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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jane Austen's veiled satire in Letter 5 to her sister dated Sept. 5, 1796

Christy Somer just posted about Letter 5 dated 9/5/96 in Janeites and Austen L, and here are my comments on that letter:

As usual, there are lots of ironies, including two from the first two sentences:

“I shall be extremely anxious to hear the Event of your Ball, & shall hope to receive so long & minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it. Let me know how many besides their fourteen Selves & Mr & Mrs Wright, Michael will contrive to place about their Coach, and how many of the Gentlemen, Musicians & Waiters, he will have persuaded to come in their Shooting Jackets.”

I wonder sometimes whether the young adult JA was capable of writing a sentence in a letter to her sister that did _not_ contain some mock or absurdist hyperbole! The reference to shooting jackets reminds me of thefamous comments about Tom Lefroy’s white coat in Letters 1 and 2, and are strong evidence, I claim, that JA was horsing around in those earlier references to male attire, just as much as in this Letter 5.

Then JA segues to a comment which may or may not be kidding:

“I hope John Lovett's accident will not prevent his attending the Ball, as you will otherwise be obliged to dance with Mr. Tincton the whole Evening.”

I wonder if Mr. Tincton actually existed, as Le Faye draws a complete blank on him, and we know that JA was capable of referring to entirely fictitious characters in her letters. If he did exist, then it sounds as if he was a kind of Mr. Collins.

But I am pretty sure the following comment is not a joke at all, despite its frivolous sounding tone:

“…which of the Marys will carry the day with my Brother James.”

Was there a competition among local single women for the hand in marriage of the recently (18 months earlier) widowed James Austen? Of course this question was of even more special interest to JA and CEA than normal, because they and their mother had been taking care of four year old Anna Austen ever since the death of James’s first wife. So James remarrying would have enormous consequences for Jane and Cassandra.

As Christy indicates, Le Faye cites Chapman to claim that there were two Marys, of course Mary Lloyd (who would in fact marry James Austen within only 4 months after Letter 5) and one Mary Harrison, who, according to Le Faye’s Bio Index, was the daughter of the vicar of Croydon, and sister of the vicar of Overton. Mary Harrison did not let the grass grow under her feet after James married Mary Lloyd, she married in September 1797, and JA makes some joking comments in Letter 28 four years later about Mary Harrison’s being pregnant.

But back to Letter 5:

“We were at a Ball on Saturday I assure you. We dined at Goodnestone & in the Evening danced two Country Dances and the Boulangeries…..and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries”

That may sound quite innocent, but Le Faye’s footnote suggests otherwise. She cites Tomalin for the notion that “the name of the dance [actually the Boulangeres] originates in the mildly improper French popular song _La Boulangere a des ecus” . I just checked online and found the following link for the lyrics of that song:

As Le Faye drily puts it, “the baker’s wife acquired her money by means less creditable than the sale of bread.”

I find that very intriguing in light of a similar sexual pun deployed by Shakespeare in _Hamlet_ vis a vis Ophelia’s singing a ribald song about the baker’s _daughter_, a pun that my research suggests to me was on JA’s mind when she was writing about the baking of apples in _Emma_.

It is also intriguing to me because of what JA writes immediately after these references to the dancing of the Boulangeres:

“On reading over the last three or four Lines, I am aware of my having expressed myself in so doubtful a manner that if I did not tell you to the contrary, You might imagine it was Lady Bridges who made Henry dance with her, at the same time that she was playing-which if not impossible must appear a very improbable Event to you.-But it was Eliz: who danced-.”

We all know that dance is a metaphor that JA deployed extensively in her novels for courtship and marriage, and, I would suggest, she also deployed it for courtship’s most intimate physical expression, i.e., sex. So while superficially JA writes of being “doubtful” (i.e., ambiguous) in regard to who danced with whom, I claim JA was being slily, highly and absurdly improper in suggesting a more intimate “dance” being demanded by Lady Bridges from Henry Austen. Much in the same vein as the risqué humor I attributed to JA last week vis a vis another older woman, Mrs. Knight.

Then we have a few trivial paragraphs, following by another noteworthy satirical passage:

“Farmer Clarinbould died this morning, & I fancy Edward means to get some of his Farm if he can cheat Sir Brook enough in the agrement.”

Christy notes the jibe at Edward, but it is important to note also that this is the first of nearly _twenty_ passages scattered through all of JA’s letters, in which she takes a direct potshot at brother Edward Austen Knight, usually depicting him as a kind of John Dashwood or General Tilney.

And I think JA not-so-subtly reinforces the notion of a certain economic rapacity in her brother-turned-country squire toward a poor neighbor with the following seemingly unrelated comment, which is actually, I claim, very much related:

“We have just got some venison from Godmersham, which the two Mr. Harveys are to _devour_ to-morrow; and on friday or Saturday the Goodnestone people are to finish their _Scraps._”

Indeed, rural England in that era of rapid enclosure did seem like a kind of jungle, in which the King of Beasts took the lion’s share, and left the scraps to the poor scavengers scurrying around in his wake.

And next we have the following passage which must leap off the page to the eye of every serious Janeite:

“Mr. Richard Harvey is going to be married; but as it is a great secret, & only known to half the Neighbourhood, you must not mention it. The Lady's name is Musgrove.-I am in great Distress. “

In this letter written 20 years before JA wrote _Persuasion_, isn’t it interesting that we have a man named Richard planning to marry a woman named Musgrove? The end of this little vignette occurs in Letter 6, so stay tuned!;)

And finally, JA finishes this short letter with a flurry of jokes and ironies:

“I cannot determine whether I shall give Richis half a guinea or only five Shillings when I go away. Counsel me, amiable Miss Austen, and tell me which will be the most.”

Is JA seriously asking CEA for advice on how much to tip a servant? Wikipedia tells me that a guinea was supposed to be worth 20 shillings, so that is a pretty wide range, like asking whether to tip a restaurant waiter today 5% or 20%. I think she is just horsing around, and knows exactly how much to tip.

“Little Edward was breeched yesterday for good & all, and was whipped, into the Bargain.”

It is impossible to know whether JA is making this up or not, but my guess is that JA _was_ responding to some sort of severe punishment that was administered in her presence to the 27 month old Edward Austen, which JA found upsetting.

And then we have this magnificent little Zen double-koan:

“Pray remember me to Everybody who does not enquire after me. Those who do, remember me without bidding.... “

This is sophisticated humor riffing on Greek philosophical paradox, especially the second sentence.

And then she concludes with the following return to yet another explicit allusion to Burney’s _Camilla_, which really must have been a hot topic for the Austen sisters at that moment in time.

“Give my Love to Mary Harrison, & tell her I wish whenever she is attached to a young Man, some respectable Dr. Marchmont may keep them apart for five Volumes.”

Behind the literary joke, it does sound as though this is a direct allusion back to the earlier comment about James Austen picking a Mary to marry (ha ha), and that it is a suggestion that perhaps someone wishing to promote Mary Lloyd’s case with James in some way did throw a monkey wrench or two in the gears of Mary Harrison’s campaign to land James as a husband.

Cheers, ARNIE

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