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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 31, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter #9: A Famous Room of One's Own in The Northanger Letter in the Longbourn library

And here is my own take on Letter #9, written over six months after Letter #8 (one of a handful of long gaps in surviving letters in the Austen epistolary canon), from Jane to sister Cassandra, in which I see numerous additional echoes of two of Jane's novels known to have first seen the light in 1798, i.e., Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice:

I had absolutely no idea when I turned to Letter #9 a half hour ago, that I would find what I did, hiding in plain sight in a half dozen places in this perhaps most covertly literary of all of JA's surviving letters:

"It wanted five minutes of twelve when we left Sittingbourne, from whence we had a famous pair of horses, which took us to Rochester in an hour and a quarter; the postboy seemed determined to show my mother that Kentish drivers were not always tedious, and really drove as fast as Cax..."

This is strikingly reminiscent of John Thorpe and his dangerously fast driving in NA--even down to the reference to "a famous pair of horses"--"famous" being one of Thorpe's several irritating favorite college slang expressions--Thorpe is actually one of only three Austen characters to use the word "famous" (a slangy alternative to the more sedate "extraordinary", "remarkable", or to the semi-slangy "capital"). The other two "offenders" are the blustering Charles MusgrOve in Persuasion and the unctuous Tom MusgrAve in The Watsons--not really a very savory bunch! Which means that JA's usage of the word "famous" in this sentence is _satirical_--she is for an instant stepping into the mind of the macho postboy, and speaking _his_ coarse, boasting language! It shows how profoundly literary these letters already are, her fictional stories were never out of her mind, it seems to me, and kept popping up in everything she wrote in her letters, and, I would guess, also in what she spoke. And it shows also that if one listens for these other "voices" in these letters, a world of secret meaning emerges!

Of course it is well documented that JA wrote the first version of Northanger Abbey in 1798!

"We have got apartments up two pair of stairs, as we could not be otherwise accommodated with a sitting-room and bed-chambers on the same floor, which we wished to be. We have one double-bedded and one single-bedded room; in the former my mother and I are to sleep. I shall leave you to guess who is to occupy the other."

We learn later in the letter that it is Revd. Austen who does not have to share a room--and I connect JA's suggestive tone in the above comment to the following passage a few paragraphs later:

"My father is now reading the "Midnight Bell," which he has got from the library, and mother sitting by the fire..."

When I connect (i) Revd. Austen preferring that his daughter share a bedroom with his wife, rather than share it with his wife himself, to (ii) his reading a novel instead of chatting with his wife, and then I think about (iii) Mrs. Austen's famous long-standing hypochondria, I suddenly see before my eyes a more muted real-life version of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, who, it seems clear to me, are a caricature of JA's parents!

But now I got a chill as I took that train of thought a little further--if Mrs. Austen did, like her fictional doppelganger, worry about having no home when her husband died, she would have been extremely prescient, because that is precisely what happened to the Austen women when Revd. Austen died in 1805--and that was only Stage Two of their dispossession--Stage One occurred in 1801, when James and Mary Austen essentially stole all the Austen family possessions for the monetary equivalent of a song.

So I now see JA, in writing not only Chapter 2 of S&S, with Fanny Dashwood grabbing every spoon out of the hands of her step mother in law's hands, but also the Collins-Longbourn entail, as a documentation of what actually happened in her family.

And...note also that "Midnight Bell" is one of the so-called "Northanger Novels", the six "horrid" novels mentioned by Isabella Thorpe in NA--so I get the sense of Revd. Austen, the reader, approving of his writing daughter's literary efforts, in a way echoing Mr. Bennet doting on Elizabeth---and JA tipping her hat to her father's perhaps guilty pleasure in reading Gothic novels--and I wonder if Mr. Bennet did not enjoy a horrid novel or two in the privacy of _his_ library!

"My day's journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. Your watchfulness with regard to the weather on our accounts was very kind and very effectual. We had one heavy shower on leaving Sittingbourne, but afterwards the clouds cleared away, and we had a very bright /chrystal /afternoon."

And, if I am reading this passage correctly, we hear some more of JA's subtly absurdist wit--she is having a laugh ascribing, to CEA's worried following of the weather affecting her parents's and sister's travels, the "effect" of ending a rainstorm and affording the travelers beautiful and safe traveling weather! And isn't that exactly in the same vein as the absurd conversation about the rain between Catherine and Mrs. Allen, at the beginning of Chapter 11, which i reproduce in toto, because it is the perfect capper of this short Letter #9, which might better be henceforth referred to as "the Northanger Letter"!

Cheers, ARNIE


The morrow brought a very sober–looking morning, the sun making only a few efforts to appear, and Catherine augured from it everything most favourable to her wishes. A bright morning so early in the year, she allowed, would generally turn to rain, but a cloudy one foretold improvement as the day advanced. She applied to Mr. Allen for confirmation of her hopes, but Mr. Allen, not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine. She applied to Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen’s opinion was more positive. “She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the clouds would only go off, and the sun keep out.”

At about eleven o’clock, however, a few specks of small rain upon the windows caught Catherine’s watchful eye, and “Oh! dear, I do believe it will be wet,” broke from her in a most desponding tone.

“I thought how it would be,” said Mrs. Allen.

“No walk for me today,” sighed Catherine; “but perhaps it may come to nothing, or it may hold up before twelve.”

“Perhaps it may, but then, my dear, it will be so dirty.”

“Oh! That will not signify; I never mind dirt.”

“No,” replied her friend very placidly, “I know you never mind dirt.”

After a short pause, “It comes on faster and faster!” said Catherine, as she stood watching at a window.

“So it does indeed. If it keeps raining, the streets will be very wet.”

“There are four umbrellas up already. How I hate the sight of an umbrella!”

“They are disagreeable things to carry. I would much rather take a chair at any time.”

“It was such a nice–looking morning! I felt so convinced it would be dry!”

“Anybody would have thought so indeed. There will be very few people in the pump–room, if it rains all the morning. I hope Mr. Allen will put on his greatcoat when he goes, but I dare say he will not, for he had rather do anything in the world than walk out in a greatcoat; I wonder he should dislike it, it must be so comfortable.”

The rain continued — fast, though not heavy. Catherine went every five minutes to the clock, threatening on each return that, if it still kept on raining another five minutes, she would give up the matter as hopeless. The clock struck twelve, and it still rained. “You will not be able to go, my dear.”

“I do not quite despair yet. I shall not give it up till a quarter after twelve. This is just the time of day for it to clear up, and I do think it looks a little lighter. There, it is twenty minutes after twelve, and now I shall give it up entirely. Oh! That we had such weather here as they had at Udolpho, or at least in Tuscany and the south of France! — the night that poor St. Aubin died! — such beautiful weather!”

At half past twelve, when Catherine’s anxious attention to the weather was over and she could no longer claim any merit from its amendment, the sky began voluntarily to clear. A gleam of sunshine took her quite by surprise; she looked round; the clouds were parting, and she instantly returned to the window to watch over and encourage the happy appearance. Ten minutes more made it certain that a bright afternoon would succeed, and justified the opinion of Mrs. Allen, who had “always thought it would clear up.” But whether Catherine might still expect her friends, whether there had not been too much rain for Miss Tilney to venture, must yet be a question.

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