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

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A shocking new take on why the Austens really left Steventon for Bath in a heated rush

In Austen L and Janeites, my kindred spirit Diane Reynolds responded this morning to my last two posts as follows:

Diane wrote: "Arnie, I think you nailed it with this post. As soon as you offered the context of Jane Austen's use of big twice to refer to a pregnant woman in her letters, I was convinced that Mrs. Jennings was indeed alluding in a clueless/not clueless way (we need to start looking at her as more of a Miss Bates) to Lucy being pregnant."

Thanks, Diane, I knew you'd love it, too, and yes, I have long believed Mrs. Jennings to be an earlier version of Miss Bates, the truthtelling “Cassandra” whom the clueless heroine ignores!  But wait till you read the rest of this post, to get, as Paul Harvey famously put it, the REST of the story……  J

First, I truly was astonished when I saw the result of my first word search for the word "big" in her novels. "Big" is SUCH a common word today in ordinary American English (is it also in the UK and the Commonwealth?), much more often used than “large” or “great”--that I knew its nearly complete absence in JA’s novels HAD to be significant---and, as a corollary, that its PRESENCE in Mrs.Jennings's speech had to be significant, too, in a connected way.

Then to find the answer in those two letters, written only six weeks apart (and both during the narrow window between the decision to leave Steventon and the actual move to Bath)---what's THAT about? Could they be hints by JA to Cassandra about someone else (not merely the two “big” wives, Mrs. Poore and Mrs. Dyson, whom JA jokes about) being pregnant?

And in asking that last question, I began to wonder this morning about something even MORE outside the box, and even more disturbing, having to do with the Austen family memory of the reason for the SUDDEN move to Bath-I hope you enjoy where that speculation led me.  

I’ve written several times over the past decade about the sudden move to Bath by the Austens in early 1801. For example, I wrote the following post nine years ago:

“…as I was browsing today in Persuasion, suddenly I thought--we all know why the Elliots relocated to Bath-to retrench! So I wondered if perhaps that was an important reason why, in real life, the Austens relocated to Bath in 1801 so abruptly? I just took a quick stroll through the bios, and this is my quick inventory of explanations:
RAA-L/LE FAYE's Family Record, P. 113-4: It was her father's impetuous decision; Le Faye rejects the notion that it was to get Jane away from William Digweed because of a growing undesired attachment; "it seems most probable that Mr. Austen's age and Mrs. Austen's continuing ill health were the deciding factor for retirement."
NOKES: P. 220-5: Mentions her father being very concerned about raising the income necessary to live well in Bath. Talks about the costs of repairing the rectory after damage from recent storms, and mother's ill health.
HONAN, P. 156: "Their father had decided to move to Bath (as Frank Austen says in a little-known autobiographical manuscript) because he felt too 'incapacitated from age and increasing infirmities to discharge his parochial duties in a manner satisfactory to himself.' Attributes the Digweed avoidance rationale to Aunt Perrot.
TOMALIN, P. 168: Diametrically opposed to Nokes, sees this as an impulsive "take advantage of the empty nest" decision by Jane's parents.
MYER has nothing to say about the motivation for the move.
As I read the above, I realize the striking parallels between what really happened with the Austens, and what she wrote 15 years later in Persuasion--Aunt Perrot's social climbing snobbery has been converted into the hauteur of the Dalrymples. Apparently there was a lot of uproar among the Austens as to what would be sold, and what brought to Bath, from the Steventon home, just as the details of retrenching are debated at first by the Elliots. And, with typical hilarious irony, we have the contrast of the Austens dealing with the painful decision to sell her father's 500-book library, vs. the first thing we hear about Sir Walter, i.e., that the ONLY book he ever read was the one with his family history!” END OF MY 2006 POST

And it was 3 years ago that I wrote the following post, consolidating a number of prior inferences I had made, about what I call the Massacre of Steventon, i.e., how James and Mary Austen plundered the Austen family wealth during the move to Bath,  and how JA reenacted that travesty in the Lear-inspired Chapter 2 of S&S, with Fanny Dashwood’s slicing and dicing of the Dashwood women’s precatory inheritance:
As JA put it in May 1801:
"The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another.”

I pointed out then, inter alia, that S&S was her first published novel, and therefore how telling that she cut to the chase in Chapter 2--the first dramatized scene she published---and vented her outrage, ten years in the brewing, over the injustice of that forced and rapacity-filled exile. But now I see yet another strand of the Austen family move to Bath that made its coded way into S&S.

When we go back to Richard A. Austen-Leigh’s original Family Record, we find what I see, in hindsight, as nothing less than a great deal of “protesting too much” about the reason for the move to Steventon, which begins unexceptionably enough as follows:        “While Jane was away on this visit, Mr. and Mrs. Austen came to a momentous decision—namely, to leave Steventon and retire to Bath. There can be little doubt that the decision was a hasty one. Some of Jane's previous letters contain details of the very considerable improvements that her father had just begun in the Rectory garden; and we do not hear that these improvements were concerted with the son who was to be his successor.”

Here is where the protesting too much begins in earnest:       “So hasty, indeed, did Mr. Austen's decision appear to the Perrots that they suspected the reason to be a growing attachment between Jane and one of the three Digweed brothers. There is not the slightest evidence of this very improbable supposition in Jane's letters, though she does occasionally suggest that James Digweed must be in love with Cassandra, especially when he gallantly supposed that the two elms had fallen from grief at her absence. On the whole it seems most probable that Mrs. Austen's continued ill-health was the reason for the change.”

“…not the slightest evidence of this very improbable supposition…”  Hmm..I count four negating words out of nine….but now the denial gets even more frantic:

“Tradition says that when Jane returned home accompanied by Martha Lloyd, the news was abruptly announced by her mother, who thus greeted them: 'Well, girls, it is all settled; we have decided to leave Steventon in such a week, and go to Bath'; and that the shock of the intelligence was so great to Jane that she fainted away. Unfortunately, there is no further direct evidence to show how far Jane's feelings resembled those she has attributed to Marianne Dashwood on leaving Norland; but we have the negative evidence arising from the fact that none of her letters are preserved between November 30, 1800, and January 3, 1801, although Cassandra was at Godmersham during the whole of the intervening month. Silence on the part of Jane to Cassandra for so long a period of absence is unheard of: and according to the rule acted on by Cassandra, destruction of her sister's letters was a proof of their emotional interest. We cannot doubt, therefore, that she wrote in a strain unusual for her more than once in that month; but as she says of Elizabeth Bennet 'it was her business to be satisfied—and certainly her temper to be happy'; and the next letter that we have shows that she was determined to face a new life in a new place with cheerfulness.”

Wow--talk about overkill! RAAL is dancing on the head of a pin so frenetically, that he unwittingly provides fuel for the scandalous fire he is so desperate to put out! He throws more “oil” on the fire twice:
First, he mentions the parallels that readers a century ago must have been making between Marianne Dashwood leaving Norland and JA leaving Steventon –which alerts us to ask about any other parallels between the fictional Marianne and the real life JA; and
Second,  RAAL refers to JA’s letters from that narrow time period between the decision to leave Steventon and the actual move to Bath—which alerts us to take a closer look at the letters from that time period---so let’s do exactly that!

In Letter 27 dated 11/21/1800, we see the origin of the rumor RAAL was attempting to refute about Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s supposed motivation for advocating the move to Bath:
“The three Digweeds all came on Tuesday, & we played a pool of Commerce. – James Digweed left Hampshire to day. I think he must be in love with you, from his supposing, that the two Elms fell from their greif at your absence.—Was not it a galant idea?—It never occurred to me before, but I dare say it was so.” Then JA discusses plans for landscaping “the new inclosure on the right hand side of the Elm Walk” with various kinds of fruit trees.

The superficially absurd image of the two elms which fell from “greif” seem to me a subtle echo of the self-description by Viola, disguised as Cesario, to her secret beloved, Duke Orsino, of herself in Twelfth Night:

Of course, the punch line from the above speech is quoted in Chapter 1 of NA, and Austen scholars have also noted for some time now that Anne Elliot’s famous description of woman’s capacity for patient waiting love echoes Viola’s. So it would not surprise that JA would allude to it in Letter 27 well.

It seems quite plausible to me, to infer that Jane was teasing Cassandra about the latter’s secret crush on James Digweed (I’ve long thought of the Digweed brothers as the Knightley brothers of Steventon, with Jane and CEA as the Woodhouse sisters). James D. wound up marrying another young lady only 2+ years later and siring five children, so it would make sense that he was in courtship mode in late 1800.

So we can well understand why RAAL protested so much, as it would not reflect well on the elders of the Austen family if the sudden move to Bath had at least in part been an intentional squelching of romance between two young people. Might we hear an echo of this in Colonel Brandon’s impassioned lament:
"I have heard of the injustice your friend Mr. Ferrars has suffered from his family; for if I understand the matter right, he has been entirely cast off by them for persevering in his engagement with a very deserving young woman…The cruelty, the impolitic cruelty of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other, is terrible.— Mrs. Ferrars does not know what she may be doing—what she may drive her son to.”

So, now, with that background in mind, let’s take an even closer look at Jane Austen’s two jokes about “big” wives in Letters 28 and 34, and think about why those are the only two surviving JA letters---out of 154 letters, containing about 20 scattered references to pregnant women, mostly sarcastic--- which refer to “big” women.

Letter 28 was written only 9 days after Letter 27, and so it’s reasonable to read them together as a unit:
“My journey was safe and not unpleasant;-I spent an hour in Andover of which Messers Painter and Redding had the larger part;-twenty minutes however fell to the lot of Mrs Poore and her mother, whom I was glad to see in good looks and spirits-The latter asked me more questions than I had very well time to answer; the former I believe is very big, but I am by no means certain;- she is either very big, or not at all big, I forgot to be accurate in my observation at the time; and tho' my thoughts are now more about me on the subject, the power of exercising them to any effect is much diminished.”

What if JA is not merely being snarky about another “poor (Poore?) animal” being pregnant (in this case, Mrs. Poore, who was formerly Mary Harrison, one of “the two Marys” whom James Austen courted 4 years earlier), but is also speaking, in code that only CEA understands, about a woman who “is either very big, or not at all big”, whom the Austen family suddenly feels the need to whisk off to Bath in order to avoid local gossip? In other words, was Jane, via this seemingly absurd either/or, suggesting to CEA that Jane was not sure if she herself was pregnant?! It sure seems plausible to me!

But what then to make of the reference to Mrs. Dyson who “as usual looked big” in Letter 34, written two and half months after Letter 28, but still prior to the move to Bath? I suspect that by then, it was clear that Jane was NOT pregnant, and Jane was consoling herself with a little fantasy about what married life might have been like had she actually been “big”—filled with “all the comforts of little Children, dirt & litter.”—In other words, a road not taken, and luckily so!

All of which brings me RIGHT back to Mrs. Jennings’s winking comment about Edward and Lucy and their “snug cottage” which needed to be “a little bigger”! I think it highly improbable that all of these disparate passages from JA’s letters and from S&S fit together so well, all rotating around the word “big”. It is hard to escape the inference that RAAL’s protesting too much had everything to do with negating the rumors about pregnant unmarried Austen daughters that might have swirled around the Steventon gossip mill in late 1800.

Diane also wrote: “I have long thought that it was not an "accident" but a set-up by Lucy when her sister "spills the beans" on the engagement with Edward: Lucy wants to force everyone's hand. But why, I have wondered, albeit not very seriously to date, would she take the risk? If she's pregnant, that's a perfect reason--she has no choice but to move fast.”

I have indeed been writing since 2006 that Lucy does deliberately, and with Luciferian cleverness, start the dominoes falling, so to speak, after first carefully arranging her endgame of marriage to Robert –and I’ve also pointed out how similar this is to what Charlotte Lucas covertly arranges by sending the false rumor to Lady Catherine, via the unwitting messenger Mr. Collins, of Eliza’s and Darcy’s engagement, so as to provoke the endgame of Eliza married to Darcy, with Charlotte and Mr. Collins installed in a new living near Pemberley. And yes, finally, I have also thought Lucy (and Marianne, for that matter) was pregnant----and yes also, by Edward!

Diane also wrote: “Now (and the Marianne stuff is wonderful, btw) my current thought is that Edward (like Marianne)  might not be such a dolt after all. What if it is EDWARD, realizing Lucy is pregnant and not wanting to marry her, who manipulates his brother into marrying her instead? This would completely change our view of Edward. Then Lucy becomes his plaything, to be fobbed off as soon as she becomes a problem. (Of course, this undercuts Lucy as the devil--but maybe not--how smart was Lucifer after all?)”

No, in my opinion, Lucy is still the director of her own fate. But…Edward certainly is not the honest but passive hero many Janeites believe him to be---wait till you read my next post, where I will add more fuel to that fire as well!

I will address your segue into Edmund’s shadowy doings in MP another time, but of course I commend your willingness to argue by analogy between the JA novels, which I have often found to be a fertile method of deriving further insight.

Diane finally wrote: “I have been rereading and much enjoying NA, and have also noted Catherine's interaction with language. There's another place, this in relation to Captain Tilney, who is, after all, much like John Thorpe, when Catherine wonders why people can't just say what they mean, which seemed to me a metacommentary, for lack of a better word, on the need for readers to look out for double meanings.”

Excellent! That other passage is indeed a bookend to the one I quoted! So glad to be able to have this fruitful dialogue with you, Diane!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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