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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Breeching and Thwarting and Up a Tree in Letter 5

The following is the first of three posts I wrote yesterday and early today in Janeites and Austen L in reaction to various excerpts from Jane Austen's Letter #5 dated September 1796. These three posts are illustrative of the nuances and depths that are there to be plumbed in the surviving letters of Jane Austen, which can greatly enrich our understanding not merely of her personality and life history, but also of her fiction itself.

[Ellen Moody]: "She also feels for little Edward: "breeched yesterday for good & all, and was whipped into the bargain." In this line she doesn't like the humiliating rituals people subject one another too, and he was whipped on top of it"

[Nancy Mayer]: "Never heard that breeching was humiliating for the boy. On the contrary, it was usually a moment of pride for the boy for it marked the time he was taken out of gowns and put into breeches. No doubt the boy misbehaved sometime during the day. Kids do get over excited and misbehave....If little Edward was only 2 he was rather young to be put into breeches. The problem is that the boys who had been wearing dresses had to learn how to deal with buttons in order to use the chamber pot. Today, children of two are often still in diapers or at least in those special underpants which take into consideration that toddlers often cannot read their own bodies."

Ladies, I believe neither of you has noticed the pun that JA (the inveterate punster) was playing with here--the verb "breeching" had two meanings in those days, as per the following page from a 1795 dictionary I just found in Google Books:

"Breeched: Put into breeches, furnished with a breech, _whipped_"

It is impossible to say for sure what really happened to toddler Edward, but I doubt he was potty trained and then whipped in short order. I think this is part and parcel with the Clarinbould jab at Edward _qua_ John Dashwood, and the complaints about being stuck at Rowling. In general, JA is chafing at the bit to get out of Dodge, so to speak, and she is venting a little steam with jabs of this kind. So, in a way, she is projecting her _own_ sense of powerless humiliation onto little Edward, with a verbal image that is the exact reverse of having your cake and eating it too--here what she writes is the equivalent of "having _no_ cake, and forced to eat sand into the bargain." I.e., JA is being treated like a disobedient, barely toilet-trained toddler!

And in that same vein, I would like to add a connection of dots I made yesterday. I had been really struck by JA's focus on Burney's _Camilla_ during the writing of these Rowling letters, especially given the two explicit allusions to _Camilla_ in _Northanger Abbey_, which, as _Susan_, was written by 1798. And the aspect of _Camilla_ which seems to have been of particular interest to JA was the idea of being trapped or thwarted, as apparently is what happens to Camilla a lot in that novel, and is exactly what John Thorpe does to Catherine when he will not let her get out of his fast-moving carriage--being literally stuck up a tree as a result of a practical joke by a foolish brother--hmmm...that really does sound like JA being trapped at Rowling.

And the allusion to Dr. Marchmont in Letter 5 is, as JA makes explicit, about meddling interference in young love, separating a young woman from the young man she loves. In that regard, Ellen, I think you have it backwards--it is Mary Harrison whom JA casts as a real life Camilla, _not_ Mary Lloyd!

But regardless of which Mary is the real-life Camilla, it should be leaping out at every Janeite by this point that Dr. Marchmont, the older well-intentioned meddling mentor, who causes Edgar Mandlebert to wait five _long_ volumes to finally come around to marrying Camilla, is a cross-gender model for Lady Russell causing Anne Elliot to wait seven (or is it eight?) long years to marry Wentworth!

Which makes me ask, did Jon Spence take note of this little tidbit in his book advocating for JA carrying a torch for Tom Lefroy? I don't recall.

But I do recall that these Rowling letters are being written less than eight months after "the Steventon firtations", and right after the (possible) encounter at Cork Street. So I claim it is very plausible to imagine that JA has been more or less told that she must go to Rowling, and then--what a surprise--she finds that she, like Sterne's starling, is trapped and can't get out!

A generation later, this is exactly what was done to the teenaged Anna Austen after she got involved in a relationship deemed undesirable by her parents with an older man named Dummer--she was sent to "Siberia" for a while, right?

At least it's a plausible possibility.

And what adds force to that notion is that JA apparently was _very_ focused on the character of Dr. Marchmont in 1796. That is what I discovered last night by a little digging and connecting of previously unconnected dots----John Wiltshire, in his _Recreating Jane Austen_, notes that JA, in her own personal copy of _Camilla_ (which is at the Bodleian), wrote something very interesting in the back of it:

"‘Since this work went to the press, a circumstance of some assistance to the happiness of Camilla has taken place, namely that _Dr. Marchmont has since died_”


When you put that comment together with the comment on Marchmont at the end of Letter 5, probably written more or less contemporaneously (I suspect that JA had some time on her hands at Rowling and had her copy of _Camilla_ with her, fresh off the presses in 1796), we hear a great deal of anger, as the happiness of _Jane_ seems to require "some assistance", but it is not forthcoming! In her head, JA administers the death penalty to Dr. Marchmont to solve the problem. But that is just fantasy. In real life, she has no power at all, and she is stuck, up a tree, at Rowling---period.


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