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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Novelist's Progress

When Ellen Moody, Elissa Schiff, Diane Reynolds, and I ALL agree on something, we may be encountering another one of those formidable alliances which Diana Birchall playfully alluded to last week--and it is for sure that E, E, D & I all agree that there is nothing frivolous or light-heartedly funny about the way Jane Austen is talking in Letter #7.

Elissa: "I think this letter [#7] is - unlike the others - very revelatory. It certainly does give us the frustration - almost panic - of a woman trapped, with no place to actually *be.* Without personal funds or "friends" to provide for her, JA is essentially in a state of potential freefall. In her fiction, she may well have a kindly and reasonable Mr. Knightley come to the rescue of a vulnerable woman such as Miss Bates, but in the real world - her own life - Jane Austen herself must have felt the terror of this potential freefall very much indeed. I am loathe to bring up the naughty novel of Fanny Hill, but Austen herself in this very letter refers to a parallel situation of being approached by a female procurer if she is abandoned by family and left penniless away from home. Why should she even think of such a possibility? Whether justified or not, there is real fear being expressed here. And it is a great wonder that this letter, with its allusion to "the fat woman with small beer" escaped Cassandra's great purge."

Bravo as to all of the above, Elissa, exactly what I was thinking in every way.

"I don't see it, Arnie. I think that the young woman who sat down to write Lady Susan was writing in the same spirit as "My Elizabeth was so light, bright, and sparkling, I think I will try a perfectly opposite character now - one with no sparkle, but sterling worth." I think JA had read Les Liaisons Dangereuses and heard Eliza de Feuillide's rattle, and had a number of other (unknown by us) assorted exposures to the worldly world."

WIth all due respect, Diana--and you are due a considerable amount!---I continue to totally disagree with the notion that JA wrote Lady Susan around this time as a kind of exercise of her literary muscles, a detached fascination with dark characters--quite the contrary--for me, the black clouds of Lady Susan hover just over the horizon of this letter, casting shadows in every direction. People who joke a lot about dark things, like beheadings, and falling under the influence of madams, and women lain in at 47, and wives scared to death by seeing their husbands, and the like, are not expressing happy emotions--just look at Mary Crawford--she is exhibiting the classic symptoms of a victim of abuse-a rat-a-tat of suggestive, dark innuendoes. I believe Mary Crawford is as much Jane Austen as she is Eliza de Feuillide (and perhaps also Phila Hancock).

And I believe that if she could have, Lady Susan--that female rake!---would have set her daughter loose in London precisely so that her daughter would "progress" as depicted by Hogarth--just for her own brand of twisted fun!

"for if the Pearsons were not at home, I should inevitably fall a Sacrifice to the arts of some fat Woman who would make me drunk with Small Beer.-"

A number of commentators--strange bedfellows beginning with Le Faye and Tucker in 1995, and also Susannah Fullerton in 2003, have opined that the above is an unmistakable allusion to Scene 1 of Hogarth's 6-scene print series "A Harlot's Progress", an image of which can be found here:

Here is Fullerton's take on the sort of scene JA painted in her letter, vis a vis Bath:

"Bath was almost as licentious. There, Walcot Street, Avon Street and the Holloway district were notorious for prostitution. Many young girls came from the country to Bath, in search of excitement and employment. Once they discovered that jobs were not always so easy to come by, they were easy prey to the ‘fat women’ who ran brothels. Only those resident in the city for five years were eligible for Poor Law relief from the parish, and so these girls were forced into prostitution to survive. They plied their trade in the places of public amusement – the theatre, outside the Assembly Rooms, and in the vicinity of local inns. Once a customer had been found, he could be taken to any number of local houses where, for the cost of about one shilling, he could buy her services."

Fortunately, JA avoided "coming on the town" (as, I speculate, her aunt was _not_ successful in avoiding as a vulnerable girl) and instead channeled all her feminist outrage into her writing, making sure that she told the story of, and defended, these trapped young women and girls, covertly, in her novels.

Cheers, ARNIE

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