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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter #12: "My (not so) dear Sister"

Even before reading a single word of Letter 12.....

[#11 in Brabourne's 1886 edition]

....written exactly one week after Letter 11, I was struck by the oddity of the salutation: "My dear Sister".

I could not recall ever seeing JA use that salutation in writing to CEA, and some quick flipping through Le Faye confirmed that among the first 30 or so letters to CEA, that was the _only_ one with a salutation (a few of them had no salutation at all) that was _not_ "My dear Cassandra"!

Was this indicative of something important, or trivial? I needed to look no further than the first paragraph of the letter for my answer:

"I expected to have heard from you this morning, but no letter is come. I shall not take the trouble of announcing to you any more of Mary's children, if, instead of thanking me for the intelligence, you always sit down and write to James. I am sure nobody can desire your letters so much as I do, and I don't think anybody deserves them so well. Having now relieved my heart of a great deal of malevolence, I will proceed to tell you that Mary continues quite well, and my mother tolerably so. "

Wow! Is there any other passage in all of JA's letters quite like that one? My first impulse was to look for irony and mock-indignation in these words, but even I could not find enough of this to justify an interpretation that JA was "just kidding around". No, this is as close as she ever comes to being very direct in expressing angry hurt at her sister. And now that unusual salutation, which replaces the intimacy of the Christian name with the formality of the familial relationship, makes perfect sense. JA is not feeling close to CEA at this moment, and she is letting big sister know it!

And this is clearly about much more than merely epistolary priority. In ordinary circumstances, I am sure JA would not be so petty as to care about such things. However, these are extraordinary circumstances.

In Letter 11, JA has just demonstrated how hurt she is feeling at having been snubbed by her former suitor, Tom Lefroy. Surely a hurt arising out of the shattering of a dream that had lasted at least 2 1/2 years would not have dissipated only a week later, the wound would still be very fresh.

In Letter 10, written only 4 weeks earlier, we have heard about serious medical complaints of Mrs. Austen which clearly are preoccupying JA. And in Letters 10 and 11, we hear about Mary Lloyd Austen's labor, and James Austen's finding ways of not having to tend to what is surely great discomfort being experienced by his wife, and JA does not have CEA there with her to deal with either of these burdens. Why? Because CEA is at Godmersham for an extended haul to be present for sister in law Elizabeth Knight's fifth delivery in six years of "wedded bliss", helping to tend to the litter of small children who now swarm all over Godmersham.

And so is it surprising that JA should be hugely ticked off that CEA, instead of demonstrating a little female solidarity, servilely writes to _James_ and leaves JA, who is desperately missing her sister at this moment, and in need of some TLC and some company in misery, out in the epistolary cold for several days? I can think of no better illustration of the difference between CEA and JA--in crunch time, CEA was about stoic acceptance of the status quo--whereas JA was precisely the opposite. No wonder the few surviving letters from JA to Martha Lloyd (obviously a fellow feminist) are so different in tone than those to CEA. With Martha, JA could really let her hair down. But in this Letter 12, for a rare instance, JA fires a short broadside at her sister, unable to contain her pain and outrage.

JA not a feminist, Nancy? This letter is a microcosm of JA's feminist outrage at the casual sexism of the ordinary English family---the shabby treatment given to unmarried sisters as glorified unpaid servants, the cold shoulder given to impecunious young English gentlewomen in favor of the rich young Irish heiress, who will soon marry and become a baby-making machine, joining the ranks with the already married English gentlewoman who is already firmly in the clutches of permanent serial pregnancy, not to escape except by her death a decade later. It's all there! And it comes only four weeks after JA's shattering "witticism" about Mrs. Hale. This is, as Gregory Bateson put it, the pattern that connects, "il filo" as Mozart put it--the common thread--JA's feminist outrage.

And look at how JA ends the letter, clearly still very upset:

"...altogether I am tolerably tired of letter-writing, and, unless I have anything new to tell you of my mother or Mary, I shall not write again for many days; perhaps a little repose may restore my regard for a pen."

Ouch! And, what's also unusual, at the very end, no closing salutation at all, no "Affectionately, Jane", no nothing.

Le Faye rightly perceives that this requires some explanation, and, typically for Le Faye, her footnote is an attempt at cover-up, to discourage close examination and analysis:

"The complimentary close and signature may have been removed before the letter came into Lord B's possession."

Yeah, right!

No, JA is still M.A.D. at big sister, and if CEA is going to keep JA hanging waiting for letters, well, she did not have to wait long for some real consequences. As she is busy with helping care for all of Edward's little kids, she is going to get exactly the same treatment from JA that she gave, so that she will see how it feels on her own skin, and will never repeat this epistolary sin again!

And by the way, I do _strongly_ suspect JA of a pun in those last words " regard for a pen", as this letter is being written more or less contemporaneously with the first version of P&P, which contains infamous puns on that very word in not one but three separate places in the novel, so it clearly was a favorite joke of JA's at that time in her life:

"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well." "Thank you -- but I always mend my own." "How can you contrive to write so even?" He was silent.

"...Kitty and me were to spend the day there, and Mrs Forster promised to have a little dance in the evening (by the bye, Mrs Forster and me are _such_ friends!); and so she asked the two Harringtons to come, but Harriet was ill, and so Pen was forced to come by herself; and then, what do you think we did?"

"I take up my pen again to do what I have just told you I would not, but circumstances are such, that I cannot help earnestly begging you all to come here as soon as possible."


P.S.: By serendipity, Google led me to read a letter which, I think it highly probable, could very well have been present in JA's memory, as she thought about setting pen to paper in writing Letter #12:


"What can possibly have happened that keeps /as /two such strangers to each other? I expected to have heard from you when you came home; I expected afterwards. I went into the country and returned, and yet there is no letter from Mr. Boswell. No ill I hope has happened; and if ill should happen, why should it be concealed from him who loves you? Is it a tit of humour that has disposed you to try who can hold out longest without writing? If it be, you have the victory. But I am afraid of something bad; set me free from my suspicions. My thoughts are at present employed in guessing the reason of your silence: you must not expect that I should tell you any thing, if I had any thing to tell. Write, pray write to me, and let me know what is, or what has been, the cause of this long interruption."

Of course this letter was from Samuel Johnson and was one of his letters which were read by every literate person in England.

Some of you will now say, there Arnie goes again, finding literary allusions where none is actually intended. Well, I can only tell you that when I checked to see where exactly it was in JA's letters that she referred to Samuel Johnson, would you believe that it was in.....Letter 12 itself!:

"We have got Boswell's "Tour to the Hebrides", and are to have his "Life of Johnson"; and, as some money will yet remain in Burdon's hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper's works."

Even though Revd. Austen and Jane do not yet have Boswell's Life of Johnson in hand, there is no doubt that JA, at 23, has already read it, and now is to have a precious copy of it in the Steventon home library, for ready reference.

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