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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Dashwood Family Jewels

A question was recently raised in Janeites as to the interpretation of the following passage in Ch. 33 of S&S:

"After some opposition, Marianne yielded to her sister's entreaties, and consented to go out with her and Mrs. Jennings one morning for half an hour. She expressly conditioned, however, for paying no visits, and would do no more than accompany them to Gray's in Sackvill Street, where Elinor was carrying on a negociation for the exchange of a few old-fashioned jewels of her mother."

The question raised was whether Elinor was going to sell the old family jewels to raise cash, or (as D.A. Miller suggested in The Secret of Style) to exchange them for more fashionable ones. Here is how I replied:

I [agree] on the jewels being sold (or pawned, as was later suggested), in either case in order to raise some cash. I am firmly against Miller's creative but strained interpretation, and my main reasons are (1) the strong textual evidence right there in that same Chapter 33 which underscores the theme of gentlewomen often getting the shaft under the English property law system, and (2) the unmistakable allusion to the Austen family history. As I will outline below, this was far too an important point to Jane Austen, on multiple levels, for her to leave this interpretation open to doubt:

(1) Chapters 2 and 33 of S&S as Bookends:

First, Chapter 33, when considered in its entirety, is surely an intentional bookend to, and a direct echo of, the "King Lear" scene which comprises most of Chapter 2. That of course is the often-discussed scene in which we observe Fanny effortlessly manipulating John into assuring that there would be no additional cash (or other income producing assets, such as bonds or timber rights) distributed to the Dashwood women from the estate of the recently deceased Mr. Dashwood. Their sole inheritance would be the 7,000 pounds of cash held by Mr. Dashwood, plus the "household tangible assets", i.e., the china, linens, etc., none of which is an income-producing asset.
By the time the action has reached Ch. 33, even with the careful retrenching urged on Mrs. Dashwood by Elinor, I claim we are meant to infer from Elinor’s visit to Gray’s with old family jewels that even with the generosity of Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, there just ain’t enough cash around anymore to pay all the bills at Barton Cottage. And Edward has vanished, with no resumption of his courting of Elinor on the horizon, and similarly with Marianne and Willoughby, who has now made it
official by marrying Miss Grey. So no knight in shining armor (other than Brandon, whom Marianne has no interest in) waits in the wings to rescue the Dashwood women from their financial straits.

We are meant to realize, despite the narrator’s (and Elinor’s) delicacy and discretion, that the situation has become totally desperate, and that the Dashwood women are far too proud to want to beg for money from their already generous benefactors (Mrs. Jennings, Sir John). And so the obvious and only, if also surely painful, choice, is to generate some immediate cash by selling or pawning some of the precious family jewels, which Mrs. Dashwood probably inherited from her own mother long before. It has taken a period of months, but finally the Dashwood women are feeling the full and inevitable brunt of their expulsion from "Eden" (i.e., Norland), which began when Mr. Dashwood died, and was compounded when John Dashwood, a kind of financial “angel of death”, has delivered this one-two punch combination to their already strapped finances.

So look at what happens in the rest of Chapter 33. Even if you think it’s just a coincidence that John Dashwood just happens to pop in on them while they are there (and I DON’T think it is a coincidence, and in reference thereto, I suggest that Robert Ferrars, in insisting on looking at every single tooth-pick case in the place, was only playing the fop, but was actually stalling to make sure that Elinor would be there long enough for John to pop in and deliver his “friendly” advice to her, at the precise moment when it would be felt most powerfully), look at what topic of conversation John turns to almost immediately—money, money, money, all about money.

And what is the gist of it all? In his “benevolent” way, John, who is the very person in the entire world who has reduced the Dashwood women to this precarious financial condition, and who has the power, even in that moment, to rectify it, but makes it clear he will never do so, is shedding crocodile tears for the Dashwood women’s impecuniousness, and then makes the following speech which belongs right alongside Chapter 2 in the list of best literary examples of sheer chutzpah, in describing the generosity shown to them by Mrs. Jennings and Sir John:

"I am extremely glad to hear it, upon my word; extremely glad indeed. But so it ought to be; they are people of large fortune, they are related to you, and every civility, and accommodation that can serve to make your situation pleasant, might be reasonably expected. And so you are most comfortably settled in your little cottage and want for nothing! Edward brought us a most charming account of the place; the most complete thing of its kind, he said, that ever was, and you all seemed to enjoy it beyond anything. It was a great satisfaction to us to hear it, I assure you."

It is surely one of the most ironic understatements of the literary 19th century when we read that “Elinor did feel a little ashamed of her brother”! And it ranks right up there, for me, with Fanny Price’s comments to Edmund about Henry Crawford’s sordid machinations vis a vis Maria and Julia:

“What a favourite he is with my cousins!"

But back to S&S. Then John caps off his performance with several verbal shoves intended to push Elinor into Colonel Brandon’s arms, which would have the double effect of relieving John’s microscopically small conscience (and yes, that is also an accurate description of a part of his physical person as well, vis a vis his wife), plus getting Elinor out of the Edward sweepstakes, clearing the way (so Fanny D. was perhaps thinking when she sent John over there to Gray’s in the first place) for Edward to be pressured into marrying Miss Morton. It all fits, and, horrible as this scheme is, it seems to have a very good chance of succeeding.

But….unlike King Lear, S&S is ultimately NOT a tragedy, and the reason is that Fanny didn’t reckon on the formidable adversary who lurked quietly in the shadows, waiting patiently for her OWN schemes to unfold ……the inimitable (bad grammar and all) LUCY (eventually to be “FERrars”) Steele!

(2) Austen Family Echoes:

And, why I believe this was all of great personal importance to Jane Austen, was that all that I have described above is also unmistakably a portrait of the lives of the Austen women between 1805 and 1809. Think about James Austen and his wife Mary swooping down like vultures to grab all the tangible assets at Steventon (including, if memory serves me right, Jane’s piano) for a song (so to speak), and think about the fire sale of the other tangibles (including the home library of her father’s books which perhaps were dearest to Jane). And think about Edward Austen Knight, like John Dashwood so preoccupied with preserving and enhancing his Godmersham empire, and strangely not providing his sisters and mother with a decent place to live for 4 years, waiting, it seems, for his version of “Fanny Dashwood” to die, so that he would have the spine to do the right thing.

Indeed John and Fanny are barely disguised composite caricatures of the half of the Austen family which, as JA put it so bitingly, was so determined to enrich itself at the expense of the other half. Surely, in 1811, a scant two years later, it gave JA some measure of psychic relief to be able to put this horror show on discreet public display, for the comprehension of those who knew the backstory. But, as always, with deniability, if challenged.

And the capper, which I will address in my book, is that, surprisingly, there was ALSO a contemporary fellow author who, I have determined, DID come to some of the same conclusions I just did about Chapter 33, and embedded them as an allusion in the subtext of a contemporary work of literature which sold a good deal more copies in that day than S&S—an allusion which was spotted much later, by a discerning critic, which is what brought it to my own attention yesterday, but that critic did not realize the significance of that allusion.

Cheers, ARNIE

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