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

Monday, January 7, 2013

Jane Austen the Mentalist PART ONE

 While discussing  Jane Austen's Letter #92, Diana Birchall wrote the following in AustenL and Janeites about Jane Austen's observations of other people she was meeting while visiting rich brother Edward at his great estate in Kent:

"....she proceeds to describe the social events in a truly sour manner. The visit to Mystole is "stupidish." No one is at home at Chilham Castle or the vicarage. Edward Bridges' new friend arrives, Mr. Wigram, and she carps about the pair of them. Edward Bridges persuaded Wigram to take him to Lenham, "probably thinking a few days of G[odmersha]m would be the cheapest & pleasantest way of entertaining his friend & himself....Wigram is not agreable. - He is certainly no addition. - A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent." And she makes another family joke about names: "They say his name is Henry. A proof how unequally the gifts of Fortune are bestowed. - I have seen many a John & Thomas much more agreable." She doesn't even draw breath from trashing Mr. Wigram, to turning to Mr. Mascall. "We have got rid of Mr. R. Mascall however; - I did not like him either. He talks too much & is conceited - besides having a vulgarly shaped mouth." This sniping criticism of physical appearance, which nowadays at least we are generally pretty strictly taught is very rude, is frequent with Jane Austen. Interesting, then, that she is so sparing of physical descriptions of her characters in her novels, isn't it?"  END QUOTE

Fantastic observation there, Diana! indeed, that is a striking contrast between the novels and the letters, although it would be a very interesting study to locate the relatively small number of instances in the novels when such descriptions are given, to see if a pattern emerges as to when JA broke her general rule of sparse descriptions in the novels.

I think that one possible explanation is that when writing a letter to a trusted reader such as CEA or Martha, JA could be absolutely honest in reporting the results of her extraordinarily acute judgment of character, which included as a significant component the observation of character through facial features and expressions. But in writing her novels, she had a whole different purpose, she was deliberately fuzzing up the characters so that many different opinions about them could be entertained by readers, leaving things ambiguous deliberately.

As I have previously mentioned, my wife and I have been working our way steadily through the first four seasons of The Mentalist on DVD (we are 1/4 through the fourth season right now), and the kind of description JA provides in the above quoted passage is exactly the sort of snap judgment that Patrick Jane (I wonder about that last name!) routinely renders on the show, when he, like Sherlock Holmes, delivers a capsule description of many characters he encounters, including within his descriptions descriptions of facial features and expressions in exactly that same way!

Now, I believe JA was a kind of mentalist, meaning an extraordinarily acute observer and analyst of human character and personality, and so when she gives these descriptions, I believe she is painting, in a few words, an accurate portrait of these people. I trust JA's judgment.

So I don't see her as sour, I see her as relentlessly honest when she could safely afford to be, as she could in Letter 92.

I just read ahead to Letter 93 by mistake, and I found there a perfect example of JA's integrity and willingness to adapt her judgments on other people, as additional evidence came in. Just like Patrick Jane the Mentalist.

[What follows is Part Two, written within an hour of this Part One]

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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