The other day, in regard to the first sentence of Jane Austen’s Nov. 18-20, 1814 Letter #109, to niece Fanny Knight…
“I feel quite as doubtful as you could be my dearest Fanny as to when my letter may be finished, for I can command very little quiet time at present….”
…Diane Reynolds made the following extraordinary catch:
“I also think, being JA, she means the double entendre that emerges when she doesn't set the "my dearest Fanny" in the first line off by commas. Read this way it reads: I feel quite as doubtful as you could be my dearest Fanny as to when my Letter may be finished ...”
To Diane’s insight, I added later that same day my own observation that the tone of Letter 109 reminded me very much of the letters written by Mary Crawford to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
Having now had a few days to mull all of this over, and follow up on some relevant research leads which I perceived, I would like to extend Diane’s brilliant insight another giant step further into the realm of informed speculation. Below I will make the case that (i) the double entendre detected by Diane in that first sentence actually extends throughout the entire first third of Letter 109, and has its roots in both Mansfield Park AND Emma; and (ii) there have actually been at least two earlier detections by other Austen scholars of the highly suggestive sexualized tone of Letter 109.
Leaping right in, I begin by presenting the entire first third of Letter 109, 98% as JA wrote it, but tweaked by me here and there, by the addition or subtraction of a word or two, all to the purpose of bringing out in vivid detail the virtuosic wordsmanship that JA has engaged in, all to the purpose of subliminally portraying an intense romantic vibe between Jane Austen and Fanny Knight:
“I feel quite  doubtful.  You could be my dearest Fanny,  when my letter may be finished.  I can command very little quiet time at present; but yet I must begin, for I know you will be glad to hear as soon as possible, and I really am impatient myself to be writing something on so very interesting a subject, though I have no hope of writing anything to the purpose. [i.e., explicitly] I shall do very little more, I dare say, than say over again what [I] have said before [implicitly].
I was certainly a good deal surprised at first, as I had no suspicion of any change in your feelings [toward me], and I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in love [with] [m]y dear Fanny. I am ready to laugh at the idea, and yet it is no laughing matter to have had you so mistaken as to your own feelings. And with all my heart I wish I had cautioned you on that point when first you spoke to me; but, though I did not think you then so much in love [with me], I did consider you as being attached [to me] in a degree quite sufficiently for happiness, as I had no doubt it would increase with opportunity, and FROM THE TIME OF OUR BEING IN LONDON TOGETHER I THOUGHT YOU REALLY VERY MUCH IN LOVE [with me]. But you certainly are not at all -- there is no concealing it.
What STRANGE creatures WE are! It seems as if your being secure of [me] had made you indifferent. There was a little disgust, I suspect, at the races, and I do not wonder at it. [My] expressions then would not do for one who had rather more acuteness, PENETRATION, and TASTE, than love, which was your case. And yet, after all, I am surprised that the change in your feelings should be so great. [I am] just what [I] ever was, only more evidently and uniformly devoted to you. This is all the difference. How shall we account for it?
My dearest Fanny, I am writing what will not be of the smallest use to you. I am FEELING DIFFERENTLY EVERY MOMENT, and shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your mind. [i.e., I only hint]. I COULD LAMENT IN ONE SENTENCE AND LAUGH IN THE NEXT, but as to opinion or counsel I am sure that none will be extracted worth having from this letter [because you’re clueless].” END QUOTE (with changes indicated]
First, as to the ALL CAPS passage about JA’s wildly changeable feelings contained in the last quoted paragraph, JA seems to me to be strongly hinting at “the riot of her own gratifications”, in channeling Henry Crawford’s giddy remarks in the following passage from Mansfield Park:
“Henry Crawford, to whom, in all the riot of his gratifications it was yet an UNTASTED pleasure, was quite alive at the idea. "I really believe," said he, "I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I COULD BE ANYTHING OR EVERYTHING; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, IN ANY TRAGEDY OR COMEDY in the English language. Let us be doing something.”
The resonance is extremely striking, the more so because JA had published Mansfield Park only months earlier in 1814! So the character of Henry Crawford must still have been at the very tip of JA’s pen, ready to spring to life in an instant at the behest of his creator.
And second, I can best explain what else I see in Letter 109 by imagining the remainder of a Letter 109 that JA might have fantasized writing to Fanny, had she been totally free to speak totally “to the purpose”, which of course she was not. I will not even attempt to write in JA’s style, but merely to capture her ideas in my own words:
“Did you get the joke my dearest Fanny?--I didn’t think so. The idea that your Aunt Jane might want to horse around with the conceit of being a little in love with you, and in hope of a return, is more than is dreamt of in your Godmersham philosophy.
And here’s the best joke of all, my dearest Fanny, because it is deadly serious. The novel I am working on right now, which I predict will be my masterpiece, is (as you know) called “Emma” (as in “M. A.”, i.e., Miss Austen, i.e., you until you became “Knight-ly” two years ago).
What I will never tell you explicitly is that my heroine, named Emma, is based heavily on you in all your glorious cluelessness, and my hero is named Mr. “Knight”-ley (who will bestow that name upon Emma in the end). And the character who speaks the most words of any secondary personage is Miss Bates, who is in a strange way an aunt to Emma---hint, hint, Miss Bates is therefore really me!
The running joke is that Emma spends the entire novel ignoring everything Miss Bates says, and mocks her behind her back (and eventually even to her face). But the deeper joke is on Emma herself, because Miss Bates’s speeches are the closest thing in the novel to the truth about all the dramatic action which is really going on just outside of Emma’s field of vision and scope of imagination.
In fact, right before I composed this letter to you, I wrote the following passage on that very point, which will appear about midway through the novel:
"You will get nothing to the purpose from Miss Bates," said Emma. "She will be all delight and gratitude, but she will tell you nothing. She will not even listen to your questions. I see no advantage in consulting Miss Bates."
And so when I wrote to you, above, that “I have no hope of writing anything to the purpose”, I was being as profoundly disingenuous to you, as Miss Bates is to Emma, oh, two dozen times during the novel.
Now, don’t get me wrong--I do dearly wish I could share with you the secrets of this letter-charade I now write to you--but I can’t, of course, or else risk drawing the ire of yourself and/or your father down on me and on those I love most, such as your cousin Anna, whom I must belittle whenever I mention her to you, for fear you will be even more jealous of her than you already are, if I don’t.
So you’re just going to have to figure all of this out on your own, or not at all. And I don’t believe you will, at least any time soon. But I do believe that one day, many years from now, the Trojan Horse I have planted in your mind today will open up, the ideas hidden inside will pop out, and you just might figure it out. Or, much more likely, someone in the family who reads my Emma and understands that Miss Bates was speaking “to the purpose” the whole time, and thereby realizes what she is really saying, will inform you of what you’ve been blind to.
And I am sure you will be more than a little angry then, and think even less kindly of me than you do now, and so I fully expect you to openly express your contempt for me in some way. But beware if you do, because one day long after even you are gone, the world may take note of any bad things you say about your “dear aunt Jane”, and take my side, not yours.
And anyway, you ought to just let it go, because, like my Emma, I really do deserve the best treatment, and I never put up with less. You haven’t treated me very kindly of late, and this letter is your punishment.
Satirically, but Affectionately nonetheless,
Your Dear Aunt Jane
It was after I wrote my completion of Letter 109 that I checked to see if any other Austen scholars had previously detected the lesbian innuendoes of Letter 109, and I found two interesting hits:
First, I dug up from my old files the following excerpt (which I had completely forgotten) from Terry Castle’s famous review of Le Faye’s 1995 edition of JA’s letters (which I cited yesterday in my discussion of Nora Ephron’s Austen allusions in You’ve Got Mail)….
…and so I give you this (even more controversial in 1995 than today) excerpt about JA’s letters to Fanny Knight:
“As for the letters to Fanny, though one might expect them to shed light on the novelist’s powers of empathy (Fanny’s predicament is one that occurs often in Austen’s fiction) they make for rather unpleasant reading. Were one wanting to make the vulgar case for Austen’s homoeroticism, here would be the place to look: the tone is giddy, sentimental and disturbingly schoolgirlish for a 42-year-old woman. Austen was infatuated with Fanny and slips often into embarrassing coquetries: You are inimitable, irresistable. You are the delight of my Life. Such letters, such entertaining letters as you have lately sent! – Such a description of your queer little heart! ... I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal & maternal affections.’ As a love adviser she is dithery and contradictory – sometimes fearing the hold Fanny has over men (‘Mr J.W. frightens me. – He will have you’), at other times breathlessly suggesting new lovers for her. She is rather like her own Emma Woodhouse, who, in an excess of displaced amorosity in Emma, persuades her dim-witted little protégée, Harriet Smith, quite wrongly, that three different men are in love with her – with comically disastrous results.” END QUOTE
I agree with Castle’s courageous and insightful comments in all but two respects:
ONE: JA’s having hinted so broadly at lesbian interest in niece Fanny is by no means conclusive evidence that JA actually felt such a physical infatuation with Fanny. I think it much more likely, actually, that JA was blowing off the steam of repressed anger toward her spoiled niece—resentment which I imagine Fanny unwittingly provoked in JA on a daily basis when they together, an in every letter when they were apart---by generating a fantastical put-on that she knew Fanny would be too dull to register. It was a kind of challenge to JA’s writing skills, to be able to embed a lesbian fantasy just under the surface of giving totally heterosexual courtship advice to Fanny. And Letter 109 is proof that JA was up to the challenge.
TWO: Castle saw JA as emulating Emma, in arrogantly dispensing bad courtship advice to Harriet, and on the surface, so it might seem. But, as I made clear in my above mock-rewriting of the end of Letter 109, it is actually Miss Bates (with soupcons of both Mary and Henry Crawford) whom JA is covertly emulating so brilliantly in Letter 109, assuming the persona of the ditzy aunt who can’t hold on to a firm opinion for more than two sentences before changing it completely.
Now, Castle is not the only respected Austen scholar to weigh in on Letter 109 in this fashion. A few years later, in 2000, Clara Tuite favorably referred to “Terry Castle’s daring to give a name to what there might be to speculate about a close aunt-niece relationship between Austen and her favourite niece, Fanny Knight. In replying to Southam and to the general barrage of letters in response to her review in a letter of her own, Castle asks rhetorically, ‘[s]urely literary critics writing in the London Review are still allowed to speculate about such things’…” . Tuite then embarked on her own daring and insightful speculations about Lady Denham’s lesbian interest in her niece, Clara, in Sanditon.
So….I don’t know if you would go along with all, or even some, of what I wrote, above, Diane, but thanks very much in all events for inspiring me to follow this line of inquiry through the looking glass into the literary wonderland to which you pointed the way.
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