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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Henry Austen's Biographical Notice: Parody, Burlesque, Homage, or all of the above?

[Anielka] "Here's the next phase of my argument. No-one will much like it but myself, as Jane would say.....Now, somebody else is eulogised as a saint by their brother. And the reason that this is funny is because everyone knows, or knew when this was published, that St. Swithin (much against his wishes) is buried in St. Swithin's Cathedral and that on St. Swithin's day (subject of JA's other big poem and near her own death) it will rain for 40 days as a curse."

Last July, I wrote two posts at my blog about JA's St. Swithin's poem as a final veiled expression of her complex, satirical thoughts at the imminent prospect of her being interred in Winchester Cathedral, and of the whitewash of her character that Henry was about to initiate before she was cold in the grave:

As I mentioned in there, JA's poem is itself a burlesque of James Austen's (lame) poetic eulogy to her. And there's much more going on as well, these really are JA's final words to the world.

"So NOW if you agree with my proposition that Jane is parodying Egerton Brydges eulogy of his sister, what will you say to my proposition that Henry Austen repeats this parody in his eulogy to Jane Austen at the beginning of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion?"

I think it's much more complicated with Henry, in my opinion, he was the only one of her brothers who was to some extent in on JA's satire--and he had been the husband of Eliza (represented in MP by Mary Crawford) and so he was definitely one part Henry Crawford. And the "Hancock" charade I have decoded was attributed to _him_--although I think JA herself wrote it, the attribution to him suggests his complicity in his little sister's wicked wordplay.

He knew very well that he was writing total B.S. about Jane, most of all the part about her never writing about real people. But was he simply a crass opportunist and huckster, shrewdly (and perhaps accurately) judging that the way to get NA and Persuasion published in a hurry was to start a marketing campaign based on "St. Jane"? Or did he feel he was in a perverse way honoring Jane's long history of satire and burlesque, by writing nonsense about her that they would both laugh about together if she were still alive? He is, like Henry Crawford, very hard to pin down, and I think that JA knew her brother very well indeed to paint such a perverse literary portrait of him (which makes his well-known comments about the suspense of the romance plot in MP all the more interesting).

And Henry Austen is also one of the sources for Frank Churchill, hence the following:

"It was a child's play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill's part."

Which leads right into....

[Anielka] ".....the hand which guided that pen is now mouldering in the grave"? Are you serious, Henry? This would be your sister's own real hand, the image of the decay of which you are deliberately conjuring up......?"

The word "mouldering" was one that JA knew well, and used cleverly, from a young age, and, given Janine Barchas's brilliant presentation at the JASNA AGM last November, _very_ appropriate both to the interment of JA in a famous cathedral, _and_ to the publication of Northanger Abbey!

That is all a million miles away from the parodic skewerings of Brydges, Clarke, et al by JA herself--Henry, paradoxically, is simultaneously ripping JA off, and honoring her, at the same time! And I suspect that had she been looking down as her spirit flew away, she'd have shared a final laugh with Henry to contemplate the perverse absurdity of it all!

Cheers, ARNIE

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