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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Did Jane Austen “go to Venice”, as Fanny Price “took a trip” into China, and as Mr. Woodhouse “traveled” to St. Mark’s Square? You better believe it!



Laurel Ann: “Wonderful Diana, you never cease to amaze me. This would make a wonderful article for Jane Austen’s World magazine. Very well researched and thoughtful. Jane did go to Venice, as many of the gentility did of her era, through the written word, paintings and illustrations. Armchair traveling like Mr. Woodhouse! I hope to see it”
Diana: “Thank you, Laurel Ann – I love your thought, “Jane Austen did go to Venice,” as an armchair traveler. Indeed she did. Perhaps people entered more vividly into that kind of traveling in those days, than we do nowadays, when travel is so much easier.”

I only noticed this morning that Laurel Ann’s (Austenprose) above-quoted comment on Diana Birchall’s blog post a few weeks ago…..


….entitled “Jane Austen and Venice”, and then Diana’s reply to Laurel Ann’s comment, both take on a whole new (and quite unintended, I am sure) meaning, when those comments are read through the lens of my own blog post six weeks ago…


…about Jane Austen’s wickedly sly, double entendre’d homage, in Mansfield Park, to Wycherley’s (in)famous “China”.

As my Subject Line suggests, I would argue that Fanny Price’s “trip into China” is as definitive an example of “armchair travel” in JA’s novels, as is Diana’s reference (which Laurel Ann praised) to Mr. Woodhouse’s “armchair travel”.

Which made me reread Mr. Woodhouse’s “guided tour” (courtesy of Mrs. Weston) of foreign exotica…

“Books of engravings, drawers of medals, cameos, corals, shells, and every other family collection within his cabinets, had been prepared for his old friend, to while away the morning; and the kindness had perfectly answered. Mr. Woodhouse had been exceedingly well amused. Mrs. Weston had been shewing them all to him, and now he would shew them all to Emma;—fortunate in having no other resemblance to a child, than in a total want of taste for what he saw, for he was slow, constant, and methodical. ….Jane had not been gone a quarter of an hour, and they had only accomplished some views of St. Mark’s Place, Venice, when Frank Churchill entered the room.”

…..and then pause and really wonder not only about those “views of St. Mark’s Place” but also about the nature of some of those “engravings”, and in particular about Mr. Woodhouse being “exceedingly well amused” by them. Were these engravings and views merely exotica….or erotica?

Support for the latter interpretation can be found in distinct echoes (entirely intentional, I claim, on Jane Austen’s part) of two earlier scenes in Emma and one in Mansfield Park, to boot:

ONE: Mr. Woodhouse’s desire to immediately “shew them all to Emma” echoes Mr. Woodhouse’s equally strong desire, 32 chapters earlier, to share with Emma (and Harriet) all the words to Garrick’s  Riddle (as Jill Heydt-Stevenson first discovered 14 years ago, showing that it was actually about the horror of men with syphilis having sex with virgins in order, so they thought, to cure them)---a desire which we may be grateful he was unable, due to his faulty memory, to satisfy, as that was one bit of “armchair travel” as to which Emma would most certainly NOT have wished to have the use of her father’s “horse” and “carriage”! Let Mr. Woodhouse find his “cure” by “traveling” somewhere else!

And much better for Emma to “stay home” at Hartfield—and maybe I have stumbled upon a pervasive hidden code for Emma’s oft-noted uniqueness among Austen heroines, in her never having “traveled” away from home? Is this code for Emma’s sexual innocence and inexperience? I think so!

AND

TWO: Frank’s walking into the room at the Abbey, interrupting the “views of St. Mark’s Place”, echoes Emma, Miss Bates & Harriet walking into the room at the Bates residence at the very beginning of Chapter 28, finding Frank and Jane in disarray, as they have clearly also been interrupted while making some sort of “music” together, while Frank was supposed to be fixing that “rivet” on Mrs. Bates’s spectacles! In both scenes, some private activity between a man and a woman has been interrupted, and I infer a similar embarrassment in the latter scene as the narrator tells us about in the earlier one.

AND

THREE: It’s no coincidence, either, that Mary Crawford, of course the Queen of Double Entendre with her “rears and vices” witticism, also brings the reader’s attention, albeit obliquely, to Venice:

"To say the truth," replied Miss Crawford, "I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.”

It has been my interpretation for a while that “this shrubbery” is metaphorical (in this novel pervaded by the sexualized aura of the Garden of Eden), and describes Fanny’s very same “heart” which Henry Crawford so Freudfully wishes to make a hole in. Therefore, Mary is saying to Fanny, in code, even though Fanny does not get it, that Mary would like to see herself having sex with Fanny,  in line with the central thesis of my following blog post from February of this year:



Bottom line: I think both Wycherley and Jane Austen (and certainly also Mary Crawford, the Doge and Mary’s uncle) would both have found the unintended double entendre in Diana’s and Laurel Ann’s exchange extremely amusing, in particular Diana’s last sentence: “Perhaps people entered more vividly into that kind of traveling in those days, than we do nowadays, when travel is so much easier.”

It would be a question beyond the reach even of the protagonists of the wonderful new show Masters of Sex to determine whether people in Jane Austen’s era did indeed enter more vividly into “that kind of traveling”, even though such “travel is so much easier” today, with the abundance of “transportation” available via modern technology. I think we’ll never know for sure, but it’s an interesting question to ponder.

What I don’t need to ponder is the question of whether Jane Austen herself, in her real life, did “armchair travel” to places like “China” and “Venice”, as well as the Mansfield Parsonage “shrubbery”?

I know, from all of the above, as well as a thousand other passages in JA’s writing, that the answer is, as Molly Bloom would have repeated many times, simply “Yes”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jean Webster & Jane Austen: And Onoto Watanna & Jane Eyre too!



Diana  Birchall wrote: "The review I wrote about Katherine Reay's novel "Dear Mr. Knightley" is here, on the Austenprose blog: 
 http://austenprose.com/2013/11/20/dear-mr-knightley-a-novel-by-katherine-reay-a-review/  
The novel is a retelling of Jean Webster's charming bestseller Daddy-Long-Legs (written in 1912), and reading about Webster got Arnie thinking about similarities with Emma."

Diana, it wasn't reading about Webster that got me thinking in that vein, all it took was for you to reveal Reay's title--Dear Mr. KNIGHTLEY----and that immediately made me wonder whether Reay was hinting--in a very explicit yet veiled way--at some sort of allusion to Emma that she had detected in Daddy Long Legs.

That's why I found and read Daddy Long Legs and immediately verified from numerous textual hints that there was indeed a significant matrix of sly allusion by Webster to Emma----and I can now also verify, from the friendly response I received yesterday from Katherine Reay herself, that she did indeed mean, by her title, to hint at exactly that allusion!

So...major kudos to Katherine Reay for being the first to take note of Jean Webster's veiled allusion, in the very famous and popular Daddy Long Legs, to Austen's Emma—I’ve picked up where Reay left off, and sleuthed out more aspects of that allusion to JA by Webster, including taking note of the Pride & Prejudice allusion in Daddy Long Legs. Daddy Long Legs is just as much Mr. Darcy as he is Mr. Knightley, and, as i wrote previously, I believe Nora Ephron knew about his Darcyishness, too! 


Diana also wrote: "Now, I happen to know quite a lot about Jean Webster because she was my grandmother's best friend. She helped my grandmother (pen name Onoto Watanna, real name Winnifred Eaton) get her 1915 sensational anonymous memoir "Me" published, and Jean Webster wrote the introduction. " 

That is just too amazing and wonderful, how that must add to your pleasure and pride in your grandmother's already significant achievements, to also know that she moved in such influential literary circles, and held her own there! Did your grandmother by any chance leave behind any interesting observations about her best friend's fiction or life?


Diana also wrote: "Jean had some problems with her great-uncle Mark Twain since her father failed as his publisher and there was bad feeling, but she clearly remained close to him..."

Yes, my eyes widened yesterday when Wikipedia alerted me to that close familial and professional relationship between Mark Twain and Jean Webster. It is especially significant to me, because, as you will recall from my many prior posts on the subject, I am certain that Twain was a closet Janeite who merely pretended, in his satirical way, to dislike JA's writing.  So, knowing what I now do about Webster's novel being such a deep homage to Emma and Pride & Prejudice, it REALLY makes me wonder what sort of conversations and/or correspondence Jean Webster may have had with her great-uncle (who was also her "great uncle" in another sense!) about Jane Austen. E.g., did she discuss with him her intention to make this veiled allusion to JA's writing in Daddy Long Legs as she was writing it? Or did she discuss it with him after her great success with Daddy Long Legs?  Was there ever a point at which they found out they were both closet Janeites? 

By the way, it will also of interest to some reading here, I think, that in addition to Webster's covert allusions to Jane Austen's fiction in Daddy Long Legs, there was also an overt allusion to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which Webster's heroine discusses as follows:

"I sat up half of last night reading “Jane Eyre”. Are you old enough, Daddy, to remember sixty years ago? And if so, did people talk that way? The haughty Lady Blanche says to the footman, ‘Stop your chattering, knave, and do my bidding.”Mr. Rochester talks about the metal welkin when he means the sky; and as for the mad woman who laughs like a hyena and sets fire to bed curtains and tears up wedding veils and bites—it’s a melodrama of the purest, but just the same, you read and read and read. I can’t see how any girl could have written such a book, especially any girl who was brought up in a churchyard. There’s something about those Brontes that fascinates me. Their books, their lives, their spirit. Where did they get it? When I was reading about little Jane’s troubles in the charity school, I got so angry that I had to go out and take a walk..  I understood exactly how she felt… "

I just did some very brief biographical digging and found the following extraordinary, uncanny parallelism between Jane Eyre's fictional life and Jean Webster's real life, as described in the following excerpt from Jane Eyre's American Daughters: From The Wide, Wide World to Anne of Green Gables by John D. Seelye:

“…Jean Webster’s life after 1907 was a post-graduate education in adversity. She fell in love with Glen Ford McKinney, a wealthy sportsman eleven years her senior and the brother of her close friend Ethelyn McKinney, one of the four women with whom she had traveled around the world. The love affair began shortly after Jean’s return but remained a secret for seven years because Glenn was married to Annette (nee Renaud), daughter of a Creole wine merchant in Martinique. Annette was subject to spells of severe depression, which drove the relatively weak willed Glenn to binge drinking…Annette McKinney’s depression bordered on psychosis and she spent much of her married life in and out of sanatoriums…after Annette finally agreed to a divorce, the two lovers were married, on September 7, 1915….
If Jean’s tragic death resembles that of Charlotte Bronte…then her husband’s troubled first marriage to a mentally disturbed woman of Creole birth cannot but remind us of Rochester’s relationship with Bertha.”

This sad parallel between Webster’s real life and Jane Eyre’s fictional life is already remarkable. But what Seelye somehow fails to notice is that Webster chose to reflect that parallelism in Daddy Long Legs (which she wrote in 1912 while in effect waiting for Glenn McKinney to free up to be married to her!), via her heroine’s reflections on Bertha in Jane Eyre, and via the obvious additional parallelism that Webster married her own much older Daddy Long Legs, only to die tragically, in childbirth, a year later!
That really is stranger than fiction!

Diana also wrote: “…my grandmother "Winnie" met [Mark Twain] a number of times, and was at his fabulous 70th birthday party at Delmonico's, attended by literary stars of the day, in 1905. A Harpers Magazine issue was devoted to the party, with photographs of every table, showing Jean and Winnie as well as all the other distinguished guests, who comprise a fascinating New York Who's Who of the day! I wrote two blog posts about it, which tell the whole glittering story (with pictures of the tables at which Jean and Winnie sat). In particular, I had enormous fun researching who some of the party guests were! http://lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com/2010/05/party-for-mark-twain.html http://lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com/2010/06/mark-twains-party-part-2 .html “

Fantastic stuff, Diana, what a trip! In the category of bizarre coincidence, one of the anecdotes you mentioned was the following:

“Turning my attention to the others at her table, I was amazed and charmed to notice that she was sitting right next to Gelett Burgess.  He was the author of Goops and How to Be Them, then still a fairly new book (1900) as well as the immortal verse:
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!”

The bizarre coincidence, for me, is that I attended Williams College in Massachusetts, and, guess what, the school mascot is…..a Purple Cow!

Now I know how Williams came to adopt a Purple Cow as its mascot, a fact which I quickly verified here:

“In 1907, the Purple Cow humor magazine went to press for the first time with a plethora of student authored pieces and clever cow graphics.  The name for the campus publication was the winner among many suggested.   The editorial staff, of course, gave credit for its whimsical title to Frank G. Burgess and his jingle was included on the cover of the first issue.”  

By the way, Burgess attended MIT, not Williams! So I will pass this on to my Williams friends (whom I just re-uned with in Georgia two weeks ago!), who will get a kick out of it!


Diana also wrote: “Arnie is right in saying Jean had "a witty, subtle, erudite, and multi-layered sense of humor." I can't speak to the ideas he has about her referencing Emma, but it is certain that she was extremely highly educated in the literary sense, and would have had all the knowledge and ability to make such allusions - though I'm not offering any opinion on whether she did or not!”

Just you wait, Diana, more evidence to support Katherine Reay and myself re the allusions to JA in Daddy Long Legs will arise in the coming months! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Emma, Daddy Long Legs, Dear Mr. Knightley, The Ephrons, & The Web of Allusion That Unites Them All



The following is the beginning of a wonderful blog post written by Diana Birchall yesterday:

“Does anyone remember Daddy-Long-Legs, the enchanting 1955 movie in which Fred Astaire is the benevolent, mysterious, rich sponsor who sends the exquisite young French girl Leslie Caron, to college? It was a favorite musical of my childhood, along with a string of other Caron and Audrey Hepburn films. Daddy-Long-Legs actually started life, however, as long ago as 1912, as a bright, effervescent, epistolary novel by Jean Webster. It enjoyed a huge success as a Broadway play and was filmed several times, including a Japanese anime version. Now new author Katherine Reay, instead of penning yet another in a lengthy backlist of Jane Austen updates, has cleverly chosen to write a modern retelling of Daddy-Long-Legs. Her Dear Mr. Knightley has a thoughtful literary setting, with enough Austen and Bronte references to provide intellectual mind candy for the reading woman. She also bestows an unusually satisfying romance upon her heroine, and succeeds in creating a portrait of a young writer that is so poignantly fresh and full of growing pains and uncertainties, that you question why she ever needed to lean on somebody else’s old classic at all. In Jean Webster’s original version, the heroine, Jerusha Abbot, was fifteen and still working in the orphan asylum where she was raised, when her rich benefactor sends her to a posh college. In her version, Katherine Reay advances her orphan’s age to twenty-three, and this constitutes my main problem with the novel, and the reason I wish she’d left the Daddy-Long-Legs template behind her. Samantha Moore has already graduated from college and failed in her first job, when she is offered a full tuition grant to the master’s program of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, by a wealthy philanthropist. The only stipulation is that she write him personal progress letters, which he will not answer. His assistant suggests she address him as “Mr. George Knightley,” in tribute to Samantha’s own love for Jane Austen and Emma….” END QUOTE

Diana, thanks for alerting me to the above literary/film history, of which I had been entirely unaware till this morning. As soon as I read your post, I smelled a web of veiled allusion, but even I could not have anticipated  how rich a web it is! So, as you’ll see by the end of this post, you’ve done  it again!

I would like to suggest to you that Katherine Reay had a very very good reason for her modern retelling of Webster’s classic from a century ago, and for her connecting Webster’s epistolary novel to Jane Austen’s Emma. I.e., from a very pleasant several hours I have just spent pretty much reading most of Webster’s novel (it is a super-fast read), and then reading up on Jean Webster’s career, I have arrived at the following inferences which I consider noteworthy:

ONE: In her novel, Jean Webster, very clearly and strikingly, but covertly, was alluding, in a dozen different ways, to Austen’s Emma, and, in a handful of other ways, to Austen’s Pride & Prejudice as well! So, I infer that Katherine Reay, writing in 2013, recognized those veiled allusions to Austen, and showed her awareness thereof by making the connection of Daddy-Long-Legs to Emma open and explicit in her own novel title, Dear Mr. Knightley.

TWO: The screenplay of the famous 1950’s film version of Daddy-Long-Legs was written by Nora Ephron’s parents, and I am not the first to notice that, in You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox conceals his true identity from Kathleen Kelly during a lengthy correspondence, just as “Master Pervie” Pendleton (sounds like Pemberley) conceals his true identity from Judy in Daddy-Long-Legs. From all of those data points, I therefore infer that the late Nora Ephron paid a veiled, yet in hindsight obvious, homage to Webster’s novel, and to her parents’ famous adaptation thereof, in You’ve Got Mail.

THREE: I have previously demonstrated…


…that, in addition to You’ve Got Mail’s obvious  homage to Pride& Prejudice, Nora Ephron’s screenplay cleverly but covertly also alluded to Much Ado About Nothing (prior to writing Daddy-Long-Legs, Jean Webster wrote a group of short stories entitled Much Ado About  Peter).  
So when I put all of those connections together, I also further infer that Nora Ephron was showing that she herself was aware of the connections of Daddy Long-Legs to both Pride & Prejudice and Emma.


Now, I could go into great textual detail to back up my above three inferences about Webster’s veiled allusions to Jane Austen, and their literary lineage, but I will let one textual example (among many) suffice for now—it is my personal favorite from Daddy Long Legs, a short passage from one of Judy’s letters to “Mr. Smith”, which functions as a kind of mini-Rosetta Stone for decoding the sly allusion to Emma in Daddy-Long-Legs:

 “Good-by, Daddy. I must call on Harriet Martin now, and, having discussed the chemical situation, casually drop a few thoughts on the subject of our next president.”

What a witty, subtle, erudite, and multi-layered sense of humor Jean Webster must have had, to have sounded all of the following echoes of Emma in that one sentence:

ONE: Webster named her heroine (a young girl, like Austen’s Harriet Smith, of unknown parentage at a girls’ boarding school, who benefits from the generosity of an anonymous man of means who prefers to be known to her as “Mr. Smith”) Jerusha or Judy Abbott, who in the above sentence in one of her letters to “Mr. Smith” refers in passing to a classmate whose name, Harriet Martin, just happens to be Harriet Smith’s married name in Emma.

TWO: By giving her heroine the surname ‘Abbott’, Webster thereby winks at the following words spoken by Harriet Smith to Emma about two of her fellow parlour-boarders who just happen to be named “Abbot”:  “The two Abbots and I ran into the front room and peeped through the blind when we heard he was going by, and Miss Nash came and scolded us away, and staid to look through herself…”

So…if we view Daddy Long Legs through the lens of Emma, we see that Judy Abbott shares a lot with Harriet Smith, but of course she also shares a lot Emma Woodhouse. And similarly, Jervie Pendleton/Mr. Smith shares a lot with Mr. Knightley, but also shares a lot with Harriet Smith’s never-named biological father.

What could Jean Webster have intended by this blurring of allusive lines between Austen’s hero and heroine, on the one hand, and two of her less beloved characters?

The tame interpretation is to focus on Judy and Jervie as Emma and Mr. Knightley, but the disturbing interpretation is to see Judy and Jervie as Harriet and Knightley, and to go one step further and ask whether Webster is suggesting that Knightley is actually Harriet’s biological father. That last turn of the allusive screw would put a creepily incestuous Electraesque overlay on Harriet’s already creepily (re the age-discrepancy) aiming for Knghtley as a husband. Or, just as disturbing, Webster might be suggesting that Emma is herself a foundling, and (horrors) Knightley’s own daughter!

I of course lean toward the disturbing interpretations, not just because this fits so well with so many disturbing overtones I have collected from all of Austen’s shadows, but in particular because Jean Webster was actually, historically factually, exactly the sort of radical feminist that I have often asserted  Jane Austen was!

Read Webster’s Wikipedia page to get an idea of what I mean:


Webster was all about empowering women in a variety of ways, both legal and literary, and that’s who I see JA as having been, a century earlier.

And I was particularly struck by the factoid that Webster’s mother was Mark Twain’s niece, and her father was Twain’s business manager and publisher of many of his books! 

Given that I believe Mark Twain was a secret Janeite of mammoth proportions…


….it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that somehow Twain was in personal contact with Jean Webster and helped foster her interest in the subversive side of Jane Austen’s fiction. And look what I just found via Google:

“Webster's great-uncle Mark Twain praised her first efforts: "I read most of Jean Webster's book today; and the most of what I read greatly pleased me" 

I will end on that note, with a promise to revisit this  topic as I delve more deeply into this matrix of literary allusion.  But already I can say that there is now no question in my mind that Webster in writing Daddy Long Legs was paying JA the sincerest of homages, because it, exactly like Emma, can be read either as very romantic or very creepy. And finally, bravo again to the late Nora Ephron, as the above analysis  makes it clear that You’ve Got Mail was even more complex in its allusive depths than I had previously determined, as it now clearly enfolds Jean Webster’s feminist fiction.

Now, how much of the above was on Katherine Reay’s mind as she wrote her recent, critically acclaimed debut novel? I  will reach out to her shortly to find out!

In the interim, Diana, now you know why I thanked you at the start of this post for once again turning me on to something remarkable having to do with Jane Austen’s shadows!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doris Lessing & Jane Austen



Yesterday, I posted the following in Austen-L and Janeites:

I am sure many of you read of the recent death of Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize winner in literature a few years back.

I have never read any of her fiction, but I asked my wife, who reads a lot of contemporary fiction, and she said that she had read at least one of her works, which was written some decades ago, which she found prescient in terms of Lessing's anticipation of current societal trends.

Anyone here a Lessing fan? If so, any recommendations on what to read, and why (especially if you see an Austen connection)?

I always wonder about any contemporary female writer's engagement with Jane Austen, so I Googled Lessing re that, and was led to the following very interesting 12-page essay by Lessing about Jane Austen:


While Lessing does not peer into the shadows of JA's fiction, she does an excellent job of addressing a number of themes and issues in Pride & Prejudice and a bit about JA's bio and some of the other novels.

I recommend it.

I then received an interesting response from Ellen Moody…

Ellen: "Thank you to Arnie. I'll get that book. I'm a strong admirer of Doris Lessing: I enjoy her realistic fiction intensely, her memoirs, essays, journalism; she wrote one of the two best books on cats (the other is by Olivia Manning)."

…to which I now respond as follows:

You're welcome, Ellen.

I enjoyed Lessing's discussion of Jane Austen, even though I did not agree with half of what she wrote, in particular that Lessing was unable to imagine that there was another, radically different but still plausible, way of seeing Mary Bennet, Mr. Bennet, Charlotte, etc. Lessing, for all her independence of thought, remained imprisoned inside Lizzy's subjective perceptions. It made me wonder what she thought about Miss Bates, but she limits her discussion of  JA’s fiction to P&P---I suspect she pitied Miss Bates, but did not understand that there was more to Miss Bates than Emma realizes.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed following Lessing's writerly way of constructing an argument --now after browsing through Ellen's blog about Lessing's book about cats (our cat, by the way, is named Rufus, purely by coincidence with Lessing's Rufus) it occurs to me that Lessing stalks her ideas, the way a cat stalks a lizard (we have lots of tiny lizards here in South Florida)-- indirectly, craftily.

It's an infectious writing style, and not a bad "infection" to catch.

Here are a few passages in Lessing's essay on Jane Austen that I especially liked, having to do with JA’s own life:

“Jane and her sister Cassandra felt themselves to be, and were often treated as, poor relations, dependent on presents, little trips and handouts from better-off and generous relatives. Not until – late – Jane earned some money writing, did she enjoy any kind of independence. Her situation was a common one then for poor unmarried women anywhere in Europe.”

So Lessing is knowledgeable about JA’s biography, and good on her that she has not been seduced at all by the mythology of the Great Big Happy Austen Family which kept  JA safe and secure, and nurtured JA’s genius. And then Lessing attacks the mythology head on—I love it!:

“What do we have here? A woman of the kind I remember from when I was a girl [Lessing was born nearly a century ago], the unmarried maiden aunt, ready to be useful to others, without any life of her own, a pitiable figure. Austen was supposed, so we have often read, to be a sheltered woman, her experience limited to village life and a narrow middle-class circle…[quoting a 1943 biographer] ‘Jane Austen was protected  by a hedge of unquestionable values…’Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, her situation among the genteel poor exposed her: there can be few worse positions in society, even if often useful for the creation of literature….Above all, Jane was enmeshed in the lives of female relatives and  friends, who were always pregnant, nursing, giving birth to innumerable children who died then so easily and often. And, more potent as an influence than anything, Jane was sent as a tiny child to  boarding school, and there was as miserable and neglected as Jane Eyre was at her school.
The triumph of JA’s art was that the little piece of ivory she claimed as her artistic territory was carved out of such an abundance of experience and material.
…it is useful to remember here that Cassandra reported Jane’s moments of exultation at being free and unmarried. Free from what? Surely, childbearing. Again and again, one reads how some cousin, or friend, has died in childbed with her eighth or ninth child, having been pregnant or breastfeeding for all those years. Matrimony at the level it was being observed by Jane and Cassandra cannot have appeared salubrious. Looking back now it is hard not to conclude that perhaps those despised spinsters had the best of it….There is a dark under-stratum in Austen’s novels where the ill health, mostly of women, is hinted at. Not only childbirth killed women: people died then as they do not now.”
Bravo, Doris Lessing! Spot-on in all the points she makes about JA’s opinions about the precariousness of female health in a world of serial pregnancy.

And as to the effect of JA’s early experience sent away from home to boarding school where she almost died, I wonder if Lessing, who published this essay in 2004, had a chance to later read the following 2005 essay in Persuasions Online by Linda Walker, which goes into great, insightful detail on that very point of the traumatic memory of JA’s being sent away at seven:


But most  of all, I wonder what Lessing would have thought about my shadow story interpretations of Jane Austen’s novels—I would like to think that she’d realize that they provide an even deeper and more heartfelt expression of the very same points Lessing made about JA’s own life-i.e., that JA did not limit herself in her novels to sophisticated reworkings of the Cinderella myth (as Lessing asserts at the end of her essay), but that JA was, on a deeper level, warning women of the seductiveness of such myths, and the danger of a young woman like Lizzy believing she is equipped to protect herself from all the subtle  manipulation and influence she is subject to from others.

ADDED 12:30 pm EST 11/19/13:
 
From a 1999 interview when Lessing was asked to name three books about or by women that were very significant for her (the second paragraph is the one Janeites will focus on):

"Doris Lessing: This is very difficult. There are so many. Olive Schreiner, a South African writer who came to London before the first World War -- her novel THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM is extraordinary. She was a very original thinker, a feminist. She was asking questions that I don't think people got around to asking until the '60s. She was a socialist of that kind and time. She wrote about things such as trade unionism, the labor struggle, and birth control. She was truly remarkable. Also Nadezhda (the word for "hope" in Russian) Mandelstam: She was the wife of Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, and she wrote a book called HOPE AGAINST HOPE, a pun on her name, about the persecution suffered under poets under Stalin. It is one of the greatest books of this century, and I recommend it. She wrote another called HOPE ABANDONED. These two books together are extraordinary.

Also a biographer, Claire Tomalin -- she wrote a book about Jane Austen called JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE, recently out. What is admirable about this is that we have been used to seeing Austen rather as a maiden aunt observing the world from a corner, but Claire puts her into the context of a great web of family relations of that time, a detailed society. Jane Austen was very busy indeed, working with friends, family, and children, and had a hard time -- there was never any money. There is a refrain throughout this book -- cousin Fanny died in childbirth with her tenth child last summer -- and a whole new picture is painted for us of this time. Really great detail in this book -- what people were eating, how they were dressing, how they traveled. It is a completely new picture of a lady believed to have never gotten dust on her hands -- which is very far from the truth." END QUOTE

So...it seems clear that Lessing's 2004 essay about Jane Austen was sparked by Lessing's having read Tomalin's bio of JA in 1999, which led her to change her prior understanding of Jane Austen in a fundamental way. It remains endlessly fascinating to me to see the reactions to Jane Austen of later writers, especially later female writers.

Cheers, ARNIE
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