draw up a Memorial & lay it before the Dean and Chapter [of Winchester Cathedral] & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned & Disinterested Body," the idea to bury Jane in the cathedral instead of taking her home to the churchyard at Chawton was probably, most agree, Henry's..."

I had not previously taken note of that short passage in Letter 160 to (the 19 year old) JEAL, but what leapt off the page at me as I read Johnson's above comments was an obvious connection to JA's last poem, Winchester Races!

Just think about it:

1. On May 17, 1817, JA, still holding on to hope that she will survive her serious illness, jokes in a legalistic way with JEAL about obtaining ""redress" in the event of the failure of Dr. Lyford to save her life. The conceit is that the breaching party is going to be held accountable for the damages done to JA's body.

2. Then, a scant two months later, as JA, now fully cognizant that she has reached the end of the line, and seeing Death loom before her, harks back to her legalistic joke in Letter 160---or maybe she has been thinking about it off and on during those two final months stretched out and helpless, what her last written words are going to be---and she goes ahead and......

3. ....actually composes a perverse sort of "Memorial" about the taking of redress into one's own hands---in legal jargon, we call this a "self-help remedy"---and that "Memorial" is none other than her final writing, the poem Winchester Races, which I have written about several times previously:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/07/when-once-we-are-buried-you-think-we.html

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/henry-austens-biographical-notice.html

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2012/01/mr-fitzhugh-corinna-st-swithens-stone.html

Now I see this _additional_ wrinkle in this poem which turns out to be so much like her charades, and her novels, i.e., with _multiple_ different meanings layered on top of each other (and by the way, I recently found yet another layer of meaning in the poem, which I will write about at a future date).

In addition to registering JA's objection to being buried in Winchester Cathedral, this poem also contains JA's objection to _dying_ itself! Just hear her defiant, almost Don Giovannian death roar:

"When once we are buried you think we are gone, But behold me immortal!"

So, Dr. Lyford may have broken his contract to save JA's life, and there's no time left for joking, but JA''s indominable spirit--wearing the mask of St. Swithin---will defeat even Death itself--by the immortality of her writing.

And somehow, incredibly, dozens of scholarly commentators have referred to her last poem, Winchester Races, as a frivolous joke, of no importance in understanding the mysteries of Jane Austen. Incredible.

So, my thanks to Claudia Johnson for her inadvertent assist in prompting me to spot the connection between Letter 160 and JA's last poem.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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