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Monday, November 19, 2012

Jane Austen’s Letter 87: “I am going to write nothing but short sentences (at cramped Henrietta Street)”



Letter 87 is one of the longest letters, if not _the_ longest, of all 154 surviving JA letters---it takes up nearly 4 ½ pages in Le Faye’s 3rd edition---apparently in this instance, at least, JA was not concerned about the cost of sending a long letter to CEA,  perhaps because of Mr. Gray’s involvement as a kind of personal courier? In any event, the extreme length of Letter 87 provides a sharp ironic counterpoint to a theme I have just discerned which pops up several times during the letter, which relates, I believe, to the financial wherewithal of Henry, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, which I am pretty sure I am not imagining. I am curious to hear what others think about my following interpretation:

“Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the breakfast, dining, sitting-room, beginning with all my might.”

This seems to me to be JA’s droll way of  strongly implying, without having to say it straight out, that Henry’s new digs at Henrietta Street are very small, such that the room JA is sitting in as she writes Letter 87 is forced to fulfill all of the functions normally (and, in the case of Henry and Eliza’s former residence at Sloane Street) assigned to three separate rooms? It’s hard for me to see any other fair meaning of that sentence. And here’s what J. David Grey wrote about the history of Henry’s living quarters in London between 1808-1816, which I think fits very well with my inference:

“Henry and two associates had founded a banking institution in London sometime between 1804 and 1806.  Austen, Maunde and Tilson of Covent Garden flourished and enabled Henry and Eliza to move from Brompton (where Jane Austen had found the quarters cramped during a visit in 1808) to a more fashionable address and larger house at 64 Sloane Street.  Jane's visits here in 1811 and 1813 were happy events, filled with parties, theatre-going, and the business of publishing Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.  1813 brought both good fortune and tragic loss.  Uncle Leigh Perrot and his brother, Edward (Austen) Knight, helped to secure Henry's appointment as Receiver-General for Oxfordshire.  His happiness was marred, however, by Eliza's death after a painfully debilitating illness.  Henry soon moved to quarters over the bank at 10 Henrietta Street and, later, back to Chelsea, 23 Hans Place. Jane was entertained at both establishments. “

And what then occurred to me for the first time, as I read all of the above, was that perhaps, while Eliza was alive, she was receiving a healthy monthly stipend from “Daddy” Warren Hastings, which enabled the couple to live in high style at Sloane Street? But then, once Eliza died, Hastings (despite Henry’s desperate efforts to curry favor with the “great man”) was no longer forking over that dough to Henry? And so Henry was thereupon quickly forced to move to a much smaller place?  It sure smells that way to me. And maybe that’s partly why Henry visits Hastings at Daylesford, not only to bring S&S and P&P for Hastings to read, not only to condole about the death of Eliza, but also in some (apparently unsuccessful) attempt by Henry to convince Hastings to continue to dole out that stipend?

This would fit very well with Henry’s extreme toadyish obeisance toward Hastings, which is well documented in other instances as well. Financial largesse, whether in the form of cash, or in the form of a clerical living, is of course a powerful incentive to encourage toadying---just look at pretty much all the clergymen in JA’s novels.

And the beat goes on in Letter 87:

“ We had a very good journey, weather and roads excellent…We arrived at a quarter-past four, and were kindly welcomed by the coachman, and then by his master, and then by William, and then by Mrs. Perigord, who all met us before we reached the foot of the stairs. Mde. Bigeon was below dressing us a most comfortable dinner of soup, fish, bouillee, partridges, and an apple tart, which we sat down to soon after five, after cleaning and dressing ourselves and feeling that we were most commodiously disposed of. The little adjoining dressing-room to our apartment makes Fanny and myself very well off indeed, and as we have poor Eliza's bed our space is ample every way.”

After JA’s detailed account of the warm hospitality extended to herself and (I think) three of the Knight children—Fanny, Edward and who was the third?---by Henry and his household, we again see, at the end, yet another subtle suggestion of extra luxury associated with Eliza, in JA’s pointing to the size of Eliza’s bed, which by negative implication, suggests that the other bed(s) in Henry’s apartment are not so “ample” in “space”.

And does this also suggest also that during Eliza’s final horrible illness, she slept in her own commodious sick bed, apart from Henry?  I would imagine that was the case.

JA was someone for whom small details were important, so I begin to gather that she means to emphasize that a double standard of some kind had prevailed in Henry and Eliza’s marriage. But the best is now about to come, the verbal “winks” which seal the deal,  I claim, in validating my interpretation.

“At seven we set off in a coach for the Lyceum; were at home again in about four hours and a half; had soup and wine and water, and then went to our holes.”

Okay, now JA is joking about the visitors at Henrietta Street being like a pack of small rodents, who retire in the evening to small holes in the ground. Once again, this imagery emphasizes the smallness of the space at Henrietta Street.

“Edward finds his quarters very snug and quiet.”

And there again, about the quarters being “very snug”—translation—small.

But here is the piece de resistance:

“I am going to write nothing but short sentences.  There shall be two full stops in every line. Layton and Shear's is Bedford House. We mean to get there before breakfast if it's possible; for we feel more and more how much we have to do and how little time. This house looks very nice. It seems like Sloane Street moved here. I believe Henry is just rid of Sloane Street. Fanny does not come, but I have Edward seated by me beginning a letter, which looks natural.”

I believe I am the first to realize that JA does not randomly and abruptly come up with the conceit of only writing small sentences. This must be interpreted in context!  Jane Austen’s absurdist sense of humor has flared up, as she puts the crowning touch on her theme of insufficient space at Henrietta Street. JA sounds a lot like Lewis Carroll when she takes that theme and turns it into a line that would have been right at home in Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass---i.e., because the room JA is sitting in is so small, she must therefore write only in short sentences, or else they won’t be able to escape from the tiny room!!!!

Isn’t that hilarious? We’ve seen this very same sort of humor over and over again in her letters, I am trying to remember the last example, but it wasn’t that long prior to Letter 87.    

Once again, JA, like Miss Bates, seems to write about very little, but, via the Jane Austen Code, she tells a great deal!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Speaking of Miss Bates,  I am sure I am not the first Austen scholar to notice the distinct echo of the comic dynamics between Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. PERRY in the following passage in Letter 87:

“Lady Bridges drinks at the Cross Bath, her son at the Hot, and Louisa is going to bathe. Dr. PARRY seems to be half starving Mr. Bridges, for he is restricted to much such a diet as James's bread, water and meat, and is never to eat so much of that as he wishes, and he is to walk a great deal-walk till he drops, I believe-gout or no gout. It really is to that purpose. I have not exaggerated.”


ADDED 30 MINUTES LATER

In the above post, I concluded with the following statements:

"I believe I am the first to realize that JA does not randomly and abruptly come up with the conceit of only writing small sentences. This must be interpreted in context!Jane Austen’s absurdist sense of humor has flared up, as she puts the crowning touch on her theme of insufficient space at Henrietta Street. JA sounds a lot like Lewis Carroll when she takes that theme and turns it into a line that would have been right at home in Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass---i.e., because the room JA is sitting in is so small, she must therefore write only in short sentences, or else they won’t be able to escape from the tiny room!!!! Isn’t that hilarious? We’ve seen this very same sort of humor over and over again in her letters, I am trying to remember the last example, but it wasn’t that long prior to Letter 87."

Of course, within a few minutes of sending that earlier message, I remembered which passage from JA's writings I had taken note of exactly that sort of Lewis Carroll-like absurdity in regard to an incongruous equating of tangible and intangible characteristics.

Here is a link to my post in Austen-L from barely two months ago, as to that earlier example, which is the scene early in P&P when Bingley (playfully, I assert) presents Darcy’s being taller as the rationale for why Bingley defers to Darcy in all matters:

http://lists.mcgill.ca/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind1209C&L=AUSTEN-L&P=R2180&I=-3

I ended that earlier post with the following comments:

“All of a sudden, we find ourselves in Swiftian terrain---in Lilliput and Brobdignag, where a seemingly silly, trivial bit of absurdity turns out to hold great significance. So my guess is that Bingley, for all his self-presentation as an impulsive, shallow thinker, actually read Gulliver's Travels and believed that the arguments of "short people" should be given _extra_ weight.”

And just as I concluded in that earlier post that this absurdity was only a mask for the deeper, very serious meaning, which in that instance was that the wishes of “short people”, i.e., women, received no respect, so, too, in Letter 87, the absurdity of writing in short sentences in a small room masks JA’s real concern at how quickly Henry’s financial circumstances seem to have plummeted in the aftermath of his wife’s death.

Seems like JA, in 1813, had more compassion for Henry in such financial straits, than Henry had for JA, CEA and Mrs. Austen’s financial straits in 1805 after Revd. Austen died.

That old gender double standard……

Cheers, ARNIE
  


ADDED ONE DAY LATER:

As a very quick followup to my posts yesterday about the above quoted  line in Letter 87, I checked back in my files and found the following quotation from an interesting article written 25 years ago by Terry Castle about JA's letters:

" Elsewhere she announces: ‘I am going to write nothing but short Sentences.’ The result – rather more uncannily – is like proto-Gertrude Stein: There shall be two full stops in every Line. Layton and Shear’s is Bedford House. We mean to get there before breakfast if it’s
possible. For we feel more & more how much we have to do. And how little time. This house looks very nice. It seems like Sloane St moved here. I believe Henry is just rid of Sloane St – Fanny does not come, but I have Edward seated by me beginning a letter, which looks natural. One can imagine the pleasure-addiction such writing engendered ..."

Indeed I _can_ imagine the pleasure-addiction such writing  engendered--just imagine being Cassandra, and never knowing what gems she was going to be treated to when she received a letter from Jane! I can only hope that CEA reciprocated and gave Jane something close to the same pleasure.

And Terry Castle is right there with me in reading the above passage in an absurdist vein, as Castle refers to the "short sentences" passage as "like proto-Gertrude Stein". Indeed, Castle also picks up on the early 20th century absurdist flavor of JA's writing when JA was in that mood/mode.

And I'd like to add that today I see even more significance in the similarity between the above passage, and the passage I quoted from P&P when Darcy and Bingley spar verbally over the effect of Darcy's tallness on their relationship.

I see now that JA is channeling the _same_ feminist motif in both! I.e., I interpreted the Bingley-Darcy exchange as ultimately being about the lack of respect accorded to the opinions of "short people" (i.e., women) in JA's England. And now I see that JA has used her repeated sly allusions to the smallness of Henry's new apartment at Henrietta Street
as a springboard to return to that theme of the "smallness" of _women's_  writing---she is punning on the idea of "short Sentences" as being the writing of "short people" (i.e., women)---and so she not only writes in sentences containing few words, she proceeds to write a spontaneous short parody of sentences which are "short" on  ideas, i.e., are about
silly gossip. Or something to that effect.

And finally, Castle's associating the above passage with Gertrude Stein makes me even _more_ confident that Gertrude Stein was a closet Janeite....

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

1 comment:

Diane said...

What struck me as I began reading this letter was the long second
sentence, followed by a longish fourth sentence. Thus, my FIRST theory
is--or was-- that Henry came in, read over Jane's shoulder and chided
her--jokingly--for her long sentences, leading her to insist she was
going to shorten them. More prosaic and probably closer to correct is
my SECOND theory that JA's short sentences are result of her bad pen,
for she writes: "I must get a softer pen. This is harder. I am in
agonies." which is the actual beginning of the series of shorter
sentences that continues with "I have not yet seen Mr. Crabbe.
Martha's letter is gone to the post," and then proceeds to, as if the
experiment in writing these shorter sentences was a success: "I am
going to write nothing but short sentences." Of course, she doesn't.