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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Importance of Being Discreet about Cucumbers and Settlements

After writing my birthday tribute to Jane Austen earlier today, I remembered to follow up and figure out why JA wrote the following passage in Letter 146 to her nephew JEAL as she did, with part of it in quotes:

“Tell your Father [i.e., James Austen], with Aunt Cass's Love & mine, that the Pickled Cucumbers are extremely good, & tell him also--'tell him what you will”--No, don't tell him what you will.....”

Given the literary wordplay that the Austens all engaged in, it sounded like a coded message, one that brother James would recognize instantly, even though his less literate and much younger messenger, JEAL, probably would not be able to decipher on his own.

And sure enough, Google quickly led me to the passage which JA had surely alluded to, in a letter written by Lovelace to his friend Belford at the critical moment in Samuel Richardson's _Clarissa_, when Clarissa is insisting that Lovelace tell Uncle Harlowe the truth about her still not being Lovelace's wife, even if it blows all his carefully made plans sky high, and also results, ultimately, in Clarissa's own death:

"I was going on; when, interrupting me, You see, Mr Lovelace, said [Clarissa], how you have embarrassed yourself by your obliquities! You see that you have not been able to return a direct answer to a plain and honest question, though upon it depends all the happiness on the prospect of which you congratulate me!

You know, my best love, what my prudent, and, I will say, my kind motives were for giving out that we were married. You see that I have taken no advantage of it, and that no inconvenience has followed it. You see that your uncle wants only to be assured from ourselves that it is so---

Not another word on this subject, Mr Lovelace. I will not only risk, but I will forfeit, the reconciliation so near my heart, rather than I will go on to countenance a story so untrue.

My dearest soul! would you have me appear—

I would have you appear, sir, as you are. I am resolved that I will appear to my uncle's friend, and to my uncle, as I am.

For one week, my dearest life ! Cannot you for one week—only till the settlements--

Not for one hour, with my own consent.— You don't know, sir, how much I have been afflicted that I have appeared to the people below what I am not. But my uncle, sir, shall never have it to upbraid me, nor will I to upbraid myself, that I have wilfully passed upon him in false lights.

What, my dear, would you have me to say to the captain to-morrow morning? I have given him room to think---

Then put him right, Mr Lovelace. Tell the truth. Tell him what you please of the favour of your relations to me—_tell him what you will_ about the settlements; and if, when drawn, you will submit them to his perusal and approbation, it will shew him _how much you are in earnest._

[etc etc]

What additional private meaning this allusion may have been intended to signify to James Austen is not clear, but I speculate that it might be a veiled allusion to the "settlements" of Uncle Leigh Perrot's estate on James's side of the family. Perhaps Jane is telling James that she, like Clarissa, demands honesty, instead of casuistry, regarding that unjust disposition of assets, but also would rather die than beg for financial help to the Austen women?

In any event, besides that, I also wonder whether Oscar Wilde, who was himself a literary scholar as well as a writer of fiction, read Letter 146, recognized the veiled allusion to _Clarissa_, and also the sexual innuendo in that "pickled cucumber" wisecrack, and then paid a great homage to Jane Austen's wit with the title of his most famous play, and also with those cucumber sandwiches which are a wicked leitmotif in the play. Wilde, like Austen, knew the importance of being discreet about cucumbers and legal settlements.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: There is one other allusion in "tell him what you will"--stand by for my next blog post on that very topic:

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