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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, February 25, 2011

Letter #12 REDUX: Jane Austen's Johnsonian Malevolence

"For all the pleasantries in between, she's jealous (she should come first with Cassandra), she's annoyed, she's hurt. And she wants to end on that note. She wants Cassandra to know....I have to say, I was a bit shocked at that opening to paragraph 2: "Having now relieved my heart of a great deal of malevolence ..." It made me go back and reread the first paragraph in a new light, to really feel her anger. Again, though I think she is making an attempt here to distance herself from herself (discussing her heart in a detached way rather saying "myself"), she's not successful ... the hurt comes through. Cassandra's letters matter. It stings JA, who puts effort into writing amusingly to her sister (and of course is her bf), doesn't get the prompt response she expects: nobody "deserves" the letters as much as JA. "

But even as JA's heart pours out anger and pain, Diane, note how her mind, ever detached and scanning for resonance, notes the parallel of her own experience to that of Johnson's strikingly similar letter to Boswell, which I described in my opening salvo on Letter XII, linked below---or perhaps she had just read that very letter in Boswell and it has kindled her own anger and inspired her to write her own version of it, rather than to keep stuffing her resentment down:

"We see too that books are important and that, as others have pointed out, JA and her father have a warm relationship over books and reading. "

JA not only specifically mentions Boswell's book later in the letter, as a perhaps long overdue addition to the Steventon rectory library, i see in JA's striking use of the unusual word "malevolence" a veiled allusion to Rambler 159, in which Samuel Johnson addressed the very indecision which plagues Hamlet:

"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?"

In Johnson's essay, linked below, he discusses the pros and cons of keeping one's mouth shut vs. speaking out strongly and in anger against the wrong being done to oneself:

Johnson goes through a sophisticated bit of argumentation, and I strongly suspect JA of having found that essay by Johnson particularly salient to her own situation during the days prior to her writing Letter 12--maybe perhaps because Cassandra has quoted chapter and verse from Dr. Johnson, in an effort to induce her big-mouthed little sister to zip it up.

Here is the core passage of Johnson's essay, but I recommend reading the fully essay, which is really not very long, for full context:

"It is perhaps kindly provided by nature, that, as the feathers and strength of a bird grow together, and her wings are not completed till she is able to fly, so some proportion should be preserved in the human kind between judgment and courage; the precipitation of inexperience is therefore restrained by shame, and we remain shackled by timidity, till we have learned to speak and act with propriety. I believe few can review the days of their youth, without recollecting temptations, which shame, rather than virtue, enabled them to resist; and opinions which, however erroneous in their principles,and dangerous in their consequences, they have panted to advance at the hazard of contempt and hatred, when they found themselves irresistibly depressed by a languid anxiety, which seized them at the moment of utterance, and still gathered strength from their endeavours to resist it. It generally happens that assurance keeps an even pace with ability, and the fear of miscarriage, which hinders our first attempts, is gradually dissipated as our skill advances towards certainty of success. That bashfulness therefore which prevents disgrace, that short and temporary shame, which secures us from the danger of lasting reproach, cannot be properly counted among our misfortunes. Bashfulness, however it may incommode for a moment, scarcely ever produces evils of long continuance; it may flush the cheek, flutter in the heart, deject the eyes, and enchain the tongue, but its mischiefs soon pass off without remembrance. It may sometimes exclude pleasure, but seldom opens any avenue to sorrow or remorse. It is observed somewhere, that /few have repented of having forborne to speak. /

To excite opposition, and _inflame malevolence_, is the unhappy privilege of courage made arrogant by consciousness of strength. No man finds in himself any inclination to attack or oppose him who confesses his superiority by blushing in his presence. Qualities exerted with apparent fearfulness, receive applause from every voice, and support from every hand. Diffidence may check resolution and obstruct performance, but compensates its embarrassments by more important advantages; it//conciliatesthe proud, and softens the severe, averts envy from excellence, and censure from miscarriage.It may indeed happen that knowledge and virtue remain too long congealed by this frigorific power, as the principles of vegetation are sometimes obstructed by lingering frosts. He that enters late into a public station, though with all the abilities requisite to the discharge of his duty, will find his powers at first impeded by a timidity which he himself knows to be vicious, and must struggle long against dejection and reluctance, before he obtains the full command of his own attention, and adds the gracefulness of ease to the dignity of merit. For this disease of the mind I know not whether any remedies of much efficacy can be found."

I think that JA feels no shame or bashfulness about venting her spleen at Cassandra, she's definitely not in the mood to blushingly defer, and she does not feel that she is being arrogant. Above all, she is pointedly _not_ concerned whether her strong words might excite opposition or inflame malevolence in CEA or anyone else reading Letter 12, and I think that is why JA tosses the word "malevolence" into the mix, to show that she feels righteous anger and is not backing down one inch from it. She has guts.

"I agree that the letters we've been reading lately reveal the humiliations JA has undergone. I do think the women who defied convention and went off and did their own thing must have been the exception, and perhaps in situations much more dire than must have been hard not to have been able to 'make it' in the one career path open to women, marriage, and worse, not to be able to tell people what she truly thought. She had to suck up a lot. The writing, as we see in this letter, be it letters or novels, is a lifeline for her."

And, as I suggest above, a catharsis, a necessary venting of malevolence, so that JA can feel cleansed and ready to move on to face life as it was.

Cheers, ARNIE

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