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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Brief History of "dieing" and "fainting" in JA's Fiction

Apropos all the discussion last week regarding the dye-ing of Letter 57 (not to be confused with The Crying of Lot 49), I invite you to consider the following brief (and, to many of you, highly prejudiced) history of "dieing" and "fainting" in JA's fiction, which, in my opinion, bolsters, in a variety of ways, the sexual interpretation of that paragraph in Letter 57:


First consider the following from the very early juvenilia scrap, "A Beautiful Description of the Different Effects of Sensibility on Different Minds":

"In these situations we were this morning surprised by receiving a visit from Dr. Dowkins; "I am come to see Melissa," said he. "How is She?" "Very weak indeed," said the fainting Melissa -- "Very weak," replied the punning Doctor, "aye indeed it is more than a very /week/ since you have taken to your bed -- How is your appetite?" "Bad, very bad," said Julia. "That /is/ very bad" -- replied he; "Are her spirits good, Madam?" "So poorly, Sir, that we are obliged to strengthen her with cordials every Minute." -- "Well then she receives /Spirits/ from your being with her. Does she sleep?" "Scarcely ever." -- "And Ever Scarcely, I suppose, when she does. Poor thing! DOES SHE THINK OF DIEING?" "She has not strength to think at all." "Nay, then she cannot think to have Strength." "

I find it interesting that Dr. Dowkins is referred to as "the PUNNING Doctor"--and I think the hidden point is that the reader might wish to discern all the puns, not only the three obvious ones involving word reversals, but also the one that does not--the one about "dieing"

Second, consider the following from "Frederic and Elfrida":

"This answer distressed her too much for her delicate Constitution. She accordingly fainted & was in such a hurry to have a succession of fainting fits, that she had scarcely patience enough to recover from one before she fell into another."

It is difficult to escape the inference that "fainting" is a pun which is a "cousin" of the pun of "dieing" in the previous example, both of them pointing toward the kind of "dieing" or "fainting" which, as this passage humorously depicts, a person might wish to experience again and again and again.

But while it is interesting to take note of such precocious punning by the young teenaged Jane Austen, in stories which are completely absurdist, what I find of even greater interest are two examples of how she referred to "dying" and "fainting" in the realistic context of the novels, which actually provide windows into the shadows of those novels, and, in the case of Fanny in MP, not funny at all.


First, in Emma, all the usages of "faint" or its variants pertain to the meaning of the word as "barely discernible" EXCEPT the following two passages, both of which are associated with Harriet, and both of which are striking, particularly the second, which keeps spinning the sexual punning out during three successive additional sentences.

{Harriet breathlessly speaking] "....who should come in, but Elizabeth Martin and her brother! Dear Miss Woodhouse! only think. I thought I should have fainted. I did not know what to do...."

[After the "gypsies" episode] The iron gates and the front-door were not twenty yards asunder; -- they were all three soon in the hall, and Harriet immediately sinking into a chair fainted away. A young lady who faints, must be recovered; questions must be answered, and surprises be explained. Such events are very interesting, but the suspense of them cannot last long. A few minutes made Emma acquainted with the whole.

Indeed, as to the last word of that last sentence, which just happens to be the third word of the third line of the short charade of Emma:

My first doth affliction denote,
Which my second is destin'd to feel
And my whole is the best antidote
That affliction to soften and heal.

And also indeed, as to the last sentence of that same racy vignette that Jill H-S quoted in her introduction:

"...and not only rescued....the poor man, who for many years had actually dyed for her" (......... added by me)


And next, consider the following two wicked puns by the ever-resourceful Mary Crawford, which, I think, require no further explanation, in the context set by all of the above comments so far:

"I have three very particular friends who have been all DYING for him in their turn; and the pains which they, their mothers (very clever women), as well as my dear aunt and myself, have taken to reason, coax, or trick him into marrying, is inconceivable!"

Telling as that passage is, the following is far more significant, because of the segue from the other women Henry keeps on a string, to Fanny herself:

"By the bye, Flora Ross was DYING for Henry the first winter she came out. But were I to attempt to tell you of all the women whom I have known to be in love with him, I should never have done. It is you, only you, insensible Fanny, who can think of him with anything like indifference. But are you so insensible as you profess yourself? No, no, I see you are not.” There was, indeed, so deep a blush over Fanny’s face at that moment as might warrant strong suspicion in a predisposed mind.

And what is really remarkable, I think, is that it turns out that Fanny's blushing lack of indifference toward (i.e., an involuntary sort of "dying" for) Henry is directly connected to Fanny's "fainting"!:

In about a quarter of an hour her uncle returned; she was almost ready to faint at the sight of him.......She was nearly fainting: all her former habitual dread of her uncle was returning, and with it compassion for him and for almost every one of the party on the development before him, with solicitude on Edmund's account indescribable.......Having introduced him, however, and being all reseated, the terrors that occurred of what this visit might lead to were overpowering, and she fancied herself on the point of fainting away.

These are all narrations describing Fanny's reactions to being confronted in sexually charged situations involving her uncle (twice) and then Henry Crawford. Normally we would not associate Fanny with a heroine of sensibility, and yet here we have her three times, none of them in the same chapter, each time thinking she is going to faint because of an interaction with a sexually intrusive powerful man.

My sense of what JA is about with this, is to suggest that Fanny struggles to restrain her physical reactions to men who are forcing a sexual vibe in her direction, which, in her mind and spirit, she most emphatically, on every level, does NOT want to give in to. And of course the more disturbing of the two is Uncle Sir Thomas, who infamously does an inventory of Fanny's body, triggering Edmund's unbelievably grotesque rationalization, maybe the most egregious one in all the novels:

"“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny— and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle’s admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.”

Why she marries this clown is a mystery to many.

Cheers, ARNIE

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