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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

More on the BRAMston/BertRAM Connection Between Letter 78 & Mansfield Park



Two and a half hours ago, I received an email from a sharp-eyed reader of my blog named Terry Townsend from Dorset in Jolly Old England, who has helped clear up a confusion I was previously unaware of---a confusion, which, as I will explain below, was created by Le Faye’s dreadfully inept editing of JA’s Letter 78---a confusion which I (preceded by Ellen and then Diana) had inadvertently propagated a year ago in Austen L, and which I also blogged about here….


….It all makes for an interesting parable about literary research, the perils of trusting Le Faye’s editing, and the powerful synergy of open communication between amateur Austen scholars via the Internet.

First, here is the email I received from Terry:

“Dear Arnie Perlstein, I have just read your very interesting article [i.e., my above-linked blog post] suggesting that Mrs. Augusta Bramston might have been JA's inspiration for the character of the unpleasant Mrs. Norris.  However, John Byng's quote about her being an 'artful worldly woman' ends with the sentence: "and her son is little better than a blockhead". If Augusta was unmarried the comment must surely be in reference to her sister Mary?”

I had completely forgotten about my blog post, so I went back and quickly reconstructed what Terry was talking about, and will now summarize for you.

In my post about Letter 78 which was part of our ongoing group read of Jane Austen’s letters in Janeites and Austen-L, I had quoted a comment by Diana, and then had responded to her, in relevant part, as follows:

“Diana Birchall also wrote: "...then some dutiful messages from her mother, and a nasty comment about a Mrs. Bramstone, "the sort of Woman I detest." Deirdre points out this opinion was shared by diarist Hon John Byng, who wrote of this lady as "an artful worldly woman, of a notable self-sufficient capacity."  "
Here's the full quote [from JA’s Letter 78]: "Mrs. Bramstone is the sort of Woman I detest---Mr. Cottrell is worth ten of her. It is better to be given the Lie direct, than to excite no interest..."
There were actually TWO Mrs. Bramstons in Jane Austen's life--one was born Mary Chute and married Wither Bramston, the other was Wither Bramston's elder "dowager" sister. The comment by the diarist Byng quoted by Diana was about the latter, and it might seem that this would be a very straightforward comment about the dowager Mrs. Bramston, who disliked Jane Austen's writing.
However, I believe JA meant that sentence to be ambiguous, and to also work as a joke between her and her actual friend, the married Mrs. Bramston…..”  END QUOTE FROM MY 2012 BLOG POST

I then went on in my 2012 blog post to explain why I thought Jane Austen was really horsing around in writing in a mock-censorious tone about her good friend Mary Chute Bramston. And I also went on, more significantly for Janeites interested in JA’s novels, to endorse Mary Chute Bramston's belief  that  JA as had represented her married friend in MP as Lady Bertram, and to add my own interpretation  of her friend’s unmarried sister in law  Augusta, the dowager, as Mrs. Norris. At the end of this post, I will make a few more comments about those  allusions. 

But first, getting back to Terry’s initial email to me, I was initially puzzled as to how Diana could have concluded that a woman without children could have a son who was a blockhead—but within about 10 minutes, both Terry and I were able to figure out what was wrong with that picture, and we agreed completely on what had actually happened, and why.

Here’s what I wrote to Terry, which is more or less what he wrote to me at the same time, passing each other in the ether:

“Hi Terry!  Thank you very much for your email, I just went back to Le Faye's Bio Index and see that Byng wrote his comments in 1782, and I have solved the confusion, which was created by Le Faye's carelessness.  In 1782 Augusta Bramston had never been married (nor did she marry later), and Mary Chute had not yet married Wither Bramston.  But....in 1782 Augusta's and Wither's mother was still alive-she died in 1790! So SHE must be the "her" whose son (Wither) was a blockhead! But when JA wrote Letter 78 in 1813, Augusta was then the dowager of Oakley Hall.  So I still think that JA was writing jokingly about her friend Mary Chute Bramston in Letter 78 when she wrote "Mrs. Bramstone is the sort of Woman I detest...." and I also think that JA depicted Mary B. as Lady Bertram, and depicted Mary's sister in law dowager Augusta Bramston as Mrs. Norris!” END QUOTE FROM MY EMAIL TO TERRY

But how had this confusion arisen in the first place? It was a case of “telephone”, triggered by Le Faye’s inexplicably bad editing decision. It turns out that the quotation from John Byng’s 1782 diary entry appears in Le Faye’s Biographical Index entry for the Bramston family! And why is that so bad?

Because even though Le Faye does not explicitly link Byng’s very negative 1782 comments about “the present dowager” at Oakley Park (the Bramston family seat in Hampshire) to JA’s very negative (but, as I have said, totally mock-serious) 1813 comments about “Mrs. Bramston” in Letter 78, that is an inference that is practically begged for, unless a reader is careful enough to note the date discrepancy, and therefore not to leap to the easy but inaccurate conclusion that they are about the same dowager!

When you think about it, why else would Le Faye have included the Byng diary passage in an edition of JA’s letters, except as a gloss on JA’s Letter 78 passage, unless if it was indeed the same person being dissed in both? But now, as you see, it’s not the same person at all, Byng was writing about the dowager before Mary even married Mr. Bramston, and JA was writing about the daughter of that first dowager, who had become the dowager herself in 1790, and still was, 23 years later!  At the very least, Le Faye, if she understood things properly, should have introduced the Byng quote with a sentence like “Jane Austen’s negative comments about Mrs. Bramston in Letter 78 are an eerie but coincidental echo of similar negative comments about Mrs. Bramston’s mother in law in the following 1782 diary entry.”

Anyway, I then traced Diana’s comment picking up on Le Faye’s horrid editing back to Diana’s source, Ellen, who in the immediately preceding post in our Austen-L group read discussion of Letter 78, had made the very same mistaken inference that Le Faye had invited.

Whew! The moral of this story, then, is to be extremely suspicious of Le Faye’s editing, and to read JA’s letters with an eye to a put-on and a veiled allusion!

And that brings me to the one unexpected bonus of this confusion getting cleared up, and identifying the correct generation, which is that it relates directly to the allusions to Mansfield Park.

As prelude to disclosing that bonus to you, I will now show you Terry’s reply to me which had crossed mine to him in the ether:

“Dear Arnie Perlstein, I have now figured it out. Byng was riding past in 1782 when the Old Oakley Hall was still there. The new one was completed by Wither Bramston thirteen years later in 1795. Therefore it was Edmund Bramston that Byng used to visit and the artful woman he refers to was Edmund's wife Henrietta Maria.  Mary and Augusta (JA's contemporaries) were the next generation. Terry” END QUOTE

Did you notice the Christian names of the parents? EDMUND Bramston and Henrietta-MARIA Bramston! Edmund just happens to be the Christian name of the second Bertram son in MP, and Maria just happens to be the Christian name of both the eldest daughter and the mother in the Bertram family!

That ain’t no coincidence, I suggest to you, and it tells me that Mary Chute Bramston was right in her belief  that she was represented as Maria Ward Bertram in MP, and that I was right that Augusta  Bramston was represented as Mrs. Norris  in MP!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter  

P.S.: Added at 5:45 pm the same day:

It was just pointed out to me in Janeites that a single woman couldn't be a dowager. A dowager was a widow.  If someone was described as a dowager that person was a widow of a man with property.

I just replied in relevant part as follows:

"it does make Le Faye look even worse. Why?

Because Le Faye's Bio Index entry for the Bramston family ends with the following sentence which immediately follows the Byng diary quotation:

"Mrs. Wither Bramston enjoyed MP, but her sister-in-law-, 'Mrs.' Augusta Bramston found the first three of JA's published novels boring and nonsensical."

By putting that 'Mrs.' in quotes as she did, in a sentence which immediately follows the Byng quotation, Le Faye is clearly (but inaccurately) suggesting that Mrs. Augusta Bramston is one and the same as the "artful, worldly woman" whom Byng had so caustically described. But that also means that Le Faye has misunderstood the meaning of "dowager" or she would not have implied that Mrs. Augusta Bramston was a dowager.

This therefore appears to me as a compound error on Le Faye's part, one which inevitably leads any trusting Janeite reading it--such as Ellen last year--- to infer that they were one and the same person. 

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