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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 7, 2011

James Austen's Epitaph for the Loiterer

In Janeites, Cathy Janofsky recently displayed some serious classical erudition in a discussion of a Latin quotation in an issue of the Loiterer, the literary magazine that Jane Austen's elder brothers, James and Henry, published for a year and some months in 1789-90 while they were attending Oxford.

I responded to Cathy thusly:

Cathy, the Latin quotation in the Loiterer that Litz repeated in his article was written by James Austen—most definitely _not_ by Jane Austen--in the 1790 final issue #60 of the Loiterer, and that context is crucial. That final issue is James’s “epitaph” for the Loiterer-- and how revealing of his state of mind as he wrote it. Here is the passage from issue #60 where James quotes from the Aeneid (in shorthand, as you noted):

“…the older and graver part of our Readers may be as ready to accuse us of being too reserved in the execution of our office, and of having contented ourselves with merely raising a laugh at the errors of Youth and Inexperience… will be a sufficient apology to confesses fairly, that we have ever thought the inculcating the weighty and more important duties of Life, an undertaking infinitely above the abilities of the Writer, and perhaps beyond the extent of the Work. Non tali auxilio, nec defensoribus istis. The direct enforcement of Virtue and Learning, is perhaps beyond the sphere of a Periodical Work which is more promisingly employed, when eventually promoting them through the exposure of folly and error, and the recommendation of those inferior Virtues, which, though not of the greatest value, are of more frequent currency in Society.” END QUOTE

In my opinion, this is a lame and pretentious association for James to make. In the Aeneid, the Trojan Queen Hecuba is trying to persuade hubby King Priam not to challenge the rampaging Greeks with his sword, because this will just draw the attention of the attackers, and get the entire royal family killed. James seems to be suggesting a strange analogy between Pyrrhus in this gory scene (which of course Hamlet and the Player King famously deal with as well) and James himself as the attacker of wrong doing amongst Oxford students via the Loiterer, i.e., James argues that the gentle, merciful satire of the Loiterer is an appropriate “weapon” to wield against the foibles of the young, rather than the savage overkill of harsh criticism that these imagined older critics of the Loiterer would rather have seen.

Part of what makes this allusion so lame is that James’s satirical “sword” in the Loiterer has such a _dull_ edge-that is part of what makes the satire of the Sophia Sentiment and Luke Lickspittle letters stand out in such vivid contrast, and how we can know they must have been written by Jane Austen, who (as Nokes so brilliantly observed) at 14 already wielded a razor sharp sword that her elder brothers could never aspire to themselves. That was James’s problem as a satirist, and why the Loiterer attracted so few subscribers, and had to be discontinued after only a year+, not that he was deliberately being gentle on those he was satirizing.

A perfect illustration is the Loiterer issue which contains letters from two other alliterative correspondents, Benjamin Bluster and Margaret Mitten, which was mentioned earlier. I just read them and, in my opinion, they were _not_ written by Jane Austen—they are far too verbose, too heavy handed, too lame—I see them as the 24 year old James Austen attempting to emulate his 14 year old sister’s brilliant success with Sophia Sentiment and Luke Lickspittle—the alliterative names are a nod in her direction---but falling flat on his literary face in doing so.

And the tone of that final issue of the Loiterer reminds me of Richard Nixon bidding farewell to the White House in 1974—James Austen trying to mask his self-pity, but not succeeding very well, as he tries to sustain a witty, ironic tone, but he clearly cannot sustain it, falling into elaborate veiled apologies for his lack of success at the writing career he so clearly would have wished to follow instead of being a country curate kissing the butt of rich hunting friends to curry their favor--which, as I have previously claimed, is exactly the portrait of the future James Austen that is painted in the Luke Lickspittle letter by a 14-year genius who happens to be his sister.

By the way, Cathy, speaking of Shakespeare, that is also a brilliant catch on your part, in noting the veiled allusion by Shakespeare in Coriolanus to that very same passage in the Aeneid. But why do you think that the Loiterer quotation (by James Austen) was also pointing to Coriolanus? I see no indication in that passage from the Loiterer that James was also thinking about Act 1, Scene 1 of Coriolanus, when Menenius, powerful friend of Coriolanus, tries to talk the armed mob of poor men that it’s not the rich, greedy patricians who are responsible for their starvation, but the gods. What am I missing?

Cheers, ARNIE

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