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,
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
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
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.
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