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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 28, 2011

Letter 13: "Tender"-hearted speculation

After that uncharacteristic outburst of undisguised anger in Letter 12, Jane Austen is back in full ironic, sarcastic, punning mode in Letter 13. It would require the contortions of a Houdini to sanitize and normalize, by reading literally, the endless parade of sarcasms, puns, and absurdisms which fill this letter.

First here we have Le Faye _again_ speculating that there is a letter (later destroyed or missing) written by JA during the 7 days between Letters 12 and 13, and, also as previously, the only apparent reason for her speculation is that JA leads with "I am so good as to write to you again thus speedily".

Reading JA’s words literally and assuming a missing letter is much more palatable to Le Faye than reading the beginning of Letter 13 in the context of the anger which both began and ended Letter 12, anger which was all about (what else?) CEA keeping JA waiting for a letter!

I have tipped my hand that I believe that JA’s lead sentence to be ironic, and that JA has actually followed through on her threat to delay writing again "for many days"—actually an entire week---and perhaps might not have written even then if not for having actually heard from Frank for the first time in months, news which it would have been much more wrong to delay sending along to CEA than CEA’s wrongful delay in writing to JA.

But if JA has to end CEA’s punishment prematurely, she will get in a final dig nonetheless about the relative importance of letters to & from sons vs. letters to& from daughters. JA writes:

“Frank writes in good spirits, but says that our correspondence cannot be so easily carried on in future as it has been, as the communication between Cadiz and Lisbon is less frequent than formerly. You and my mother, therefore, must not alarm yourselves at the long intervals that may divide his letters. I address this advice to you two as being the most tender-hearted of the family.”

Incredibly, Chapman twists himself in a double pretzel to invent a typo of "brother" for "mother" in order to make JA's barb about CEA and Mrs. Austen as "the most tender heartedof the family" not sound like the barb that it is. The word “tender-hearted” already drips with irony, but that irony is doubled when we realize that JA also intends a pun on the word “tender”, one which JA knew well from Shakespeare’s frequent deployment of same, most famously in the words of Polonius to Ophelia:

“Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his _tenders_, as you call them?...Marry, I'll teach you: think yourself a baby; That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly; Or--not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, Running it thus--you'll tender me a fool.”

This punning on “tender” as referring both to emotional warmth and to legal tender, i.e., money, is a pun that JA herself was to revisit a decade later in her poem about playing Brag at Godmersham, which ends with:

Such is the mild ejaculation
Of tender-hearted speculation.

How remarkably strong has been the pressure to conceal the dark side of JA from the world that Chapman would conjure up such a ludicrous suggestion of a typo, but it must have seemed necessary to his post-Victorian sensibility in order to short-circuit that chain of logical inferences that would lead to JA writing something quite sharp-edged about her sister and mother.

And for those who doubt JA was being sarcastic about her mother (and CEA) in that sentence, we need only look to the next sentence for the punch line, where JA takes the veil off and is openly mocking of her mother’s making "her entree into the dressing room through crowds of admiring spectators" following by the first drinking of tea together in 5 weeks.

Is it possible _not_ to be reminded of Mr. Bennet's satire on Mrs. Bennet?:

""This is a parade," cried he, "which does one good; it gives such an _elegance_ to misfortune! Another day I will do the same; I will sit in my library, in my night cap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can, -- or, perhaps, I may defer it till Kitty runs away."

Le Faye's fn referring us to The Family Record gave momentary hope of some further explanation of that sarcasm, but alas, all it led us to is a quotation from the mysterious Lefroy MS—the very one that is being kept from the Janeite world for reasons unknown---in which Anna Austen describes the Dressing Room "as they were pleased to call it" –a name perhaps given to that room by JA because it was where Mrs. Austen “played” Mrs. Bennet nightly for all those "admiring spectators", meaning JA and whoever else was around for the show!

The sarcasm continues apace with Mrs. Austen who "bids fair for a continuance in the same brilliant course of action", and here is precisely where CEA deletes the details of JA's skewering of her mother!

But of course Le Faye makes no effort to connect these dots, even though the deletion from the letter is not total, as we see when JA picks up the same thread again, with “Mr. Lyford…..partook of our elegant entertainment”, that word “elegant”being echoed in the above scene in P&P.

And then we hear that Mr. Lyford “wants my mother to look yellow and to throw out a rash, but she will do neither.”

There is a tragic irony in JA making fun of her mother’s medical complaints---JA could not imagine that less than 20 years later this Mr. Lyford’s nephew, also a Mr. Lyford, would be the physician attending JA herself in _her_ final illness, while her mother would still have another 12 years to play her earthly role.

I conclude my comments on Letter 13 by pointing to another set of absurdisms which JA tosses into the mix, apparently just for the sheer wicked delight of it:

“Who is Miss Maria Montresor going to marry, and what is to become of Miss Mulcaster?”, then some factual details, and then the capper:

“There is no reason to suppose that Miss Morgan is dead after all.”

Is it just a coincidence that these three young women whose initials are all “MM”’s are mentioned in this very peculiar way? Carol Houlihan Flynn, in her chapter entitled "The letters" in the new edition of the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, has a marvelously apt comment onthat last whopper:

"Samuel Beckett could have written such a line. Or Swift. Or closer to home, Austen's own parasyntactic, always obliging Miss Bates, who sees and reports every thing."

Indeed, Flynn is spot on, this is Theater of the Absurd more a century _before_ its official invention, just one more reason why Tom Orton loved Jane Austen’s writing. Only Le Faye can with a straight face provide a Biographical Index entry for “Miss Morgan” as if she were a real and seriously ill young woman, whose continuing existence on earth JA and CEA would so casually bandy about as if discussing the score at a cricket match.

If these comments were to be read literally, that would indeed be the furthest thing from “tender-hearted”!

Cheers, ARNIE

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