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

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Mysteries of Jane Austen

In Janeites, Anielka wrote: “Am I right in thinking Jane Austen only uses the word "mystery" in Emma? (and once in the juvenilia?) And in Emma the word "mystery" appears at least six times? More if you include Augusta Elton's homophone "Mr. E"?  Now why would the word "mystery" be special to "Emma" more than the other five books?”

Short answer, no. Here is a summary of all the “mystery” (well, you know what I mean) in JA’s writing:

Of course, “The Mystery” is the title of JA’s first juvenilia.

And there is this in Evelyn: “Carefully locking the doors of these now desolate rooms, burying the key deep in his Waistcoat pocket, & the mystery of Maria's dis appearance yet deeper in his heart of hearts, Mr. Gower left his once happy home, and sought a supper, and a Bed,at the house of the hospitable Mrs –Willis…”

And this in Lady Susan, Letter 24 in which Lady Vernon describes her conversation with Lady Susan:
"I knew that he was not absolutely the man she would have chosen, but I was persuaded that [Frederica’s] objections to him did not arise from any perception of his deficiency. You must not question me, however, my dear sister, too minutely on this point," continued she, taking me affectionately by the hand; "I honestly own that there is something to conceal. Frederica makes me very unhappy! Her applying to Mr. De Courcy hurt me particularly." "What is it you mean to infer," said I, "by this appearance of MYSTERY? If you think your daughter at all attached to Reginald, her objecting to Sir James could not less deserve to be attended to than if the cause of her objecting had been a consciousness of his folly; and why should your ladyship, at any rate, quarrel with my brother for an interference which, you must know, it is not in his nature to refuse when urged in such a manner?"

The word “mysterious” and its variants appears all over the place (a total of 14 times) in NA, and the word “Mysteries” appears in the titles of two of the novels mentioned, including of course The Mysteries of Udolpho.

There are three usages of mystery or its variants in S&S, one in P&P, and six in Emma.

And there’s one in Chapter 20 of Persuasion, but it is the best one, because it is so cleverly constructed:

“Mr Elliot was not disappointed in the interest he hoped to raise. No one can withstand the charm of such a mystery.”

Indeed, both Mr. E and his mystery have charm which are hard to withstand, but I personally find JA’s wordplay the most charming of all, in part because she constructed it so meticulously, yet also seamlessly. E.g., Mr. Elliot’s name, written out in full, appears an astonishing 174 times (if I counted correctly) in Persuasion, and JA thereby firmly implanted the subliminal visual image of “Mr E” in her readers’s minds.  We don’t hear the echo, but we see it.

That means JA expected her readers to recognize the pun in the above-quoted passage from Chapter 20, i.e., the double meaning of mystery and “Mr E”. And especially so for those readers who had already read Emma, and who would therefore have seen Mrs. Elton refer to her husband ten different times as “Mr E” (and Emma indignantly recalls this naming practice in one instance)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Note also these four interesting usages in JA’s letters:

Letter 21 to CEA, June 11, 1799: "  "On more accounts than one you wished our stay here to be lengthened beyond last Thursday." There is some MYSTERY in this. What have you going on in Hampshire besides the itch from which you want to keep us?"

Letter 53 to CEA, June 20-22, 1808: “We go on very well here, Mary finds the children less troublesome than she expected, & independent of them, there is certainly not much to try the patience or hurt the Spirits at Godmersham—I initiated her yesterday into the MYSTERIES of Inman-ism—The poor old Lady is as thin & cheerful as ever, & very thankful for a new acquaintance. –I had called on her before with Eliz. & Louisa.”  [Ironically invokes the spirit of Catherine and Isabella sharing delight in The Mysteries of Udolpho]

Letter 66 to CEA, January 24, 1809: “You used me scandalously by not mentioning Ed. Cooper’s Sermons; - I tell you everything, & it is unknown the MYSTERIES you conceal from me.—And to add to the rest, you persevere in giving a final e to Invalid—thereby putting it out of one’s power to suppose Mrs. E. Leigh even for a moment, a veteran Soldier.”  [Sounds like Marianne speaking to Elinor!]

Letter 90 to Frank, September 25, 1813: “I thank you very warmly for your kind consent to my application, and the kind hint which followed it. I was previously aware of what I should be laying myself open to; but the truth is that the secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now, and that, I believe, whenever the third appears, I shall not even attempt to tell lies about it. I shall rather try to make all the money than all the MYSTERY I can of it. People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them.” 

As soon as I hit the Send button on my "Mystery" reply to Anielka's query, I recalled that there WAS a usage of "Mr E" in Persuasion, but it was in one of the cancelled chapters!

Sure enough, I quickly verified that the following was actually the FIRST sentence of the first of the cancelled chapters, picking up right after Anne has just left Mrs. Smith's home, her head spinning with Mrs. Smith's long tirade against Cousin Elliot:

"With all this knowledge of Mr. E--& this authority to impart it Anne left Westgate Buildgs--her mind deeply busy in revolving what she had heard, feeling, thinking, recalling & forseeing everything, shocked at Mr. Elliot--sighing over future Kellynch and pained for Lady Russell..."

So you can see that JA had originally planned to land the "plane" which "took off" in Chapter 20, and then experienced "extreme turbulence" during Mrs. Smith's account in Chapter 21, in the very beginning of Chapter 22, where it would be most noticeable. Especially upon a reread of the novel as she originally ended it, the reader would shake their heads upon rereading about the charming mystery of Mr Elliot, knowing that he and his mystery would merge, in a dark way, shortly thereafter, just soon enough for his charm over Anne to be utterly broken.

But then, JA chose a very different beginning to Chapter 22, one in which she decided to leave her wordplay on "Mr E" and "mystery" subliminal, and therefore, of course, more mysterious!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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