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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jane Austen’s Pun on “a Collection of Letters” –was that Juvenilia a puzzle to be solved?

Earlier today, I noticed for the first time a pun I am now convinced, for the reasons set forth below, Jane Austen intended, a pun which extends between works she wrote a quarter century apart.

First, in Volume the Second, JA dedicated to her first maternal cousin Jane Cooper (the one whose bravery and resourcefulness saved the lives of JA, CEA, and Jane Cooper herself, when they fell seriously ill while away at boarding school in Reading when JA was only 7) "A Collection of Letters". It was written by JA, it is estimated by Austen scholars, in 1791, when JA was not quite 16. It consists of five letters of more or less increasing length (but collectively no longer than a short short story), which appear to be a miscellaneous hodgepodge, with no overlap of characters, and little discernible parallelism of writing style and content.

The one which stood out the most for me when I reread them today for the first time in years is the second letter addressed to by “a young lady crossed in love” named Sophia to her friend Belle. After a brief account of getting jilted at the altar by a rake named Willoughby (no surprise there!), the bulk of the letter is about a woman in her thirties who calls herself "Miss Jane", in particular the revelation to Sophia of Miss Jane’s being a widow, and how that played out in her life.

Given that Jane Cooper (to whom this collection of letters was dedicated in a playful paragraph in which nearly every word began, fittingly, with the letter 'C", as in “Cooper”: To Miss Cooper –––Cousin, Conscious of the Charming Character which in every Country, & every Clime in Christendom is Cried, Concerning you, with Caution & Care I Commend to your Charitable Criticism this Clever Collection of Curious Comments, which have been Carefully Culled, Collected & Classed by your Comical Cousin-- The Author) was herself somewhat older than Jane Austen, my sense is that the adoration of Miss Jane which the letter writer Sophia cannot even put into words, out of acute embarrassment, makes me wonder whether the reason for that embarrassment is the strong romantic feeling that Sophia has secretly harbored for her older particular friend. In that sense, Sophia’s being “crossed in love’ could refer both to her having been jilted by a man, and also to her having then been romantically disappointed by a woman.

I was looking for just that sort of hidden meaning in JA’s youthful “Collection of Letters”, because I had already recognized the title "A Collection of Letters” as a pun by JA on a very different kind of "Collection of Letters", the kind which we read about in Chapter 41 of Emma, during the pleasure excursion at Donwell Abbey:

"Miss Woodhouse," said Frank Churchill, after examining a table behind him, which he could reach as he sat, "have your nephews taken away their alphabets—their BOX OF LETTERS? It used to stand here. Where is it? This is a sort of dull-looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer. We had great amusement with THOSE LETTERS one morning. I want to puzzle you again."
Emma was pleased with the thought; and producing the box, the table was quickly scattered over with alphabets, which no one seemed so much disposed to employ as their two selves. They were rapidly forming words for each other, or for any body else who would be puzzled. The quietness of the game made it particularly eligible for Mr. Woodhouse, who had often been distressed by the more animated sort, which Mr. Weston had occasionally introduced, and who now sat happily occupied in lamenting, with tender melancholy, over the departure of the "poor little boys," or in fondly pointing out, as he took up any stray letter near him, how beautifully Emma had written it.
…Jane's alertness in moving, proved her as ready as her aunt had preconceived. She was immediately up, and wanting to quit the table; but so many were also moving, that she could not get away; and Mr. Knightley thought he saw another COLLECTION OF LETTERS anxiously pushed towards her, and resolutely swept away by her unexamined. She was afterwards looking for her shawl—Frank Churchill was looking also—it was growing dusk, and the room was in confusion; and how they parted, Mr. Knightley could not tell….”

So we see this latter kind of “Collection of Letters’ to refer to a box of letters of the alphabet, as in a modern game of Scrabble, rather than a collection of epistolary missives, which not coincidentally just happen to consist of words which, in their elemental form, are themselves each a “collection of letters”.

Wheels within wheels, exactly the sort of wordplay we know JA (indeed her whole family) loved.

And, to add to my sense of JA’s juvenilial “Collection of Letters” as being intended to function as a kind of literary puzzle—a series of seemingly unrelated letters which somehow have a concealed unifying theme which can be sleuthed out by the reader---I note the following relevant passage earlier in Emma, in Chapter 9, where yet another sort of word puzzle is identified as a kind of literary “collection”:

“…and the only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present, the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the COLLECTING and transcribing all the RIDDLES of every sort that she could meet with, into a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper, made up by her friend, and ornamented with ciphers and trophies.
In this age of literature, such COLLECTIONS on a very grand scale are not uncommon. Miss Nash, head-teacher at Mrs. Goddard's, had written out at least three hundred; and Harriet, who had taken the first hint of it from her, hoped, with Miss Woodhouse's help, to get a great many more. Emma assisted with her invention, memory and taste; and as Harriet wrote a very pretty hand, it was likely to be an arrangement of the first order, in form as well as quantity….”

In fact, much is made in Chapter 9 of Harriet’s “collection”, and of course, we also can discern that the charades and Riddle written out in that same Chapter 9 are themselves individually “collections”  of words (and therefore letters) which each have a coded meaning to be found out—and that is especially true of the “courtship” charade, which, as Colleen Sheehan first pointed out in 2006, is a double anagram acrostic on the word or name “lamb”—the whole idea of an acrostic is to focus on the first LETTER of every line in it—and so an anagram acrostic is itself  a “collection of letters’ very much like the one played with at Donwell Abbey.  

And I saved for last the most interesting aspect of this matrix of letter collections spanning nearly the entire duration of JA’s writing career---the “heroine” of Letter the Second in the 1791 Collection of Letters is “Miss Jane”---and the shadow heroine of Emma, and arguably the shadow heroine of that “courtship” charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, is also a “Miss Jane”. I.e., the explicit references in JA’s 1791 production to Willougby, Edward, Augusta, Dashwoods, Crawfords, Williams, and Annesley (all names which of course appear in JA’s novels) are supplemented by at least one covert reference—to Miss Jane….Fairfax!

What remains, I believe, and I will revisit another time to see if I can further crack the young JA’s code, is to uncover the other concealed meanings in that seemingly insubstantial collection of letters.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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