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Friday, May 9, 2014

Letter 153 to niece Fanny (aka Emma Woodhouse): Poor Jane Austen, who was REALLY about to “die on the wrong day at last”



 In Letter 153, written by JA to niece Fanny about 4 months before JA’s death, we read the following  paragraph, which I now find extremely poignant when considered in that specific context of  JA’s (with 20:20 hindsight looking back from 2014) imminent, tragically premature death:

“Poor Mrs. C. Milles, that she should die on the wrong day at last, after being about it so long! It was unlucky that the Goodnestone party could not meet you; and I hope her friendly, obliging, social spirit, which delighted in drawing people together, was not conscious of the division and disappointment she was occasioning. I am sorry and surprised that you speak of her as having little to leave, and must feel for Miss Milles, though she is Molly, if a material loss of income is to attend her other loss. Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony; but I need not dwell on such arguments with you, pretty dear.”

It gives me a shiver now to realize that Jane Austen was writing about the death of the nonagenarian Mrs. Milles on the surface, but was writing with the most quicksilver light touch of irony about her own death at less than half that age, which JA, I think, had already come to anticipate as likely, if not inevitable.

But first, the bookend to the above passage in Letter153, a bookend which provides crucial insight to aid our understanding of the subtext of what Jane Austen is really saying, in code, in Letter 153, is Letter 94, written by JA to sister CEA 3 ½ years before she wrote Letter 153.  Indeed, the connection between Letters 94 and 153, which to the best of my knowledge, has never been made before by an Austen scholar, is a perfect example of why this sustained Group Read of JA’s novels over a period of more than 3 years by my count, was such a great idea, since it’s only in this way that connections between letters written over a period of years, and which do not contain any overt cross-referencing cues, come into focus.

So, a little introduction first about Mrs. and Miss Milles, courtesy of John McAleer writing in the 1991 issue of Persuasions:

“Chapman, in a buried note in the last index of the Austen letters, points to the likelihood that Mrs. and Miss ‘Molly’ Milles of Canterbury were the originals of Mrs. and Miss Bates.  Miss Milles, whom Jane Austen had had under observation at least since August 1805, was a great talker and “so foolishly minute,” Jane says she had to suppress the desire to laugh at her. She admired the mother, though, “because she is chearful [sic] & grateful for what she is at the age of 90 & upwards.”

In the following blog post from fifteen months ago……


....under the self-explanatory Subject Line “Letter 94 and Emma: Miss Milles, Miss Bates, and Miss (Jane) Austen: All (Not so) Foolishly Minute”, I added my own additional turn of the allusive screw to Chapman and McAleer’s respective takes, when I wrote:

“I previously found very precise textual verification of the very conscious connection that JA was making among Miss Milles, her new creation Miss Bates (the action of Emma actually begins on almost exactly the same date as Letter 94, and JA surely had already started dreaming about Emma even as she was not quite done getting MP out in print), AND HERSELF.”

That’s a crucial point, because it supports my claim today that Letter 153’s reference to Mrs. and Miss Milles is ALSO self-referential on JA’s part, and in a sense lands the plane of the Emma allusion, as you will shortly see!

JA, in Letter 94, did not explicitly link niece Fanny to Mrs. and Miss Milles, when JA wrote:

"Miss Milles was queer as usual, and provided us with plenty to laugh at. She undertook in three words to give us the history of Mrs. Scudamore's reconciliation, and then talked on about it for half-an-hour, using such odd expressions, and so foolishly minute, that I could hardly keep my countenance."

As I noted then, JA  was just beginning to write Emma when she wrote Letter 94, and I infer that even though JA did not explicitly link Fanny to Mrs. and Miss Milles (who were after all at the edge of Fanny’s social circle at Godmersham), JA  clearly had Fanny in mind in relation to the Milles ladies when she wrote Emma, and it was not a pretty picture of Fanny that JA painted in that regard---Emma ignoring everything Miss Bates said as so much blah blah blah, and then of course the Box Hill humiliation. It is hardly a major inferential leap to opine that Fanny Knight must have often spoken to and about Miss Milles in particular in ways that JA caricatured in Emma. The parallels are painfully obvious.

And that takes us to Letter 153, written a year after publication of Emma. Clearly, JA’s comments to Fanny about Mrs. Milles’s death must have been prompted by some extremely insensitive comments by Fanny about the inconvenience of the timing of the funeral services—from Fanny’s narcissistic, entitled, snobbish point of view, Mrs. Milles was so inconsiderate as to die on a day that did not suit Fanny’s timetable, because it interfered with an outing with the Goodnestone party (the Bridgeses) that Fanny clearly really wanted to go on—Fanny is 23, so this can’t  be excused as the selfishness of a 15 year old, this is just disgusting, and much worse than Emma’s jab at Miss Bates on Box Hill!

Does anyone think JA was serious in her reference to the old lady’s spirit as regretting having interfered with Fanny’s party of pleasure? It’s satire  of the subtlest kind, because Fanny almost certainly did not read it and realize how shameful her complaints were!

I am reminded of two memorable instances in S&S, the aptness of which to my point will be obvious:

"…if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father's will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it….”

&

"Come Colonel," said Mrs. Jennings, "before you go, do let us know what you are going about."
He wished her a good morning, and, attended by Sir John, left the room. The complaints and lamentations which politeness had hitherto restrained, now burst forth universally; and they all agreed again and again how provoking it was to be so disappointed. “

I could spend another page specifying more nuances of JA’s painful satire in this passage, but you can gather them yourself now that I have pointed out the lens through which to read this passage most  fully.

I will conclude by commenting on JA’s final famous words therein:
“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony; but I need not dwell on such arguments with you, pretty dear.”

What I hear in this passage is JA speaking in a higher frequency than Fanny’s dull ears are capable of registering, and saying something like “You cruel, selfish, repulsive young snob, you are so stupid and insensitive that you don’t realize that your cruel remarks about Miss Milles, whose welfare YOU ought, as a good person of means, to take a personal interest in, are also indirectly revealing of what you will say the day I, your  “dear Aunt Jane”, leave this world. And so, you ought to practice some Christian charity and wake up from your entitled dreamworld, and do some good on this earth before YOU meet YOUR maker and have to account for your actions in a higher court of morality than the world that places a higher value on people because of birth or wealth than actual  personal merit.”

Bu we know from the trash talk about JA and CEA that Fanny Knight wrote a half century later that she, at least, did not have any sort of epiphany at “Box Hill”-probably because there was no Mr. Knightley in Fanny’s life who was going to tell her how awful her attitude toward Miss Milles and Aunt Jane really was!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I am puzzled as to why JA wrote that she “must feel for Miss Milles, though she is Molly…”while I understand that Molly was Miss Milles’ nickname, JA seems to use it here as an adjective. Any thoughts?

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