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Monday, July 14, 2014

Terry Castle, Nora Ephron & the Shakespeare/Lesbian Subtext in Cassandra Austen’s Epitaph for Sister Jane




 While responding to Rita Lamb in Janeites re the Shakespearean subtext I claimed CEA deliberately embedded in one paragraph of her letter to niece Fanny after JA’s death, I was reminded of Terry Castle’s famous 1995 article in the London Review of Books, which sparked such controversy for Castle’s daring to suggest a subtle homoerotic dimension to the relationship between CEA and JA. I just reread Castle’s article, and also the to and fro of comments in the LRB in the immediate aftermath of that article, and it has led me to the following additional observations:

First, I forgot to mention Castle’s article as a forerunner to my post—Castle even mentions that Shakespearean paragraph in CEA’s letter, as follows, at the very end of her article:

“…And to the degree that Austen’s fictions are works of depth and beauty and passionate feeling – among the supreme humane inventions of the English language – one suspects in turn it is because she loved and was loved by Cassandra. Can we forgive Cassandra her jealousy? Reading the last, wrenching letters in the new Oxford collection – those written by Cassandra herself to their nieces after Austen’s agonising death from Bright’s disease in 1817 – there is nothing for it but to do so. Cassandra sat by her sister’s bedside all of the long final evening and night, at one point supporting Austen’s dying head, which was ‘almost off the bed’, in her lap for six hours. ‘Fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs J. A. for two hours & a half when I took it again & in about one hour more she breathed her last.’ ‘I have lost a treasure,’ she wrote to Fanny Knight a few days later, ‘such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. – She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’ …END QUOTE FROM CASTLE

Second, I noticed in my files that Jocelyn Harris, in 2006, actually picked up, in passing, on CEA channeling Othello in that paragraph, as part of Harris’s claim (which I totally agree with) that Othello was a very significant allusive source for Persuasion.

Therefore, third, the main value I’m adding now is my own unique perspective on JA’s extensive veiled Shakespearean allusions, and knitting that together with Castle’s and Harris’s aforesaid insights, to provide a more coherent, comprehensive, and powerful description of CEA’s homoerotic feelings toward JA.

Fourth, in writing about CEA’s Shakespearean paragraph, I realized that I could also connect it all to another web of interpretation from the following post of mine from one year ago:


In that post, I essentially argued that Nora Ephron had alluded both to one of JA’s letters to CEA, and also to CEA’s letter to Fanny, in You’ve Got Mail.

Today I would like to add the following several interpretive tweaks:

ONE: I reemphasize that Ephron, in her 1998 film, not only must have been so influenced by Castle’s 1995 article, that she wanted not only to allude to Pride & Prejudice and Much Ado About Nothing, but also to the real life epistolary relationship between CEA and JA. The basic premise of You’ve Got Mail, implied by its title, is the compellingly strong epistolary relationship between two correspondents who bare their souls to each other, and that’s exactly what existed for two decades between JA and CEA.


TWO: The acute sense of loss that Kathleen Kelly feels so sharply about her mother’s 10-years-ago death when she is about to lose her mother’s store, is in no small part very specifically based on the acute sense of loss that CEA expressed in her letter to Fanny after Jane died.   

THREE: All of the above in this post connects seamlessly to what I wrote 4 months ago here..
…in which I argued that the lesbian subplot involving Gillian and Nanny Maureen was based in no small part on lesbian subtext in both Pride & Prejudice and Much Ado. I.e., I also see that Ephron also had Castle’s article firmly in mind when she wrote the Nanny Maureen lesbian subplot, thereby obliquely picking up on Castle’s suggestions about JA’s relationship with CEA. Recall that Gillian leaves her husband (Joe Fox’s father, the ultimate male chauvinist pig) for a woman, evidently concluding that a man was not a necessary participant in a loving household—like Chawton Cottage from 1809-17.

FOUR: Kathleen channels JA’s words to CEA (“Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?”) when she writes to Joe (“But I just want to say that all this NOTHING has meant more to me than so many... somethings. So, thanks. “) ;

FIVE: Kathleen channels CEA’s words to Fanny (“I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”) when she writes to Joe (“But the truth is, I'm heartbroken. I feel as if part of me has died, and my mother has died all over again, and no one can ever make it right.”);

SIX: In the final scene of You’ve Got Mail, Joe “comes out” to Kathleen and reveals that he has been her devoted correspondent all along. What I wonder is, when Kathleen tearfully responds to him “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly”, is that Nora Ephron’s oblique way of  expressing her own impossible wish that CEA could have similarly “come out” to JA and been more honest in acknowledging intense, complicated, mixed-up feelings about their relationship?

SEVEN: And, putting all of the above together, I finally wonder whether Ephron, who embedded such a rich Shakespearean subtext in You’ve Got Mail without making explicit ado about it, might actually have picked up on at least one of the Shakespearean echoes in CEA’s letter to Fanny. Specifically, Kathleen mentions her mother in one specific way that strongly reminds us of the crucial prop used by Iago in Othello which convinces Othello of Desdemona’s guilt:

Kathleen: “A handkerchief.  Oh my, do children not even know what handkerchiefs are?  A
handkerchief is a Kleenex you don't throw away.  My mother embroidered it for me -- you see?  My initials and a daisy, because daisies are my favorite flower.”

In the screenplay version of the famous scene when Kathleen and Joe meet in the restaurant with him not revealing he is her beloved correspondent, Kathleen pulls out that same handkerchief, and Joe says “You know what the handkerchief reminds me of?  The first day I met you…”

And…at the end of the film, when Joe visits Kathleen, what do we see? Kathleen running through a box of Kleenex, her mother’s embroidered handkerchief nowhere in sight!

And speaking of symbolic emphasis on a decorative handkerchief cherished as a token of loving relationship, when Desdemona drops her handkerchief (with strawberries on it) and Emilia notices it, Emilia says:


Just a coincidence? Especially when we consider that one of the three Shakespearean quotes that Catherine Morland was taught in Northanger Abbey just happens to be Iago’s reaction to his wife Emilia giving that handkerchief to Iago:


And it is indeed the jealous confirmation provided by Desdemona’s handkerchief that leads Othello to “love” her “not wisely but too well”, the very line that Cassandra paraphrased.

Maybe not holy writ, but, I think, pretty convincing textual evidence that Nora Ephron did pick up on the Othello in CEA’s letter, too.

A very very sharp elf was Nora Ephron.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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