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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ugly John Warren & The Mystery of The Austen Tea-Things



I noticed something strange today in Jane Austen's Letter 63 (12/27-28/1808), which JA wrote to sister Cassandra from Southampton:

“ My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate—a whole tablespoon and a whole dessert-spoon, and six whole teaspoons—which makes our sideboard border on the magnificent. They were mostly the produce of old or useless silver. I have turned the 11s. in the list into 12s., and the card looks all the better; a silver tea-ladle is also added, which will at least answer the purpose of making us sometimes think of John Warren.”

I find much I cannot readily explain in this short passage, and I believe I am not alone, because neither Le Faye nor any other Austen scholar I can access online, nor the archives in Janeites, provides any enlightenment as to the following mysteries:

ONE: Why does JA use the word “whole” to describe the three sizes of spoons her mother has apparently recently acquired for the Austen tea-things? Is JA joking around--in a manner worthy of  Lewis Carroll’s word/logic games in the Alice stories, in making a joking leap from the term “half-tablespoon” that you’d find in a recipe (receipt) to the absurd idea of an actual physical half-tablespoon? I think she is indeed making just such a joke, or does anyone familiar with the nuances of silverware have a more mundane explanation?

TWO: Does it make sense that these new spoons that supposedly were of such high quality as to render the Austen sideboard “magnificent”  and yet were “ mostly the produce of old or useless silver”? Is this also a joke, or were there skilled craftsmen who used recycled sliver products to form high quality new silverware that the Austen women could have afforded?

THREE: What are the 11s and the 12s? Are these sizes of silverware? How would JA have turned silverware of one size into silverware of a slightly larger size? I smell absurdist humor here as well….

FOUR: Why would a silver tea-ladle in particular be so useless that its sole purpose would be to prompt some sort of association to John Warren?

Here is an image of an 1870’s silver tea-ladle:


I think JA is joking around, as a tea-ladle would seem to be quite useful.

And finally and most intriguing of all:

FIVE: Why would JA and CEA associate tea-ladles with John Warren?

Apropos John Warren, he of course is mentioned several times in JA’s earliest surviving 1796 letters, and in one of them, JA seems to suggest that Mr. Warren was interested in her, when she attributes a non-jealous reaction to him while he performs a Mr. Eltonesque service to JA:

“…I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I donot care sixpence. Assure [Miss C. Powlett] also as a last & indubitable proof of Warren’s indifference to me, that he actually drew that Gentleman’s picture for me, & delivered it to me without a Sigh.”
Again, I think JA is just horsing around, and that John Warren was just an old friend (he had been a student at the Steventon Rectory school), that JA and CEA liked to joke about.

Evidence of that appears in a JA letter written four years later, where we read this:

“…Mrs. Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I must regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, & danced away with great activity, looking by no means large. – Her husband is ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John..”

Mrs. Warren refers to the former Jane Maitland (a first maternal cousin of Anna Austen—whom I suspect may have been a Creole), who married Lt-Col. Richard Warren, and so “his cousin John” must refer to that same John Warren from Steventon. So, the question is, was JA is joking, or did she and CEA really think John Warren was so ugly that he won the Warren family ugliness award?!

So hard to know when JA is joking, isn’t it?  I am eager to hear reactions re any or all of the above five questions!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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