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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jane Austen’s Letter 123: The Hidden Explosiveness of “Believe me, my dear Sister-Aunt”, & Other Subtextual Tales



In addition to the “eye weakness” subtext of Letter 123 to which I devoted an entire post earlier today….


…I will now make the case for additional, similar subtext, of equal significance to that of the “eye weakness” subtext, all crammed into this short, seemingly trivial & innocuous Letter 123 to 10 year old niece Caroline Austen.

Letter 123 now seems to me to be a textbook example of how JA effortlessly and frequently met the challenge of writing her letters so as to communicate dicey and even explosive meaning in code to knowing readers of those letters other than the named addressee, while at the same time preserving total opacity to a reader not “looking for trouble”.  I’ve divided this post into four topical sections, and this is one post you really want to read all the way to the end, because I’ve saved the best (or the worst, depending on your point of view) for the fourth and last section.


The Delights of Taking Care of Children:

“It gives us great pleasure that you should be at Chawton. I am sure Cassy must be delighted to have you.”

Of course on the surface these two sentences appear merely to be Aunt Jane delighting in the prospect of her two age-similar nieces, Caroline (age 10) and Cassy (age 7), getting to spend some quality time together at Chawton.

But first, I believe it did not escape Jane Austen that “Cassy” also just happened to be the childhood nickname of sister Cassandra, who was at that very moment at Chawton taking care of Caroline and Cassy. So, that second sentence takes on a new ironic layer of meaning, if it is read to refer to Aunt Cassandra’s own feelings about now having Caroline around to attend to and contend with, along with the younger, perhaps more difficult, Cassy, who was already there, and for whom, as Diana pointed out, the recent death of her mother was a still-fresh wound.

For that matter,  I also wonder how delighted 7-year old Cassy really was to suddenly have an older rival for her aunt Cassandra’s attentions right there in the Cottage. Sounds like droll irony on JA’s part, because we know JA was already aware of Cassy’s jealous bossiness as JA described it in Letter 120 to Anna Lefroy, when little Cassy, less than a month earlier, put the kibosh on a visit with her aunts to the very pregnant Anna at Wyards in favor of a trip to the fair that she really wanted to take.

Jane Austen would not have been blind to these family dynamics, and I think she was working for a wry smile from Cassandra upon reading the above, as if to say, I just bet you must be delighted to have more children to care for.


Jane Austen’s Precious Pianoforte:

“You will practise your Music of course, & I trust to you for taking care of my Instrument & not letting it be ill used in any respect.-Do not allow anything to be put on it, but what is very light.”

Here, what comes through loud and clear, without resort to hints, and from the rapid fire repetition of several emphatic warnings and prohibitions, is the real fear that JA has that somehow Caroline will mess up JA’s precious pianoforte. My guess is that Caroline minded her aunt’s stern admonitions. For sure, it tells us just how important that pianoforte was to JA’s mental and spiritual health—I imagine her piano playing as a deeply nourishing private discipline & practice, a time for communing with her own imagination in preparation for the sacred act of literary composition. So, JA was not leaving her pianoforte vulnerable to the vagaries of a 10-year old’s judgment, and was being crystal clear about the supreme importance of its not being “ill used in any respect”.


The Hermit:

“I hope you will try to make out some other tune besides the Hermit.”

Thanks to Diana, for pointing out Le Faye’s gloss on this sentence, and then quoting the first stanza and giving us that brief bio re Beattie’s sad family history. I think that brief bio is the key to understanding JA’s subtext in the above sentence.
First, I think it clear that JA was aware of the deep sadness underlying Beattie’s familiar lyrics (which are the voice of human grief, agonizing over the pain and despair of knowing that deceased loved ones are, unlike the perennial fruits of Mother Nature,  never going to return in the spring—Beattie’s dead wife and children were gone forever.

Was it just a coincidence, then, that the overarching theme of Letter 123 is the Austen family dynamics at Chawton , in particular the presence at Chawton of a little girl who has just lost her mother, and perhaps, with a 7-year-old’s mind, was at times lost in fantasies of a return of her mother, in defiance of the cold, harsh finality of those lryics?

So this is what leads me to speculate that Caroline Austen in fact had not playing the Hermit all the time, or even at all, on Jane Austen’s pianoforte! This was another one of JA’s spontaneous fantasies which dramatize an important message—and that message, which I believe she thought Caroline capable of understanding, even at 10, was that Caroline should be extra sensitive to little Cassy’s needs during her visit at Chawton. In effect, “don’t play the Hermit all the time” could be translated as  “Be a good cousin, and do what you can to raise the little girls spirits, perhaps by playing cheery songs!”.


My Dear Sister-Aunt:

“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever you do. I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now. Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt”

On the surface, this appears to be a charming attempt by JA to make Caroline Austen feel some sense of herself as special, given her seniority, at least in comparison to the younger Austen cousins from the two naval families. Whereas, in her birth family, Caroline was “the baby”.

This charming attempt takes on more significance when viewed in the context of the veiled request that I suggested in my third section, above, that JA was making to Caroline, i.e., that Caroline not do anything to rekindle little Cassy’s grief over losing her mother. JA takes this final moment, then, to reiterate this theme of Caroline as playing an adult-like role vis a vis younger relatives, whether it be a grieving 7 year old cousin or a newborn niece.
But in her characteristic mode of hiding her biggest secrets in plain sight, JA casually tosses in something extra from left field as she signs off on Letter 123, something that gives the informed reader pause…in this case, it’s JA’s calling Caroline “my dear Sister-Aunt”.

If this peculiar turn of phrase sounds familiar to a reader familiar with literature that Jane Austen might have been familiar with, there’s a very very good reason. There are (at least) two famous works of literature which I believe Jane Austen knew very well indeed, which contain dialog which refers to exactly that same sort of familial double-relationship:

Act 2 Scene 2 Hamlet:

Guildenstern:  In what, my dear lord?

Sophocles’ Antigone:

Ismene: 
Bethink thee, sister, of our father's fate,
Abhorred, dishonored, self-convinced of sin,
Blinded, himself his executioner.
Think of his MOTHER-WIFE (ill sorted names)
Done by a noose herself had twined to death
And last, our hapless brethren in one day,
Both in a mutual destiny involved,
Self-slaughtered, both the slayer and the slain

Now why in the world would JA, in a letter to her young niece, make a veiled allusion to

 (1) Hamlet’s hint to Guildenstern that he is only pretending to Claudius and Gertrude that he is crazy, even as he slips in a dig about the incestuous nature of Claudius’ marriage with Gertrude, and/or to

(2) Ismene’s (in talking to sister Antigone) description of the ill-fated incestuousness of their own family, in which Jocasta, mother of Oedipus as well as of Ismene and Antigone, was also the wife of Oedipus, hence Ismene’s epithet for Jocasta?

And actually, Shakespeare had the entire Oedipus Trilogy firmly in mind when he wrote Hamlet- so what better way for JA to kill two allusive birds with one stone than to select this double-relatedness epithet format, which uniquely appears in both of those sources, one ancient and one early modern.

But that’s all background, so let’s cut to the chase. The common theme in these two literary sources, it is obvious, is incest—incest with tragic consequences.

And so, incredible as this will sound, this allusion becomes ten times more explosive, when we realize that there actually is a very plausible reason, based on real textual evidence, why JA, in a letter written while Emma was on the verge of being published, might make a veiled allusion to this theme of incest, i.e., why JA would in effect cast herself and Caroline in an amateur mini-theatrical based on the two most tragic instances of incest in Western literature.

This more than decided whiff of incestuous innuendo would of course be utterly imperceptible by a 10 year old, but might just be brought to mind in any adult who was “intimate by instinct” with Shakespeare, as I suspect many members of the Austen family were besides Jane Austen.   

So…try to wrap your mind around the possibility that JA, in this way, was hinting in Letter 123 at the explosive riddle she had hidden, double-wrapped for safekeeping, at the end of Emma (which she was on the verge of publishing).  For those of who for whom this double-wrapped riddle does not ring a bell as to what I am referring to, I am suggesting that in Letter 123 JA combined:  

(1) Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy, with Jane covertly giving her newborn baby girl to Mrs. Weston [all discovered by me in 2005), with

(2) Anielka Briggs’s 2007 discovery (right after I revealed #1 to her) of Jane Austen’s word game in Emma, with the newborn Anna Weston === > Ann Aweston === > Anna Austen, who just happened to be Caroline Austen’s elder half-sister.

Translated into simple English, the combination of (1) and (2) leads to the inference---whether imagined by JA or factually lived by her, I believe we will never know for sure either way—that Jane Austen was the biological mother of Anna Austen Lefroy, but gave her newborn daughter to her brother James Austen, and his wife, to raise as if their own biological child.

And so, there would be an odd consistency in JA including an epistolary hint to this event, that may or may not have occurred in 1793 when JA was 17, in a letter to Caroline Austen, who, according to this ambiguity, would be the younger  “sister-cousin” of Anna.  

And you thought Letter 123 was nothing special when you first read it, right?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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