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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Letter 14 Miscellany

Some further miscellaneous comments on Jane Austen's Letter 14 written when she was 23:

"Charles begins to feel the Dignity of Ill Usage" --- I detect in this comment JA's in effect saying about Charles: "Welcome to the club!" I.e., this is the sort of INdignity, of having to constantly beg for favors, which unmarried sisters have to endure every day of their lives, such as CEA having to beg for a ride home to Steventon after being trapped interminably at Godmersham! Perhaps Charles, in his kind but clueless way, has previously not really grasped this concept previously, but now JA suggests that Charles will know what it feels like on his own skin to be beholden to the caprice of men who have power over your life!

In exactly this same vein, the following usage of that identical mocking reference to dignity is from Letter 10 written nearly two months earlier, and also fits with the mocking comments about the elegance of Mrs. Austen's hypochondria.

"I am very grand indeed; I had the dignity of dropping out my mother's laudanum last night."

And speaking of Mrs. Austen's hypochondria, Diana, JA has been mocking her mother's Mrs. Bennetishness in nearly every one of these letters so far, it is a constant drumbeat of these letters, second only to the even more pronounced drumbeat about the serial pregnancies all around her. In particular, what seems to irritate JA is that, unlike Mrs. Bennet whose "nerves" have become everyone's "old friends", Mrs. Austen seems to have taken this many unpleasant steps further, by making her own "bowels" and "effusions" everyone's "old friends". In the 21st century, we have a very apt phrase for this--- "too much information!" But it is telling, Mrs. Austen is a narcissist who thinks that her own bodily functions ought to be extremely interesting to everyone else, no matter how disgusting some of them may be!

JA's focus, it seems to me, is rarely far away from the female body, and in particular women's health issues, and that is what unites these two classes of repeated comments by JA--the "injured" female body. Perhaps we all owe Mrs. Austen a special debt of gratitude, for having given JA a prolonged "education" on this topic!

There was some discussion of the sentence about the new circulating library. I found the following comment particularly interesting:

"May subscribes too, which I am glad of, but hardly expected."

Note that JA, having just clearly defined the Austens as a family of readers, turns her attention to the newest adult member of the family, i.e., Mary. JA apparently did not think of Mary Austen as a reader, but I think JA is genuinely glad to be wrong, in no small part because Mary is going to be raising Anna, and JA wants Anna to be raised in a bookish home, where it won't only be James, but also Mary whom the child will see reading.

But then, negativity creeps back in immediately, as I suspect that JA does include Mary Austen in the last part of her comment about Mrs. Martin's library emphasizing its NONfiction collection:

" it was necessary, I suppose, to the self-consequence of half her subscribers."

There is a snobbery there, and the cynical thought has occurred to JA that Mary is not a novel reader at all, but has subscribed to the library despite, not because of, its novelistic selections. I am also suddenly reminded of Mary Musgrove, another pretentious "sister" Mary whose husband is more fond of shooting birds than of helping raise children. Self-consequence is a term which JA uses in the novels with a very negative connotation, clearly referring to pretension, putting on airs.

I notice that she refers to Mr. Holder as being one of "our two lively Neighbours",which reminds me that in upcoming Letter 25 written about two years after Letter 14, JA will famously refer to Mr. Holder making "some infamous puns". It's clear to me that she liked Mr. Holder a lot for making infamous puns, because she herself made them all the time! I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall at a ball where the two of them were having a good time matching satirical wits.

"Martha sends me word that she is too busy to write to me now, and but for your letter I should have supposed her deep in the study of medicine preparatory to their removal from Ibthorp."

This is unmistakably an echo of the satirical reference to Mary Bennet being "deep in the study of thorough bass and human nature". If you read Le Faye's footnote to this sentence, you see that "but for your letter" was a replacement for something else that JA "heavily cancelled"---which suggests to me that JA's initial satirical edge was, upon rereading, a little too sharp and had to be obliterated---a little self-censorship by JA.

Cheers, ARNIE

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