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Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Tragic Shakespearean Subtext of Cassandra Austen’s Epistolary Epitaph for Sister Jane



As our group read of Jane Austen’s letters in Janeites & Austen-L is now on the brink of completion---fittingly given that next Thursday we will observe the 197th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death---I wish to revisit what I consider the most memorable paragraph of sister Cassandra’s letter to niece Fanny Knight, written 12 days after Jane left the world:

"I have LOST A TREASURE, 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, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I LOVED HER ONLY TOO WELL,—NOT BETTER than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the JUSTICE of the HAND which has STRUCK THE BLOW."  [I will shortly explain the reason for the ALL CAPS excerpts]

As I've written before, it has been clear to me for some time that CEA in “I loved her only too well—not better than she deserved…” covertly but unmistakably alluded to Othello's famous last words….

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that LOVED NOT WISELY BUT TOO WELL;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose HAND,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum…

… spoken right after Othello’s full tragedy dawned on him, when he learned that he smothered Desdemona to death for an adultery she did not actually commit. His response, we all know, was to kill himself.

And as I also wrote last year….
...the phrase “the justice of the Hand which has struck the blow” has a rich allusive subtext that even went beyond Shakespeare.

But it only occurred to me today for the first time to take seriously how carefully composed that entire paragraph is—it was not the work of a moment, or even of a day. It must have taken CEA a long while to achieve that fine degree of poetic and rhetorical rhythm, compression, and unity. Perhaps, I even wondered, that paragraph might even have been ghost written, in the sense that Jane Austen herself, as she lay dying, might have helped her sister write that paragraph as a kind of private epitaph celebrating JA’s deep love for Shakespeare. And, maybe, these words were written not only for Fanny’s eyes, but also for the rest of the Austen family, some of whom might even have received letters from CEA containing that same finely-wrought paragraph.

And then I wondered still further---could there be other less obvious Shakespearean allusions in that same paragraph? Given how deeply ingrained a part of JA’s constitution Shakespeare was, on that hunch, I decided to do some more Googling, to see.

When you read what I found within ten minutes, I hope you will agree with me that my hunch was justified. Here, then, without further ado, are five more Shakespearean echoes I hear in CEA’s paragraph, after the quoting of which I will give you what I see as the common thread that unites them all, a thread that connects them all to the real life tragic scene of Cassandra cradling the poor head of her dying sister:

ONE: “I have lost a treasure” & Venus & Adonis (as Venus tearfully mourns her dead mortal lover Adonis, who ignored her warnings not to hunt the boar who gored and killed him):

'My tongue cannot express my grief for one,
And yet,' quoth she, 'behold two Adons dead!
My sighs are blown away, my salt tears gone,
Mine eyes are turn'd to fire, my heart to lead:
Heavy heart's lead, melt at mine eyes' red fire!
So shall I die by drops of hot desire.
'Alas, poor world, WHAT TREASURE  HAST THOU LOST!
What face remains alive that's worth the viewing?
Whose tongue is music now? what canst thou boast
Of things long since, or any thing ensuing?
The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh and trim;
But true-sweet beauty lived and died with him.
'Bonnet nor veil henceforth no creature wear!
Nor SUN nor wind will ever strive to kiss you:
Having no fair to lose, you need not fear;
The SUN doth scorn you and the wind doth hiss you:
But when Adonis lived, SUN and sharp air
Lurk'd like two thieves, to rob him of his fair…

TWO: “the gilder of every pleasure” & Sonnet 20

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
GILDING the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's PLEASURE,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their TREASURE.

THREE: “the soother of every sorrow” & Richard III   1.3

QUEEN MARGARET (to Buckingham, speaking about Richard III)
What, dost thou scorn me for my gentle counsel?
And SOOTHE the devil that I warn thee from?
O, but remember this another day,
When he shall split thy very heart with SORROW,
And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!
Live each of you the subjects to his hate,
And he to yours, and all of you to God's!

FOUR: “I had not a thought concealed from her” & Twelfth Night, 2.4

VIOLA (disguised as Cesario, speaking to Duke Orsino)
A blank, my lord. She never told her LOVE,
But let CONCEALMENT, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in THOUGHT,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this LOVE indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

FIVE: “the Justice of the hand which has struck the blow” & Measure for Measure 2.2

ISABELLA
I am a woeful suitor to your honour,
Please but your honour hear me.
ANGELO  Well; what's your suit?
ISABELLA
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet THE BLOW OF JUSTICE
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war 'twixt will and will not.
ANGELO Well; the matter?
ISABELLA
I have a brother is condemn'd to die:
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.

So, do you see the same common thread that I do?

Othello: A jealous husband mourning the death of his wife from across a racial divide.

Venus & Adonis: A goddess mourning the death of her lover from across a mortality divide.

Sonnet 20 : A male lover regretting the loss of a lover, due to the absence of a gender divide.

Twelfth Night:  A female lover in male disguise (and therefore also lacking an apparent gender divide) (and also a passage which JA distinctly alluded to in Persuasion and covertly in a letter to CEA)

Measure for Measure:  A sister pleading for the life of a beloved sibling condemned to die for forbidden sexual love, unless the sister has forbidden sexual love with her brother’s condemnor.

So, is it this common thread just a coincidence, a haphazard unconscious recall by CEA of bits and pieces from Shakespeare signifying nothing? Or is there method in CEA’s madness? What gender-bending, forbidden love would make sense in the context of CEA and JA?

Why don’t we try taking CEA at her word, and see where it leads us. CEA confesses to niece Fanny that she “loved” sister Jane “too well”, and is being punished by God for this sin. Under what twisted version of morality would a woman who was extremely attentive, as a round-the- clock nurse to the medical needs of a dying sister--so much so that she (temporarily) ceased to nurture other family members she had formerly been very solicitous of---be condemned (by God, no less!) to lose that beloved sister to a cruelly premature death? It’s so absurd, it makes no sense whatsoever.

But…what if the loving “too well” was, like Othello’s, like Venus’s, like Viola’s, like Isabella’s, like the Sonneteer’s, at least in part, sexual---in thought and feeling, even if not at all in deed? What if CEA felt intense guilt about feeling at some point(s) in their long life together, sexual attraction to Jane—attraction which she would never have acted on physically, but which she could not entirely repress, and which, she worried, warped her judgment, and caused her to give her beloved Jane too much license to mock and attack a variety of cows in (or sacred to) the Austen family orthodoxy?

After all, Jane and Cassandra had been close in every conceivable dimension their entire  lives—sharing the same home, sharing the same financial and hierarchical fate within the Austen family and circle of friends, neither having married---sharing everything, at least until Jane Austen’s premature departure from the scene. Cassandra would not have been the first person in such a circumstance to feel and think this way, if she did. In the end, the Ten Commandments don’t command or condemn thought, they command or condemn behavior.  

Now, I am NOT saying that Fanny Knight in any way understood this sexual subtext in her aunt Cassandra’s letter, or even was intended to—I think Fanny, selfish spoiled clueless heiress that she was, only understood the part about Cassandra (basically) apologizing to Fanny for the “sin” of “neglecting” Fanny during Jane’s illnesses the last18 months of her life.

But CEA was not writing this letter only to Fanny, this was a special letter CEA knew would be kept, and would be a kind of private epitaph for Jane that would survive as long as there was an Austen family to cherish Jane’s memory. So CEA made sure it was a fitting tribute to Jane.

To those reading this who don’t buy what I’m selling today, I suggest you consider how all of those Shakespearean passages are about forbidden, concealed, transgressive love and (in some of them, also) tragic death connected to that love. Perhaps you have some other explanation for why they are all echoed in that one carefully composed paragraph in CEA’s letter to Fanny, written within two weeks after death of (in CEA’s own poetic words) the dearest object of CEA’s love. To me, it makes perfect sense that Cassandra Austen would have (carefully) poured out her deepest feelings about her beloved Jane in this letter in this measured, concealed way.

It was a production worthy of Jane herself, and a fitting companion to Jane’s last poem, Winchester Races, which I will revisit next week on the actual anniversary of Jane’s death.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAusten on Twitter

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