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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

“The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another…”: Time to end the coverup

Today I want to revisit for the first time in a long while, and in a more organized way, my longstanding claim that the (to me) obvious primary allusive source for the basic story of S&S was as personal as it could be for Jane Austen, because the Dashwood family was based directly on one particular dark episode in Austen family history, as I’ll lay out, below, with the following cast of fictional characters corresponding to real life persons:

Marianne Dashwood = Jane Austen
Elinor Dashwood = Cassandra Austen
Mrs. Dashwood = Mrs. Austen
John Dashwood = James Austen
Fanny Dashwood = Mary Lloyd Austen

Today I want to propose three short thought experiments for you, in which, on a hypothetical basis, you clear your mind of everything you know, or think you know, abut Jane Austen’s fiction and biography, and consider certain facts in objective isolation, as uncolored by assumptions as is possible in a 2017 world saturated with all things Austen.

#1:  First, imagine you are James and Mary Lloyd, in 1811, upon first reading the first few chapters of S&S, in which the following events occur to the Dashwood women in rapid succession during the first four chapters:

The father dies unexpectedly, leaving his wife and daughters in a precarious financial position;
The father’s son and his son’s wife, who have a very young son, promptly and cynically dispossess the father’s wife and daughters, including taking away the younger daughter’s books and piano; and
The wife and daughters are rescued by an unexpected invitation by another family member (Sir John Middleton) to take occupancy of a cottage in another nearby county, where they are secure.

James and Mary Lloyd Austen knew better than anyone in the world other than Jane Austen that the following events actually occurred in real life:

In 1800-1801, as explicitly stated in Jane Austen’s letters, James and Mary Lloyd Austen dispossessed his sisters and parents, taking not only his father’s clergyman’s living and residence, but also acquiring or forcing to be sold to neighbors, at fire sale prices, pretty much all the Austen family personalty, including, most poignantly, Jane’s books and piano;
In 1805, Revd Austen died unexpectedly, resulting in a very precarious financial position for his surviving wife and daughters, leaving them to scramble to find living accommodations without being able to pay for them;
In 1809, Mrs Austen & her daughters are (eventually) rescued by an unexpected invitation by another family member (Edward Austen Knight) to take occupancy of a cottage in another nearby county where they are secure; and
In 1811, Jane Austen publishes S&S.

So, I ask you, is there any way on earth that James and Mary Lloyd could possibly have missed the obvious and very very negative portrait of themselves in S&S? Recall that James Austen was a very intelligent and well-read man, with literary aspirations of his own. And even if for whatever reason he did not read S&S all the way through, he only had to read through Chapter 4 (out of 50) to read the events covered by the above synopsis. And even in later chapters, whenever John and/or Fanny Dashwood appear in scenes, their behavior and speeches are unrelentingly reprehensible---she a prime example of rapacious greed and self serving manipulativeness; he the epitome of hypocritical selfish self-delusion as to his own self-styled generosity.

So, I cannot imagine anyone trying to argue that James and Mary would not have realized that these were real life allusions to themselves by Jane Austen, contained in the very first pages of her very first fiction published to the world, and therefore presumably of the highest importance to her.

#2: Now a second thought experiment. Imagine that it is 2017, but that up till the present, neither Jane Austen’s writing, nor anything about her life, has ever been known to the world. Then, suddenly there is a discovery of a print copy of S&S dating back to 1811 which by some publishing quirk never previously became known to the world. And simultaneously, imagine that are also discovered JA’s letters from 1800-1809 which establish Jane Austen’s personal take on what happened to the Austen women vis a vis moving to Bath and then eventually to Chawton Cottage.

Now, if you read S&S, particularly the first four chapters, and read those letters, without knowing anything else about Jane Austen or her fiction, what would your inference be as to the degree of likelihood that S&S was based on those letters and those related Austen family facts?

I think you’d agree that the answer is “Overwhelmingly likely”.

#3: That brings me to my final hypothetical: add to the facts of #2 that the following two reports are discovered in 2017 and published:

First, what JEAL wrote about the chronology and stages of composition of P&P, S&S, and NA in his 1869 Memoir:

Pride and Prejudice, which some consider the most brilliant of her novels, was the first finished, if not the first begun. She began it in October 1796, before she was twenty-one years old, and completed it in about ten months, in August 1797.  The title then intended for it was First ImpressionsSense and Sensibility was begun, in its present form, immediately after the completion of the former, in November 1797 but something similar in story and character had been written earlier under the title of Elinor and Marianne; and if, as is probable, a good deal of this earlier production was retained, it must form the earliest specimen of her writing that has been given to the world.  Northanger Abbey, though not prepared for the press till 1803, was certainly first composed in 1798.”

And second, here is what JEAL’s younger sister Caroline wrote, at about the same time:

“Memory is treacherous, but I cannot be mistaken in saying that Sense and Sensibility was FIRST written in letters, and to read to her family.”

If you also learned that JEAL was born in 1798 and Caroline in 1805, you’d also know that neither of them had firsthand knowledge of the compositional facts they claim. Given what we know from #1 and #2, is it not obvious that the source for this info were their own parents, James and Mary Lloyd?

So, with that background, why in the world would any reasonably skeptical person accept as true hearsay testimony provided to their son and daughter by James Austen and Mary Lloyd Austen, the two people who were obviously, culpably depicted in S&S?

And it happens that JEAL and his sister Caroline are the sole sources for the currently universal belief that S&S began as an epistolary novel 14 years before S&S was published, entitled Elinor and Marianne.

#4: I have one more large point to make. Do you find it odd, as I do, that, according to JEAL, JA wrote First Impressions and (objective fact) submitted it for publication in Nov. 1797; and then wrote Susan in 1798 and (objective fact) submitted it for publication in 1803; and yet why would it be that JA supposedly wrote Elinor & Marianne in between in 1797 and yet never submitted it for publication?

So I ask you another question-- what plausible motivation could the children of James and Mary Austen have had to make a point of claiming that the original version of S&S was composed by JA in 1797? Would they have had any motivation you can see to invent such a family memory with such chronological specificity?

I think the motivation must now be painfully obvious --- if the story of S&S dated from before late 1800; and if, as JEAL wrote, “a good deal of this earlier production was been retained” in the final version of S&S published in 1811, then the tale of what happened to the Dashwood women must not have been based on what occurred at Steventon when the Austens relocated to Bath in 1800-1801!

And that brings me to the climactic, ironic portion of this post, in which I will now show you how Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh and William Austen-Leigh, two of  JEAL’s descendants, in 1911, in writing Jane Austen: A Family Record , made the following acute observations regarding the transition from Elinor and Marianne to Sense and Sensibility, observations which have been largely ignored by Austen scholars for over a century now:

“We know that [Elinor and Marianne] was read aloud, but no details have come down to us, and it is difficult to guess between whom the letters can have passed, for in the novel [S&S] Elinor and Marianne are never parted, even for a single day. It seems therefore as if the alterations subsequently made must have been radical; and the difficulty and labour which such a complete transformation would involve make the author's unfavourable judgment on her own earlier method of writing all the stronger. If she decided against using letters as a vehicle for story-telling in the future, it seems all the more probable that the only other instance of her use of this style was at least as early as the date we have now reached.”

Indeed, not only are Elinor and Marianne never separated during the chronology of the novel, neither of them has any close friendship or familial relationship with anyone else living somewhere else (e.g., a friend in the neighborhood of Norland, or a new friend made while living at Barton Cottage), with whom they would have corresponded. And the fact that Elinor and Marianne are never separated during the novel isn’t an incidental fact – it is the core of the novel’s structure. So “radical alteration” and “complete transformation” almost seem inadequate. If Elinor and Marianne was written, and did involve the same characters with the same personalities, then the action must have been completely different from start to finish, since so many of the scenes of the novel involve Marianne and Elinor in conversation, both alone and also in company with others.  It would be as if JA loved the characters so much, that even after scrapping her original story, she for some reason decided to completely start from scratch and give them a whole new fictional world to exist in, during her supposed revision into S&S.

Or maybe, applying Occam’s Razor, which did not occur to RAAL to do, perhaps there never was an Elinor and Marianne; or, if there was, it was written after 1801.  Either way, it is simply not tenable to claim that Jane Austen did not utterly skewer her brother James and his wife Mary in the characters of John and Fanny Dashwood, equating them, with her literary skill, to the likes of Goneril and Ragan in King Lear.

And finally, it turns out that this wasn’t the only time that RAAL seems to have made a subtle, good faith attempt to diplomatically undo the deception foisted on the world by his ancestor JEAL, as I explained back in 2014 here:

So, with all of that, I hope I have at least shaken the firm belief of some of you that JEAL could be relied upon to tell the truth about the germ of the idea behind S&S. Instead, I hope you now see how JEAL perpetrated a massive coverup as to the connection of S&S to painful real life Austen family history. The last thing he was going to do was to let out to the world what JA wrote to CEA in May 1801 during the last stages of what JEAL, in the Memoir, referred to with unwitting irony as “the Removal from Steventon”, as she described the forced sale of her beloved and precious home library:

“Mr. Bent seems bent upon being very detestable, for he values the books at only 70L. The whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another…”

What JA surely did not foresee when she wrote those words, was that the then 3 year old James Edward Austen would in his old age, as the sexagenarian James Edward Austen-Leigh, heir of the Leigh-Perrot family fortune that bypassed the Austen women, successfully perpetuate and keep the dirty secret of that conspiracy intact and invisible to the world for over two centuries.

But some of the blame must also be laid at the door of Austen scholars during the past century, who’ve actually had the truth right there in plain sight in the first 4 chapters of S&S, in JA’s 1800-1801 letters, and, if they did their homework, also with an assist from RAAL’s observations about the ”complete transformation” that led to S&S. During the bicentennial of JA’s death, isn’t it long long overdue to strip away the cover that conceals that conspiracy?

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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